What is the Purpose of Education?

Flickr Photo by Donna62
Interestingly, when I search for machine shop, in Flickr this morning, I got a lot of pictures of empty buildings, neglected machining tools, and a rock band.  When I searched for assembly line photos, I got mostly pictures of people working together to prepare meals for large groups of people.

Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of independent schools.  For those of you who work as consultants, you know how different schools can be, especially when you compare independent schools, with public schools, and even more so when you throw in international schools.  What teachers and administrators do is not that different, nor is what the schools, classrooms, and libraries look like.  What’s different is the conversations.

On several occasions, lately, when working with teachers and administrators at independent schools, I’ve been asked, “What is the purpose of education?”  It’s not a question that comes out of public school conversations very often.  We already know what education is for.  The government told us. 

Education is about:

  • Covering all the standards
  • Improving performance on government tests
  • Meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress)
  • Producing a competitive workforce

We don’t even ask any more — and even in this season of Change (http://change.gov/), we’re still not asking that question. 

Now I generalize when comparing different types of schools, and to be sure, independent schools are also governed by testing, as many of their students attend so that they can get into Harvard, Yale, or Duke (Go Blue Devils).  But, again, there is a palpable sense of confidence in the conversations I witness when away from public schools — a willingness to ask tough questions.

I’ve had a ready answer to the question. 

“The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.”  

There are some implied, but essential questions in that answer:

  • What will their future hold?  What will they need to know?
  • What are appropriate method, materials, environment, activity?
  • Who are these children?  What is their frame of reference?

Today, I have a new answer.  My old one is still good.  I’ll continue to use it.  But if you ask me, “What is the purpose of education?” today, I’ll say,

The purpose of education is to make the world a better place!

What drew me to this answer was Karl Fisch’s teleconferencing activity last week (see A 2.0 Sort’a Day: Part 2).  As I thought more about the experience, it occurred to me that this was an almost singularly unique activity — beyond the fact that students were interacting with an internationally renowned writer, exchanging thoughtful insights, and the really cool use of technology.

What struck me in hindsight was that these students were earning respect.  They were respected by each other, by their teachers, by the instructional support professionals, and by the internationally renowned figure, Dan Pink.  Their engagement in that activity will continue to be respected by people, young and old, who will read the archive of those multidimensional conversations.

Those students were full partners in their learning, and they were entrusted to go beyond just what was expected.  They were encouraged to freely extend and develop their own thoughts, skills, and knowledge, building on their own frame of reference, pushing and pulling through conversation, and being responsible for their part of the endeavor. 

Preparing students based on standards, so that they can pass government tests (to make politicians look successful), carries expectations.  Students should listen, study, learn, and assure gain.  If they do that, they’re doing what they are supposed to do.  We’re happy about it.  They’re happy about it.  Let’s go home.

But, when there is a mission, where teachers and students are equal partners in achieving new learning — and they both realize that it is not simply about new knowledge, but more importantly it is about new potentials, then we’re not just producing cogs for an industrial and societal machine.  We all becoming better and more inventive builders of the future.

Let me get back down to earth here.  Before I graduated from undergraduate school, I spent some time working in manufacturing.  One plant made oil filters for cars.  Another one made dog collars — for dogs.  The factory that I spent most of that year in made chain saws. 

I started out operating drill presses and milling machines in the machine shop and also spent some time as a setup man.  But the last job I had at the plant was quality control engineer.  I got to wear a white lab jacket and walk around with rolled up blueprints, spouting vocabulary that I have long since forgotten.

Essentially, my job was to take the chainsaw parts at the end of their fabrication and use high-precision measuring instruments to test them, to make sure that they all met the specifications, that they were all the same, and that parts that exceeded the acceptable tolerances from the standards, were sent back for retooling or rejected.

How much is this just like what we are doing to our children.  They move down the assembly line, where we install math on them, and install reading, and science, and then we measure their learning at the end of the year, to make sure they all meet the standards, that they all know the same things.

Of course, this makes perfect sense in an industrial age, where you need workers who know the same things, think the same way, working in unison. 

In a conceptual age, however, it isn’t what you know that’s the same as everyone else that brings success to an endeavor.  It’s what you know that’s different, how you think and solve problems that is different, your ability to bring a new set of knowledge and experience to the task that brings value.

Why do we continue to treat our children like cogs.

Change this!

Powered by ScribeFire.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.