The Porpoise of Education

April 1, 2011

The Porpoise Of Education


Hello, and welcome to The Porpoise of Education campaign. This is a holistic, interactive, empowering, unofficial successor to the Purpose of Education Campaign which aims to prepare for a forward-moving world by creating a synergy of the very confused.

We aim to publicise the work of people who are so confused about the purpose of either education, schools or teaching, who have so completely lost sight of the fact that education has a single purpose (to make people smarter),  that they could have talked about porpoises instead without anything of value being lost.

Here are the main sorts of confusion we will be looking for:

1) Confusing Aims and Virtues. We all know that it would be good if kids were happy in schools. We’d love them to be highly motivated. We like to be supportive and welcoming to those we teach. We like friendly, positive, mutually respectful relationships with our classes. We are proud of ourselves when children become interested in our subjects. We welcome it when our students want to learn about our subject in their own time, or continue studying it after they have left school. So the first classic type of confusion is to confuse any one of these factors which characterise education at its most satisfying, at its most virtuous, as the aim of education.

2) Confusing Knowledge with “Facts”. If you want to dumb down then the first place to begin is to assume that there is no “powerful knowledge”, that there is nothing worth knowing for its own sake and there is nothing that it is necessary to know in order to think effectively. There are only “facts”: dry lists to be memorised. While such lists do exist (times tables or irregular verbs spring to mind) it’s hard to believe that any secondary teachers in state schools spend more than a tiny fraction of their time teaching them (and most teachers I know use games and quizzes, or interactive teaching of one sort or another when they do so). Anyone who raises this straw man has either just been woken up from 100 years of suspended animation or is simply attacking the very concept of knowledge.

3) Confusing Accountability Measures and Purposes. This is more usually framed in order to create a straw man. The argument will be made that the purpose of education or schooling is not “to pass tests” or “get grades”. Now this is arguing against a point nobody would make. Even people who put the most insane over-emphasis on tests (if you think England’s bad for this, have a look at what’s happening in the US) don’t believe that doing well in tests is an end in itself. The purpose of a test is to measure learning (or sometimes to encourage learning) and it should go without saying that even the most fearsome advocates of tests are still concerned that learning is taking place and, if given a choice between learning and testing would choose the former.

4) Forgetting Large Chunks of History. Our education system has developed over decades. It was decided in the 1940s roughly who would be taught. It was decided in the 1960s how they would be taught. It was decided in 1988 what they would be taught. Remarkably, there is no shortage of people who seem to think our education system is Victorian or even older. Presumably this is because warmed up ideas from the early twentieth century sound more modern if we pretend the twentieth century never happened.

5) Believing there is No Continuity between Past and Future. All education must be about the future not the past. Therefore, anything said in the past about education must have been wrong and anything done in the past must be wrong. There is no discussion to be had of Newman or Arnold. The prophets of education must be contemporary figures such as Sir Ken Robinson or Sugatra Mitra. These two may both be recycling ideas from the de-schooling and free-schooling movements of the 1970s but they talk about science so they must be cutting edge, right? And we all know that new ideas are always better than old ideas because in the past people were stupid. And don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if we forget all lessons from the past, because in the future everyone will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet.

6) Confusing Institutions and Aims. The worst and most annoying way to opt out of intelligent discussion about education is to pretend that all existing institutions and their features are arbitrary, or possibly even ideologically motivated. Classrooms? Timetables? Teachers? Who needs them? They are just inventions of “the man” that are there to indoctrinate, constrain or perpetuate injustices. Children should teach themselves, preferably while sat in a field. That would work, wouldn’t it? The problem is that the usefulness of institutions can only be established when there is agreement on what they are trying to achieve. If people cannot understand what the point of education is, then they cannot analyse whether institutions are suited to that aim or not. The rest is just bluster.

If you wish to contribute to the Porpoise of Education campaign then simply find an example of somebody making one of these elementary mistakes and post a link in the comments below. Let me start you off with an example of Number 4. This blogger managed to take the pseudo-history of education to a new level by trying to date our education system back to the Romans.



  1. Thanks for the April Fool! ;-)

  2. I read this after 12pm. Does that mean I’m not the fool but you are?

  3. Inspector Gadget did an April Fool and everyone believed it, nothing is too crazy to be said anymore.

  4. I knew it was tongue in cheek straight away last night, but have only just understood why it’s a porpoise!! My only excuse was too much gin and a hard day’s work.
    I wonder if Purpose Ed have seen it?

  5. I looked at your discussion with Kevin McLaughlin. He says at one point:

    “Good parents don’t do what! Goodness me Andrew, come on. Get a grip. Are you really that closet minded? Do you suppose for one minute that any educational future should only be based upon what we, the adults, deem to be educational? Shocking.”

    I can’t tell if he’s being serious or not. But even if he’s being ironic, has he not put his finger on the ideological critique of a content-based (read: knowledge-based) education? That by deciding what knowledge is worthy to be taught and, by extension, what knowledge is not worthy to be taught, we are exerting power over the minds of children and young people, influencing their minds so that they do not challenge the current status quo? I’m not a philosopher, but doesn’t this argument sort of correspond to postmodernism?

    • It does indeed. Educational progressivism comes in two categories:

      1) Modern: We shouldn’t teach existing knowledge because it may be false.

      2) Postmodern: We shouldn’t teach existing knowledge because it definitely is false.

      Sometimes they conflict, but often they work together, and people switch between the two positions as if there is no contradiction.

      • If I understand postmodernism correctly, the critique of education makes total sense. If claims of truth and knowledge equals the exercise of power, then imagine an institution in which young people are taught truth and knowledge.

        Nightmarish. It’s the video for ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part 2’ come true.

        • Sorry, should have said above that it makes total sense from their point of view.

          • Postmodernism always does make sense as a critique. It is an all-purpose reason to reject every position on everything. The incoherence occurs when it is turned on itself.

  6. Points one to five are strongly held by my SMT as they plunge the school into chaos. “Results” are rising though.

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