What is education for?

Take a moment to think about it… What is the purpose of education? Why do we need to be educated? Don’t read on until you have your answer.

Got it?  Ok, keep reading.

There was a time when the purpose of education was to learn “stuff”.   We needed a way to preserve knowledge.  Like when empires wanted to expand their domain and get other cultures to think, speak, and act like themselves (ok, so maybe that would fall under indoctrination and not the preservation of knowledge, but still a valid historical reason for education).  Or take the school teacher on the frontier in the one-room schoolhouse.  She knew everything and it was her job to teach her students everything she knew.  Or during the industrial revolution when we needed as many kids to be trained in the same way so they could grow up and do the same, specific kind of work.

brown wooden desk table

Photo by Stephen Paris on Pexels.com

So what exactly do children “need” to learn today?  

Can you remember the days of “looking it up” in the encyclopedia?  Not Wikipedia, but the actual set of enormously fat books of information?  Or having to go to the “card catalog” at the library and pulling out drawers 10 feet long in order to find a particular book?  My kids hear these stories and think it’s stuff of legend!  It wasn’t that long ago, but it goes without saying that we live in a completely different world now.  Today we have answers to our questions at the tip of our tongues (or our fingertips).  Simply by asking our friends Siri or Alexa or Google, we have instantaneous knowledge.

If nothing else around us functions as it did 200 years ago, why is it that our system of education still does?  

“It’s quite fashionable to say that the educational system is broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore.”- Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra TED talk on education- YouTube

“In most schools, we measure children on what they know. By and large, they have to memorize the content of whatever test is coming up. Because measuring the results of rote learning is easy, rote prevails. What kids know is just not important in comparison with whether they can think.”- Sugata Mitra

Now we are getting somewhere.

If knowledge today is accessible by anyone at any time, then exactly what type of knowledge is most important?  Socrates described knowledge as the highest virtue, but in a society where we “know” everything, can we honestly say that we are any more virtuous than the generations that have come before us?  Are we being trained to think any differently?  Should we be?

How do we take the knowledge that is so readily accessible and, instead of memorizing it, apply it to problems and challenges that exist in the world; to new designs; to making our lives more efficient, purpose-filled and justice-driven, etc?

Thousands of years ago, Socrates would have said that it was knowledge that taught us “how best to live”.  I believe the same is true today.  But I don’t necessarily think it’s the same as what’s being taught in our institutions of education.

Based on our ever-changing society, here’s a stab at my working definition of what an education is for:

Education is for raising competent, responsible, resilient, and curious individuals who can think critically, creatively and independently and can act compassionately and collaboratively.  It is for discovering who they are, what they are passionate about and how to connect that passion with the voids that exist in the world around them. It is about learning to resolve conflict with grace and to walk a desired path in humble confidence.  

How much of the above can be measured on a test?  None of it, of course, but it is also so much more valuable than what can be tested.  Every member of every cultural, socio-economic, racial, and ethnic group would thrive from an education with these results.  It’s the result that I am hoping my own children will achieve one day.

Once we are clear (or at least a little more convinced) about what education is FOR, then we can think more wisely and objectively about the best methods or means for achieving a “successful” education.

Now it’s time ask your children:  “What is education for?”  Remember, it’s not what school is for, but “an education”.  Another way to ask would be, “Why is it important to learn?”  Does their answer align with what your hopes are for them?  Let’s inspire them towards God’s best for their lives!

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