The Aim of EducationMarch 14, 2011
I argued here, that if we are going to get anywhere in talking about education or teaching we need a clear idea what it is for. I suggested then that education is meant to develop the intellect. The following develops that argument as part of the Purpose of Education debate.
A few years ago, as the new secondary curriculum was being introduced, there was a craze on INSET days for giving groups of teachers an outline of a human figure and telling them to write on it what they wanted their students to be like when they left school. If you experienced this, and there was a teacher at the end of your table facepalming at the non-academic drivel that was being suggested, and trying to put forward the idea that we might want to answer with the one word “smarter”, then that was probably me.
It doesn’t take much consideration to see why making kids smarter is the true aim of education. Even if I hadn’t critiqued several alternative aims already (see: Developing character, Improving emotional well-being, Fitting children to their future role in society) none of them fit adequately with the notion of education. A person could be well-educated and immoral. A person could be well-educated and unhappy. A person could be well-educated and at a loss as to what to do with their life. A person could not have been successfully educated and nevertheless be stupid or ignorant. The intellectual aim is the only criteria by which we can judge whether education has actually taken place, the others, no matter how desirable are not essential.
Although I observed here that two thirds of the aims of the new National Curriculum were unrelated to academic aspirations, the remaining aims are not unproblematic. The education system is meant to produce students who:
have the essential learning skills of literacy, numeracy and information and communication technology
are creative, resourceful and able to identify and solve problems
have enquiring minds and think for themselves to process information, reason, question and evaluate
communicate well in a range of ways
understand how they learn and learn from their mistakes
are able to learn independently and with others
know about big ideas and events that shape our world
enjoy learning and are motivated to achieve the best they can now and in the future
As with the non-academic aims of the curriculum, all these outcomes are desirable. However, again we have the problem of aims that aren’t actually related to what can be taught and aims that have more to do with attitudes than learning. This means that they can provide an excuse for activities which serve no obvious educational purpose but can be justified with vague claims about their effect on attitudes. Want your students to play games? Then it’s helping them learn with others and enjoy learning. Want your students to make posters? Then it’s going to make them creative and practise their use of communication technology. Want students to sound off about their ill-informed opinions? Then it helps them understand big ideas and communicate well. Vague aims, even ones that appear to be related to developing the intellect, are the midwife to dumbing-down.
It is not going to be enough to point out that education is meant to develop the intellect. It is not going to be enough to say that our purpose is to make kids smarter. We are actually going to need a decent idea of what it means to be smart and future blog posts will consider this.