What is education for?

Dave Cormier, in typically excellent form, reflects on the differences between education and learning in his latest post. I very much agree with pretty much everything he writes here. This extract condenses the central point that, I think, matters more than any other:

Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?””

This is crucial: it is impossible to live and not to learn. Failure to learn is not an option. What matters is what we learn and how we learn it. The thing is, as Dave puts it:

Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.”

My take on this

I have written here and there about the deep intertwingled relationship between education and indoctrination (e.g, most recently, here). Most of its early formal incarnations were, and a majority of them still are, concerned with passing on doctrine, often of a religious, quasi-religious, or political nature. To do that also requires the inculcation of values, and the acquisition of literacies (by my definition, the set of hard, human-enacted technologies needed to engage with a given culture, be that culture big or small). The balance between indoctrination, inculcation and literacy acquisition has shifted over the years and varies according to culture, context, and level, but education remains, at its heart, a process for helping learners learn to be in a given society or subset of it. This remains true even at the highest levels of terminal degrees: PhDs are almost never about the research topic so much as they are about learning to be an academic, a researcher, someone that understands and lives the norms, values and beliefs of the academic research community in which their discipline resides. To speak the language of a discipline. It is best to speak multiple languages, of course. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of crossing disciplinary boundaries is that it slightly disrupts that process by letting us compare, contrast, and pick between the values of different cultures, but such blurring is usually relatively minor. Hard core physicists share much in common with the softest literary theorists. Much has been written about the quality of ‘graduateness‘, typically with some further intent in mind (eg. employability) but what the term really refers to is a gestalt of ways of thinking, behaving, and believing that have what Wittgenstein thought of as family likenesses. No single thing or cluster of things typifies a graduate, but there are common features spread between them. We are all part of the same family.

Education has a lot to do with replication and stability but it is, and must always have been, at least as much about being able to adapt and change that society. While, in days gone by, it might have been enough to use education as a means to produce submissive workers, soldiers, and priests, and to leave it to higher echelons to manage change (and manage their underlings), it would be nice to think that we have gone beyond that now. In fact, we must go beyond that now, if we are to survive as a species and as a planet. Our world is too complex for hierarchical management alone.

I believe that education must be both replicative and generative. It must valorize challenge to beliefs and diversity as much as it preserves wisdom and uniformity. It must support both individual needs and social needs, the needs of people and the needs of the planet, the needs of all the societies within and intersecting with its society. This balance between order and chaos is about sustaining evolution. Evolution happens on the edge of chaos, not in chaos itself (the Red Queen Regime), and not in order (the Stalinist Regime). This is not about design so much as it is about the rules of change in a diverse complex adaptive system. The ever burgeoning adjacent possible means that our societies, as much as ecosystems, can do nothing but evolve to ever greater complexity, ever greater interdependence but, equally, ever greater independence, ever greater diversity. We are not just one global society, we are billions of them, overlapping, cross-cutting, independent, interdependent. And there is not just one educational system that needs to change. There are millions of them, millions of pieces of them, and more of them arriving all the time. We don’t need to change Education: that’s too simplistic and would, inevitably, just replace one set of mistakes with another. We need to change educations.

Address of the bookmark: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2016/10/24/planning-for-educational-change-what-is-education-for/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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