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I was flipping channels on television the other evening when I came across an interviewer discussing education with two women. I stopped to listen. Two things struck me. The first was that the women she was interviewing were not educators at least not in the sense that they had ever taught in a classroom. One was a professor of education studies and the other was a reporter specializing in education. This is pretty much par for the course in the current climate. Heaven forbid an actually experienced teacher or even an administrator be interviewed.
What really got my mind reeling, however, was a comment made by the interviewer. She said that the purpose of education was to teach future workers. This startled me as I fear this is becoming the message being given by the education “reformers.” I was even more unsettled when neither expert corrected nor challenged her on the point.
In thirteen years as a second-grade teacher, I never once thought of myself as educating future “workers.” In second grade, most of them were overwhelmed by the age-old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There is a story John Lennon told that when he was a young boy he was asked that question when he started school. He replied “Happy.” He was told he didn’t understand the question.
What I have discovered is there is no easy answer to the purpose of education. It depends on your philosophy, who is paying the bill, and –gasp – politics. Anyone who has been in the education game for a while can tell you that everything is cyclical. Right now, the powers-that-be seem to believe that the purpose of education is to produce cogs in the wheel for future jobs, not citizens, ingenious problem solvers, or creative thinkers. The money used to fund education programs is often from large donors who are looking toward building an “educated” workforce. By educated, I mean, being able to complete the tasks needed to do a skilled job in their business.
The philosophies of education to correspond with that are behaviorism, where a learner is basically passive, or cognitivism, where the learner is seen as an information processor. Teaching in these philosophies is practiced through rote learning, drills, and testing. The outcome is directly correlated to what the teacher feeds the brain. The problem with these philosophies is that children are neither Pavlov’s dogs nor computers but living beings with many influences other than the input given by teachers. (To learn more about these philosophies and others you can go to http://www.learning-theories.com/)
I would expect most classroom teachers do not feel this is the best way children learn. I certainly don’t. Education is so much more. My goals for education are the following.
1. To have the basic skills needed to build upon to accomplish whatever task or job is assigned in the future. This is the part where we train workers for the future. Our children need the math and language arts skills needed to be successful.
2. To be a critical thinker. Children need to learn to analyze the information given to them so as adults they can decide what is true. This is something needed everywhere from the workplace to avoiding purchasing every product advertised on infomercials.
3. To be able to troubleshoot or strategize. I suppose my grandfather would have called this horse sense. The ability to logically attack a problem to come up with a viable solution is natural to some but not all. In fact, it is a skill that is taught when we teach test-taking -- a popular subject these days. In real life, we use this skill at home when the dryer isn't working or the computer is dead. In the bigger world, it helps us come up with ways to see solutions troubling the community.
4. To be a moral person. Being a moral person is knowing what society accepts as correct behavior. While some see this as a family or religion's responsibility, in fact, schools have taught this for decades. In fact, a classroom is a perfect practice community to learn how we interact appropriately.
5. To be a good citizen. There are many levels to this. Learning the way our government works is imperative in making our government remain a democracy. It also is important to understand laws, public works, and civil disobedience to understand how our actions influence the communities where we live.
6. To have enough interests to be able to have not only a job but outside passions as well. I know of very few people who are so consumed in their jobs that they have no other interests. What makes us well-rounded individuals is the broad range of things to inspire us. It is what makes us whole and healthy people.
7. To be happy. This seems like a crazy purpose but more than anything else, it is what I wished for my students. None of us is happy every minute of the day but learning to find satisfaction and delight in life is a trick from which we all benefit. Students mastering the ability to calm down, to find their center, to delight in their accomplishments were goals I tried hard to impart. I do agree with John Lennon. Being happy is a perfectly wonderful thing to be when you grow up.
Education is much more than educating children to be future workers. The purpose of education is to help each person reach their human potential.
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