The Purpose of Education


20 comments   |   Wibblings

This post is for the awesome Purpos/ed project kick-off.

It’s a day late. Because the dog ate it.

What is the purpose of education?

All abstract nouns are weasel words.

I’m with Brenda Dervin here — nouns freeze reality for the purposes of control.

brainwash*, brief, civilize, coach, cultivate, develop, discipline, drill, drum into, edify, enlighten, exercise, explain, foster, improve, indoctrinate, inform, instruct, let in on, mature, nurture, put hip, put through the grind, rear, school, show the ropes, train, tutor

All the above are candidates for the verbs behind the weasel word “education” (though only know what “put hip” means. . .) and, in theory, we could make progress in answering the question by zooming in on one of the verbs and playing with it.

And a lot of the time, educational debate is a bit like that — what’s the best way to teach maths . . . nurture creativity . . .  develop effective habitudes . . .?

But this, though fun, is missing the point.

From the National Curriculum: ‘Pupils should be taught to: integers.’ #greatworkthereguys
Zoe Rose

One of my favourite bloggers, Dan Meyer, writes brilliantly about making maths education better. One of his memes is pseudocontext. Maths teaching is flawed because teachers and text books focus on:

problems that on the surface seemed to be about real world problems and situations, but actually were about make believe contexts that had little connection to the real world

Here, maths education is a problem of execution — unimaginative or poorly-trained teachers constrained by abysmal textbooks and badly-formed curricula.

There is alternate explanation to why education fails maths, though. Its a pseudo-subject.

The reason education struggles with making maths connect to the real world (and, thus, making it exciting and interesting and all the rest of it) is because, frankly, maths is something most of us don’t really need very much of.

I know. How dare I?

I loved maths at school. Almost as much as I loved Geography. As a meme, ‘geography’ is startlingly beautiful. As a prerequisite to meet the rite of passage involved in passing to adulthood, it’s incredibly random. Just about everything we study in school is a pseudo-subject.

And, what’s more, I’m betting that every single thing I learned in five years of geography education could be picked up by reading just one good book, or watching one series of a well-made documentary as an adult – but then we’re back in the land of our verbs above. And they’re kind of beside the point.

Any discussion of education using those kinds of verbs will end up as self-referential angels-on-pinhead stuff.

There’s a phrase coined by Stafford Beer in Systems Thinking – POSIWID or “the purpose of a system is what it does”:

This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment or sheer ignorance of circumstances.

What education tries to do (or politicians try to make it do) is, basically, too much.

So let’s stick to three things – three verbs — here:

1. Make the job market more efficient
Don’t get cross. It’s not like education is the slave of ‘big business’ or anything — many of us (not me, not me at all) are happy with this arrangement.

But it does mean that education is to a great extent a positional good.

This has startling implications which, quite frankly, I’m afraid to explore here.

2. Help people become happier, more successful, have a better life. Etc
At this stage in the 21st Century, we have pretty good information on how such things happen.

Success, for example, is a function of Resilience, Attention, Meta-cognition and Luck.

All of these ‘big four’ can be taught. Although none of them are at the moment by our education systems, except by accident.

3. Give us something to think) about
Geography has been utterly useless to me as a means of getting on in life. (Almost as useless as maths.)

But it’s this kind of shared knowledge that allows us to get on and communicate.

More importantly, it’s the stuff of thought. These memes and ‘geography as a metaphor’ are how we think.

This means that, in essence, it doesn’t really matter what we learn at school as long as we learn. We have a special word for ‘learning new stuff when it doesn’t really matter what it is’ – play.

In a nutshell, then…

Educators (and here’s the really interesting question: what’s the purpose of educators?) need to act fast 0n the first two – the job market and helping people become successful and happy.

They utterly fail to achieve anything like satisfactory results in either area. It’s difficult to overstate the case here – education is appallingly bad at being useful.

But on the third one, educators need to slow down and just get out of our frickin’ way.

Extended neoteny is our greatest invention, by far. The Purpose of Education is to provide me with a stimulating place to play throughout my entire life – for those moments when I’m not capable of providing it for myself – and then get out of the way.

  1. Doug Belshaw03-17-11

    Thanks Simon! I always have several things to look-up after reading your posts, and this is no exception. Really eye-opening for me was the notion that “nouns freeze reality for the purpose of control” and “education is appallingly bad at being useful”.

    I’m looking forward to educators responding to this one! :-)


    hypergogue Reply:

    I should have put ‘useful’ in “inverted commas”, I guess.

    I suppose my main thing is that all educational establishments and educators are convinced of their own usefulness. But often fail to ask the right people just what ‘useful’ might mean.


  2. Paul Simbeck-Hampson03-17-11

    Never one to disappoint, Simon! Now that’s a first class offering, wow! I’m with you all the way matey, lead on. I especially liked your points 1, 2 & 3, in fact, I liked every paragraph, every sentence and even the arrangement of the words – I think you get the idea of how much this resonates. And now I can’t wait to stop scribbling here and circulate this to my ‘huge’ circle of social influence ;)

    Before liking all those well chosen words though, your opener for 10, “the dinner’s in the dog” sets the scene beautifully and you get extra points for reminding me of the many occasions I’ve pitifully excused myself to those within Education, most often as I was too busy enjoying life to remember that the History assignment was a day late.

    I digress. It happens, you know me!

    I could go on and on, but I won’t, I can’t, I have things to do, but I will close by saying that I tip my hat to a well reasoned provocative 500 word masterpiece, I truly hope this circulates far and wide and inspires those holding Education by the reigns to re-think what is indeed important.



    hypergogue Reply:

    Thanks, mate :-)


  3. oldandrew03-17-11

    I think the reason education systems are bad at aims 1 and 2, and have remained bad at them despite them becoming more and more of an official priority, is because they are not actually aims of education. Preparation specifically for the labour market is training, not education, and is virtually impossible without context. Making people happy is at best therapy and at worst brainwashing.

    The aim of education to make people smarter. What they do with their extra smarts is up to them and the thought of an agency of the state deciding in their childhood the details of their economic or emotional life is actually quite sinister.


    hypergogue Reply:

    Whoops. Late to my own blog post (or replying to comments, at least).

    I think aims 1 and 2 actually ARE aims of education. For a lot of the people who take part in it as subjects. A huge proportion of the people I went to school and college with would happily have dropped out if they were confident of getting a job and supporting themselves. And the ‘happiness’ thing is similarly common – a lot of people see education as a thing in and of itself.

    I’m very wary of deciding what education is for, on behalf of other people. I’m not convinced I’m capable of answering without resorting to some kind of creepy paternalism.

    The thing about being ‘smarter’ is that we’re not capable of deciding what it is without loading it up with all kinds of baggage.

    I realise I run the risk here of sounding like one of those ‘everything is relative’ people, but that, I guess, is because I am :-)


    oldandrew Reply:

    People preferring a job to education does not make getting a job the purpose of education. People finding that education makes them happy does not make happiness the purpose of education. Perhaps the best way to see this is to think of medicine. Being well might make you happy. Being well might enable you to return to work. That doesn’t change the fact that the clear purpose of medicine is to make people well, even if it doesn’t make them happy or inprove their job prospects. Education is similar. It is to make people smarter regardless of what, if anything, they do with that extra cleverness.

    It is not paternalism to have a view about the purpose of education. It is not telling people what they should do with their education, it is merely clarifying what education is.

    As for the baggage in smarter. Obviously there is debate over what it means, but can you seriously claim it is more debatable, or has more baggage, than those alternative aims? I’d much rather define true cleverness than true happiness any day of the week. As for what people need in the workplace, this is at least as complex as what makes people smart. Some employers would include cleverness in their description of what they want in an employee and pile more things on top.


    hypergogue Reply:

    I agree with pretty much all you’ve said here – but I’ve met people who thought education was about jobs and I’ve met people who thought education was about ‘betterment’ (this is probably a more accurate word than ‘happiness’ – and they were certainly not focused on being ‘smarter’). I’m unwilling to say these people are wrong.

    The crux of the matter, for me, is that all of these three things (betterment, job-readiness, cleverness) can be done pretty much anywhere. It doesn’t make sense to me to limit education to cleverness for that reason. I don’t see why it can’t be more than one thing.

    Medicine is a good analogy here – modern medicine isn’t as much about making people better, but about making them fitter. And most GPs see talking about stress and jobs as in their remit, for this reason. GPs even focus on happiness.

    Defining ‘happiness’ is hard. And deciding how to make people ‘employable’ is impossible (we all know 90% of the jobs schoolchildren will get don’t exist at the moment, for example). But helping people work out the answers to these questions themselves – if that’s what they want – seems to me to be fine.

    Me? I’ll take the extra smarts. But that’s me.

    Janet Reply:

    Defining terms would be very helpful here:
    When I say “smart”, I don’t mean “how much you know” I mean “how much are you are utlimately able to learn, reason, etc.”

    Smart (per def’n 9 in my OED; the other definitions are not generally related to intellect) means clever. Not educated, but clever. A distinction with a difference. As I read it, smart is what you are born with (genetics), education is one way of developing what you are born with (other helpful elements include nutrition, health, environment). School may make you better educated, but it’s not going to alter your DNA.

    Apparently the word is being used with a different meaning here?

  4. Kevin McLaughlin03-17-11

    I love the parts about ‘getting out of the way’ and that education should provide a place for us to play. Today I took my class outdoors for a science/geography activity. The activity I had ‘planned’ before was to have the class find out about the gases around us. It was going well then got really good when the children started playing with the idea and created their own learning through that play. They ended up designing and building dens from branches, wood and discarded material to ‘protect them from the wind which is a gas around us’. It was brilliant and much better than what I had envisaged. I just stood back and let them get on with it. They played and learned, and I learned a lot more.
    Thought provoking post.


    hypergogue Reply:

    I like this, as a lesson. I’d be happy if my kids’ teachers did this kind of thing all the time (in fact, if I could afford to send my kids to the local Steiner school – at £11k a year – then they probably *would* ;-) . . .

    I wrote something about how I was working on a new project to design a course as a ‘dungeon’ last year – non-linear, self-paced, like a game etc – and somebody (who I like and respect) asked, without any sense of irony, “How many accredited hours will it be worth?” I wanted to top myself.

    Education managers are always wanting to ask how we’ll measure stuff in hours or units or key stages or whatever nonsense we come up with next. I don’t think we’ve quite come to terms with the realisation that our education system is designed to turn out ‘teachers’ in a predictable manner, rather than bright, challenging ‘learners’:


  5. Julie Dirksen03-19-11

    Hmm…as usual, lots of thoughts, probably not all that coherent, but I’ll blather them anyway:

    - Completely there on #2 – discipline, perseverance, resiliency, meta-cognition, attention – all trainable skills, but no focus on them in the school system. I didn’t learn those in school. Instead I learned that by being pretty smart I could pull shit off at the last minute most of the time. This has not helped me in later life ;) I particularly think attention is going to be a big one – kids w ability to focus in the midst of the noise are going to have a big advantage over the rest of us. I also see that as what Dan Meyer is frequently talking about – giving kids the methods to attack ill-structured, messy problems, and the self-confidence to believe they can.

    - Intrigued by POSIWID – gonna have to mull that for a while. We know that, despite many shortcomings of the system, having education is still better than not having education (#) but we’d be hard pressed to say why, I think. There the extrinsic factor of a qualification, but there’s presumably some intrinsic value as well. It would be very interesting to be able to pick apart that data and see if we could trace back what was actually helpful.

    - Education is a QWERTY keyboard – Everybody can recognize that a lot of the structure is industrial era and silly and not the best way of doing things, but so many people are so accustomed and so invested that it’s hard to see how it’s going to significantly change. Standardized testing to improve performance is the equivalent of trying to get people to learn to type faster despite all the common letters being on the left of the keyboard in a world of mostly right-handed people (and don’t get me started on the placement of the semi-colon).

    - I use math a lot – mostly basic algebra, but I’m pretty sure the math I actually use is about 5% of the curriculum (if that). Wondering what would have been better. I think I’ve benefited from required curriculum, too, but hard pressed to say exactly why. I was never going to pursue astronomy, or music or anthopology, but I’m glad I know a bit about them. I’m kind an educational omnivore, though, so I’m not necessarily representative.


    hypergogue Reply:

    Okay, on your POSIWID comment, here’s something I say to be deliberately provocative, but which I, with therefore plausible deniability, believe to be true:

    Education does something truly wonderful – it bores children – and then totally squanders that hard-earned resource. Forcing kids to attend school and then making them come up with their own stimulation would be so much more valuable than what we’ve got now.

    The other thing Education does is create an environment (in the only way really possible) where you *can* be right. It’s its own little world.

    Anyhoo, with the aforementioned plausible deniability, these two things are what’s (accidentally) genius about ‘the system’ and why it’s better to have an education than not. #alittlegarbledbutwhatthehey

    With regard to math:
    For the benefit of other people reading this, me and Julie know each other in real life. And she/you know(s) I’m not the kind of person to denigrate the study of any sciencey/mathematical thing. I *love* maths and will make ruddy sure my kids learn to love it too.

    But the day I wrote this (a day late) I was involved in a very stressful project to deliver a fairly complex website with a cross-disciplinary team.

    And we didn’t use any maths – not really.

    There were bits where we *could* have used maths – and we did end up using some maths-like sounding terminology (“move this element 20px to the right” and so on).

    But most of the time the maths was purely descriptive and approximated to, “let’s try this a bit to the right”. It was trial and error with a mathematical skin, as opposed to calculation and arithmetic.

    I thought about this a lot and I think that maths is ‘a mode’ of approaching a problem rather than ‘a necessary skill which you need’ in order to solve problems. We could have performed calculations, but it simply wasn’t necessary to get the job done – and this for a digital project involving programmers and designers and other techy folk.

    Heaven forbid, though, we ever start to design curricula based on ‘actual usefulness’, though. Seriously. Gah.


  6. oldandrew03-22-11

    I can imagine that a doctor might be *concerned* with a patient’s physical fitness and happiness. That doesn’t make these the purpose of medicine, or even plausible alternatives to the more obvious purpose of restoring people to health.

    You talked earlier of POSIWID or “the purpose of a system is what it does”. I think your replies here are more POSIWSWFI or “the purpose of a system is whatever someone wants from it”. We can always list hoped for outcomes. The purpose of something is not all possible outcomes, or even all desirable outcomes. It is the outcome that helps define it.

    The purpose of a bicycle is to be ridden, not to go fast or to be comfortable. A bicycle that is slow or uncomfortable to ride on is a bad bicycle but still a bicycle. A two wheeled device that cannot possibly be ridden is not a bicycle.

    Education is the same. It is not enough to say “somebody might want X” from education and then refuse to consider whether X makes sense on the grounds of relativism, respect for opinion or personal autonomy. The question “what is the purpose of education?” like the question “what is the purpose of medicine?” has plausible and implausible answers and we can pick between them rationally. We should not accept answers that are not implicit in a reasonable understanding of the word “education” no matter how much they might correspond to the desires or opinions of somebody seeking to be educated.


  7. oldandrew03-27-11

    “As I read it, smart is what you are born with (genetics), education is one way of developing what you are born with (other helpful elements include nutrition, health, environment). School may make you better educated, but it’s not going to alter your DNA.”

    Even the idea that “intelligence” is a fixed, inherited property that cannot be altered by education is overwhelmingly discredited.

    “Smartness” or “cleverness” are even less suited to such a description, as we tend to use those words to cover notions of the intellect that quite blatantly include acquired characteristics, such as knowledge of history or skill at solving equations.


    Janet Reply:

    I’m not saying that innate abilities cannot be developed by education (and other environmental influences). That starts going down the “nature vs nurture” path, and I think (hope) we can agree that it is “both-and”, not “either -or”. What a person is born with can either be developed or damaged by their life circumstances (including, but not limited to, education).

    But where I’m coming from can perhaps be illustrated with “a tale of two children”. One has perfect pitch, was spontaneously singing in (untaught) harmony to the lullabies when he was a year old; quickly and easily learns to play new instruments… Another child took more than 10 years of solid effort before she could match pitch enough to sing something like “Twinkle, Twinkle”, and still cannot do so consistently. Can rarely find or follow rhythm despite growing up in a musical household and having years of intensive ballet training. Two people with different levels of musical ability; both with work, support, education and training have developed those gifts beyond their starting point. So yes, education matters, it adds skill and proficiency, but what it can add is based on the individual.


    Janet Reply:

    My original comment was asking to define terms – and although you did not explicitly do so in your response, from what I gather your use of “smart” is somewhere in the realm of what I would term “educated”. Or do you mean something else?


  8. Patrick04-03-11

    A great post, Simon. Very thought-provoking.

    Not least for getting both Stafford Beer and neoteny into a single post!

    At the risk of sounding like a spambot, I think I will need to return to this post several times.

    Plus the comments represent a rich resource, too!


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