I recently listened to the brilliant audiobook “The Purposes of Education: A conversation between John Hattie and Steen Nepper Larsen” and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The book wrestles with the question of the purpose of education through two relatively distinct and opposing lenses. Hattie’s visible learning paradigm, with a focus on empirical data on the one hand, and Steen Nepper Larsen’s educational philosophy on the other. I think I was drawn to this book because of the ongoing tensions and apparent dichotomies I face every day in my job as a teacher and leader. I observe, on a daily basis, the impact of these competing philosophies. The ruthless efficiency put forward by empirical data claiming to provide the next best thing in education is ever-present in schools, alongside the slow, nuanced and abstract concepts of the pursuit of equality, social justice, flourishment and the development of democracy.
The book was challenging on various levels. Firstly, it was meant to read as a dialogue between two highly regarded educational contributors…however this didn’t really work as an audiobook and I got confused who was saying what. The real challenge however came from me confronting and interrogating what I believe to be the purpose of education, beyond simply a few left-leaning , progressive yet abstract phrases about democracy. Determining what you believe to be the purpose of education is a hugely political, personal and consequently provocative pursuit.
The politics of this question is unavoidable in my opinion. The political element comes down to what you value in society and democracy. There is a very clear trend towards neoliberal policies and practices in education at present. Neo-liberalism is concerned with business-like efficiency, accountability and continuous (measurable) improvements. From this lens, education is seen in economic terms. The financial investment in education needs a sizeable return, not least because a country in modern politics is measured by how educated their population is. How do we measure how educated someone is? By prioritising the assessment procedures which give us a reliable, comparable result that we can easily track progress against. However, there are those who believe that this neoliberal/efficiency model has resulted in us valuing that which can be measured, more than education itself. It is from this perspective that we get the argument that the purpose of education is primarily to gain qualifications and to be ready for work.
The book ‘Purposes of Education’ makes repeated reference to Gert Biesta’s concept of ‘learnification’ here. Biesta argues that in modern educational discourse there has been a shift in language to focus disproportionately on ‘learning’ or ‘learners’. Biesta believes that this language falls short to accurately describe education. His point is that reframing the educational discourse onto the individual removes the complexity of the process and creates an empty individualistic ‘process-speak’. Ultimately in education, students learn something, from someone, for a specific purpose. The ‘learnification’ of language cannot fully capture this as it does not speak to content, direction or relationships. Also, if this becomes the only language available, the criticism from Biesta is that teachers become purely process managers, rather than integral parts of the learning relationship. If we also subscribe too heavily to the language of ‘learnification’, then it limits our power to truly question the complexities inherent in education. Biesta has observed that ‘if we fail to engage with the question of good education head-on – there is a real risk that data, statistics and league tables will do the decision-making for us’.
So what are the alternatives? What is the purpose of education if not to ensure children simply ‘learn’ or to achieve qualifications and start working. What are we missing out on?
It is also useful to look to more of Biesta’s work here. Biesta also argues that education is for qualification, subjectification and socialisation. The qualification function of education is one we are all too familiar with. Education for the purpose of doing something; gaining exam results, passing tests, readiness for the workplace etc. Socialisation refers to the many ways that education makes us become part of a particular social domain and allows us to learn the customs and ways of society. Subjectification refers to the process quite opposite to socialisation. Subjectification is the process of becoming an individual, learning who you are and to think independently. For Biesta, we have to be mindful of the balance between all three pursuits of education.
I would argue that all 3 of the above purposes of education are reflected in the Four Capacities in Scottish education; Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors, Successful Learners and Confident Individuals. However, my question would be, do we have the balance right between all three areas that Biesta puts forward? I think that we have a huge focus in Primary education on Socialisation and Subjectification. However, as a whole, the education system is disproportionately skewed towards qualification. A balance that needs questioned when we are interrogating the question of the purpose of education. Overemphasising qualification, high stakes assessments and measurable outcomes of education subsequently changes the discussion around the pedagogic practices involved. I believe this forces a pedagogical discussion which over-emphasises methods, strategies and teacher-pupil interaction which sees improving attainment as the main proxy for success.
For me, the over-emphasis on qualification, and the efficiency model favoured currently is problematic. As Nixon (2009 : 195) argues:
‘it is not just a different way of talking about the same thing. It radically alters what we are talking about. It constitutes a new way of thinking about teaching and learning…it effects how we teach…’
Another alternative political view to the business-like, neoliberal model discussed above comes from the perspective of Critical Pedagogy. Here, education is a tool to dismantle the status-quo and not reinforce it. Education is a liberating force that builds democracy and encourages critical thought and the ability to change the world. From this perspective, which most closely aligns with my own, education should challenge inequality and the dominant uneven power relationships. It should prepare children to imagine a world that could be, rather than encouraging conformity with the world that is. For Paulo Freire, education does not exist in and of itself, but it exists to ensure that things change. In this view, children learn to be critically engaged in order to facilitate the transformation of the world they are in.
But of course, your view on this is inherently personal, hence the philosophical lens taken by Steen Nepper Larsen in the book. Discussing how you arrive at your own personal political standing is beyond the scope of this post. It is a complex mixture of various socialising agents; friends, family, social background, race, gender, class, education…this list could go on (perhaps a good blog post for later?)…My point however, is that where you stand on the political spectrum of the debate on the purpose of education will be an acutely personal decision.
Therein lies the provocative part. Education is a national policy, and at some point this policy has to be put into practice. When creating education policy and a national curriculum there is inevitably, intertwined within, the answer to the question of the purpose of education. This could be explicit (positive destinations, raising attainment, developing the young workforce) or more abstract and nuanced (successful learners, effective contributors etc.). This is contested, provocative and a site of struggle because of everything I have discussed above. The question of purpose cannot ever be apolitical or ahistorical. There is always bias at play, dominant perspectives reflected and political agendas enforced. How can everyone working in education reach a universal agreement on the complexity involved in the question of the purpose of education? What would universal agreement mean? Can you split priorities on something so fundamental? Is it feasible to assume that the answer to the purpose of education can be answered by multiple competing perspectives in the same system?
These are all questions that everyone in education should be asking themselves in my opinion. Or at least be mindful that any decision, even the decision to not ask the question, becomes political. The struggle will never go away. The balance of competing agendas and multiple perspectives is an inevitability in a mature and complex education system. However without interrogating your answers to these questions, you risk working for a system, with priorities and perspectives that do not align with your answer to the fundamental question of ‘What is it all really about?’. It may seem like navel-gazing, academic thought or pointless rhetoric without practical gain. But without analysing your purpose, you risk being purpose-less and in turn open to any shiny new initiative or approach that comes your way, slowly degrading the very reason you got into this job leaving you in a state of being unfulfilled, gradually grinding away your power, autonomy and agency (dramatic finish eh?) So, I urge you, take the power back, ask yourself the question:
What do you think the purpose of education is?