This post is part of September’s #blogsync. There are some really thought-provoking posts on this topic – check them out at http://blogsync.edutronic.net/.
We both scratched our heads here and tried to be pragmatic about such a huge question, but instead you get two rather personal and heartfelt opinions on the purpose of education. We shall begin with Mel:
Although teaching and learning is my passion, it is still equalled by my passion for ‘my subject’, science. This means that my initial thoughts when I consider the question ‘What is the purpose of education?’ are based on a science education. What do I consider to be the point of turning up to my lessons?
Science plays a vital role in society. Science saves lives. Science makes the world go round (well, the reason that Earth spins on its axis can be explained scientifically, so I’m claiming that one for science). Science isn’t about knowing stuff and, contrary to what politicians now want us to believe, knowing stuff isn’t what education is about. If I just want to know stuff I can look it up in a matter of seconds on my laptop, tablet, phone, or even in a book (a book, imagine that!)
Science is about asking questions, reasoning, problem-solving, testing ideas, trying to disprove what you believe to be the answer (to be confident you have it right) and trying to construct an explanation for what you observe. Science is also about peer review: critiquing the work of others so that they can make improvements to ensure the work they publish is rigorous, valid and meaningful. On reflection, if I’d had more opportunities to develop these skills, perhaps I would be better at dealing with having my work criticised, or receiving feedback on my lesson observations!
Part of the purpose of education has to be to share your passion for a subject with students so that as well as developing some valuable skills, some of them might pursue it further. Having had the privilege of teaching ‘The Scientist’ for two years, I was reminded of this and the fact that education is very much a two-way process. Yes, he politely followed every instruction and listened as I rabbited on about things he probably already knew; yes, he wanted to know every detail of everything we were learning about Biology (and way beyond) but he also asked me questions every single lesson that I had never thought of and didn’t have a clue of the answer to. ‘The Scientist’ turned me into a learner again and reminded me of how little I actually know but also showed me that as a teacher my education will never come to an end (although I have no inclination to sit any more exams thanks!)
I feel a huge amount of job satisfaction when I send students off to university to study ‘my’ subject, but those are very much in the minority. I also get a huge amount of satisfaction at the thought of students leaving my classroom, reading science news articles and questioning the motivations of the source of their funding or the validity of the size of the cohort they studied; making real-life decisions by reading through the evidence interrogating its bias and validity and (the one I struggle most with) being able to accept feedback graciously as a useful tool to help them to improve.
So, education is about arming students with the tools they need to be able to challenge the world and to challenge themselves to become better.
Debbie, ever the reader, will begin with a meaningful, thought-provoking quote:
According to Basil Bernstein, there are two types of culture that schools develop: instrumental and expressive. The first focuses on teachers sharing subject-specific knowledge and skills with their students through the curriculum; the second concerns itself more with developing students’ attitudes, values, behaviour, and character. For education to be truly excellent, there needs to be a balance between the instrumental and the expressive.
Bernstein is more known for his somewhat-controversial statement ‘Education cannot compensate for society.’ There are times when we must all have felt like this – teaching some students whose parents do not seem interested in supporting the school for the benefit of the child’s education can be wearying. However, I believe that when students come to school, they are entering a mini-society of their own, with its rules, unwritten codes and myriad of social interactions. Every teacher has their part to play in making school a place where all students feel safe and can enjoy moving through the next stage of their life with confidence.
When I teach a class, I want them to feel like they are entering a space where – if you have an open mind – you will learn, not just new subject knowledge, but something about yourself and what is important to you. Essentially, you will develop your ‘voice’. I can’t tell you enough how lucky I feel to teach English. It is a subject that is rooted in such glorious knowledge gleaned from texts spanning the centuries but it’s also a subject where there is no right or wrong. There are ideas. There is choice. There is argument. Reading allows you to find your own identity. I’ve had students literally transform in front of my eyes into a young adult once they found a text that inspired them. It helped them understand their place in the world. They became curious, questioning, interested in the world around them.
Often, teachers talk about a teacher that inspired them and how that teacher made them want to be a teacher: that teacher for me was Miss Long. I was a scholarship girl surrounded by mostly rich students whose parents had all been to university and had a house full of books and had been on holidays all over the world. I’d grown up on my mum’s collection of Enid Blyton and had been on holiday to Spain once!!! I felt out of place; I didn’t know what I was interested in; school wasn’t really doing it for me. The best stroke of luck was getting Miss Long as my teacher in year 7. Straight away, she saw through the naughty-girl act and realised I just didn’t know the ‘rules’ of social interaction. It is partly what Bernstein refers to as the difference between the ‘restricted’ and ‘elaborated code’. I was loud, bossy, often appeared rude and took it personally if other students had a different opinion.
Miss Long persevered with me, helping me to achieve an A and an A* for my English GCSEs. She was strict with me – wouldn’t accept anything less than my best. I didn’t care that she was strict because I knew she cared about me. When it came to thinking about A Levels, I’ll never forget her striding down the corridor at the end of the evening shouting at me ‘Why haven’t you been over to the English stand? Aren’t you going to carry on to A Level?’ My answer put a smile on her face: ‘I didn’t come over because I know already that I’m going to carry on.’ Two years later and I’m heading off to university – the first in my family – to study English Literature.
None of this would have been possible without the belief of that one teacher; she believed that giving me the best possible education could change my life. I learnt to love language, to use it well and articulate myself orally and on paper. I learnt to question everything, not to take anything at face value and empathise with others in different positions from me. I learnt to sit quietly and become absorbed in a novel. I learnt to adapt my ideas after hearing other opinions. Equally, I learnt about myself – it was a long, sometimes difficult, journey spanning seven years.
Today, when I teach my classes, I remember Miss Long and her ability to bring out the best in those she taught. The purpose of education must be to set young people on a path of discovery, to guide them through and to give them the academic and social tools to go on out into the wider world and believe they can make a difference, in some small way, to the society in which they live.