Is There One Purpose of Education?


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To identify one general purpose in education is complicated by the fact that this purpose can radically differ depending on which grade level a student is in, the environment or approach of a particular school, a teacher’s personal definition of success, or the foci of educational programs.

However, if I were to generalize the purpose of the current United States’ public education system, I would say that the primary focus is on producing a standard student. (Whatever “standard” may mean…)

This result-based approach may not be inherently wrong, but what result is truly worth producing? Do we really want millions of cookie-cut “standard” students? Do we want students who test well but are incapable of having a stimulating conversation and sharing their own ideas?

Nurturing a love of learning, engendering a safe environment to grow, cultivating a moral strength and resilience, fostering a drive for excellence, developing a desire to be a well-rounded person, encouraging the passions of a student, all seem to be much lower on our national priority list.

I hear this frustration from friends who are teachers; talented individuals whose enthusiasm to teach wanes from the never-ending demands to test. I hear this from friends with children who are searching outside of traditional schooling for holistic learning. And I hear this from friends with intelligence and smarts not measured on a typical IQ test; who learn best in ways other than language and logic. (See recommended resources by Thomas Armstrong in the citations below.)

In prehistory, when learning was based on learning the skills to survive (and learnt through play, imitation, and exploration), a child with any kind of learning sensitivity or strength could thrive as they learned in the best way for them. (Though I imagine that kinesthetic learning was much more common as this seems to be an inherent learning method when we are children that is quickly dispelled from us in a rigid, sit-for-six-hours, classroom environment.) But with the coming of agricultural societies (and later industrial societies) fixated on tedious work, education for elites focused on literary and abstract learning while education for the lower classes focused on producing dutiful and compliant workers.

Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all education, the production of standard students like cars off an assembly line, has remained through the modern era. As Sir Ken Robinson emphasized in his 2006 TED talk, this boxed type of education remains even as the need rapidly increases for life-long learners, creative knowledge and technical based employees, critically thinking citizens, and resilient humans.

See:


Armstrong, T. (1999). 7 kinds of smart: Identifying and developing your multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Plume.

Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Robinson, K. (2006). Do Schools Kill Creativity? Speech presented at TED. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from https://www.ted.com.

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