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Education can shape an individual's life, both in the classroom and outside of it. A quality education can lay the groundwork for a successful career, but that's far from its only purpose. Education—both formal and informal—imparts knowledge, critical thinking skills, and, in many cases, an improved ability to approach unfamiliar situations and subjects with an open mind.

Some of the pressures of modern education, by contrast, are thought to contribute to the increased incidence of mental health challenges among today’s children and young adults. Examining current approaches to education—and identifying the ways in which they may be counterproductive—can help parents, teachers, and other stakeholders better support students’ well-being.

To learn more about helping kids succeed in school, see Academic Problems and Skills.

What Is the Purpose of Education?
Classroom full of young children, sitting at desks, hands raised

Scholars and philosophers have debated the purpose of education throughout history. Some have argued that education was necessary for an engaged citizenry; some felt its purpose was to promote obedience and indoctrinate youth to dominant cultural ideas; still others believed that the pursuit of knowledge was in itself a virtuous or even spiritual goal. Today, conversations around the purpose of education tend to center around child development and the economy—that is, how education can help children grow into healthy, competent adults who are able to support themselves financially and contribute to society. Some experts warn, however, that excessive focus on the economic and pragmatic benefits of education deprives the process of joy. Humans—especially children—are natural learners, they argue, and learning may be most valuable when it’s pursued for its own sake.

Why is education important for child development?

Education, broadly defined, is valuable for teaching children the social, emotional, and cognitive skills needed to function in society. Formal education is thought to facilitate social learning, build executive functioning skills, and allow children to explore subjects they may not naturally be exposed to. Informal education typically allows them to cultivate their own interests and learn self-direction, itself an important life skill.

How does education prepare children for the future?

Ideally, in the modern world, education will teach both the technical skills needed for future success and cultivate the critical thinking abilities that allow humans to creatively approach problems, engage new perspectives, and innovate in an ever-changing world. Whether the current system of formal education does that effectively, however, is a source of great debate among the public and policymakers alike.

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What Makes Education Effective?
Three children playing with wooden blocks in classroom

Teachers, parents, and society at large have debated at length the criteria that denote a "good" education. In recent years, many educators have attempted to develop their curricula based on research and data, integrating the findings of developmental psychology and behavioral science into their lesson plans and teaching strategies. Recent debates have centered on how much information should be tailored to individual students vs. the class at large, and, increasingly, whether and how to integrate technology into classrooms. Students’ age, culture, individual strengths and weaknesses, and personal background—as well as any learning disabilities they may have—all play a role in the effectiveness of particular teachers and teaching methods.

Do “learning styles” matter in the classroom?

The idea that education should be tailored to children’s different “learning styles”—typically categorized as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—has been around for decades. But research has not found that creating targeted lessons based on children’s learning styles helps them learn more effectively; some has even suggested that characterizing children as having one particular learning style could be unfairly limiting, and may stop them from tackling tasks outside of their comfort zone.

Does movement promote learning?

Children are by nature highly active, and an inability to move throughout the day often triggers inattention and poor mood—neither of which are conducive to learning. And moving during learning, not just before or after it, has been shown to be similarly beneficial; children who are allowed to move in class learn better, research shows, paying more attention and achieving higher outcomes.

How Can We Improve Education?
Boy in red hoodie holding pencil in classroom, looking at camera

The world is changing rapidly, and so are children’s educational needs. While many people agree that education should prepare children for a competitive global economy, there has also been a push to recognize that children's well-being should be taken into consideration when planning curricula and structuring the school day.

To this end, parents and educators are confronting pedagogical questions such as: What is the optimal time to start school to make sure students can learn effectively—and get enough rest? How many and what kind of breaks do students need during the day? What are the best ways for students to learn, and do they differ depending on the subject being taught—or the students themselves?

In some of these areas, big changes are already taking place. Some states, for instance, are considering or have already passed laws that would delay school start times, making them more conducive to children's sleeping schedules. Other states have passed laws requiring recess, ensuring that children have access to physical activity throughout the day. These reforms, along with others, aim to protect children's physical and mental health—in addition to making them better able to focus, learn, and grow.

Should school start at a later time?

Many experts now believe that starting school later—typically after 8:30 A.M.—is better for children than starting earlier. This is particularly true for middle and high school children, who naturally sleep later than adults and may struggle to function if made to wake too early. Many school districts have implemented later school start times to account for this biological reality.

Why do young children need recess?

First and foremost, school recess provides the physical activity that is critical to a child’s physical and mental health. But recess is also an opportunity for children to socialize without (excessive) adult interference, which allows them to learn cooperation and conflict resolution skills.

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