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The Return Of The Most Annoying Question In Education

December 5, 2015

The Education Committee of the House Of Commons has announced its latest inquiry this week. It will be an inquiry into “The purpose and quality of education in England”. You can make a submission here or even contribute to an online forum here.

Neil Carmichael, the chair of the committee, is quoted as saying:

“In this inquiry we want to ask the question, what is education for? What is the purpose of our educational system? Is it, for example, to prepare our young people for the world of work? Is it to ready our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to lead fulfilling lives? Is it to provide them all with broad academic knowledge, based on a shared culture and values?  We can expect to hear diverse answers to this question but it’s important we get an agreed sense of what education is so we can then ask the right questions about how we evaluate the quality of our education and how well it is performing against those measures.”

Now I don’t have a problem with the quality part of the inquiry. Select committees are there to scrutinise government, and looking at the quality of education is part of that. Looking into the purpose of education is the bit I have a problem with. Actually, I have had a problem with this for years, so I apologise if you have heard all this before, but I’m going to say it again.

I consider “what is the purpose of education?” to be the most annoying question in education. The answer is the one I added to their online forum:

The purpose of education is to make children cleverer.

That’s it.

The purpose of education should be no more contentious than the purpose of medicine. The purpose of the former is to make people smarter, the purpose of the latter is to make them well. Yet the health select committee will not be holding an inquiry into the purpose of medicine any time soon, because treating people’s illnesses is seen as a good thing in its own right. As John Henry Newman asked in 1873:

If a healthy body is a good in itself, why is not a healthy intellect? and if a College of Physicians is a useful institution, because it contemplates bodily health, why is not an Academical Body, though it were simply and solely engaged in imparting vigour and beauty and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature?

Unfortunately, the legacy of progressive education, particularly over the last 100 years, has been to cast doubt on the value of the intellect. Firstly, we have had attempts to turn schools into what R.S.Peters called “orphanages for children with parents”: institutions for the socialising and supervision of the young, rather than their intellectual development. Secondly, people have confused the economic advantages of a sound intellect, for the purpose of the intellect, and there have been repeated efforts to create an education system based on the workplace, or worse, some imaginary workplace of the future. Thirdly, we have had faux-egalitarian attempts to ignore, rather than remedy, intellectual differences between people. Even admitting that ignorance is a deficit, to be remedied, can be controversial.

These three points could all be applied to medicine with equal validity. One could argue that hospitals are there to look after patients, rather than to treat them. One could argue that doctors should be judged only on whether their patients are able to rejoin the labour market. One could argue that there is a stigma in identifying the ill or injured and that to do so is to sign up to a “deficit model” of health that fails to appreciate we are equal. The only reason we don’t often make these errors when talking about the health service, but make them all the time when talking about the education system, is because we have no problem appreciating good health as a blessing, but as a society we have increasingly ceased to value the intellect.

Now I accept that saying education is to make people smarter does not end all discussion. We still have to debate what a healthy intellect looks like. There is still room for debate over the role of knowledge, of the best types of thought, or the usefulness of exams. But these discussions elaborate the purpose of education, they don’t define it. The purpose of education is clear as soon as we identify that there is an intellectual realm within our culture. We might also find particular aspects of life that are enhanced by the development of the intellect. We may see intellectual development as increasing our humanity, autonomy, creativity, happiness or prosperity. But these should still be seen as the fruits of education, not the purpose.

The purpose of education is simple and clear and we have every reason to fear that as soon as somebody starts a debate about the purpose of education then the value of the intellectual side of life will be lost. A hobby of mine has been to collect the aims and purposes sections of progressive curriculums and tracts. Typically they have two dozen or more aims, most of which are actually about the aims of society, not the aims of education, and which only briefly touch on anything one could consider academic. This is then used to promote a dumbed-down, knowledge-lite curriculum. The only question that anyone needs to be asked about the purpose of education is: “Don’t you think you should already know it?” An inquiry into the purpose of education is unnecessary; if you have to ask what the purpose of education is, then you don’t really know what education is.

This debate has come up so often, that my avatar on wordpress is this, the Porpoise Of Education

This debate has come up so often, that my avatar on wordpress is this, the Porpoise Of Education

29 comments

  1. Is a debate not valuable simply because there is not an agreed concensus?
    The question of what education is for and the issue of being ‘primary ready’ (which seems to be viewed through an ‘academic ability’ lens) always makes me think of a Reception child I once taught who spent all day walking around the class kicking things. That was his M.O. He was apparently quite smart but didn’t have the social skills to not go around kicking things. Is the point of his education to make him smarter or more able to cope socially (and therefore able to get smarter more effectively)? I think the latter would be far more beneficial.


    • Apply the same thinking to medicine. Imagine a patient so distraught it was hard to treat them. Yes, you would calm them down. Is the purpose of hospitals to calm people down? No. We should not assume that what we might have to do in some extreme cases is the purpose. Schools are not there to teach children not to kick. In most cases the parents teach that. That is not our purpose.


      • You sure about the “most cases” bit …… :-(


      • So do ‘hospitals’ represent the entirety of the health system then? And is ‘making people better’ the entirety of what hospitals do? No, but once again, you vastly oversimplify the comparator to strengthen your facile argument. One look at the NHS England annual report will show you that vast amounts of its £99bn budget is spent caring and improving and teaching over and above treating. Sure, perhaps the purpose of ‘lessons’ is to make students cleverer (although with each student at a different stage of clevererness), but schools have a far wider set of social, cultural, economic (etc) purposes, and ‘education’ even more so. Like you, I doubt that much of any use will come from the Select Committee enquiry, but for different reasons. For me, a good outcome would be to agree that we should indeed start to value educational health as much as bodily and mental health, and so should perhaps establish a National Education Service, with an equivalent structure of GPs, specialists, CCGs, hospitals, A&E, etc, focused on preventative, acute, surgical, remedial, and palliative care, etc. Now, I wonder who else might be thinking along these lines?


        • Feel free to break down that report to prove your point, but I doubt you are going to find much in there to suggest that the NHS is not there to improve people’s health.


  2. Of all the urgent questions they could have spent taxpayers money investigating they come up with this vacuous one. How about asking if there really is a recruitment and retention crisis, or why it has taken 14 months since the national consultation on workload and yet workload for most teachers has not changed one bit, and for many, it has got worse. How about investigating the shocking behaviour in schools? How about looking at stress amongst teachers.


  3. Andrew–when I read the words ‘make children cleverer’, my heart sank. I thought if there was anyone in England who hadn’t fallen for the Lake Wobegon fallacy, it would be you.

    For half a century, the Americans have been trying to make disadvantaged kids ‘smarter’ with the Head Start programme. Over this time, $180 billion has been spent. No effort has been spared, and no stone left unturned. The Dept of Health and Human Resources recently published the results of a RCT trial involving 5,000 children, and found that there were no advantages for the Head Start pupils over a range of 41 cognitive measures. Previous studies found that early gains faded, usually inside of a year or two.

    Now I would be the first to agree that we can teach children to make much better use of their minds. Low-ability pupils can absorb a tremendous amount of knowledge, often with a fairly high degree of understanding. But this in itself is unlikely to have any bearing on their scores on tests of cognitive ability. Perhaps the best thing I’ve read on the subject is ‘Real Education’ by Charles Murray (who is a great fan of Don Hirsch).

    The belief that we can make kids ‘smarter’ has had disastrous effects, not only for low-ability pupils, but for education as a whole, as I argue at http://www.cps.org.uk/blog/q/date/2015/12/03/ofsted-and-the-exam-boards-the-unholy-alliance-that-michael-gove-forgot/


    • I’m very careful here to use words like “cleverer” or “smarter” and not words like “cognitive ability” or “IQ”. I am not suggesting we teach kids to pass IQ tests better, or be better at de-contextualised tasks, I am suggesting we teach them those things that mastery of would be considered a sign of being clever, whether that’s Latin or computer programming. Society has a concept of the intellect, in fact I suspect all cultures do, that is independent of any insights from psychometrics. We value certain things as clever, and as far as they can be taught, they should be taught.


  4. Making kids cleverer? Is that possible? We can instill greater knowledge and teach them skills, if that’s what you mean, but I don’t see anything wrong with the purpose of education being to educate. We are beset by high attainers who are very poorly educated. That’s pretty much what I wrote here: https://julietgreen.wordpress.com/2015/10/30/education-not-attainment/


    • I don’t see how we can have a concept of “to educate” that does not refer to the development of the intellect.


      • Does ‘development of the intellect’ mean to make cleverer? Does it mean to make more knowledgeable and skillful? Are they all the same thing?


        • I think “clever” is a word that pretty clearly refers to the intellect. I think that being clever requires knowledge, but I realise that this is something I’d argue for rather than true by definition. As for “skillful”, well that depends. We use the word “skill” in some odd ways in education, and so it depends what you mean.


          • I would agree that ‘clever’ refers to the intellect. I don’t agree that cleverness ‘requires’ knowledge, but rather that without knowledge, cleverness is wasted. I know we’re into semantics here, but I don’t think we can teach cleverness, nor can we make people more clever by teaching them. We can develop their knowledge and skills so that their cleverness has some direction and application (or so that their lack of cleverness is mitigated). It may seem like nit-picking, but it’s an important distinction because increasing cleverness is an impossible expectation placed on teachers.


          • Loving this discussion! Think Juliet’s onto something. As a student I never wanted teachers to make me ‘cleverer’ – they never knew me well enough to get anywhere near doing that. No one, except the people closest to me can do that – and they do it without trying, by just being themselves. But teachers could be useful to me by being clear which paths of knowledge or skill they intend to lead me on. If they have empathy, they’ll meet me where I am and lead me from there. If they have trust, they won’t force me to stay with them when I’m done. I’d call that education.


  5. Shoot all the advisers, trainers and other theorists who have never been near a classroom. Children aren’t any less intelligent but the levels they achieve are appalling compared with when I was in school and when I started teaching. Perhaps we should start to figure out why (Clue: (i) behaviour (ii) endless interference by numpties with lots of power and no useful skills or experience (iii) microcontrol of the curriculum). Sack them, without payoffs, close down the innumerable bodies that do sweet FA of any use, and put the money into actual education and the only monitors who were ever any use , HMI.


    • “(i) behaviour (ii) endless interference by numpties with lots of power and no useful skills or experience (iii) microcontrol of the curriculum)”

      Instinctively, I want to say ‘yes’ to those, but I remember the appalling behaviour of the pupils in the first school I went to when I arrived in England in 1978. It was as bad, if not worse than anything I’ve seen in the last ten years. The other two points, I concur with wholeheartedly.


      • Really. You must have been genuinely unlucky, I think. I was brought up in residential EBD (father’s job) and I don’t think it’s remotely comparable.


  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  7. The second most annoying question is what is the point of maths.
    Even worse when non maths managers try to answer that question by emphasing the functional skills side of maths thus removing the joy and beauty of the subject (for students not just teachers). I could say more but I would risk identifying myself or the particular manager.

    Back to my main point: I once worked in a school where a colleague was very brave and would say even to an LA advisor that his aim was they knew more at the end of the lesson than they did at the start. At the time I thought he was very ignorant but maybe he was ahead of his time.
    http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/8696/


  8. Andrew attended the Politics in Education Summit and the transcripts of that event were sent to Education Policy Makers & Influencers, including the Education Select Committee. They could have ignored the content which covered; recruitment, workload, stress etc. but they didn’t, they opened their platform for a discussion. Unlike many people’s platforms, theirs commands immediate media attention. I thank them for doing this. I’m also sorry if some people in education feel this conversation is so old hat it’s not worth discussing. Sorry, but it is happening and I’m going to do what I can to make it as big as possible while the enquiry evidence stage is open, so we can take it elsewhere once the Select Committee are done. Food for thought; here are some words from the Politics in Education Summary received by the Select Committee (available here http://leahkstewart.com/politicsineducation/):

    Alongside thoughtful debates, this Politics in Education Summit revealed an uncomfortable truth about the wider state of state education. Deep questions of worthiness, frustrations around representation, fear to speak and apathy for all the good it might do are running through our system. What are the consequences to this debate, so central to society, when people feel their background or way of expression excludes them, rather than simply signalling hope for an invitation, some patience and empathy in conversation, to partake and learn what’s necessary to become part of this important national discourse?


  9. If this inquiry helps people see that education globally, is driven by the well meaning and not the well educated, then it has been a worthwhile exercise.


  10. Whether the question is worthwhile partly depends on what you understand by the question.

    I am interested in it from the point of view of how we describe our educational objectives – what sort of thing they are, as opposed to what they are, concretely speaking.

    The answer to the concrete question will vary – sometimes we educate to make people better at Maths, sometimes at English, sometimes to make them more persevering, sometimes to make them better team players, sometimes so they know where the fire exits are etc. Politicians do not need to specify our learning objectives in any detail.

    But they do need to ensure that learning objectives are clearly described, so that different stakeholder groups can talk about these meaningfully, help to influence the education system that is required to serve society and not merely the individual value-system of the isolated teacher; and so that educators can measure their effectiveness at teaching to the objectives that they are given.

    When it comes to asking “what sort of thing” are our educational objectives, I don’t think, “to make people cleverer” is a *useful* answer.

    First, it strikes me as a little circular: how do you tell when someone is cleverer? When they have been well educated, perhaps.

    The reason that it is difficult to tell if someone is cleverer is that it speaks of an invisible, internal state. We can never see how the neurons line up. This leads us into a counter-productive discussion about whether we are interested in skills, knowledge or attitudes – all of which are artificial sub-classifications of what you might mean by “being clever”.

    It is a fundamental tenet of Karl Popper’s “verificationism” (often unfairly derided by social scientist types as “logical positivism”) that an assertion is meaningless unless you can say how it would be disproved. In other words, our definition of our educational objectives should come down to something we can measure. Otherwise no-one knows what it is we are talking about and everyone interprets them differently.

    I would therefore replace your “making people cleverer” with “increasing peoples capability”. Its a similar sort of answer, in terms of degree of abstraction, but it refers to multiple external performances (which can be defined and exemplified) rather than to a single, mysterious, internal and unobservable state.


  11. “First, it strikes me as a little circular: how do you tell when someone is cleverer?”

    I think the concept already exists in our culture. All I am doing here is saying that this is the reference point. If we can ask what would be considered “clever” in our society, then we can get some decent ideas about what should be taught in schools. This isn’t the final answer to the content of education, but it does narrow things down. If you don’t put the intellect first, this is what happens when people try to identify the aims of education: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/the-international-language-of-edu-platitudes-updated/

    “The reason that it is difficult to tell if someone is cleverer is that it speaks of an invisible, internal state. We can never see how the neurons line up. This leads us into a counter-productive discussion about whether we are interested in skills, knowledge or attitudes – all of which are artificial sub-classifications of what you might mean by “being clever”.”

    I don’t think that this conversation is counter-productive. In fact we’d have to weigh up these things regardless, the cleverness criterion makes that easier.

    “It is a fundamental tenet of Karl Popper’s “verificationism” (often unfairly derided by social scientist types as “logical positivism”) that an assertion is meaningless unless you can say how it would be disproved. In other words, our definition of our educational objectives should come down to something we can measure. Otherwise no-one knows what it is we are talking about and everyone interprets them differently.”

    Nope. An aim is not a target. We can talk about being physically fit without referring directly to BMI or whatever. We don’t understand words simply by how we “verify” their truth. And logical positivism is not a term of derision, it was a philosophical school, but it’s one that didn’t really work out.

    “I would therefore replace your “making people cleverer” with “increasing peoples capability”. Its a similar sort of answer, in terms of degree of abstraction, but it refers to multiple external performances (which can be defined and exemplified) rather than to a single, mysterious, internal and unobservable state.”

    If the capabilities are not intellectual in nature, I’m not convinced they are connected to education.


  12. I enjoyed the original article in the spirit it was intended. Are we not in danger of just getting bogged down by the semantics of the word ‘clever’


  13. […] has had a University education. Old Andrew oft pours scorn on the notion that education has any other purpose than making individuals […]


  14. […] The Return Of The Most Annoying Question In Education […]


  15. […] is difficult to see how music makes you cleverer.   In this view of knowledge music makes no contribution to the purpose of education and would […]


  16. […] Andrew Old wrote this post in December, I scan read it on my phone and thought “maybe he’s onto something after all”. He […]


  17. […] I don’t think I’ll really believe it’s happening until Amanda is firmly in place, but well done to Nicky Morgan for sticking to her guns. And I can only express my disappointment in the Education Committee; I should perhaps have seen the warning signs when they admitted they didn’t know what the purpose of education  is. […]



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