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‘Why in the world shouldn’t kids learn this at home? Is it really the school’s job to teach children to do laundry?’

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University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham sparked a lively Twitter conversation about the purpose of school with his tweet about whether schools should teach kids how to do their laundry. He wrote:

Why in the world shouldn’t kids learn this at home? Is it really the school’s job to teach children to do laundry?

Willingham, a well-regarded psychology professor who focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to education and the author of several books (including “Why Don’t Students Like School?”), was referring in his tweet to an article in Forbes magazine titled “Five Things High Schoolers Need To Know More Than Computer Science.”

Willingham is not arguing that kids should not learn how to do laundry but is asking who should teach them. Clearly, he does not think it should be classroom teachers.

But what if nobody at home or in the community teaches them how to clean their own clothes? Is there a place in school for lessons on basic life skills? Is this asking schools to do more than they should — or a way to handle real problems as they present themselves in the classroom? Is the purpose of school to teach academics or more?

Consider the Jennings School District, which serves several thousand students in a low-income jurisdiction just north of St. Louis. Washington Post reporter Emma Brown wrote about this district a few years ago, noting that the superintendent at the time, Tiffany Anderson, made real gains after she decided to expand the idea of what her schools should provide and make them a focal point of their communities. She installed washers and dryers in schools so students could do their laundry (and learn how) and introduced a medical clinic, provided free groceries and offered families other support.

This superintendent has figured out how to make school work for poor kids

So what is the job of a school?

In support of Willingham’s tweet, one person asked:

Agree. This is mystifying. How about teaching tying shoelaces - is that up to teachers too?

Well, for those preschool students who do not have Velcro on their shoes and find their shoelaces undone, would it really be out of bounds for an educator to teach this? In fact, many already do.

Here’s part of the compelling Twitter discussion prompted by Willingham’s tweet. What do you think about all of this?