What is the purpose of education (in 500 words or fewer)?

1st April 2011 at 01:00
One question, many answers . Below are five contributions from teachers and educationalists to the global Purposed online debate

`Be brave enough to let my son fail' - Tom Barrett, deputy headteacher of an English primary school, recognised for his work with educational technology

Six or seven years ago, my answer to this question would probably have been different. But I am now both a teacher and a father, both education consumer and provider.

I believe education's purpose is a whole range of things that I am sure are applicable to all of us in some respect.

My son asks questions when it seems there are none to ask. I don't want education to answer them all for him - I want it to be there to listen to him, and to encourage him to question more.

My son dreams up imaginary characters, worlds, situations, predicaments, plot lines, battles, relationships and plays them out with what he has around him. I hope education shines a light on this creativity and seeks it out. Education should draw from him these precious sparks and help him to craft them into something beautiful.

I want my son to struggle and to feel challenged. I want the education he encounters to be brave enough to let him fail and to support him if he does and help him to learn the lessons. Environments that encourage risk and innovation will also intrinsically understand failure. Education should embrace all the ups and downs, the bumps in the road, the setbacks and hurdles, the scraped knees and bruises, the "let's have another go", and not just the success at the end of the roadcourseyear.

To work in education, it helps to be passionate. I want my son to see the drive and determination in another person at some point in the next few years. I want him to feel that human-to-human inspiration that is so powerful.

My son is happy at school. Education should be about cradling happiness

`An introduction to things unimagined' Josie Fraser, social and educational technologist, currently working for Leicester City Council

To many children and young people, adults seem distinguishable by their finishedness, their completeness. We have "grown up". We have become inflexible, we have ceased to play, to imagine; our appetite for adventure has been diminished, not increased, by our understanding of the world; our wild, and even gentle, ambitions have been curtailed by the demands of "the real world". Instead of growing in confidence and maturity enough to be wrong and to change our minds, the adult world seems very often to promote an infantile belief in the benefits and possibility of absolute certainty, mastery, fixedness.

The assumption of due respect for this completedness often establishes authority and provides boundaries within formal education: I am the one who knows, and you are the one who is in the process of knowing, of becoming the possessor of knowledge, of completion.

For me, then, a fundamental purpose of education should be to acknowledge the inevitability of change, celebrate the value of life as a thing in process, and promote an awareness of other ways of doing things - of discoveries yet to be made and solutions yet to be invented.

Change is, of course, not always positive. It can be damaging and difficult to come to terms with. Even positive changes - for example, changes in how people deal with terrible things that have affected them - which might free us up and make us happier people, are extremely difficult to go through. But the alternatives to change, if there are any, are entropy, denial and death.

Education should ensure that children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times - to different ways of thinking about things and doing things.

Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to re-examine ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world.

The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them - to support our learners in understanding the impact they can have on their world.

We cannot expect education built upon a fixation with certainty to meet the urgent needs of social, economic and political change.

`Exams shouldn't be a key driver' - Rob Thomas, headteacher, Thomas Tallis School, Greenwich, London

In some ways, it is easier to start with the reverse: the purpose of education is not about getting the maximum numbers of students past a particular marker - for example, achieving five or more A* to C grades, including English and maths. This should be an outcome of an effective education system but not a key driver.

Targets and league tables have become very important in making sure we raise aspirations, and I am a supporter of the way they have driven the attainment-raising agenda, but I do believe there is much more to education than this.

I came into education 30 years ago because I have always been intrigued by the way in which we learn. What has kept me in education for so long is the joy that comes with improving the life chances of our young people. Learning is not a fixed concept. Nor is it something which is delivered and received; it is a collaborative process which is constantly evolving. It is the research and discussions we have around learning that underpin an effective learning environment.

I listen to people like Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Tim Brighouse and others and am energised by their views, and these provide the backdrop for debates within my school. I have just read New Kinds of Smart by Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton, which I thoroughly recommend.

Who should be involved in these debates? All those involved in the learning process. Most importantly the students themselves; schools that are making the most progress are involving the students in dialogues around learning and curriculum provision.

We need to model what effective learning looks like. This involves using research to provide us with ideas, and trying things out, which may involve some risk. The most effective learning takes place when we are on the edge of our comfort zone.

I am worried that the Government's white paper, The Importance of Teaching, makes scant reference to the word "learning". I fully support the view that we want our students to receive a world-class education, but the mechanism proposed in the white paper seems to date back to a bygone era. The most effective way to stimulate and engage students is to provide them with a curriculum that captures their imagination and gives them the skills they will need in later life.

So what is the purpose of education? In my opinion, it is to provide our young people with the skills they will need to become confident, independent decision-makers who will be able to shape our future. I'm not sure that many would disagree with this. It is the way in which we prepare them for this role that is of utmost importance and that has to involve a collaborative view of learning and a commitment to continuing to research how we make this happen in our schools.

`We need to prolong natural curiosity' - Dawn Hallybone, senior teacher and ICT co-ordinator, Oakdale Junior School, Redbridge, London

For those reading this, the purpose of education will differ in many ways. My view on this has changed over the years as I have become a teacher, governor and, most importantly, a parent with two children in the education "system".

Does one size fit all? Should we be moving to personalise the learning for our children, enabling them to explore, to be creative and to fail?

I want my children - both my own and the children in my class - to fail and to be able to learn from these failures in order to move forward and to gain deeper understanding. Children are naturally curious and I feel we need to find a way to prolong and develop this natural curiosity to enable them to develop a desire, a need and a love for learning that lasts beyond the traditional education system.

Education should not just be about the "system" or the schools. It should be about drawing on the skills and knowledge that are within our local communities, enabling our children to learn from what has gone before to ensure that they enhance their own future.

I want my children to be happy at school, to be resilient, to be able to persevere, to be aware of the feelings and needs of others and to appreciate their own place in the world. Our current formal education system does not always take these factors into account - there is no GCSE in happiness or resilience, but these are personal skills that will serve children well in the world.

My children have a range of information at their fingertips - they also need to be taught how to process this information in its myriad forms, to understand the sometimes complex nature of social media and to use this to enable them to move their education and their learning forward.

Education needs to change, to move on with the change in technologies, to recognise the skills our children are using at home when playing games, surfing the net, emailing and using a range of apps. Often, children in my class, and my own two, want to take on this learning themselves, as it both engages them and is of interest.

The same is true for books, music, languages, arts - it is about engaging the children in the learning process, and opening their eyes to possibilities that lie ahead. If we look back at the etymological meaning of the word, education is derived form the Latin "educare" or "bring up", which is related to "educere", or "bring out", "bring forth what is within", "bring out potential". This for me should be the purpose of education.

`We're too nice to children' - Ian Yorston, director of digital strategy, Radley College, Oxfordshire. He spent 10 years in the RAF

I think the purpose of education is to teach children how to fail. To drive them to failure and then see what happens.

"If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sure sign that you're not trying anything very innovative" - Woody Allen.

We know that we're entering a new economic reality that is more challenging and less certain. Moore's Law (that the number of transistors that can be placed in a circuit doubles approximately every two years) and "digital Taylorism" (a production-line approach to the modern workforce that drives out creativity) present a credible threat to the employment prospects of our students.

And we know that students need to be more imaginative and more creative if they are to overcome these hurdles.

"It takes 65,000 errors before you are qualified to make a rocket" - Wernher von Braun.

We know that people who have it all just aren't happy. We know that those with nothing to lose have everything to gain. And we know that when you're behind in the race, and the odds are stacked against you, you dig deeper and you reach higher.

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm" - Winston Churchill.

We know that the tired, the poor, the huddled masses fight to breathe freely. We know that those with their backs to the wall fight harder. And yet. And yet.

We're too nice to children. We used not to be. Not to Tom Brown. Not to Oliver Twist.

Education has become progressively gentler - in a manner that has not always been helpful.

Children have moved from fear, to security, to dependency - one step too far . Too dependent on adults, on teachers, on parents, on technology, on frameworks, on specifications .

We need to find new ways for children to fail. We need to step back, let go a little, be less helpful.

Of course, our students won't always like this approach. But I suspect that they'll learn a lot more. And, with a bit of luck, they'll learn how to succeed.

"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better" - Samuel Beckett.

LIVE EVENT - Sense of Purpose

Purposed was set up by education researcher and former teacher Doug Belshaw and his colleague Andy Stewart, both of whom work in Newcastle- upon-Tyne.

The aim of the Purposed website is to promote non-partisan debate about education.

So far, the 500-word challenge has predominantly attracted contributions from teachers and educators in the UK, but also from the US, Canada and Australia, among other countries.

Tickets are available for the first live Purposed event, which will be held on Saturday 30 April at Sheffield Hallam University.

For details, visit: http:purposed.org.uk

Purposed is also on Twitter: @purposeducation or #purposed.


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