Why we need a debate about the purpose(s) of education.Hi! My name’s Doug Belshaw and I’m one half of Purpos/ed. We’ve got just one mission: to get as many people as possible to debate the question:‘What is the purpose of education?’It’s actually harder to answer than you think. I want to spend 5 minutes exploring why such a basic question is worth asking educators.
This picture is supposed to depict the University of Bologna in Italy.. The university is almost a thousand years old, having been established in 1088.Students had a very large role to play and could even hire and fire lecturers. But what I’m interested in is that guy in the bottom right-hand corner of thepicture.
Is he asleep? Is he crying because he hasn’t got a book? What are the other students doing? Are they just listening to their lecturer read? Are theywriting anything down? Are they talking whilst the lecturer is talking? I wonder what they all believed the purpose of education to be?
This is me aged almost 3. Look at those fine legs, eh?I’m fairly sure that’s a black swan in the background. Obviously back then I didn’t understand why the black swan is a metaphor for an unexpectedevent with a high impact.Does our education system do a good job of preparing young people for uncertain futures?
As anyone who has read it will know, ‘The Black Swan’ is a worldview-changing book. As an educator it made me think about the social contract wehave with young people. What are we promising them, both explicitly and implicitly through our education system?
I’ve worked in pretty much every sector of education in the UK, from Primary through to Higher Education. There’s some very hard working people but, Ifeel, no real direction.Educators are reacting to change rather than causing it. Part of that is because we haven’t had a debate in my lifetime about what the purpose ofeducation is.
Andy Stewart, who’s co-kickstarter of Purpos/ed was with me when we heard Professor Keri Facer talk about the need for a “serious public debateabout the purpose of education”. It’s something we just couldn’t ignore. We felt we should do something about it. That was late 2010.
And, actually, things have got even worse since then. Andy and I try to stay neutral as we don’t want to prejudice the debate, but many have been veryconcerned at the right-wing, reactionary and fairly authoritarian education policies coming out of supposedly liberal democracies.
cc heloukee cc ULCCevents cc heloukee cc ClareS76So, what can we do about it? Well, firstly, we can get on and publicly debate the purpose - or purposes - of education. Just like there’s been somesuccessful lobbying recently around Computer Science, so we can get the issue of the purpose of education on the table.
Another thing we can do is use the mechanisms of democracy in our favour. In the UK we have e-petitions which force our representatives to debateissues. Even if we don’t get the necessary 100,000 signatures, it builds momentum.
A third thing we can do is make the movement global. We’ve already got a Spanish version of Purpos/ed and the School Purpose Project is gainingsome traction over here. There’s no reason why it has to be just a national debate. We live in an online world without borders.
Just as an aside for those of you who are thinking of starting projects like this: make sure you have some linguists on your team. We struggle totranslate the tweets of the Spanish team, never mind their longer contributions!
cc bara-koukongIn a couple of years we want to have gained enough momentum to ask politicians to contribute what they believe to be the purpose of education. Butyou can tell a lot about what politicians currently believe by their actions. At the moment, they worship PISA.
cc solarshaktiPISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It’s pretty much the only mechanism politicians have got to measure educationaloutcomes. Unfortunately, it focuses on a very particular type of education and uses discredited statistical techniques.
cc Norma DesmondAt the end of the day, so long as education remains within the remit of politicians it will be about control and power. We as educators need to limit thispower by suggesting other purposes of education, other ways of being, other choices.
cc CriCristinaLast year we ran a campaign that built upon a previous one. First of all we asked for 500 word contributions on the purpose of education. We thenasked people to take their favourite quotations from these and remix them with images.
cc Every1SpeaksUnsurprisingly, as most of the people who contributed were educators, there was a focus on developing the whole individual instead of just on testresults. And educators weren’t just happy to remain within the existing structures.
cc Josie FraserThere’s been a real feeling amongst our contributors so far that education needs ‘disrupting’. Some have said that education remains stuck in the 19thcentury. We wouldn’t go that far, but there’s certainly something wrong with education.
cc ELeafSo, in conclusion, we want to help move towards solving the problem of education. There’s many elements to this problem and it depends uponcontext. However, providing a public space that avoids “rehashing familiar arguments between progressives and traditionalists” surely can’t hurt, can it?
So if you feel like the purpose of education is something worth discussing, I’d invite you to join us. Our website is at purposed.org.uk but you don’t needto ask permission to replicate what we’ve done. And we’d love additional languages!Go forth and debate.