What is the purpose of education? (in 500-ish words)

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Leadership, Teaching & Learning

What is the purpose of education? (Written as requested, and to contribute to, the #purpos/ed campaign)

When reading this I need to make it clear that I’m not an expert in education. I know nothing about the many different kinds of literacies out there, scholarly theories on the functionality of cognitive acceleration or trans-educational warp drives (I made the last one up). I make comment only in reference to the context and experience of my work in low socio-economic areas of South Yorkshire, UK.

The very aspect of ‘context’ is a central principle to my thoughts on the purpose of education. And for me, everything should centre around the individual’s context: themselves, their community and their society (probably in that order). Although these circumstances vary throughout the world, the principle still applies – education must be tailored around those contexts and environments that enable people to flourish within it. The context maybe constantly changing, so lets take that into consideration – the people within that environment will want different things, so lets take that into consideration. Education is something done by you, not to you.

Essentially, the outcome ought to be a knowledge/skill set that enables people to achieve what they may not have been able to achieve if not for education. Consequently, that knowledge/skill set will be different for an Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic compared to a Londoner in the UK. There will be similarities and differences, but an educational facilitation of some kind (formal or informal) will still take place that makes stuff happen.

I love how Ian Gilbert opens chapter 1 of his book: ‘Essential motivation in the classroom’:

‘Bad news I’m afraid. The culmination of 6 million years’ worth of neurological evolution is not the GCSE’

The current educational establishment in the UK seems to be placing everything on qualifications such as the GCSE. Don’t get me wrong: the context of the UK in 2011 means that qualifications are essential for people to enter further educational establishments and the world of work. Indeed, I recognise and embrace the importance of this. However, we must challenge the presupposition that the GCSE is the ‘one true King’. Talking about royalty, should students be required to memorise the Kings and Queens of England as recommended by the UK Government? Does this meet the needs of the context in which they live? No. No. No. So what does?

Empowerment – that’s what does. Surely the purpose of education is to enable individual social movement that challenges old conventions of ‘knowing one’s place’. Something that empowers people to improve themselves, their community and their society; something that recognises the injustice that lies at the heart of prejudice and takes into consideration the impact of our actions on other people’s global contexts. It’s about a responsibility to ensure that education enables people to become better communicators, innovators, evaluators, team workers and independent-ors (I know it doesn’t fit but I couldn’t think of another one!) Simply putting it, aspiring to be better and happier people.

Those involved in formal education have a responsibility too. Writing a blog post is one thing but how are you, the reader, actively challenging the status quo? My PLN on Twitter is full of people who are facilitating learning experiences (in many different guises) that meet the true purpose of education, and the practice and dedication is mind blowing. Consequently, how do you in your staff rooms, establishments and day-to-day interactions make change happen and contribute to something where passive resistance simply isn’t enough?

I put the ball back in your court – what is your purpose in education? Are you truly part of a movement or are you happy to sweep it under the carpet?

Let me know.

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22 responses so far


  • At 2011.03.10 11:32, Doug Belshaw said:

    Great GCSE quotation and love the theme of ’empowerment’. Having worked in similar areas to you, Jamie, I know what you mean – the thrill of seeing the penny drop when a young person realises that they *don’t* have to ape what their peers, family, community are doing but can strive for something more. Priceless.

    And if you do ever want to use big words instead of keeping it real, try ‘semiotic domains’. Always goes down well. 😉


    • At 2011.03.12 10:22, Jamie Portman said:

      Totally agreed about striving for something more. This must be an essential component of what the purpose of education is – that of bettering yourself and the possibility that you can. Links clearly with the empowerment theme of my post. Thanks for asking me to comment on the purpose of education, its really helping me to refine and elaborate on my own thoughts.

    • At 2011.03.10 17:50, Chris Harte said:

      Jamie, no need for big words, leave that to the theoretical educationalists. On the ground it is not only the local context but the personal context and we can postulate on the purpose of education until the cows come home but it is empowering the individual which really matters. Great post.

      • At 2011.03.12 11:42, Jamie Portman said:

        Totally agreed. The personal context must be at the very centre of our thoughts when considering the purpose of education. Postulation certainly is for the theoretical educationalists but we’re about much more than that aren’t we? We are about, as you put it, ’empowering the individual’ so lets crack on then! Remember, we are soldiers 😉

      • At 2011.03.10 18:59, Kevin McLaughlin said:

        Is there any country that doesn’t place the importance of achieving good grades in exams as the end purpose of their education systems rather than simply a part if it? I don’t think so, especially in the world we live today, grades mean everything. Results are used not only to show achievement but unfortunately more often as a name and shame ooportunity, a quick media bite.
        Education has to be taken out of governmental control. For too long governmental departments have mashed together national curriculum after national curriculum;; as those in owed come and go so does the previous curricula. This has to stop, this is not education but a manipulation of learning to gain votes.
        But I’ll leave the rest for my own post about what I consider to be the purpose of education.
        Great post Jamie.

        • At 2011.03.12 12:15, Jamie Portman said:

          I agree with with the consistent ‘mashing’ up of national curriculums and particularly with the manipulation of learning to gain votes. I do expect a certain amount of Govt. interference due to the importance of education to the nation and the billions invested. What we don’t expect is that manipulation for more immoral reasons that you infer. Looking forward to your post Kevin, thanks for the comment.

        • At 2011.03.10 22:55, Jon Nicholls said:

          I like your challenge at the end of this great post Jamie. One of my colleagues said recently (in response to the 500 words debate) “so many fine words but now it’s time for action.” Kevin’s point about wrestling education out if the hands of politicians is a good one so I’m looking forward to that post too. As Ken Robinson says, no-one in education is trying to lower standards. But what else are we trying to do beyond get kids some qualifications? I like the way this is heating up…

          • At 2011.03.12 12:22, Jamie Portman said:

            Yep. Action. An instrumental key point for educational establishments is to address the question you pose: ‘What else are we trying to do beyond get kids some qualifications?’ That too me ought to be something imposed by Governments on schools instead of a prescribed curriculum. In total agreement.

            By the way, I love the ‘comfort zone’ image at the top of your website. Powerful stuff – thanks Jon

          • At 2011.03.10 23:27, Damien McHugh said:

            Great post Jamie. I agree that education should be about empowerment but when we look around our schools we see the pressure to conform to a set type is everywhere… for teachers and for students!

            I for one am taking you up your challenge. It’s time to stand up and be counted.

            • At 2011.03.12 12:24, Jamie Portman said:

              Thanks Damien. Glad your taking up the challenge. From what I know of you from our Twitter PLN its clear that you already are! Keep the faith

            • At 2011.03.12 07:17, Kristian Still said:

              First – great image association. Second, for those of you reading the comments Jamie has demonstrated at strong community ethos to those people sharing his PLN. I for one perceive Jamie ‘walking his talk.’ On your commentary, I will give it some more thought before posting.

              • At 2011.03.12 12:51, Jamie Portman said:

                Big thanks for that Kristian – much appreciated.

                • At 2011.03.13 08:20, oldandrew said:

                  “It’s about a responsibility to ensure that education enables people to become better communicators, innovators, evaluators, team workers and independent-ors”

                  The ability to communicate, innovate, evaluate and work independently are all to a large extent based on how much we know about the area we are working in. Trying to separate knowledge and how we use it strikes me as a basic error that will just result in dumbing down.

                  As for being a team worker, I’m sure it’s desirable. I just can’t see why anyone would think it can be taught in schools as part of a curriculum rather than as something best developed through working voluntarily with people with shared interests, perhaps through sports or hobbies or involvement with the local community.

                  • At 2011.03.13 11:50, Jamie Portman said:

                    The post above does not mention separating knowledge. I agree, the competencies mentioned do sometimes depend upon how much we know about the area that they are working in. But sometimes times they are not. The aspect of team work, for example, does not need to be taught as part of the curriculum and you’re right, it can be greatly enhanced via the vehicles you mention. But, I will not accept that opportunities to develop, for example, team work stay outside of the school gates in mainly voluntary circles. I firmly believe that qualities such as independence, innovation, creativity, empathy etc should be developed further in schools alongside the learning of something new. You don’t need ‘team work studies’ to make that happen.

                    Unfortunately, from reading posts on your blog and tweets from your feed it is clear that you are part of a school of thought which is in direct contrast to my own. ‘Dumbing down’ is maintaining the current status quo on knowledge, knowledge, knowledge – and this is not appropriate for young people in the context of 2011.

                    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

                    • At 2011.03.13 12:04, oldandrew said:

                      I already acknowledged that teamwork was different to the other skills you mentioned.

                      As for separating knolwedge from competencies, you did that implicitly by listing competencies to be aimed for as if they exist independently of knowledge. They don’t.

                      • At 2011.03.14 10:37, Graeme Porter said:

                        What the helldamnfart are you supposed to do with all this precious ‘knolwedge’ if you don’t have the skills/competencies/literacies to put it to use?

                        All the skills mentioned are part of the process of learning. How do you acquire knolwedge without using or developing them?

                        • At 2011.03.16 10:01, oldandrew said:

                          Just because I don’t think you can teach skills apart from knowledge, doesn’t mean I think you can teach knowledge apart from skills. I argued against the separaration of the two, rather than that they should remain separated but with the emphasis reversed.

                      • At 2011.03.13 14:38, Gwyn ap Harri said:

                        Jamie – just ignore oldandrew. He seems to think that putting down other people makes him look better. Funnily enough, he targets the best teachers from the best schools and accuses them of systematically failing kids.

                        @oldandrew if you ever saw Jamie teach, you’d realise that you’re criticising the wrong people. He’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in hundreds of schools and seen thousands of teachers and lessons.

                        • At 2011.03.13 20:31, oldandrew said:

                          Gwyn ap Harri,

                          grow up.

                          I disagree with the *content* of a post. If you cannot distinguish between that and malicious put downs, then you have nothing to contribute to discussion.

                          • At 2011.03.16 09:11, Gwyn ap Harri said:

                            erm… I guess your post to me is a malicious put down then? And I guess that means that according to you I don’t have anything to contribute? Wow…

                            Funny though, you said yourself that the people you criticise are systematically failing our kids. http://cl.ly/5H6c

                            All I’m saying is that Jamie is an absolutely brilliant teacher, and I guess that means he knows what he’s doing. And all you can do is tell me to grow up?

                            Jamie, sorry for fighting in your back yard, I won’t respond again to this guy.

                          • At 2011.03.16 09:42, oldandrew said:

                            “erm… I guess your post to me is a malicious put down then?”

                            No. It is simply a request that, if you can, you should engage with the content of the argument rather than simply passing judgement on people.

                            That said, even that is preferable to linking to twitter posts out of context as a debating tactic.

                            • […] Hope you find them useful, but let’s not let them detract us away from the true purpose of education! […]

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