Thursday, July 10, 2008


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.
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 meaning of education?
Webster defines education as the process of educating or teaching (now that's really useful, isn't it?) Educate is further defined as "to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of..." Thus, from these definitions, we might assume that the purpose of education is to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of students. Unfortunately, this definition offers little unless we further define words such as develop, knowledge, and character.
What is meant by knowledge? Is it a body of information that exists "out there"—apart from the human thought processes that developed it? 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 might assume this to be the definition of knowledge. However, there is considerable research leading others to believe that knowledge arises in the mind of an individual when that person interacts with an idea or experience.
This is hardly a new argument. In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that education was about drawing out what was already within the student. (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.
There is a dangerous tendency to assume that when people use the same words, they perceive a situation in the same way. This is rarely the case. Once one gets beyond a dictionary definition—a meaning that is often of little practical value—the meaning we assign to a word is 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 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 the teacher, and others on 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, the experience of students in today's classrooms can never be the same. 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.