Rabu, 14 Maret 2012

The Meaning of Education

Recently, a university professor wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. He commented that people shouldn't put too much weight on the recently released trends in SRA scores of the state's high school students. The professor went on to describe some of the unanswered questions about the nature and value of assessment. He mentioned that one of the problems with assessment was the ongoing disagreement on the very purpose of education.
A few days later, a scathing response was printed from a community member who questioned whether the University really wanted someone on their staff who didn't even know the purpose of education. Clearly, this person assumed that his definition of education was shared by all. What is the purpose of education? Do we find it in the definition of the word "education"—or is it something more?
Webster defines education as "the process of educating or teaching." Hmmm. Not particularly useful, is it. Educate is further defined as "to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of…" Thus, from these definitions, we might assume that education means to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of students. But this definition offers little unless we further define words such as develop, knowledge, and character.
What is knowledge? Many think of it as a body of information that exists "out there"—the results or products of human thought processes that have taken on a life of their own. In this view, Knowledge…with a capitol K…is the sum total of facts, truths, laws, principles, and ideas that man has produced. Human history is also considered Knowledge, although the accepted version varies from culture to culture. Codified in language, this Knowledge has been accumulated in books and other storage devices over the ages. (For more on this, see the article on beliefs about knowledge.)
If we look at the standards and benchmarks that have been developed by many states—or at E. D. Hirsch's list of information needed for "Cultural Literacy",1 we realize how robust this definition of Knowledge is. In this definition, "developing the Knowledge…of the student" is conceputalized as "giving" them these facts, truths, laws, principles, ideas, and history. This in spite of considerable research suggesting that knowledge is not "out there," but arises in the mind of an individual when that person interacts with the world.
This is hardly a new argument. In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that education was about drawing out what was already within the student. "I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think." (As many of you know, the word education comes from the Latin e-ducere meaning "to lead out.") At the same time, the Sophists, a group of itinerant teachers, promised to give students the necessary knowledge and skills to gain positions with the city-state.
So what is education…really???

One Word…Many Meanings

There is a dangerous tendency to assume that when people use the same words to describe a situation, they perceive that situation in the same way. This is rarely the case. Once we get beyond a dictionary definition that is often of little practical value, the meaning we assign to a word is actually an expression of a belief, not an absolute fact. Here are a couple of examples.
"The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together." ~Eric Hoffer
"No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure." ~Emma Goldman
"The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life—by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past—and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort." ~Ayn Rand
"The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men." ~Bill Beattie
"The one real object of education is to leave a man in the condition of continually asking questions." ~Bishop Creighton
"The central job of schools is to maximize the capacity of each student." ~Carol Ann Tomlinson
These quotations demonstrate the diversity of beliefs about the meaning and purpose of education. How would you complete the statement, "The purpose of education is..."? If you ask five of your fellow teachers to complete that sentence, it is likely that you'll have five different statements. Some will place the focus on knowledge, some on learning, some on the teacher, and others on the development of the student. Yet people's beliefs in the purpose of education lie at the heart of their teaching behaviors.
Despite what the letter writer might have wished, there is no definition of education that is agreed upon by all, or even most, educators. The meanings they attach to the word are complex beliefs arising from their own values and experiences. To the extent that those beliefs differ, how likely is it that we can "standardize" what and how students learn? Worse, many educators have never been asked to state their beliefs—or even to reflect on what they believe. At the very least, teachers owe it to their students to bring their definitions into consciousness and examine them for validity.

Purposes and Functions

To make matters more complicated, theorists have made a distinction between the purpose of education and the functions of education. A purpose is the fundamental goal of the process—an end to be achieved. Functions are other outcomes that may occur as a natural result of the process—byproducts or consequences of schooling. For example, some teachers believe that the transmission of knowledge is the primary purpose of education, while the transfer of knowledge from school to the real world is something that happens without effort as a consequence of possessing that knowledge—a function of education.2
Because a purpose is an expressed goal, more effort is put into attaining it. It becomes a part of the explicit and official curriculum. Because functions are assumed to occur without directed effort, they are often ignored during instruction, particularly when time is an issue. It is, therefore, critical to determine which outcomes you consider a fundamental purpose of education. Which of the following do you actually include in your planning?

Acquisition of information about the past and present: includes traditional disciplines such as literature, history, science, mathematics Formation of healthy social and/or formal relationships among and between students, teachers, others
Capacity/ability to evaluate information and to predict future outcomes (decision-making) Capacity/ability to seek out alternative solutions and evaluate them (problem solving)
Development of mental and physical skills: motor, thinking, communication, social, aesthetic Knowledge of moral practices and ethical standards acceptable by society/culture
Capacity/ability to recognize and evaluate different points of view Respect: giving and receiving recognition as human beings
Indoctrination into the culture Capacity/ability to live a fulfilling life
Capacity/ability to earn a living: career education Sense of well-being: mental and physical health
Capacity/ability to be a good citizen Capacity/ability to think creatively
Cultural appreciation: art, music, humanities Understanding of human relations and motivations
Acquisition/clarification of values related to the physical environment Acquisition/clarification of personal values
Self-realization/self-reflection: awareness of one's abilities and goals Self-esteem/self-efficacy
The list could, of course, be longer. This is but a first step in recognizing what you as an educator believe you are, or should be, accomplishing. As Tom Peters reminds us, "What gets measured, gets done." Regardless of high-sounding rhetoric about the development of the total child, it is the content of assessments that largely drives education. How is the capacity/ability to think creatively assessed in today's schools? To what extent is the typical student recognized and given respect? How often are students given the opportunity to recognize and evaluate different points of view when multiple choice tests require a single 'correct' answer? What is a "good citizen" and how does one acquire the ability to be one?
Teachers who hold a more humanistic view of the purpose of education often experience stress because the meaning they assign to education differs greatly from the meaning assigned by their institution or policy makers. It is clear in listening to the language of education that its current primary focus is on knowledge and teaching rather than on the learner. In short, students are expected to conform to schools rather than schools serving the needs of students.
Taking time to identify and agree upon a fundamental purpose or purposes of education is rare. One sees nebulous statements in school mission statements, but they are often of the "Mom, baseball, and apple pie" variety—glittering generalities that offer little substance on which to build a school culture. Creating meaningful and lasting change in education is unlikely without revisiting and evaluating this basic definition of education in light of research and changing priorities. At the very least, educators must be challenged to identify and examine their beliefs.
It is time for the focus of education to shift from what's "out there—the curriculum, assessments, classroom arrangement, books, computers—to the fundamental assumptions about and definitions of education held by educators and policymakers. NASA did not send men to the moon by building on the chassis of a model T. In the same way, education cannot hope to move beyond its present state on the chassis of 18th century education.
A much more extensive discussion of this topic can be found in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.


1 Hirsch, E. D. Jr. (1987). Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin
2 Callaway, R. (1979) Teachers' Beliefs Concerning Values and the Functions and Purposes of Schooling, Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 177 110

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