The Most Important Question in Education

If you’ve been around edutwitter long enough (so, like a week), you know occasionally teachers and others disagree on many facets of education: how best to instruct, when to instruct, what to instruct, proper classroom arrangement, testing, play, engagement, fun, discipline, exclusions, technology, discovery, inquiry, direct, et cetera. I have engaged in plenty of these debates and the more I participate, the more I find they usually boil down to two important details:

  1. A disagreement or difference in definition of terms.

-For example, what is engagement? I see it from a cognitive perspective, so it deals with mental focus on a particular stimulus. Some see engagement as more of a physical activity with the material. Many times when I’m chatting with someone on this topic, the discussion becomes a stalemate of sorts because of this difference. I don’t see this necessarily as a bad thing, though. It provides a good reminder to all that we have differing views which can keep us out of the echo chamber. Also, it forces those who do participate to really know what they believe about these terms. I’m not so sure that many in our profession know really well what they believe on important topics, but that’s another topic for another blog post somewhere down the line.

2. A disagreement on the purpose of education.

-Why are we doing this? Why educate? What is the purpose? As central as these questions are to the teaching, you’d think there would be general consensus, but I don’t believe there is. Can you answer this for yourself? Why do you teach your students? If you’ve never really considered these questions, they can be a little overwhelming; trying to boil your chosen professions’ purpose into a few sentences. However difficult it may be, however, I do believe it important to know your answer. For me, it drives pretty much everything I do in the classroom.

So, what do I believe is the purpose of education?

Super big picture, I believe education is about creating a healthier/kinder/more knowledgeable world. I educate my students in hopes of providing them with knowledge/tools that enhance their life, the lives of others, and, ultimately, society as a whole. For me, though, it’s tough to boil this down to day to day teaching. It’s too big picture.

On a more practical scale, I believe the purpose of education is to teach kids stuff. Teach them content and then show them how to apply that content. Help them understand how to study/learn more efficiently and effectively. Give them knowledge they can use to then be creative and discover cures for diseases, invent new technologies that better society, et cetera. It all starts with accumulating knowledge first, though.

Since I know what I believe is the purpose of education, I can use this information to guide my instruction and focus my lessons. Without this knowledge, I don’t believe I would be as effective in the classroom and really feel like my classroom would be more like wandering aimlessly in a forest than thru-hiking the Appalachian trail. Yes, there are unexpected twists and turns, but there’s still that ultimate goal of what it’s all about to guide you.

That’s why I believe what is the purpose of education? is the most important question in education. It anchors and directs the classroom on a day to day basis. It affects instruction, which impacts the student’s experience, directly. It can change how teachers and students place emphasis on information, relationships, and assessment. To do our best in the classroom, I don’t think there’s any way around knowing our main purpose as educators.

What is the purpose of education?

Have you ever pondered this or a similar question before?

Do you agree or disagree with me? Please comment. I would love to have a conversation.

11 comments

  1. Really enjoyed reading this post Blake. As for engagement, I was so wrong about it for many years. I thought it had a certain “look” in the classroom, students playing a game, working together on a project, but in my mind, it meant they were active. After doing a ton of research and writing a chapter about social presence and some of which included studying engagement, I have a much better understanding now than I did. And of course, I am still continuing to learn as I go.
    The purpose of education, I have a similar way of thinking as you. This really resonates with me, ” I believe education is about creating a healthier/kinder/more knowledgeable world.” Something that I have been working to do more of, and be intentional about doing in my classroom. I like the words you use like be creative, discover and invent, which mean that students are doing more inquiry based, making decisions on their own, for me I use PBL in some classes. Again, a work in progress and continuing to look for more opportunities to give students what they need in terms of knowledge, and also be more flexible in the methods I use, how we plan our classes and while I have content that I want to focus on, I have been more open to their ideas for the how to practice and coming up with activities.

    Thanks for pushing my thinking

  2. I agree w your ideas here. I would also add that education is for the self actualization of each individual person so that they are fully informed and able to become who they intend to be.. and that when we do this properly, we benefit the whole of society as well. Each person exists both for themselves and for the community. Neither purpose is subordinate to the other. Education for this purpose includes physical, intellectual, philosophic, moral, aesthetic development.

  3. While I agree with your first reply to the big question, in my case the second, more focused reply would be “help children be healthier, kinder and more knowledgeable”. Teaching them stuff would therefore be one of the practical aims, but always hanging from the higher objectives. If you narrow it all to teach stuff, I fear that one might neglect the others, and I don’t think kindness should risk being compromised by knowledge. If one needs to teach less to make room for kindness and respect, then so be it.

  4. I think that some of your respondents confuse what they hope education is for vs what society thinks education is for. If the only effect of education were to make people kinder or healthier or self actualized, it would be disbanded tomorrow. It’s simply too big of a drain on society’s resources for such minimal return on investment and there are other ways to accomplish those goals. Except for the self-actualization part, which education generally doesn’t do.

    Education as an institution exists to transfer society’s knowledge to its children in an efficient manner. Period, end of story. There certainly are second-order effects which are useful, but they wouldn’t be enough to justify the institution in the absence of knowledge transfer.

    1. Well, as far as I know I am a part of society, so “what society thinks” is also what I think, to a extent. And it’s not a minority view: think how any major pedagogue in history, from Freire to Dewey, has considered the wider impact of the institution apart from kids just knowing more things. The main purpose of education being knowledge transfer doesn’t mean that it can do without the other two or that it can neglect them without a heavy toll on its impact. Those three are sine qua non from my perspective even if it requires balancing the knowledge transfer to make room for the other two.

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