The Aim of Education

March 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.



  1. Do you think that education should communicate the culture of a country to its youth?

    • The plan is that my next post will argue that to become smarter we must be educated into an intellectual heritage that is part of culture. So my answer to the question is “only in so far as the culture of a country develops the intellect”. So that would be a “yes” to the parts of British culture represented by Shakespeare and Dickens, and a “no” to the parts of British culture represented by football chants or the X-Factor.

      • I’d agree, though I’d say education should include a moral aspect taught implicitly via subjects such as history and literature and inferred through the general discipline and structure of the school.

        • I certainly accept that. My line on morality is that education is a moral enterprise, and should be done morally, and should be a good moral influence. My reservation is about making this moral aspect the purpose of education, rather than part of being a community.

      • Who decides what’s important then? What is ‘culture’?

        I’m also a bit wary of your elision of ‘education’ and ‘academic’. I’m fairly sure you could have a robust definition of the former without predicating it upon the latter.

        • The decisions about the curriculum have to be made in any system. It’s actually less of a problem where we acknowledge the authority of an intellectual tradition in our culture than where we design an education based on highly-centestible utopian visions, or contentious theories of the mind.

          I used the word “academic” here only as a shorthand label for “relating to intellectual development” i.e. what I was already talking about. That education is academic in this sense follows from my argument.

  2. You were very dismissive of Media Studies on another site a little while ago. You’re dismissive of “football chants and the X Factor” here. Meanwhile, you hold up Shakespeare and Dickens as good examples. You’re basically going to argue that old is best, aren’t you?

    Is there no place for a more modern form of literacy in your proposed curriculum? Or even a sense in which modern texts can have a value equal to, or even better than, “heritage” texts?

    • Strangely enough, I don’t consider Shakespeare superior to the X-Factor because it is older but because it is better. Similarly, I am not dismissive of media studies because it is modern, but because it is rubbish.

      On the more general issue of the study of very contemporary texts, I just don’t think that schools are the place for new research.

      • If memory serves, many contemporary critics felt Dickens produced awful pot-boilers. How “modern” would a book have to be before you considered it too modern?

        Studying the canon is admirable, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

        • Your point about Dickens not being appreciated at the time would only give more weight to the idea that it is best to wait before judging what is great literature.

          As for your question about how modern is too modern, this appears to be based on the straw man that I have argued against the modern. I have only said that we should favour the best and the most studied (i.e. new research is inappropriate). While it is highly unlikely that something very contemporary will have been accepted as being a classic or that it will have been studied as thoroughly within academia as an older classic, if such a thing were to occur I would have no problem with that contemporary classic being taught in schools.

  3. Support for Dickens and Shakespeare over X-factor is not an argument for old is best.

    It is an argument in favour of using the best we have available to educate; not the most convenient, the latest or the easiest.


    • I’d buy that Fat Tony (and generally agree that both CD and WS trump X Factor and football chants in pretty much every category) if it weren’t tied to such a reactionary dismissal of anything other than books.

      I teach English and have been frustrated for years by the insistence that we teach plays in language that’s over 500 years old, at the expense of detailed discussion of the language we use now. The canon, and the dominance of heritage lit texts, has stymied several generations of students.

      The argument that studying TV and film (and other forms of media) is somehow a trendy, fluffy, easy option is such a load of antiquated and counter-productive bobbins too. We need a literate population and literacy needs developing in many ways, nit just through the texts that you were brought up with or forced to read as a child.

      I think Andrew’s definition of “academic” is unduly narrow.

      • Oh great. An English teacher who thinks Shakespeare wrote books and that name-calling is an argument.

        No wonder you want to teach kids film and TV rather than anything difficult.

        • I’m an English teacher who loves Shakespeare (plays and poetry, of course) and Dickens and wishes that the standards of her school (you know the old ‘they can’t be expected to’ routine) and attitudes of her students allowed her to teach more of them. No argument with you there.

          However, I also believe that a really rigorous and analytical study of film and TV texts (you are more likely to find rich material in film than TV, for a variety of reasons) is a worthwhile academic subject and has been a favourite of many of the brightest and most diligent pupils I’ve ever had. It takes concentration, attention to detail, and a combination of technical knowledge and conceptual understanding that really exercises the mind. (It should also require detailed and accurate writing to demonstrate one’s understanding of what has been studied.)

          If ‘Media Studies’ just means farting around watching TV shows and movies the kids would watch in their free time anyway, it is rubbish. My point is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

          • I’d actually be happy to see kids learning about the very best of cinema, but I don’t think that this is what “media studies” does at the moment, nor do I think it should squeeze out any part of the English curriculum.

            All I’ve argued for here is that the curriculum should aim for the best of our intellectual inheritance, not the most fashionable or “relevant”. The “you only like old books” stuff on here is a straw man people like to argue against becuase there is little positive case to be made for focusing on the transient and ephemeral.

        • I don’t see much name-calling there – a bit of misrepresentation on your part though. I say “books” once (and refer to “plays” elsewhere) because the form the students get their plays in is generally via the book of the play (or increasingly, the DVD of the film of the play).

          You’re totally missing the point I’m trying to make about the stifling role of the canon and the ways in which this has prevented the detailed and demanding, academic study of language (be it written, spoken or perhaps more recent, visual forms of language as in film etc.).

          I’ve never argued that we should be teaching kids film and TV *instead of* anything difficult – that’s your own straw man – but that we should be teaching these alongside the detailed study of language, and literature from all times and periods.

          What is really frustrating about the ways in which English is taught in secondary schools is that certain types of literature are fetishized by some and that so little attention is really paid to the language that creates it.

          There’s nothing remotely easy for many students about the study of grammar, but I think that an understanding of the nuts and bolts of language should be a central plank of all English teaching. That’s hardly a dumbing-down, but a smarting-up of English teaching, wouldn’t you agree?

          • The name-calling I particularly objected to was use of the word “reactionary”; although your use of the word “fetishized” is even worse.

            The reason I picked you up on the use of the word “books” is because the only thing I said here to prompt this discussion of the role of the canon was that Shakespeare and Dickens were better than the X-Factor and you went from there to talking about books and setting about the straw man that I am more interested in the type of literature than the quality. If I am missing your point here I can only think it is because it is not addressing anything I have actually said.

            I don’t think there is nothing to English teaching other than English literature. On the other hand I do know that attacks on the relevance of English literature, like all calls for relevance in education, lead inevitably to dumbing-down because, in practice, relevance means little more than a refusal to broaden students’ horizons.

  4. It’s a shame it has to come to this. The aims of education should not need to be spelled out – they should be obvious. People who are desperate to be educated, and don’t have easy access to free education know how important it is to be able to read and write and study.

    Yet here the education system as a whole has become diluted with too many confused ideas about what it is supposed to be doing. There have been numerous well-meaning, misguided or untested (or tested, failed and then re-branded) trends and theories, all accompanied by the unquestioning mantra of ‘anything new must be better than what went before’. The ridiculous situation has developed where even educationalists are prepared to argue against the main purpose of education being to improve children’s intellects (and therefore chances) with a rigorous academic approach. At this point it might be suggested that this does not suit all children, and what about those with more practical abilities? This sort of argument it put up as a red herring – the real issue is what is happening to the content of all the subjects being taught, the way they are taught and the lower expectations of standards of work produced- whether the subject is practical or academic.

    • I would recommend reading some of the Purpose/ed archives and the things said by people who are apprantely quite celebrated in the field of education to see just how bad things have got.

      A large proportion of contributors simply cannot understand the word “purpose”, and describe either what they think are the virtues of education or what they think an ideal education system would be like. Some just describe their own experiences, in ways that suggest they are simply trying to argue that they personally are well-educated. Some speak completely in cliches. Others speak quite explicitly about motivating or encouraging kids being an end in itself, or argue for developing in kids qualities they already have.

      Some of the errors made along the way are also fascinating. One contributor (a deputy headteacher) actually quoted Miss Jean Brodie approvingly as an authority. The equivalent, really, of me quoting Thomas Gradgrind. It’s actually quite damning evidence against our education system.

      • I have just read two of the essays on the site, including the one where she uses a quote from Miss Jean Brodie. There seemed to be no concrete ideas about the purpose of education in either.

        This sort of waffle, and the contributors’ wispy notions, have unfortunately been the foundation of much of educational thought and policies over recent years. The very people who are in a position to improve children’s minds are using state education an an arena in which to test their own self-absorbed theories, while at the same time sneering at the traditional education which has put them in such a privileged position.

        As one commentator aptly wrote on the site as a response: ‘you are pulling up the ladder behind you’.

  5. To listen to some of the essays on the purpos/ed website, you’d think the purpose of education was to have some kind of mystical experience. I personally don’t have any idea what ‘self-actualisation’ means, or ‘self-discovery’ or ‘self-enabling’ for that matter.

    What’s obvious is that most of the purposes of education is that they reflect society’s obsession with the self.

  6. […] us that schools, colleges and universities have no monopoly over education. Also check out Old Andrew, an argumentative, pedantic, old curmudgeon for sure, but an interesting blogger and he’s not […]

  7. Off topic but just out of curiosity: is it Media Studies you object to; studying the media; or just the media per se? And is there any chance you might post your thoughts on the subject? May be you already have, in which case I’d be interested in a link to them.

  8. Thanks for the links Andrew.

    I get the feeling that Media Studies in schools is taught by English teachers, which account for its poor of quality. No offence to English teachers, but it’s no more a preparation for teaching Media Studies to high academic standing than watching endless re-runs of The Simpsons – which many people think Media Studies is in any case.

  9. I thoroughly approve of this topic – it seems to me that this is the absolute crux of the matter. And I’ve been reading as much of the past posts on this blog as I have time for, and I must say I find myself full of admiration for what Old Andrew has to say.

    But, having said that, here is where I think his argument falls down. He is assuming the inherent value of knowledge as an end in itself. I agree that ‘socialisation’ is obviously not an admirable end of education, but surely at least a part of the project ought to be getting students and young people ready to face up to the realities of adult life – being able to cope with the demands of a 9-5 job, the pressure of having to succeed, of making strategically sound decisions about one’s life and, sometimes, one’s family.

    I’m afraid that my experience as a more-than-averagely gifted academic student has left me capable of nothing other than more academic work. Hence why I am now a teacher – having tried to succeed what might be called ‘the real world’ and having been found wanting, I am now testing the truth of the adage: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

    • Is being able to cope with adult life and a job something that schools can teach directly?

      After all there are very many different types of job and many different lifestyles. Such an approach would invite schools to pigeonhole students for the rest of their lives.

      • Point taken, but it remains a commonplace amongst people that I’ve spoken to that academic study produces young people who are incapable of doing anything but further academic study.

        I have to show my hand here and tell you that I am slightly playing devil’s advocate here. But I’d like to know how you would answer such an objection.

        • The link between academic achievement and future income and employment speaks for itself.

          • Yes, but is that because of the content of the subjects themselves, or because the people who succeed in them already have the right set of attitudes to succeed in the workplace?

            • Whatever the cause, it still disproves the claim that “academic study produces young people who are incapable of doing anything but further academic study”.

            • I suppose it proves that such study does little or no harm to them – at least, to most of them.

              But then, one might reply, why bother with the whole exercise in the first place?

            • A question which I feel I have already addressed.

  10. I’m really enjoying this discussion. I come from Music teaching, where whether different genres of music have ‘value’ or not, e.g. pop vs classical, is a sore issue.

    I’m interested in what people think about the value of vocational education, and developing skills rather than knowledge.

    • In schools most vocational education courses and attempts to teach skills are just dumbing down. There are useful skills but they can’t usually be taught without also teaching knowledge. Attempts to teach contentless skills, often under the umbrella of “thinking skills” are usually a farce.

    • I don’t think you can teach skills rather than knowledge. Skills need to be presented and practised within a context of knowledge in order to make sense and become useful. Acquiring knowledge, even if it is not knowledge that you ever use in your eventual job or career, is not wasted effort because it trains the mind in those thinking and learning skills that are so popular nowadays, and there is no way to predict how something may be useful or just satisfying to know in some other aspect of one’s life. The satisfaction of knowing what things mean and how things work really needs to be emphasised more, in my opinion.

  11. Here’s something that might cheer us all up. Through work I meet a guy whose job is recruiting for a large regional broadcaster. I asked him what sort of qualities he was looking for in prospective employees?

    He said, we just want to appoint clever people.

    So I said, what? Your not concerned that they come with production and technical skills? What about ‘industry ready graduates’?

    No, he says, why would we care about that? We can teach them how to use a camera or anything else in an afternoon. Just send us clever people.

    I’ve spent years listening to managers and politicians talking up the ‘skills agenda’ and all the (admittedly anecdotal) evidence I can gather is that employers want people with academic ability. Well, no shit, Sherlock!

    Do politicians ever actually talk to the industries they seem so concerned to press education into the service of?

  12. The Edudicator. Vocational education?

    Makes my heart sink. The students I’ve tutored who are attempting ‘vocational’ topics at year 10 or so have been left stranded. If they want to be a mechanic, electrician, plumber, firefighter or whatever, their vocational education was abandoned back in yrs 4 and 5 when nobody told them that times tables, fractions and reading comprehension were essential tools in such practical activities.

    As for maths subjects ‘modified’ to accommodate practically oriented rather than academic maths, pah! Looking at the various textbooks and assignments offered to such students, a careful reading reveals that success requires a much deeper understanding of some maths principles and a really good facility with algebra and arithmetic than much of the apparently academic alternatives.

    Anyone who might be involved in a trade must have reading comprehension adequate to get the meanings and explanations in rules, regulations, safety manuals and data sheets. Firefighters must calculate ETA (estimated time of arrival) in their heads in an instant. Electricians must be able to convert algebraic equations in any conformation to have any one of the variables as the unknown. If they never learn to multiply and divide fractions, they can’t do it.

    Vocational education is merely an extension or a branch of general education. A good grounding in solid subjects up to year 9 is the only useful basis for all education for varied purposes in further years.

    • I dare say that I want my students to be able to read a decent newspaper (digitized or printed). I don’t mean just skimming it, they should be able to distinguish drivel from valuable information. Therefore they need understanding of nuclear physics, a profound understanding of Darwin’s ideas, an idea of what politics is about (reading Plato certainly would help), enough mathematical skills not to believe shallow statistics, deep insight in the human condition (studying Shakespeare’s play would provide a gateway), they need a lot of historical facts, excellent language skills and all those other topics which are taught in the academic subjects at school. Yes, they need to be smart. They must understand how this world developed to be able to go on with it. It is no use to train them for an unforeseeable future, I trust they will able to cope with it if they understand the past. Standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past will enable them to look further than we can imagine.

  13. Hah. I quite often disagree with Andrew, but this seems just 100% correct. Obviously in a 600 word post you’re only giving the punchy version. There’s a lot to be unpacked on what smarter is, how it relates to knowledge and intelligence, and then, as you say, how to achieve it.
    But even while I love the ruthlessness of weeding out the non-hacker objectives, I am a little bit worried. Historically, I feel like we’ve evolved to the point we’re at now. There were times in the past when many schools were very academic, and most children just didn’t go to them. The changes we’ve made to the objectives of education are in part a response to universal education. But it may be that thinking is now so muddled that we just need to cut the Gordian knot and go back to a simple, unitary concept like “make them smarter”.

  14. […] presents The Aim of Education posted at Scenes From The […]

  15. interesting stuff and if its as simple as making young people smarter then I think schools or smart centres could do that in half the time they spend on making people smart now – schools are social places full of people and only a fraction of learning takes place each day, the rest of the time its social skills and ladder climbing – I like radical ideas and perhaps your post suggest the scrapping of schools and teachers for a more pragmatic approach to education and learning – lets face it its about time

    • “scrapping of schools and teachers”?


      Nope, don’t think these two tie up.

      • Schools inherently offer more than just getting smarter – if you want to create a place for that specifically to happen then something else needs to take place – a new way to learn that is possible, not a school/timetable/term-times etc..

        • What does “inherently offer” mean?

          Anyway, my point in my reply is that we don’t have to hand a convenient way to educate without schools or teachers.

          • Schools are inherently full of non academic drivel – its part of their structure, as a social institutions – your points, I agree are not convenient and would make excellent arguments to rebuild instead of restructure the status quo (schools and teachers) I know its not to hand but its just an idea….

            • Far from being “inherently full of non-academic drivel” schools, and academic institutions differ massively in how much of an academic focus they have.

              That said, if you accept there isn’t an alternative to hand, then surely your point is irrelevant anyway?

            • As we are just part of a wider process is any of this relevant – possibly, but I wonder what is stopping you from glancing sideways and pondering an alternative future?

              Great comments though I have really enjoyed it – go ahead and take the last word this ones on me…. ;-)

  16. […] Aim of Education features a rumination of what, really, the purpose of public education is supposed to […]

  17. […] have commented on the English version before (here and here) but I will summarise the problems […]

  18. […] the remit of a school. This point has been made before, particularly by Andrew Old (here, here and here), who has argued that various international curricula are so broad in their aims that those aims […]

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