What is the purpose of education? Purpos/ed

Many of the excellent contributions to the purpos/ed debate have focused on specific and very persuasive arguments. My addition is going to solely focus on principles. Why? Because they matter. They drive the hard ‘effective’ strategies when strength is low or there are hurdles to face. They also inform the decisions many of the other participants point to but remain hidden by the policies/actions we all regularly draw attention to. Principles also drive what I do on a day-to-day basis and the debate also allows me to answer Ken Booth‘s challenge that sometimes we need to have the courage of our convictions and speak out.

Goethe’s statement, ‘treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you can help them become what they are capable of becoming’ captures for me the problem we face in terms of thinking about the purpose of education and also the opportunities. How do we treat our students, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, conference delegates and people we pass on the street? What are we helping them to become?

I believe the key purpose of education  (in its most expansive sense and not just in the classroom) is to help us become better. Better than we were yesterday. Better than we were last week, last month or last year. The resulting effect of being better might mean becoming a more proficient worker, dancer, teacher, student or scientist. However, these tags or identities refer ultimately to what we do, not who we are. Even changing identity to something more personal, be it a son, daughter, husband, wife or friend does not get to the core focus for education even though our relationships based on these descriptors will undoubtedly improve as a result. For me, the purpose of education is to become a better human being; recognising that we share a commonality with others around us and that we are bound to the ones who walked before and the ones to come.  It allows us to draw on the experiences of the past and help prepare us to face the future (with all its attendant opportunities and issues). Conceived in this sense, it allows us to remove the primacy of the veneer (worker, teacher, student, friend) and reinstates these (important) roles within the context that they form part of a larger whole. Doing so would also allow us to rethink the relationship of means and ends and unlock the powerful impact this reconfiguration can have for the lives of people around us when we do treat them as they should be.

My view is unashamedly liberal and deeply humanistic. It does not provide all the answers nor should it (if it did, it simply means I am not asking big enough questions). Nobody should pretend that there is an easy answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ but I believe that we already have the capacity to achieve a resolution but we must start by being clear: what are our principles?

  • http://dougbelshaw.com/blog Doug Belshaw

    Wonderful Nick, especially the bit about the ‘primacy of the veneer’. As I discussed with you on Skype, however, I would question “who’s idea of ‘better’?”

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  • http://4riversgroup.com Janet Laane Effron

    Any post that starts with “principles” is going to get my attention, because, as you say, they matter deeply.

    But what really caught my attention was your delineation of the distinction between “who” and “what” a person is; a distinction that is easily glossed over. That’s giving me some good food for thought.

  • http://Www.trainingtothefull.com David

    I certainly agree with the libertarian view to education. It is not just about results, but helping human beings improve in whatever manner. There is a formal and informal part to education, unfortunately the informal part is generally ignored as we tend to concentrate on the formal. To me as a teacher the classroom was just one way where I could make am difference to people’s lives. But it was the other stuff where I made a REAL difference to them, and I mean things like CCF, Radio, newspapers, Young Enterprise, travel, sport etc. Thanks for bringing it up.

  • http://jamesmichie.com/blog James Michie

    Great response Nick, one that has given me further food for thought while I continue to mull on and revise my own response. I think that your humanistic ideals are commendable and bring light to the fact that perhaps one of the barriers that is in front of us when it comes to answering the question: ‘What is the purpose of education’ is that the playing field is not level. And as such, I do not bekieve your principalled idea of what education should be can work.

    I find myself echoing Doug’s question: ‘Who’s idea of better?’ Your liberal view relies heavily on the idea that the players share the same values and beliefs when it comes to not just education but also to life itself. What if a teachers efforts to ‘better’ their students’ minds is accompanied with a bettering (reinforcing) of their prejudices to a particular class of people. Unknowingly or worse knowingly the teacher imparts their own prejudices as they teach their students English or History.

    I think this is why, to achieve the idyl that you have depicted the education system in this country would have to be torn apart. The didivision that already exist in terms of social status and culture leave a shadow over what ‘better’ might mean. I understand what better means to you and I am sure that I and many other share that understanding. However, there will be those who’s idea of ‘better’ is not in keeping with the ‘purpose’ that you have depicted. While tiered education exists this will remain a problem.

    With that in mind however, I am one hundred percent behind you; now where’s that wrench? I’m gonna start dismantling the education system from the inside out.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    We already labour under a system that defines a sense of ‘better’ but which focuses on the ‘worker’ or ‘good student’ level despite our inclination that this is wrong. Exposing the problem for all to see is surely the first step to creating something ‘better’.

    In answer to James and leaning heavily on Ken Booth’s words, I would differentiate between ‘values’ and ‘norms’. Norms are about appropriate standards of social behaviour and this can only come about through sustained dialogue. Values or beliefs should be respected but the norms, the acts, can be criticised and debated. As Booth in his book ‘Theory of World Security’ suggests, this is not a utopian dream but can be enabled by our ability to reason together and there are many examples where norms have been established between different cultures. I don’t think we need to tear the country apart, I think we need to use our ability to engage in dialogue more.

    In answer to both Doug and James in terms of ‘who’s idea of better’ we would want to use, I humbly suggest that this is what the purpos/ed debate is all about. Many of us work in wildly different contexts and with different belief systems, yet we all seem to yearn for certain norms such as tolerance and respect even when people disagree with us. My hope is that through the dialogue of the purpos/ed debate, we might be able to establish a set of norms we can agree on.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Janet and David, many thanks for the comments. I don’t usually have the space to write about such things but purpos/ed has given me the opportunity to reflect more deeply in an open way about the reasons why I do what I do. Glad that my small contribution has helped in some way.

  • http://throughthephases.co.uk Andrew Stewart

    Great posts and comments.

    Rather than ‘whose idea of better’ should we not focus on a set of principles, using the purpos/ed platform, which should help people better themselves however they chose to define it.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Andy, thanks for the comment and that is the point – to create a set of principles/norms that can be used across a range of contexts.

  • Dean Groom

    Principles are useful, but as you say – humanistic. Sadly, I think they also create cultures that dont always play out to be beneficial to all. Take the thesis principle. One giant, dense book that is almost squiredom in that part of its job is for a few people to decide if one other has the potential to be a colleague. Imagine if under-graduates worked of principles, not outcomes – how different education could be. Personally, I feel learning should use delight as a principle, especially in young people. A delightful school seems better than a high performing one – as simply most students are marginalised without it.

  • Chris Harte

    A fantastic post Nick, beautifully written. I think that people are clouding the waters here with an extrinsic view of “better” (without getting into a philosophical debate on the existence of universal concepts of good and “the golden rule” measure). I would argue that getting better in these terms is more about an intrinsic movement towards fulfilling one’s potential and helping others fulfil their own. Whether that be academically, socially, physically, emotionally etc, the purpose of formal education is not to be the judge of what is better (Ebacc?) but to support others on the journey towards whatever better is for them. I can tell you now that I am a better person now than I have ever been thanks to my education and the educational world I ‘work’ in.

  • http://www.eatsleepteach.com/ Neal Watkin

    Really thought-provoking post Nick. It is good to see someone else reading Ken Booth. He taught me Politics at University and was an inspiration – one line he said has stuck with me more than any other: “Poverty is a political choice”. From the moment he said it and explained its meaning my outlook on the world changed, it became one of my principles to tackle issues head on rather than accept them as part of the ‘reality’ of the world.

    This is probably why I have have found myself in the bizarre position this week of arguing for less curriculum time for my subject at school in order to defend the Arts and keep them viable in the world of e-bacc. I have also been writing about the general lack of educational principles in teachers – too many practitioners want to be given the quick fix ‘great activity’ and refuse to engage in debate about theory and principles. Without understanding why we teach and what we want to achieve there is little point (other than bits of paper for the students). I want to see more of the ‘yearning’ you talk about in your reply to Doug from the majority of teachers and leaders. We need more principles in education – principles different to my own I can live with, but decisions based purely on systems and processes drive me crazy.

    The work being done by purpose/ed needs to be disseminated to more colleagues and we need to engage them in the debate. It sounds overly dramatic, but I really believe that the profession will be in crisis without it.

    On the subject of debate, you might find the arguments in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate interesting – he charts and challenges the Liberal perspective and critiques it. The book is an uncomfortable and deeply challenging read for those of us in education, but worth it.

    Best wishes,


  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Thanks for the comments Neal and Chris. Chris, I really like the idea of intrinsic motivation and I agree that we should be helping students to realise their potential in its most expansive sense. Neal, Ken also taught me and he was always ready with a pithy statement (I’m sure he would be shocked to find me quoting his work years after I have left uni). I read your blog post and I was discussing the ideas with a colleague today and they agreed about the desire for a ‘quick-fix’ rather than the ideas that underpin or drive the work we do. I also agree that purpos/ed does need a wider audience but would also say that it has just started. The fact that so many of us are making small contributions to the debate is fantastic and I know that it will develop into something very big eventually. I can feel a meeting in a nice pub coming on…

    As for the book recommendation, I have bought it for the Kindle and will read it on the Battlefield’s trip this weekend. :)

  • http://www.lindsayjordan.edublogs.org Lindsay Jordan

    Thank you Nick for taking the time and effort to put your thoughts into words – they resonate very much with my own thoughts, as do Chris Harte’s comments on the fulfilling of potential and the supporting of others on their journey.

    Having read a few of the ’500 words’ posts I wonder if a subtle difference is arising between our perspectives on the purpose of formal compulsory education and the purpose of formal post-compulsory education. Reading the posts that focused on the former, my growing detachment (emotional perhaps?) from the issues around the education of children was thrown into sharp focus. I don’t want to become detached from these issues; I suspect there are deep and complex connections between them and the issues arising in adult education; but with a career in the education of HE teachers, and no children of my own, I can’t help but feel distanced – and I’m sure I’m not the only one!

    It appears to me that Nick’s post is written in the context of post-compulsory education; it would not make so much sense if it were applied to the education of children, and I suspect that this may be the source of some of the tension around what ‘better’ means – ‘better’ for whom, etc.. Most young learners have little say in the curriculum, or indeed the path they are allowed to take to get there. It strikes me that, while the debate of the purpose of education is interesting for all learning contexts, perhaps there is more at stake when debating it in the context of compulsory education…?

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Lindsay, many thanks for the kind words and the fact that you (and many others) have taken the time to respond!
    My comments apply to all phases of education and to be honest, I was thinking about secondary more than any other. I would be very interested in your comment that it ‘would not make much sense’ if it was applied to the education of children…

  • http://www.lindsayjordan.edublogs.org Lindsay Jordan

    Heavens!! That’s not what I wrote!
    I wrote that it would not make SO much sense. When applied to adult learners, it makes perfect sense, but how clear an idea does a seven-year-old have of what they need to do or become in order to be a better human being? They may have a very good idea – but it’s likely that, by the time they are 30, or 75, their plans will have evolved, become more distinct, and will have been informed by a wider range of experiences and perspectives.

    How aware is a thirteen-year-old of the veneer of their self-image or identity, and their role within the ‘larger whole’ of humanity? Possibly very aware. But by the time they are 18, 28, 108, this awareness will have deepened somewhat.

    At what stage is it realistic and reasonable for learners to set their own goals? From birth (and even before in some cases) a child’s learning goals are decided by someone else; someone else who chooses what it means for this person to become ‘a better human being’. Yes, they learn to find our own way eventually, but, until then, children are at the mercy of *our* principles.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Lindsay, the point I was trying to make is that we need to be clear about what we want the children to become, what norms we want to instill and yes, the question I pose relates to your last sentence. The issue for me personally is that sometimes we are not clear what the principles are and this creates a level of obfuscation that is very hard to untangle.

    Asking students to make a conscious decision about becoming ‘better’ when they are adults may be too late. Yes, I agree that it deepens with the ability for reflection and the choice factor is important if we want those values to be relevant.

    Apologies if I misrepresented your view; typing on the train does not lend itself to considered thought!

  • http://www.oliverquinlan.com/blog Oliver Quinlan

    To respond to Doug and James, I also find the word ‘better’ difficult. It assumes a linear progression which I don’t think is always the case. Also, I think it depends on context and ‘better’ for now will not always be the same ‘better in the future’.

    In answer to James, I don’t think we have to all be thinking the same think to come to a shared understanding. To my mind a truly shared understanding takes into account the spectrum of the issue and makes us aware of where we have sited ourselves within that spectrum. We will all ultimately have different views, but if we have a shared understanding of them we at least have a start at working together to reach mutually supportive solutions.

    I think this is currently a problem with this debate, as we need to make sure we give credence to the less liberal views around this issue. Those of us participating at the moment are mostly coming from at least the same ideological neck of the woods, if not exactly the same place.

    I also don’t think that dismantling the education system is something that should be ruled out! The problem is that we have so many assumptions surrounding this issue. I think to come to solutions, or at least ways to move forward, we need to not assume anything and get back to the crux of the matter; the principles as Nick put it so well.

    In answer to Lindsay, I may be speaking from the naivety of youth here ;), but I can’t help thinking that the evolution of ideas of self development are ever evolving. That of a 7 year old may be informed by less experience, but it is likely to be appropriate to their lives at that point, and that is really all we can hope for throughout life. The important thing is making sure people feel they can look at themselves in this reflective way, and that acting on this can make a difference to their lives.

  • http://www.nickdennis.com Nick

    Oliver, thanks for the ‘mammoth’ contribution. :)

    My view on being ‘better’ is not one of linear progression in the same way that ‘learning’ is not linear. Sometimes you improve and then have to stop and re-examine where you are. My definition of ‘better’ is one that is in flux (personally) and which drives me to resolve the tension. It is uncomfortable but I also believe it is necessary.

  • http://www.oliverquinlan.com/blog Oliver Quinlan

    Oh dear, spellcheck has got the better of me. I really agree with you on that idea of flux. I think it is important to consider that, as linear notions of better can be easily reduced to comparison and competition where reflection is potentially more powerful.

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