mnmlist: The purpose of education

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently. I also realised how little thought I’ve given it in the past.

I’ve been thinking about it because of Purposed, who’s aim is to start sustain a debate about the purpose of education. I recently attended a Summit for Instigators and was lucky enough to avoid being randomly chosen to present a 3 minute mini-presentation. It was about my process for making sense of it all. As you might be able to tell, my confusion about the topic is all I’m sure of. Here are the words:

My name is Greg. I’m 40 years old and I don’t know what to do when I grow up. I quite like that.

Anyway. 3 minutes.

I have a favourite question I like to ask my classes. I ask, “What’s a dog?” I’m told they have 4 legs. I say “Like a sheep”. (I sometimes mention that I saw a dog in Leeds once with wheels instead of back legs.) I’m then told that they bark but no-one I ask needs to wait for a dog to bark before they know it’s a dog. I act confused and again ask what a dog is. Someone suggests that they are man’s best friend. I tell them that my best friend is called Joe and that he isn’t a dog. In fact, he’s an accountant.

We discuss how dogs can be enormous or tiny, massively hairy or freshly shaved, long or short nosed, pointy or floppy eared, white, black, brown or multicoloured. So, how can we recognise a dog when there are so many different types with so many different features. What is dogishness? If I showed you a dog of a type you’d never seen before you’d recognise it, but how?

I applied this method to finding the meaning of education.

Well, education has something to do with learning. But what’s learning? Who does it? When? It’s not limited to schools or universities, to certain buildings or certain people. It can take 50 years or 5 seconds from 9 to 5 or in the middle of the night. You can do it alone, in a classroom or one of millions on the web. It’s hard to pin down. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That’s what we’re here for. We should try, for example, to identify a core. Something inherently educationish. Some words and phrases come up a lot. Knowledge and skills, preparation and potential, opportunity and comfort zones, change and challenge. These features are like the four legs, the barking and the best friend thing. They are things that education can involve but none of them define it. And for me not one of these alone is the definition of it’s purpose.

Years later, my students still ask me what a dog is. I never tell them. The process is too valuable. I need to let them find out for themselves. I’ve used my 3 minutes to share the method I used to distill the purpose of education. Maybe next time I can tell you what I came up with.