February 04, 2011

purpos/ed: It's not about the purpose of education. It's about whether we want people to learn at all.

Purposed-badge One of the biggest issues in discussing the purpose of education in this borderless forum is revealed in our original challenge: we're preparing a discussion for "the election" (in Westminster, England) in three years' time when, for the five million of us who share the same island, the elections that really matter for education happen in 90 days. If you're in the US, you've barely got two years. In Canada… In Egypt… In India… In China…

In Scotland, education is managed by our own Parliament, not by those sitting 400 miles away in Westminster. And over the past year, after taking some of the ingredients suggested by this blogger, the SNP’s Government created Engage for Ed, a now burgeoning series of blog posts, provocations and discussions between ministers, parents, interest groups, teachers, students from our youth parliament and others from that amorphous glob we call The General Public. Has it had a tumultuous effect on policy? It's hard to say. University remains free to attend for Scottish students. The nearly new Curriculum for Excellence has had some more time, effort and money spent on it to heighten its potential impact in creating a 3-18 curriculum of student-led, passion-based learning. As all the parties sharpen the instruments in their manifesto toolbox we'll see how much the opinions and ideas of those online contribute to their vision for the purpose of education.

Government policy-making, cash injections and tinkering with frameworks of schooling can only have a limited impact on how teachers, parents and pupils perceive "what education is for". Ultimately, these three vital groups make up their minds based on what they see in the classroom and what they see in the connection (or lack of it) between what goes In School and what happens everywhere else in the community: the way students interact with their community on the walk home; the way they dive into working on personal projects that actually matter to them or argue with their parents over homework whose value no-one in this triangle of learning is particularly sure.

The desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system. Contentment can flourish into happiness, riches, recognition or any other myriad of emotional and material gain. But without a content society, with an ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life, we end up with society's biggest enemies: complacency, stagnancy, apathy and ambivalence.

In the UK, we have the world's least happy children. In the US, the number prescribed Ritalin is growing to frightening rates, and correlates to standardised testing. In Finland, home of Western Europe's ‘best’ education system, we see its highest suicide rate (note the ranking of South Korea & Japan, too).

We have an ongoing contentment problem, and the answer to it lies in helping young people discover what their passions are, giving up the artificial reins we as teachers, parents and governments use to strangle those passions and the  creativity that lends itself to their growth.


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Some very good points, Ewan, especially about horizons. When Andy and I started purpos/ed we envisaged a UK debate (mainly England). It's gained so much traction that we've got people voluntarily launching groups and sites in other languages around the world. I think the phrase is 'latent demand'!

As you point out, schools need not just be 'in' their communities but 'part' of them in a way that top-down direction cannot provide by itself.

Got me thinking...

Totally agree, both with the post and with Doug's comment - 'engagement' isn't just something students should be doing, it's something schools need to be doing as well.

A well made point on the importance of contentment. In our celebrity, get rich quick culture I think this its important for learner to gain enjoyment out of the process and not just race to the end product. We live in an age with increasing impatience and disenchantment so putting contentment at the heart of the learning experience is just what we need. Many thanks, Michael

I live in the U.S and from my own experience, I was never encouraged as a child to learn just for the sake of learning, for discovery or for exploring my interests and hobbies. I was always told by my family "So and so is so smart, she got accepted to HARVARD university to study medicine" or "so and so is a doctor and earns six figures a year".

My grandmother was proud of the fact that some of her kids pursued Computer Science because of the fact that people in that field had decent salaries even though my aunt was miserable and cried every night. I was brought up with the belief that the goal of education was to become a doctor or lawyer and make six figures a year.

A lot of parents are like this (seriously) and school to them is not about their kids exploring but about their children doing well so it can reflect positively on THEM (as parents).

Parents play a huge role as to how kids approach learning.

spot on Ewan.

we need to be bold about what ridiculous is.

funny how many people say learning per passion is ridiculous. not a valid means of public ed. and ideas are often shot down before they're started.

this is ridiculous:
In the UK, we have the world's least happy children. In the US, the number prescribed Ritalin is growing to frightening rates, and correlates to standardised testing. In Finland, home of Western Europe's ‘best’ education system, we see its highest suicide rate (note the ranking of South Korea & Japan, too).

thank you for tanking up our boldness factor.

A very interesting piece and the comment about parents above is good too. A passion for learning needs to start at home. So many parents are sucked in by the system of SATs and league tables.

this is huge Ewan: http://tinyurl.com/5s5pguj

do you think pbl is enough?

Project-Based Learning is what I'd call an admirable start, but it tends to rely on a few dedicated teachers coming together, hatching a plan and getting on with it in isolation, rather than being a whole-school pedagogy. Also, the projects on which learning is based are rarely student-led. The teachers involved will say they are, within the 'constraints' of 'covering' the elements of 'curriculum' they need to, but I'd argue that wholly student-led project-based learning is a step up ,both in terms of what can be achieved, and in what you get out of it.

so where is that happening Ewan? do you know?
esp where it's not only student-led, but also without our assumed curriculum and/or basic skills check off.

'Assumed curriculum and basic skills' are still important, I think. But you check them off retrospectively, and seek over a longer line of 13 years in formal education that a minimum is reached and covered, rather than over a term, week or lesson.

It's happening in the Stovner School, Auckland's Albany Senior High, Gever's Brightworks... and tons besides, including Riverside in India, I think.

The examples aren't being captured and shared enough, though, or are deemed for 'someone else' to do, but ' not us'.

I'll admit I am wary of the 'student-led' approach because I think it risks disempowering the teacher side of the learning and teaching relationship. There is considerable value in teacher's sharing their passions and interests with students through project-based learning (incidentally we've been trying to re-package this as 'process-based learning' but that's a whole other discussion) and that's something I am anxious about losing when learning becomes too student-led or student-defined.

I think you've hit it on the head - but we're redefining teaching from being sage on the stage to being the coach. Redefining it to what it was before formal education of the type we've seen in the past 120 years came along.

Interesting issues (and another post) around what makes a teacher a teacher, and whether the way we define that is 'good enough' or not. The assumption in your comment is that the current definition of teacher is the best mechanism to learn. It also implies that the best learning requires a teacher in the first place. Interesting questions to consider...


thanks guys.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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