This might seem like a stupid question on the face of it. We all know what education is, you might think. And I think to some degree that’s probably a fair claim. We all know what education is because we’ve all experienced it. We could all point to it and say, “Look, that’s education”. However, I’m not sure that what we understand as education based on our experience is really the best example of what education could or should be.
And when it comes to the second part of my title, namely what education is for, I think that we, in general, have a fatally flawed idea. In fact, if you just looked around at examples available in the world, you might come up with some pretty troubling conclusions about the features and purposes of education. With that in mind, I’m going to write this post from a perspective of ideals; of ought over is.
As for the reason for this post, I quite strongly believe that many of the problems of education exist purely because of our misguided answers to these questions. We have either an outdated or else just a poorly aligned idea of what education is and what it’s for, and if we could only address this at a cultural level and redefine our position, we would be able to rectify a lot of the ills that plague education around the world. That’s my claim, at least, and I shall try to back it up here, beginning with a discussion of what education actually is.
What Is It?
I’ll start with a definition and see if we can get a good answer from there as to what exactly education is:
Education: The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.
That seems like a good place to start. Education then seems to be something that takes place over an extended period of time and proceeds in something like an orderly fashion, likely taking place in a formal institution such as a school or university. That certainly seems fairly agreeable, and probably sits quite nicely with the idea most of us hold in our heads. It definitely describes quite well the education I received growing up in the UK.
It does raise some questions, however. Working backwards, we have the phrase, “especially at a school or university”. We tend to use the words ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’ based on whether or not somebody has attended school and/or university and what levels they completed. It certainly seems as though the general consensus is that education means formal education. Indeed, there are different words for people who have learned their knowledge and skills from other sources. We tend to call these people smart, experienced or savvy. We even call someone well-read if they have studied a lot but outside of the confines of formal, structured, institutional learning. “Educated” is a term reserved for those holding the necessary certificates.
This somewhat naturally assumes the sense, “systematic instruction”. Education requires a teacher and a schedule, both of which are of course inherent in any formal model of education. There is little recognition granted to those who take it upon themselves to study their field or develop their skills independently and in their own time. I suspect this has a lot to do with how difficult it is to measure such learning. Another standard feature of formal education, of course, is testing. We’ll come back to this later, but suffice it to say for now that if somebody pursues learning of any kind by reading and practising in line with only personal goals and with no clearly defined structure, it is very difficult to write a related exam. Without an exam, we find it very difficult to prove learning and we certainly cannot issue certificates on our current model, and so any such learning goes largely unrecognised and does not contribute to one’s ‘education’ in the sense that we are interested in.
The definition also uses the word process. This I can definitely endorse, though I worry that the concept is rather weakly applied in much of the formal education systems that I have dealt with. I strongly believe that learning is a complex process that relies on a number of neurological changes and that the more complex the process—i.e. the more modes of input and the more forms of practice and application—the more effective the learning will be. In the majority of schools, however, especially when considered on a global scale, this concept is not exploited to anything like its maximum potential. Most teachers and standard methodologies focus on only one mode of input—and that tends to be whatever is most easily tested, meaning that drilling and other memorisation techniques rule supreme.
So, if we look at what education is based on a definition that I think most would agree captures the standard experience fairly well, we conclude that education is teaching and learning conducted in a formal institution with a teacher and a standard curriculum. We also conclude that education is not learning done in an informal environment, such as reading, on-the-job training, self-directed practice or anything else that takes place outside of the walls of a school or university. Most simply, we can say that education is anything that leads to a certification and nothing that does not.
I suggest that this is a tragically erroneous understanding of what education could be. Many people, even those who would agree with and accept the description we have just seen, would probably also agree with the well known epithet, “you learn something new every day”. We are presented constantly with opportunities to learn, from new experiences and challenges that we have to overcome, from interesting people we meet, from books we read and television shows or movies we watch and endless other media we consume.
Some of this is intentional learning, by which I mean that we set out with the explicit objective of learning something new or developing a skill, and some of it is more passive, but it all adds to our range of knowledge and abilities and contributes to our character and competence. I feel quite strongly that it is a mistake to not consider this learning a part of one’s education and to call someone uneducated should his background consist of only this type of learning and no academic qualification. Education should not be seen as anything special as compared to the full body of knowledge and skill that one has accumulated throughout one’s life. A definition might look something like this:
Education: The complete mass of knowledge and skills that one develops over a lifetime, including formal instruction, self-directed learning and practical experience.
What Is It For?
If you look at the education systems around you now, and even if you speak to people on the street, you’ll likely come away with the idea that education is a) for getting good grades on graduation exams and b) for getting into a good university. This is certainly the motivation for most school students and seems to be the foundation for most school systems and curricula. This leaves us with a tautology; what it means, in short, is that education is just for getting through education. You must go to school and study hard so that you can pass your exam at the end of school and get into a good college and do more school. Effectively, people are learning largely just so that they can prove they have learned.
This is not what people would likely say if asked, though. I suspect the common belief as to what education exists to help people become successful in adult life. More specifically, most would probably say that we go to school so that we can get a good job. There are several things to address in relation to these claims, however. The first problem with this claim is that education, as it is generally administered, does very little to prepare its students for the workplace or even broader adult life, and the second is that we have a rather restricted view of what could be meant by ‘a good job’.
With regard to my first contention, I’m sure we can all agree that there are countless things we learned at school—that we spent a great deal of time and effort learning, in fact—that we have never used since we graduated. At the same time, think of the many encounters you have had in your adult and professional life where you needed some piece of knowledge or set of skills that you were never taught at school. These two small experiments show just how disconnected the standard curriculum is with the reality of the social and professional adult world.
If we’re really going to claim that school exists so that people can be successful in adult life, we need to drastically overhaul the curriculum to better relate to the trials and challenges that adults face in the wider world. I believe that one reason for this disconnect between curriculum and reality is that there has been little change in many school systems, including their learning materials, since they were established, in some cases, hundreds of years ago.
The world has changed dramatically in the intervening centuries, but the curriculum and teaching styles have largely stagnated, as I wrote in my previous post. What this means is that we are often educating our children in preparation for a world that no longer exists. In fact, it’s much worse than this, because the logical solution might seem to be that we must, therefore, begin educating our children in preparation for the world that exists today. This would be mistaken. Change is now so rapid, that children in school today will graduate into a world that has advanced even beyond what we see now, which means that we actually need to begin educating our children for the future world that they will be graduating into.
There is a more fundamental problem than this lack of change, however. Even when these systems were first established, they did not cater to the complete range of needs that students would have upon graduation and into later life. Institutional education has, for the most part, always been directed at a select set of experiences as deemed important by the curriculum designers, and this selection has usually consisted of preparing students for a) menial labour for the ‘working class’ and b) academic pursuits for the ‘upper-middle’ to ‘upper classes’. There is a broad and exponentially growing range of experiences in between these two extremes that the majority of society actually faces, but formal education does little to prepare for them.
This also speaks somewhat to my second contention, which is that there is a generally very restricted and indeed restricting definition of the word success. One is generally considered successful when one has a well paying job, and as such, the sooner one can achieve a well paid position after graduation, the better. With this in mind, this is what most curricula are intended for: getting students into well paid jobs.
What could it be?
I believe it is problematic that the sole objective of most formal education is to prepare people to either make as much money as possible or else spend as much time in further formal education as possible. I think that society suffers numerous ills because of this standardised model of success, and I further think that it is the responsibility of teachers and school to provide a better, broader vision of students’ possible futures.
I also think that the emphasis on formal, standardised education should be reduced and that both in society and across the professional landscape, we should be more appreciative of the broader range of learning experiences that individuals can have.
The more freedom and choice we can instil into our education programmes, the more effective I believe they will be and the better they will prepare students for adult life. Note also that when I say “adult life”, I don’t mean only “professional life”. Yes; employment is essential, and students should, of course, be educated in the hopes of attaining gainful employment. However, there are many different types of work and many different ways to be professionally successful, and furthermore, work does not make up the entirety of the adult experience.
Students should learn more about the process of attaining work and the concept of working hard and establishing a career. These professional attitudes are immensely valuable but somewhat anathema to the idea that one should simply hope to graduate from school or college and be immediately hired in a well-paying upper management position. This leaves people feeling entitled and unwilling to put in the time and effort to work their way from the bottom of the professional ladder. In this regard, many see continuing formal education as a shortcut to the top.
This contributes to a professional environment where many of those in upper management and position of power are far less experienced within the relevant field than those they employ. It also often means that those managers fail to relate to their staff and are incapable of developing positive and understanding relationships, all of which merely expands the chasm of aloofness between management and staff. Meanwhile, those who forego an expensive education and work hard to hone their skills and specialise in a given area will likely never have the opportunity to sit in a managers chair without holding the ‘necessary’ degrees.
If we valued hard work and experience a little more as a society, then many more people would have the opportunity to reach the top of their respective professional ladders, but also we would have much more appreciation and respect for people at all levels of the hierarchy. As a teacher, I find it essential to develop within my students the attitudes relevant to this vision of the professional world. I help my students address their interests and goals irrespective of the standard definition of ‘successful’ (which shares a lot in common with the definition of ‘wealthy’, it seems) and to explore ways of finding success in those areas.
I dedicate my methodology to developing collaboration and communication skills, enhancing critical thinking and creativity and building positive attitudes towards the world and society. Here in Indonesia, whenever I meet a new group of young students, I ask the question, “what would you like to do when you grow up?”, and the answer I get from some 80% of them is usually, “be a businessman/woman” or “take over my parents’ business” with a few doctors and managers thrown in. Only a very small percentage of students say anything outside of these extremely narrow lines. If I can end the year with a more diverse set of answers to this question that when I started, I am happy.
And so far, this still relates almost entirely to the professional world. However, there is a great deal of other skills, abilities and understanding that adults need to get by, and much of what we need to know to survive and thrive we have to work out for ourselves through trial and error and with little support just whenever the time comes. Now, I’m all for having individuals work things out for themselves, but I believe that this is what education should actually be. A guided learning experience, providing students with opportunities to work out things for themselves so that when they encounter these situations in the broader world, they are prepared.
With this in mind, there are any number of things that I think should be included in ‘formal education’, starting with things like how to vote (not just on the day, but how to best make an informed decision and implement democracy meaningfully) and why that should be important; how to understand and pay taxes and financial literacy and responsibility in general, for that matter; how to seek further education, training and development after graduating from school (I intend to write more about this in the near future); and extending to things like inclusive, non-prejudiced attitudes; a global worldview that is open to the differences of other cultures; an appreciation of the importance of non-financially oriented professions so that more people might be interested in pursuing them but also so that those who do not pursue them still respect them.
What would you include in a new curriculum if you had complete control over its design, and what do you do in your own classrooms now to promote these ideas and develop these skills?
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