What is Our Purpose for Education?

As I have mentioned, there were recently some interesting conversations on the MiddleTalk listserve around each of the points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 9 is “The purpose of your education is your future career.”

Rick Wormeli reminded us that we are all more than just our job descriptions.

And Chris Toy thought that developing these would make for a noble educational purpose:

  • Curiosity
  • Wonder
  • Love of Learning
  • Finding Out
  • Imagination
  • Experimenting
  • Exploring

This listserve thread prompted me also to reflect on various expressed goals and purposes of education (both those expressed through words and those expressed through actions and practices)…

I think it’s great if one outcome for a young graduate is that they are work-ready and can find employment. Our Chamber of Commerce would certainly agree.

But I don’t think that’s the only purpose we have for an education. I think there are several other purposes, if we both think back to public cries for education, and if we watch what people’s behavior and actions seem to say about what they believe. Some I believe in and some I clearly don’t.

John Dewey suggested that education was both preparation for life and life itself.

Folks involved in customized learning (in all the many forms it exists and names it goes by) would say that education is for developing the talents and passions of each child.

Every time we get a new wave of immigrants, some suggest that the purpose of education is to acclimate the new arrivals to being Americans, while others suggest that it is to prepare us to understand and appreciate diversity.

Our founding fathers would say that it is to prepare citizens to live in (and contribute to) a democracy.

I think some folks are very concrete (perhaps they would say “practical”) and say the purpose is to learn math, science, social studies, English, and some other content.

Sometimes I think the US Department of Education believes the purpose of education is to teach students how to pass tests.

I heard on NPR recently, during a conversation about homework, a statement that would suggest that some believe education should teach young people the “life lesson” of doing things they don’t want to do (sorry, I just gagged a little…).

Sometimes I think some groups believe the purpose of education is to prove that some people (mostly their own kids) are better than other people (the whole sorting thing…).

I also believe (sadly) that in some small circles, the purpose of education is to preserve the institution of schools as they exist today.

Monte Selby pointed out that when he teaches various educational philosophies to college students wanting to be teachers, even undergraduates represent each of those different philosophies passionately! He wrapped up by saying:

It was very clear for them to see how I taught, and they could accurately “label” my philosophy. And they liked how that impacted them in the classroom. But, even though they thought my philosophy was ideal for them, many still thought that “their” philosophy was what other children needed.

To simplify – nearly all liked receiving a personalized, self-improvement, “differentiated” format to develop their own talents and passions – a good philosophy for them. Even when their own philosophy stated a different ideal approach to educating youth.

(I think, as ironic as it sounds, we sometimes forget that working in schools is about working with people, not widgets, and Monte’s anecdote is a reminder of what I have said here before: we need to use more psychology in our educational decision making, and less logic!)

I do believe that some of the ongoing trouble we face is that we don’t have any agreement on the purpose(s) of public education, beyond some agreement that kids should be in school to a certain age and learn something in agreed upon content areas (even if we can’t agree on specific content within those subject areas).

For me, I wish the purpose we agreed was our goal was developing the talents and passions of each child. I wonder how many other goals that would achieve at the same time. But I also think that would require that we make some substantial changes to our schools and how they operate….


6 thoughts on “What is Our Purpose for Education?

  1. nickdicolandrea

    Actually a very nice post. The purpose of education is such a multi-layered and complex idea, that it is musing’s like yours that I believe further the discussion. I for one believe that the purpose is to expand and create a life-time of possibilities – for young and old – for new ideas and diving into our past. Well done again!

    1. Mike Muir Post author

      I like this purpose, too! Think how powerful our education system would be (and what our communities might be like!) if we were successful fulfilling this purpose!

  2. Jay Collier

    Thanks for reminding us of the wide variety of aspirations for education, Mike. Perhaps you’ll consider adding your voice to the Purpose/Ed campaign; the ideas have been inspiring:


      1. Jay Collier

        I thought you might like that project. I think it resonates with what you write about in this blog. Why are we doing what we do? It always comes back to a thriving young person.

  3. hafital

    Weren’t we told that the purpose of education was to find a good job? Then what if you can’t find a job, let alone a good one, after you get your education?
    Does that mean that education really had no purpose?

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