Pushing Harder at the Purpose of Education

It’s funny how things turn out. In writing my second blog post, “Beyond the Cult of Engagement”, I realised that the length and content of it would work better as three separate posts, and I then also realised that there should be a ‘prequel’ post to it as well, which is this one. So here I am instead!

In my first post “Why we get so confused about the purpose of education” I basically suggested that if we ‘zoomed-out’ to a level where we could all agree on a definition for “The Purpose of Education”, then we would get something like “To increase (or even just maintain) the success of the human species”. If we then started to drill down into what this means in practice, then inevitably we would start to come up with a multitude of functions, intrinsically value laden, based on our understanding of that word ‘success’. My overall point was that we just cannot escape from having values intrude on our vision of what education ‘should’ be about.

I had no desire at the time to go any further with this, as I didn’t see any particular value in fighting for my preferences regarding what the key functions of education should be in pursuit of this overall goal. It seemed the kind of thing which could just go on and on, and in the process would prove the very point I had been making.

HOWEVER… Funnily enough I do have a distinction which I will be relying on in my next few posts (and which will come back to feed quite a few after that), and it seems powerful enough for me to want to ‘trumpet’ it in its own right. Who knows? It might even have some widespread appeal/utility.

So here it is: I see education as preparing people for three things:

  • The World of Necessity
  • The World of Opportunity
  • The World of Experience

At first glance this might just look like 3 randomly picked headings, but I really assure you they aren’t. For quite a while, I just had two –  The World of Necessity and The World of Opportunity – and I saw them simply as to allow us to survive and thrive respectively. However, it then clicked that this just wasn’t enough; there is more to it: To survive and thrive and derive… meaning, or even dare I say it happiness.

Perhaps this will click more as I go through my brief descriptions below:

Preparing children for the World of Necessity.

Whatever the technological changes which will overtake us in our lives, we are fundamentally biological creatures who have to deal with getting-up each day and coping. We need to be able to wipe our own bums, manage boredom, read instructions, control our spending etc, etc.  Actually, the more you dig into it, the more you realise just how much many mundane things feature for all of us in the adult World of Necessity, and crucially, just how the most successful people out there have had to master it in order to get to where they are.

Preparing children for the World of Opportunity.

It seems that the coming of the digital age has made the World of Opportunity more graspable than ever before. If you have a good idea, or a bit of talent, then supposedly you could make millions etc. Of course, except for the lucky few, this will only really happen if you have already paid close attention to the World of Necessity, such as by acquiring a good bedrock of knowledge about an area of interest as well as developing a strong work-ethic. Generally speaking, the education system of Ken Robinson, of creativity, collaboration and communication, is focusing almost exclusively, quite blindly in fact, on trying to prepare children for the World of Opportunity.

Preparing children for the World of Experience.

There’s more than just these two worlds however. Essentially, the Worlds of Opportunity and Necessity are pragmatic domains focused on things to do or ways to be. Yes, it is of course true that people can derive tremendous satisfaction from building a business and creating or becoming something that people admire. Indeed, resolving to create the number 1 abattoir in the nation could give a great sense of meaning to some people. Need there be any more to life? Well, there are also, of course, instances where people with barely enough to get by with, and certainly with no real opportunity to thrive, are nevertheless happy. In this sense then, perhaps the World of Experience could equally be called, The World of being Fully Human. We are not machines. There is intrinsic beauty, satisfaction, value and meaning for human beings in a whole myriad of areas: Experiencing increasing complexity of order in maths; sharing a laugh with a friend; listening to your favourite album; doing the honest thing and knowing that you are a trustworthy person; connecting with a sense of the absolute… the list can go on and on and on.

Now some of these things could quite reasonably be said to not really come into the realms of ‘needing to be taught it at school’, (do you really need school to help you value a hug, or a sense of communal belonging at a large event?) although many of them perhaps could at least be described as ‘benefitting from being valued at school’.

Importantly though, perhaps some of these things really do need to be championed at school to allow us to really enter the full experience of what it is to be human… the glories to be had revelling in the world of ideas for example, or playing in an orchestra. Or even, perhaps, the intrinsic benefit which we gain from experiencing ourselves embodying certain honourable virtues in the artificially constructed school environment, which can easily disappear in the warts-and-all realities of family life and the confused priorities of the commercial world.

To summarise then…

It is true that we can chop-up life and education into any number of categorisations, and there could be dozens of simpler, more powerful ways of conceptualising education than this one.

However, as will become evident in subsequent posts, this categorisation has grown more powerful in me and hung around because it provides tremendously useful lenses through which to categorise the things we do at school, and most definitely to help me judge the balance of what we do. It is surprisingly often that a particular initiative or educational movement can get locked into viewing education as being simply about a single one of these areas.

I will come back to this topic, to flesh it out further and to ponder the interaction between the 3 spheres, following my three posts on ‘Beyond the Cult of Engagement’.

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4 thoughts on “Pushing Harder at the Purpose of Education

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 1 – The Problem | Stepping Back a Little

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Cult of Engagement – Part 3 – Top Level Engagement | Stepping Back a Little

  3. Pingback: Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation | Stepping Back a Little

  4. Pingback: Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education” | Stepping Back a Little

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