Back in the middle ages (ok, the late 60s/early 70s) when I was matriculating through school, the powers that be in the educational universe were preparing the majority of humans for work in the well oiled industrial sector. I attended school in a town which, at the time, boasted the largest steel mill in North America. Thousands of people worked there in 3 shifts. I remember the older brothers of some of my friends excitedly waiting for graduation day and/or turning 18 (whichever came first), so they could run down to the employment office on the plant grounds to get a great job that didn’t require much more from them except to be able to read at a 6th grade level, do basic math, and follow instructions so they wouldn’t end up dead on the shop floor. With that in mind, the purpose of education for them was to simply be educationally functional. The few “intellectual standouts” were nurtured appropriately and shuttled off to college… so they could start their careers … as managers at the mill.
My parents were educators, so, according to them, working at the mill or in any related secondary industry was completely out of the question for us. They went to college; we would go to college. End of discussion. The purpose of education, for my sisters and me, back then, was to learn as much as possible in a focused, career tracted area so we could become corporate goons. (that was my father’s term)
Yes, I became a corporate goon for a while. With a degree in Industrial Supervision and minors in Chemistry AND Biology, I set forth into the world as an Industrial Hygienist and later a Safety Engineer. I still ended up in factories, and sometimes 80 feet up in a tower somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but I was a “manager”. Oddly enough, because of this, I was able to see how education had really failed a lot of people. It is because of my exposure to seeing people who were barely literate, working jobs that were dangerous, who didn’t know or care about the why or what of their jobs, that I went back to school to become a teacher.
The purpose of education goes beyond knowing the 3 R’s -being “educated” involves having a curiosity about the world around you and wanting to learn about that world. In the 20th century, it was all about simply preparing the community to function in a society that was created for them, where they/we were assigned particular roles. Our parents and grandparents slotted themselves neatly into these roles and expected us to do the same.
The purpose of education now is much different. The basics are still important; however, the world in which the children we teach are moving into as adults isn’t full of those industrial factory jobs anymore. We’re preparing them for jobs that, actually don’t even exist yet (or so people say). With that said, the purpose of education is to become a critical thinker, a collaborator, a person that is able to create for others or (and this is the important “leveling up” of education) for themselves. The purpose of education is to have the tools to change the world. The purpose is to grow minds.
How do we teach our student to be innovative, to take the learning they will receive and create something new in the world? By learning to create something new ourselves as teachers, of course! I’m 3 weeks into my Environmental Science unit and will begin my favorite lesson this week: Human Population. In this lesson (which our textbook devotes a whopping 3 days on – I’ll work on it for at least 10 days) my students will consider how the human population on Earth grew so fast in the last 200 years, why it’s still growing, where it’s growing the most and why, and most important how education affects that growth.
How will I teach it? I do something a little different every year. Videos and interviews. Data analysis and debates. Podcasting and discussions. Presentations I’ve created… presentations they’ll create. What will they learn? What will I learn? I have no idea. That’s the fun of it all, though, isn’t it? Shouldn’t learning be about the mystery being solved? The wonder of the world they live in and what they want to see in 40 years? (I always start the year with my “in 40 years, Lord willing, I’ll be dead. What will you be doing?” speech. It freaks them out, but it focuses their thinking.) Shouldn’t each individual gain something new from the experience? I’ll let you know what in happens with my students.
The purpose of education is to learn to LOVE learning and in the process create a better world. Getting children (and adults) to learn to love learning is what teaching is all about. I’m all in, are you?