Tuesday 15 February 2011

The Purpose of Education

It's a daunting task to write 500 words about the purpose of education. Nevertheless, after several drafts and much pondering, here is my contribution to the debate.

The central purpose of education should be to identify the talents of individual young people (whatever they may be) and nurture them so that they are equipped to continue to develop them throughout their lives. In order to achieve this, educators of all kinds (including those who work outside formal education) should model a love of learning in order to develop the learning capacities of their students.

The many and various forms of intelligence all have an equal right to be nurtured and the formal school curriculum should provide numerous opportunities for everyone to use their talents creatively. Developing a greater capacity to be creative requires knowledge and understanding as well as imagination and resilience. There is no inherent contradiction between everyday learning in the formal school curriculum and creativity. If teaching is not focused on developing students’ abilities to re-shape, re-present and remix their knowledge and understanding, then learning will be superficial and meaningless. Learning is an active process of meaning making, not a passive fact accumulation exercise.

We need new generations of young people who are optimistic, resilient, imaginative, flexible and who believe in their own capacity to go on learning for the rest of their lives. The ability to interrogate knowledge, to question received wisdom and to generate new ideas are the skills most appropriate for this century. We need a rigorous approach to learning that results in greater numbers of young people leaving school and beginning their adult lives with a desire to change themselves and the world for the better. We need teachers who are professional learners. We should be operating in a learning zone that Stuart Kaufmann (and Steven Johnson) might call "the adjacent possible". We ought to give more thought to the criteria by which a school may be judged successful or otherwise. We should make a greater effort to explore the longer-term impact of schooling on young people’s lives. I recently conducted a small survey on Facebook of my ex student contacts, asking them to describe what they felt they had learned in my school. No-one mentioned their examination results. Some remembered quirky incidents in lessons or expressed regret about not having made the most of their opportunities. Most spoke movingly of projects, school journeys, performances, working with visiting artists, inspiring teachers and members of the local community. They wrote about situations where their lives opened out, where they were given a sense of new possibilities or grew in self-confidence. Often, these moments were related to being in situations where they were challenged or required to take a risk. Learning involves a leap of faith and can be truly transformational when teachers and students take that leap together.

As an educator dedicated to promoting the value of the arts, I believe in their transformative effect on people’s lives and subscribe wholeheartedly to Elliot W. Eisner’s views about the role that learning can play in bringing an artistic sensibility to the act of living:

The arts inform as well as stimulate, they challenge as well as satisfy. Their location is not limited to galleries, concert halls and theatres. Their home can be found wherever humans choose to have attentive and vital intercourse with life itself. This is, perhaps, the largest lesson that the arts in education can teach, the lesson that life itself can be led as a work of art. In so doing the maker himself or herself is remade. The remaking, this re-creation is at the heart of the process of education.
Jon Nicholls



This article was written for Purpose/ed @purposeducation


Doug Belshaw said...

What a wonderful contribution, Jon! I love this bit especially:

"If teaching is not focused on developing students’ abilities to re-shape, re-present and remix their knowledge and understanding, then learning will be superficial and meaningless. Learning is an active process of meaning making, not a passive fact accumulation exercise."

Great stuff, thanks for sharing! :-)

Anthony Wilson said...

Dear John, thank you for this inspiring post. I shall be sharing it with my Primary PGCE students in their creativity elective next week. Yours, Anthony Wilson

VillaSpiers said...

Exchanges and trips were the things that always came out on top when I asked students the same question. The leap of faith on an exchange in a foreign country is huge.
I really enjoyed, thanks.

Kidology said...

Great blog! I really love the idea of the 'adjacent possible' and how it helps rationalise why change often happens slowly. I've read this blog a couple of times - through my involvement with CP in the North East - but it's the first time i've commented. Keep up the good work, Tallis seems like a great school!

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for the reactions. Tallis certainly is a great place to work and I feel very lucky to have been given so many great opportunities to extend my own learning here. I do hope that initiatives like Purpos/Ed and 500 words continue to encourage learning professionals to express their views and help shape a vision for learning in the UK. Sometimes it's possible to feel a little hopeless working in such a complex and politicised arena. It's important to nail your colours to the mast and even more important to try to practice what you preach. I really hope that successive waves of young people begin to demand an education that is more open, creative and enabling and that they are able to resist and overcome some of the inherent political obstacles to real reform of the system. We should all do our little bit to help them.