What is Education?

I recently read the life of the Victorian educationalist Edward Thring (1821 – 1887) of Uppingham. I found the book by chance and it relit the question about the purpose of education.   It’s an area that interest me a great deal because we rarely hear anyone ask the question as to what the purpose of education is.  What we hear is the debate about educational processes usually through the lens of schools, funding, targets, teacher competence.  Added to that the toxic cocktail of experts often pursuing their own agenda and the abuse of political lobbying.

In brief, Thring was the headmaster of Uppingham between 1853 and 1887 and turned a poor provincial grammar school of 25 boys into a top public school within ten years. Thring had a very clear idea as to the purpose of education and how it should be manifested.

I don’t want stars or rockets: I want every boy to have a chance of showing his little light to help the world.

This purpose influenced how he developed his educational practice or schooling of the children. For example, he insisted on confining the school to around 300 boys to maintain a small, “tight-knit” community. He believed that would make possible his view that every child was good at something and great teachers found those strengths and developed the child’s potential. He was a hands-on head and believed that that it was important to know and be kind to the children in the school and take a real interest in them. This was at a time when strict discipline and a very rigorous hierarchy was the norm.  He was fascinated by how children’s minds developed and saw the role of adults as:

“… better to let children find experience in their own little world and roam in it with them, than to lift them up into your castle even though it be a castle of truth and enclose them in its stone walls” Pg 136

He broadened the traditional curriculum at Uppingham to ensure the moral, aesthetic, and physical aspects of the students were met. He encouraged teachers to introduce children to learn to draw through observation, to read to them aloud, to teach about the wonder of nature and not to impose rules for their own sake.  He wanted classrooms to be well ordered and full of pictures Thring’s, he encouraged gardens and wanted children to enjoy sport and leisure but also while keen on Maths and Science he argued that music, painting, architecture and sculpture were equally important. Although, not well known now his achievements extended beyond Uppingham, and his spirit lives today as co-founder of the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC).

It was an interesting read because throughout his life as headmaster, and despite the successes of his school and students, he had to continually battle against, policy makes, educationalists, experts, governors, trustees and colleagues who were risk averse, conservative and not actually that interested in the educational philosophy but in asserting their authority over Thring. He was scathing about” … government’s educational amateurs and intellectual Goliaths who have never taught”  or intellectuals who he described as  “lived “protected over-glorified lives”  So, plus ça change!

I believe we need to start a big conversation about what we as a society agree is the purpose of education. But there seems a lack of appetite to do this. Instead, the education debate operates through historical prejudices and conventional wisdom. It has been confirmed that teachers tend to adopt teaching strategies based on ideologies, common sense or school-based effectiveness but rarely on evaluated effectiveness. We appear to be unable to learn from the past and there is little pressure to be innovative or to question how things are done, despite the new technological world facing our children.  If we don’t know what we think the purpose of education is, then its main manifestation through schools will not be fit for the purpose. Is this not the issue we face now, constantly looking at fixing operational issues rather than asking the fundamental question about purpose.

My view of the purpose of education links directly to my view of the child.  I see the child as curious, inventive and a willing apprentice.  Therefore, education is about harnessing those traits and deepening their curiosity, so they learn to think. Education is to help children to be able to identify and communicate issues, problems, challenges and respond. It’s about building self-awareness and self-confidence to meet the different and unknown challenges. Being able to entrepreneurial and able to participate in the future workplace and markets. Its having the skills to contribute to local and global communities using all the means necessary to do this.

Many would disagree and see the purpose of education as more  about helping children to be good citizens, work ready or aligned to the dominant values of the society. Sir Ken Robinson identifies the purpose of education as:

“…economic, cultural, social and personalEducation should enable students to become economically responsible and independent.  It is also of significance to communities and countries.”  Pg 45


However, all this is irrelevant if we don’t discuss it.  Here are a few quotes to get you thinking: