purpos/ed take 2 – The purpose of education is…

This post is my contribution to the 500 words campaign currently being run by purpos/ed. It may be one or two words over 500. I hope it was more of a guideline than a rule!


The purpose of education is to allow learning to happen.

A little twee? Perhaps.

Maybe I can tell you a few stories to explain what I mean? Are you sitting comfortably?

A few years ago I was involved in a new skills curriculum at our school. We wanted to make sure there was some kind of celebratory event at the end of the year, and because the ethos of the whole thing had been to hand power over to the students as much as possible we did just that. We sent out the invites – to parents, to staff, to primary colleagues. We gave the students two weeks planning time. Then, at 2 o’clock on a slightly damp Tuesday in July we turned over an empty hall to 40 year 7 students and told them they had an hour to impress us.

I’m not sure I have ever been more amazed.

In that hour they so surpassed not just my expectations but also my wildest dreams that I began to wonder what else they could achieve if we just gave them the chance..

Story two

A few years earlier and several thousand miles away a professor was wondering what would happen if you provided an internet connection into the slums of New Deli. Not a classroom, not instructions, just an internet connection.

That professor was Sugatra Mitre and if you haven’t yet heard him tell this story, then I’d urge you to go and do so either via his Ted talk (if you’ve only got 18 minutes) or this keynote (if you’ve got a little longer)

In short, he too, was amazed at what happens if you provide the right stimulus and let students get on with it. His conclusion was that learning was an ‘emergent property’ – we just need to get the conditions right. No teachers, no interactive whiteboards. Just a way of tapping into and encouraging the natural curiosity that makes us all human.

A third story

I was the first person in my family to go to University. I knew what I wanted to be (a librarian). I knew where i wanted to study (Aberystwyth), so I worked for a year after my A Levels to build up some savings and off I went.
My brother also knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to travel. So he saved his money and went off on various adventures around the world.

Both our journeys taught us many things. Both were perfectly valid. Only, our mum didn’t have to have a row in the Co-op with one of my teachers because they didn’t agree with my plan.

I quickly decided that Librarianship wasn’t for me. I switched to a Joint Honours degree with History, got heavily involved in the Student media and then the Students Union and it was those things (rather than the formal education) that gave me the skills, motivation and self-belief to decide a few years after graduating to move into teaching. My brother stuck to his plan. Now, ten years on, my brother is married and living in Canada. He now feels that some more formal education would be useful to him. But it’s going to cost him a lot of money to get it, because he’s “had his chance”.

So what?

Well, if the purpose of education is to let learning happen, I’m not sure we’re doing a good enough job yet.
Why is it that despite those students showing 5 years ago just what they could do, we are still not regularly giving them the freedom to do so?
Why is it that the lessons of the work of Mitre and others don’t seem to be filtering through to our policy makers and school leaders?
Why is that the vested interests and the status quo lead many in teaching to reject, without question, any alternatives to the conveyer belt model of education we have grown into in the West.

A final story.

A scientist takes two frogs and two pans of water. He places one frog in a pan of water and puts it on to boil. The second frog he leaves while he boils the water in the second pan. Once the water is hot, he drops the frog in. It, not unsurprisingly, leaps out. Meanwhile the first frog slowly boils to death.

I suspect that if you dropped us into the current educational system, given everything else we know about people, about learning and about life, we might act like that second frog.

What’s it going to take before we wake up and realise that the water around is boiling, and it’s boiling away the enthusiasm of many of those still sitting in the pan?

2 thoughts on “purpos/ed take 2 – The purpose of education is…

  1. Hi Dave, thanks so much for the contribution! I loved your anecdotes (never knew you wanted to be a librarian…) and the metaphor at the end is extremely apt.

    And yes, the #500words is give or take a word or two. 😉

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