What Is The Purpose of Education?

By MARK SONNEMAN

Graham Brown-Martin gives us an answer to this question in his Tedx talk “Learning (Re)Imagined” . Here is his response:

The purpose of education is to equip our children with the skills to reimagine society to meet the challenges of their generation.

I like his answer-alot. I just want to hack it a bit. As Graham seems to be a bit of a bad-ass, sideways thinker in the videos I have watched, I think he would be cool with this. Mine would look something like this:

The purpose of education is to equip people with the critical vision to filter content and see the connectedness between people, ideas and information, the skills to reimagine society to meet the challenges they face, and the empathy to understand the impact/consequences of their solutions on others.

As an educator, I still think of myself as a learner, and I often place myself in situations where I am a co-learner at the same level of the students. Currently I am working with a Grade 7/8 class in a project where students have to pick something to learn about/to do and then teach themselves to do it, using tools of their choice. Needless to say, there is quite a bit of technology involved. For some of the kids, the learning is about technology, and for others it is about using the technology to find out what they need to know, and for still others it is a way to demonstrate what they learned. I have some kids who are teaching themselves sign-language using YouTube, and I have kids who are teaching themselves how to do simple coding, and I have kids who are making short movies. I also have kids who have borrowed GoPros to film themselves working on something (like juggling!) so that they can figure out how to do it better. Personally, I have decided to try to learn something about coding using Codeacademy. Each class, we all do what we need to do to move forward in our learning. I have kids in our studio room, kids in the Learning Commons, kids at traditional desks, kids in the halls — they go where they need to. It is great to be working on something parallel to them, and to see how networks are formed to share information and help one another.

My point is, being a learner is a mindset, and one that no one, no matter how old or young should get out of. As someone once told me — if you aren’t growing, then you are dying. It may have been said to me with regard to my legendarily bad pot-side manner with plants — but it is true for learning as well. As soon as we stop and say that we are done learning, we have essentially disengaged with life-and it is pretty hard to be a good parent, friend, employee, or citizen when you do this. I will come back to this later, as I think it is connected to empathy. But for now, what is important is that it is why I changed Graham’s term from ‘children’ to ‘people’.

The next part of the definition talks about the “critical vision to filter content and see the connectedness between people, ideas and information.” Damn that is a mouthful. I should state at this point that defining anything is hard work and usually results in frustration as the definition gets larger and larger and sometimes spins out of control — or starts to define something totally different. As an English Literature grad student in the 90’s (Byron and the language of the sublime was my ‘thing’)I spent an awful lot of time defining, redefining, and deconstructing language, and so I enjoy the mental puzzle of it — but creating something succinct that you are ultimately satisfied with is a rare occurrence. I think this is important to say because I really like Graham’s start, and I don’t think that what I am offering is bettering it, just giving others something else to think about as they contribute to the discussion. In my experience, it is only through dialogue and the sharing of a wide variety of perspectives that we arrive at something remotely close. Graham did this when he travelled the world talking to people about education — and in that journey I am just another conversation.

Anyways, back to the point — the next part of the definition is something I am unsatisfied with in terms of wording but something that I think needs to be stated. Learners today need to be able to filter the information they are being presented with on many, many platforms — to have the critical skills to make judgments for themselves, and the awareness to see that the information they choose to privilege is just one possible perspective. This is a crucial skill and attitude, to be able to understand as many of the other potential interpretations of information as possible. Being able to mentally “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is the basis for real dialogue between humans-and by that I mean dialogue that has the possibility of transforming the understanding of each participant (it is one of the reasons I enjoy using Medium so much). It is not just about seeing connections between people or between information and people, but also about understanding how deep learning is never simply about one subject or topic — it overflows, contaminates, influences, and impacts other fields. Being able to follow these threads means that what we learn we will know through the lens of multiple disciplines and uses, giving us incredible mental flexibility in using the information/skill and magnifying its value.

The middle section of the definition is all Graham, and it is awesome. I could go into detail about it, but he does a much better job than I ever could in his talks. I will say that I found his learnings around Context, Environment, Engagement, Technology, and Assessment very instructive, especially when he talks about the importance of teacher engagement.

The last part of my definition is about empathy and understanding the impact of the choices that we make. I feel the urgency of this skill in my work with kids everyday. In terms of whole-school strategies, we spend a great deal of time on initiatives and culture building involving Mindfulness, Roots of Empathy, Restorative Practice, and Talking Circles to name but a few. We do this because there seems to have been an erosion in the ability of learners to connect with one another, communicate their needs, and listen to the perspectives of others. Technology, I am sad to say, is often the cause of this disengagement with the immediate world around learners. It is sad to say it, because technology has the potential to be the greatest tool for engagement that has ever been presented to educators.

It is impossible, I would argue, to be compassionate or caring, or even at the bare minimum to truly listen to someone else, when we are disengaged from a situation. I guess we shouldn’t find this surprising. Teachers have known for a very long time that if students aren’t engaged and involved in their work with the curriculum they don’t learn deeply, so it seems only logical that people wouldn’t be able to feel deeply if they are not engaged with those around them.

In my practice as an educator, I would contend that this lack of empathy leads to a lack of mental flexibility, which in turn leads to limited understanding. Empathy, in my opinion, is not just a feel-good add on that schools have inserted into school life to make our kids ‘nicer’ to each other. It is an essential skill and mindset that enables and enriches learning.

When we have empathy, we can truly appreciate the implications of the solutions we propose, and that leads to better solutions, I think. Currently, there seems to be a growing tendency to navel gaze and wall ourselves off from the rest of the world — literally and figuratively, in our economies and borders, and in our use of news-feeds and personal technology. This is a dangerous trend for everyone, and education can and should be one of the key societal institutions that combats this tendency.

In Ontario, one of the most recent Ministry Documents is entitled Learning For All and one of the key messages it contains is “what is essential for some, is good for all.” Special education shouldn’t be special — what one learner needs will have echoes with other learners, and the best teachers, schools, and systems are those who are connected to individual learners, hear what they are saying about what they need, and can build environments that enable them. Our solutions to the problems that we face, and that future generations will face need to take this quote to heart. Otherwise, there will always be inequity and poverty of the intellectual, emotional, and economic sort.

Finally, I’d like to quickly speak to the point of hacking Graham’s definition at all — what (for me) was the imperative to sandwich his thinking between two points of my own?

Well, I don’t know that Graham didn’t already know and believe and intend everything that I have written here when he created his definition (or as many other interesting and contradictory ideas!). As John Paul Richter has been famously attributed to have said about his intentions and meaning in his writing and Robert Browning echoed:

‘When I wrote it, only God and I knew; now God alone knows!’

As I listened to Graham, I took his words into the context that is my life and work in schools. For me, the definition seemed incomplete because it didn’t mention how we determine what a problem is, how to decide what skills are needed to understand it, and how to judge if our solutions are of the most benefit. Getting education right is a social imperative in my books, and to borrow Graham’s words once again is one of the ‘great challenges’ of our generation. I hope in some small way, by writing and responding to people like Graham, to be an engaged part of the conversation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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