Education needs a purpose



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Denise Torrey says we need public debate to inform the purpose of education to bring cohesion to policies and initiatives.

Denise Torrey, President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF)


Denise TorreyDominating my thinking at present is ‘the purpose of education’. What prompts me to think about this topic is examining the myriad reforms, initiatives and system changes that have come our way in the past year and realising that they represent little more than an eclectic scattering of policies and procedures. In most cases they have no relationship whatsoever to each other or to a collectively shared direction or vision. Indeed they have no connection to a purpose for providing education in the first place.

That is because there isn’t one. There is no current ‘purpose of education’ to be found anywhere! If we have no shared ‘purpose of education’ then we cannot set a direction for it. In turn, if we do not have a direction, we cannot have a coherent system, strategy or plan. We are flying rudderless.

At the time of the industrial revolution, the nation did have a ‘purpose of education’. It was to prepare the people to be work-ready for the factories and the fields. This meant standard mass education, including the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and socialising children for social conformity. Teaching punctuality, obedience, knowing one’s place and respecting authority were critical. The purpose was economic and socially controlling.

Leap forward to today and we are immersed in the ‘Information Age’ where children are preparing to be globally connected citizens facing very different issues from earlier generations. They might change jobs several times during their working lives as different careers are created. So what is the ‘purpose of education’ now?

We might agree that education is for children to acquire skills, knowledge and values. However, most would argue that today’s students need to be empowered to be lifelong learners and manage their own learning so that they can adapt to the rapidly changing landscape. The skills they might need to do that are more likely to be creativity, problem solving, communication, being a team player and critical thinking. Teaching these skills requires a personalised, not standardised, approach to learning and teaching.

Educational expert Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most influential voices in education in the modern world, sees four basic purposes of education. He lists them as personal, cultural, social and economic. To achieve these purposes, Robinson also recommends a personalised, broad-based curriculum.

I believe we need to launch a public debate on this topic. Engaging our communities and allowing their voices to be heard is essential. There will be those who see children as global citizens requiring personalised teaching and those who support the industrial revolution model of standardised practice and standardised assessment because they believe education is purely for economic purposes.

The diversity of views deserves a public debate. Not to do so is denying a generation of children the right to a coherent system of education that is best suited to them and their future prospects of success in the world.

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