The Purpose of Education
- a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?
Is education most commonly treated purely as an instrumental tool (e.g. to get a job), or as a path to self-development, or both? How can a balance between objectives be achieved in public education?
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about. In spite of the caveats, this particular topic has been important to my working life, so the observations to follow are not merely casual.
1. The purpose of education – a ubiquitous theme with an infinity of meanings
Any Internet search will reveal a myriad of articles and blogs on this topic. This is not surprising since formal education of some kind affects every family and every individual in almost every country. Informal education has probably affected just about everyone since humans evolved. What the online material does show is that while the process is universal, the objectives are diverse and often in conflict. Indeed much of the discussion seems to be at cross purposes. I have been a teacher, mostly to young adults, for 35 years in seven countries with quite different cultures, so I am deeply familiar with the currents of intention and counter-intention which touch everyone in the enterprise of education. My own doctoral dissertation was an analysis of 20 case studies in institutions where the publicly expressed purposes of education were often sabotaged. Although I have seen some of the failures, the institutional reasons for such failures are so embedded and so internationally widespread that I can see little direct hope for major changes. What I do see is that for technological and cultural reasons, the relationships between public mass education and personal self-education are changing drastically. The outcomes of that melding are still unclear, but the process offers hope.
2. The purpose of education – Thor’s own formulation
For my own use, I have a fairly succinct idea of the most hopeful purpose of education, and how to realize it:
3. The purpose of education – a transmission of cultures between generations?
Apparently missing from the my own paradigm of education is the age old purpose of organized education, even going back to traditional tribal societies, the function of passing on the culture to the next generation. However this transfer of culture – culture here in the most inclusive sense – is something that will emerge in the process of questioning systematically. In fact, with our cultural tools changing at galactic warp speed, intense questioning (as opposed to a passive reception old authority) is the only way to stay ahead of the game. Mass education worldwide has quite clearly failed for most people to meet my cluster of proposed objectives. This is not surprising. Although attractive discussion points, a-f have rarely been the applied objectives of mass education amongst politicians, administrators, teachers or students. On the plus side, it also remains true that mass education, for all of its many limitations, has in aggregate equipped people all over the world in ways that are infinitely superior to those who have received no systematic education at all.
4. The purpose of education – its translation into actual motivation for most of the players
Now what is the actual purpose of formal education as understood by majority of players over the age of puberty? Well, the actual purpose for these people is economic. They seek to become employable, industrially productive, and hence socially decent consumers. The translation of these economic objectives to personal value systems is that people often see education as a way to secure their personal status. Status is not a small thing, and in some societies may be an explicit precondition for, say, obtaining a suitable marriage partner.
The economic pitch is what we hear from politicians who are arranging the funding, the administrators who are setting curriculums, and for that matter from the majority of students. In fact students everywhere complain in their later careers that “what I learned at school was useless. I never use any of that stuff”. That is, for them, certified graduation from a respected institution is far more important than the substance of any knowledge or skill building they encountered. Not surprisingly, rent seeking from the diploma game is a vast worldwide undertaking, rife with fraud and empty marketing. I have documented a certain amount of this in my doctoral dissertation, and some of my papers referenced below.
5. The purpose of education – some query the objectives of economic rationalism
From all of the stakeholders in the educational process, it is a small number of professional teachers (out of battalions of uncritical teachers and lecturers) who are apt to be a bit quizzical about the “employability” mantra. They understand as well as anyone that employment is a useful, a necessary objective. They worry though that learning to shoe horses (to use a metaphor) is a narrow skill, not necessarily transferrable when horses are replaced by horseless carriages, cars. They see that even students with very ordinary potentials will probably be expected in their lifetimes to survive many job transitions, probably into new industries, and that the ones who prosper are likely to have flexible minds and a wider knowledge base, adaptable enough to make smart judgements in environments which can’t be predicted. Both the universe of ideas and the universe of things are rushing into vortices that are beyond average conception, let alone an evaluation of consequences for “career planning” (Gillespie 2014). So few even grasp the trajectory of where we have come from. My ninety-two year old mother didn’t see a light switch until she was twelve. Alert teachers
6. Some contradictions in the state rationale of educational institutions
The depth of contradiction between the stated role of educational institutions as places of learning, and their most common function as diploma and marketing mills, is so great and so pervasive that real reform is not a simple option. The easy response is a retreat to cynicism or conspiracies of self-delusion amongst those with a vested interest in the game. I do not have instant solutions. However, what my doctoral dissertation attempted to do (with many flaws) was to introduce the notion of competing productivities.
7. A competing hierarchy of productivities in the educational context
Productivity is a concept often hijacked with fancy formulae by economists to fit their favourite models. However, to go back to the everyday meaning of productivity, it is about getting the best results in the most efficient way. A productive student is one who efficiently learns and retains what she seeks to learn. A productive teacher is one who maximizes the learning of his students.
However, everyone has a personal agenda. The personal agenda of an educational director may tell him that his own most productive activity is to maximize his bonus and prospects of promotion. That may very well entail imposing extremely unproductive requirements on teachers and students. In fact, I documented this process in 20 case studies across seven countries. The daily reality is that in institutions management may have relative permanence, while teachers are often regarded as day labourers by managers, with those managers having little commitment to optimizing student learning. The power pyramid is clear. Students come and go. Therefore students have the least power. The upshot is that the “productivity” of personal agendas amongst administrators and their political masters tends to hugely outrank the learning productivity of students and their mentors, the teachers. The hierarchy of competing productivities exactly inverts the stated role of educational institutions. We can begin by making this inversion explicit, widely known and understood. Then we need to find ways to properly implement a hierarchy of learning productivities.
A reconstructed hierarchy of productivities would genuinely empower teachers to exercise decisive professional judgement both in maximizing the learning productivity of their students and establishing their influence over the administrative and ‘managerial’ support staff who in most current institutions outrank them when it comes down to hard choices. By the term “teacher”, here we refer to the whole zoo of personnel titles applied to those who directly influence the learning of students – tutors, teachers, coaches, trainers, lecturers, professors, and so on.
It is true that large numbers of the current cohort of teachers would have trouble handling an elevated level of professional responsibility. They have long been socialized into more subordinate roles. Even with the best of intentions, training and experience teachers will continue to fall into a range of capabilities. It is just that those capabilities will surely be more realistically targeted to student productivity than existing managerial regimes are likely to comprehend.
Every profession has brilliant high fliers, those who just get by, and a group who are a danger to everyone around them. Every profession has strict interpretationists – black letter lawyers, fundamentalist priests, inflexible policemen, non-intuitive motor mechanics, teachers who never deviate from the assigned textbook. Every profession has creative interpretationists – judges who look for the intention behind the law, priests who grasp the psychological needs of their parishioners, policemen who know when a stern warning grows a better teenager than a month in prison, wizard motor mechanics who can intuit the heartbeat of an engine, teachers with the gift of creating teachable moments.
In no collection of human beings can we ever suppress for long the variety of human psychological types. Ideologies, religions, training regimes, are eventually powerless to homogenize humanity. The history of the last 6000 years is crystal clear about this. And why would we want a dreary population of robots anyway? So when it comes to setting up a system, say an education system, we have to expect the bad with the good. What can be done is to think honestly about the priorities of the enterprise – learning productivity in an educational institution – and arrange the incentives to optimize outcomes. We have to make it easy to be good, where good, if it is a school, means effective long term learning and graduated students who are equipped and motivated to continue learning. Making it easy to be good means that the school accountant, and the janitor, and the heads of department, and the teachers, as well as the students, have their secret personal agendas best satisfied by also contributing to a healthy learning environment.
8. The State of Play – how well do the existing graduates of mass education systems seem to be coping?
There is no easy or simple answer to this query. Coping with what? Plainly people get by from day to day, for better or for worse, in endless ways. The “success” of their coping depends upon what they value, what they are aware of, and how fortunately (or not) their particular environment impacts upon them. When it comes to making use of other people, or offering them a service, or depending upon them as consumers or whatever, each interested party will have an opinion. That external opinion may loom large in the fortunes of the supposedly ‘educated person’ or it may be regarded as trivial. All of this is to say that evaluating the outcomes of any educational process is always conditional, not absolute. The evaluation always exists in the context of an ideology, or a particular vested interest.
When we express our own opinions about educational processes, we are usually assessing the situation according to our own interests and prejudices. That is OK, so long as we can accept that our viewpoint cannot be universal. If we look at, say mass education, as a professional researcher, then we are looking for large patterns and tendencies, but even here the things we observe will be influenced by the particular questions we ask, and those questions will be consciously or unconsciously censored by personal and professional bias.
In spite of all the preceding caveats, very large numbers of people wish to express opinions about educational processes. What happens politically and socially will depend over time upon some kind of social consensus interacting with facts on the ground – technology changes, budgets, transport systems, even wars. Thus the actual solutions may be less than any idealist would ever hope for.
Sometimes we can see things going wrong on a large scale, and perhaps work to change them. That is, we might agree that in spite of personal differences about “the purpose of education”, some failures are so egregious that they reflect badly on what has actually been happening up to now. A few short anecdotes:
a) Shortly after returning to Australia after about 12 years overseas, I went to a supermarket with a pocket full of change. My huge mistake was to pay for just over $10 worth of groceries with small coins. The checkout girl looked mortified. Though I told her the value, she had to check of course. After three failed tries she was close to tears and called the supervisor. He too was unable to count the coins. Finally, a lady in the increasingly impatient queue behind me produced a calculator. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Laboriously they entered the coin values, one by one, into the machine. Well, draw your own conclusions. Evidently technology in this case has caused a regression in common arithmetical skills.
b) Apparently 19% of Americans believe that they are in the top 1% of income earners, while a further 20% are sure that they will achieve the status in their lifetime (Gigerenzer 2014). If this factoid is anything like the true situation, vast numbers of Americans are both deluded and innumerate. Something has gone drastically wrong with their ability to apply critical thinking to the admittedly endless torrent of political propaganda. Also, somehow they have critically failed to understand and apply the concept of percentages. Are these people fit members of an advanced technologically driven society? Think too of the political consequences.
“… my estimate is that 80% of doctors do not understand what a positive test means, even in their own specialties. They are in no position to counsel their patients adequately, nor can they critically evaluate a medical journal article in their own field.” (Gigerenzer 2014)
In the same vein, he refers to a different study of doctor’s statistical literacy:
“In one Australian study of fifty doctors, only thirteen said they could explain what the “positive predictive value” is (the probability of a disease given a positive test). And when asked to do so, only one succeeded.” (Gigerenzer 2014)
c) Just under half of Australian are functionally illiterate. The concept of functional illiteracy is rather flexible, but the meaning here is that these people are unable to decode the dosage instructions on a medicine bottle or read a bus timetable. The level of functional innumeracy is even worse. Give or take a few percentage points, the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy are comparable in all supposedly advanced industrial societies. I have had some involvement with teaching adult illiterates, enough to know that with endless time and love pretty well anyone can be dragged to a level of sufficient competency for most jobs. In institutions of mass education it becomes a political and economic decision to set a cut-off point on diminishing returns with slow learners. Instead they populate the prisons at great expense.
Somewhere there is a key to human learning in the illiteracy & innumeracy problem. Finding that key is as important as research into major diseases. Start with the observation that even the most apparently dumb meathead will step into his souped-up hoon car and weave at high speed through dense traffic with centimeters to spare. Apparently some part of his brain is instantaneously computing a torrent of vectors without error. Give the guy some simple arithmetic and he couldn’t do it – consciously. What is going on? As a driver, no doubt he is subconsciously calibrating some very useful heuristics in real time, but these must be sourced in a kind of math too.
The conceptual puzzle is why some people but not others are able to make conscious use of mathematical potentials which we all seem to have. The “intelligent” ones somehow achieve the trick either through reflection or learning. A similar kind of barrier effect occurs with literacy. Those of us who have had close encounters with cognitive linguistics are well aware that the subconscious generation of language on the fly, spoken or written, is a feat of systemic genius that a century of intensive research has been unable to persuasively explain (though many models rashly make the claim). Yet almost every human who walks the earth becomes a master of language in childhood, and that is irrespective of literacy.
What is this magic of consciousness? Finding a real solution to overcoming the cognitive block between conscious learning and subconscious capacity is one of the major challenges of our civilization, but apparently lacks sex appeal.There is no glory in teaching illiterates or innumerates, and few studies seem to have seriously researched them from a cognitive perspective.
9. One ring to bind them all, or technology to set them free?
The history of technology in education echoes with many paradoxes. Technology has always been a fire god, creator and destroyer.
Pre-literate societies kept a thread of cultural continuity alive through songs and stories passed from generation to generation. These mediums, often collectively called myth, carried the values, histories, understandings and religions of their speakers, and claimed to embed unchanging universal truths. The effect of such collective myths upon those who committed them to memory was to bind people into an invisible but powerful cultural web which gave their lives proper meaning.
The later transcription of selections of this kind of shared myth-culture into written religious scripts like the Christian Bible retained some of the original cultural binding effect. However, hand-written scripts, and then printing especially, freed individual imaginations in new ways to innovate personally, to create their own stories and achieve an historical identity as writers and thinkers. Thus technology had set human relationships on an entirely new trajectory.
As literacy spread, the collective cultural stories of human tribes dispersed into several canons of great minds which followed the territorial imprints of great empires. To be educated meant acquiring some mastery of a library of ideas, not merely the origin songs of a tribe, or even the parables told of one god in a single book. There was the Western canon, shared in the lands of Europe, the Persian & Indian canons permeating central & southern Asia, the Sinitic canons of China and satellite cultures from Vietnam to Japan … and so on.
Well into the 20th Century, education continued to be defined by canons of accepted knowledge. This was congenial to certain personality types who felt more secure with knowledge from reputed authorities than knowledge acquired through experiment or experience in tough neighbourhoods where a quick wit was the best guarantee of survival. Tension between the solemn bearers of knowledge from authority and the worldly-wise continues to this day (see May 2002).
The canons of inscribed human achievement evolved to include tracts of mathematics, physical and social sciences, material technology, philosophy, histories and of course literatures. It became harder, and then impossible, to be a “fully educated” person in the sense that a 17th Century European courtier might have claimed. Yet, like old soldiers, cultural pretensions don’t die, they simply fade away. In the 1960s when I was an undergraduate, one literature tutor haughtily asked if I considered myself to be an educated man. I wondered if she knew how to tune the dual barrel carburetor on my Triumph motor bike..
The teaching of cultural canons and technical skills to very large numbers of people led to the birth of mass education. With mass education came a proliferation of purpose designed buildings, soon more ubiquitous than churches, mosques or temples for the first time in history. The larger educational buildings were subdivided into subject areas containing specialists, and the multiplying enterprise of mass education spawned a whole new breed of administrators obsessed with what they called “management”, measurements, agendas, ideologies, politics and eventually marketing. The learner with all her idiosyncratic needs, and the teacher professionally committed to helping the learner … well they tended to disappear beneath the superstructure priorities of real estate, managers and politicians.
The monolithic tendencies of mass education were faithfully reflected in the choice and application of new technologies as they emerged throughout the 20th Century. Schools, or at least the well-appointed ones, would have laboratories where students all did the same “experiments”, and they would have libraries of approved books whose reading was prescribed. They would have language laboratories where cohorts of students would pretend to learn a foreign language by repeating simultaneous drills through identical headphones … Large monetary investments by governments were needed for all of this mass-use technology, and its provision was always a hot political topic. There was much, much less interest in whether this stuff served a useful purpose, almost no idea of how to genuinely measure such effectiveness over time (e.g. What was the lifetime retention of knowledge? Was this retention rate changing?), and very little investigation of alternative routes to effective learning.
This essay has already noted that nearly half the adult populations of even rich countries like Australia are functionally illiterate and innumerate. As early as 1981 James Asher was noting that 98% of American students never proceeded beyond two years of classroom foreign language study and therefore emerged incompetent. This has not changed, and is general to Anglophone countries. Although Americans have a generally positive view of science, a quarter of them don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun and 48% of them disagreed with the proposition that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” (Poladian 2014). The research Poladian refers to concluded that the very uneven public understanding of science was not unique to the United States. Clearly mass education as we know it has been an extremely blunt tool with only limited successes. The overall “educational product” would not pass muster in any serious quality control procedure for most commercial products. The factory technology model of education is just not good enough. There has to be a better way.
10. Dispersed technology and the dispersion of learning
Gathering pace since the 1990s there has been a civilizational revolution. Writing created a path for the generational transmission of new ideas from gifted individuals. Printing multiplied the spread of individual ideas and stimulated the synthesis of new ones. Mass education set crude templates for passing large slabs of knowledge onto whole populations. Its transformational effects were profound but uneven. Now electronic technologies – personal computers, smart phones, the Internet – are creating channels which remove the monopoly on the distribution of new knowledge from institutions. Schools, colleges and universities are struggling to understand the democratization of knowledge. Some attempt, piecemeal, to make some use of it (e.g. May 2005, Morotomi 2014), but the processes are spinning in so many directions that planning prediction becomes almost impossible. This is anathema to the institutional and political mind, so official resistance is also evident at various levels.
With superficially unlimited access to information online for peasants, company presidents, children and researchers, complexity also multiplies beyond control. Misinformation spreads as rapidly genuine insight. The skills needed by learners are no longer passive (if they ever were). The ability to ask the right questions online and offline becomes critical. The ability to filter misinformation becomes an issue of survival.
The problems of how to assess and accredit students working independently and often unpredictably on their own initiative is totally baffling yesterday’s guardians of the canons of accepted knowledge. Stay tuned.