What is the point of education? 

So, having been asked to write the first piece for this blog, I pondered long and hard over what I should talk about. Differentiation? Challenge? Assessment and marking? The joy of data? And then it struck me. A question that lies in the bottom of every Friday evening bottle of Prosecco. A question that inhabits the thoughts at 3.12 every morning. A question that should be the first one in each and every SCITT (other acronyms are also available) interview. What exactly are we doing here? I mean that not in a spiritual or metaphysical way but in a more prosaic ‘why do I get up at some godforsaken hour every day to spend eight hours a day instilling young people with the message that every word I say is vital to their future’ way? What is the point of education and, maybe, are schools the best place to provide it?
So I did what every reasonable person does at this point, I googled it and found the answer. Apparently, according to the philosopher Mortimore Adler writing in the 1980s, education serves three purposes: the development of citizenship; personal growth or self-improvement; and occupational preparation. Now, in my mind, if any prospective teacher were to answer the question ‘What is the point of education?’ with ‘To prepare students for the world of work’ they should be escorted immediately from the premises and never again allowed within 100 metres of any young, impressionable mind. I am not teaching people to be hairdressers or brain surgeons or airline pilots – that is the job of those industries and they are best equipped so to do.

So that leaves us with ‘creating good citizens’ and ‘personal improvement’. Obviously, the concept of being a good citizen is an important one to us and, if that means the primary function of socialisation that we perform, whereby we teach important values such as respect and acceptance, then all well and good but do we really need schools to do that? Isn’t that what communities, churches and families are for?

Somewhat uncomfortably I find all that remains is the rather idealistic and fluffy idea of self-improvement. And still I am inevitably drawn to that abiding image of the late Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society throwing aside conventional methods and tearing up books to make his students think for themselves. For surely that is exactly the point of education. Who actually cares how oxbow lakes are formed; or why Hitler rose to power; or even what would happen if you mixed hydrochloric acid and nitrogen oxide? It is not the knowing the answer that matters but the imagination that went into thinking of the question in the first place. One of the most powerful moments in the classroom is the one when the student asks the question you’d never even thought of. ‘If Shakespeare had written The Merchant of Venice after WW2, would it have been different?’ That wasn’t my question, it came from a student at the end of a lesson; she stayed behind to ask me. She knew I didn’t have an answer but she also knew that the answer did not matter. It was enough that she had thought to ask it at all.

And all this reflection has led me to one simple proposal, a radical and unconventional reform: on all our boards, in all our classrooms, for all our lessons, we write –

WALT: To think for ourselves

WILF: At least one completely independent and innovative thought

What else is education for?

 Jane Doar 06/01/2017

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