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The purpose of education

28 marzo, 2016

Behind the rhetoric and politics, education is about the outcomes it
achieves for its learners. More than being about the nuances of technology,
learning space design, curriculum structures and pedagogical practices
schools should have effective answers to questions that focus on what they
hope to achieve for their learners. How we answer this question should then
dictate the measures we utilise to achieve these goals and it is to these
ends that we must apply our efforts.

The prime goal of educational institutions is not as clear as one may
consider. Many will point towards preparation for the future as a key goal
and this is what drives much of the educational policies we see at present.
Certainly calls for a STEM or STEAM based curriculum is linked to notions
of preparedness for a future in which the economy and industry will require
graduates with these dispositions. Much of the criticism levelled at
historical models of education relates to the manner in which school
prepared young people for jobs central to the needs on an industrial age.
The command and control structure of schools, the focus on discrete
disciplines and rote learning of essential knowledge served the needs of
industry throughout the past century and only now is the validity of that
model being questioned. If schools are to learn anything from the rapid
changes occurring within industry at present it is that our students will
require no one set of skills but the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn
skills on demand. Preparation for industry is one model for what schools
should hope to achieve for their students but it is a model fraught with
danger if the focus of that preparation is too narrow.

An alternate perspective to preparation for participation in the productive
processes of society, its economic life is one that sees the early years of
education as preparation for an academic life beyond school. In this view
Primary School prepares students for High School which in turn prepares
students for University which prepares students for a life as an academic.
The obvious dilemma here is that society needs a limited set of academics
and at some point education must do more than prepare students for a more
academic study. There is an element of this view present in much of the
mechanics of learning that we focus on with school and beyond school in
University where correct detailing of referencing systems as dictated by a
specific faculty seems to more important than the learning that occurs or
does not occur in a broader sense. Preparation for a life of academia is
right for some but not for all but learning does have value and knowing how
to learn seems to be a valuable use of our time.

Preparation for a life of learning may be a more appropriate foundation. If
students leave schools equipped with the skills they will require to be
self directed learners then they may well be equipped to adapt to a
changing world. The life-long learner goal is a common one and it does have
merit as the ability and desire to continuously learn new skills and
knowledge is a worthwhile goal. Such a model may not be the complete answer
as the learning that is linked to such a model may not always include the
learner becoming actively engaged in the creation of new knowledge. Mastery
of a broad set of skills and knowledge has value but we will require people
who are seeking answers to questions not yet asked or not yet answered. The
life-long learner model does not guarantee that the learner will have a
disposition towards problem finding only that they will when required
endeavour to learn the new skills identified for them by others. Such an
approach was once  valid, when knowledge had value acquiring more of it
made sense. Academics pursued this model and an individuals success was
closely linked to the number of books and journals they had read and the
obscurity of the knowledge they could recall. This model has been squashed
by the internet and with ready access to all of the knowledge the question
is not what do you know but what can you do with what you can find, what
problems can you solve with your wit and your unlimited knowledge

So perhaps preparation for a life as a problem finder and solver is most
appropriate. If our students leave school with a belief in their ability
and capacity to identify problems and find solution to them, then maybe
they are prepared not only for what ever the future may bring but possess
the capacity to shape that future. Design thinking and problem based
learning become the preferred methodology and students engage frequently in
a search for problems. Multidisciplinary approaches seem to have value here
and proponents of STEM and STEAM will indicate that their approach is built
upon a problem finding model even if that is not a necessary condition for
such a programme. But problem solving alone may not be enough. If the
problems we find serve the needs of those who have power and freedom in
society then education has failed to produce learners with the capacity to
empathise with those less fortunate. The reality of the world we live in,
where money and power results in educational advantage, where industry and
economic rationalism dictates what problems get solved and where those with
the greatest need have difficulty accessing equitable outcomes through the
educational system, dictates that some thought to how our learners will
understand and relate to power be included.

Problem solving with empathy might be the desired goal then. The design
thinking process can and should include empathy as a starting point and a
reflection point throughout the process. If our students learn to ask
questions about who their ideas will impact, whose needs most require a
solution, what the real or economic cost of their actions will be they may
shape a world where not only are the problems of the privileged solved.
Teaching for empathy within the power structures and politics of
educational systems can be challenging and requires a considered approach
if teachers are not to be labelled activists but this is a goal worth
achieving. Understanding that education is a part of a political process,
that it is gendered, racialised and interwoven with power structures is

But all of this ignores the aesthetic beauty of learning for the sake of
learning, of art, literature, music and wonderment. Education for utility
and purposeful application towards the betterment of society should not
occur without suitable acknowledgement of human activity that adds to the
aesthetic worth of humanity. As Robin Williams said while playing John
Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ ‘We don’t read and write poetry because
it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human
race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law,
business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain
life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.’
So perhaps the answer is to prepare our students for a world that will
require them to learn continuously, to find and solve problems, to act with
empathy so as to bring hope and equity to many and strive to live a life
full of a passionate pursuit of beauty and wonderment, to live and learn
today as da Vinci might have done.


by Nigel Coutts

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