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Dr Mike J Smith
Kingston University

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What is education for?

Tue, 24 Apr 2012

A seemingly innocuous question that is thornier to answer than you might think..... indeed, what *is* education for? Thinking historically, there is an element of child protection related to the implementation of mass education for all. Try to reduce child labour. If you take a more behavourist view of history, then it was also a means by which the labour force could be trained for the industrial employment market. However, in a 21st Century education system, what are we actually trying to achieve? Before you can think about school organisational systems and curricula, you need to know what it is you are trying to achieve. And thinking about the massive changes in schools at the moment, Academies, Free Schools etc etc, what are these intended to do (and, in true Ken Robinson style, don't say "raise standards". Everyone automatically wants to do that, but what standards?!).

I mentioned this to a group of 21-25 year olds recently and got a sea of blank faces..... to "teach" was the mantra. Donald Clark, in his 50-blog marathon, has written about John White who has spent a considerable amount of his career on (and off) the topic. He uses "autonomy" as the central underpinning reason and, to quote Donald,:

"Autonomy, not reason or any other end, is chosen, as it defines, in terms of the self, what one must learn to be a fully functional adult in a complex world. In this sense it avoids the narrow strictures of an inflexible, over-academic curriculum, but it widens education out to deal with the individual as a rounded functioning being. The learner needs to avoid being the slave to desire but also being a slave to a given authority.

His alternative is an education that promotes rational, freedom of choice. The curriculum therefore needs to foster moral, intellectual, financial and practical autonomy to allow people to lead happy, healthy, lives, form relationships, cook, find jobs and think for themselves. The system is stuck in a mode that allows the people who benefit most, the middle-class, to defend its outmoded values, as it has served them well."

If you haven't done so already, take a look at Shift Happens (and the different YouTube versions). This gives a nice media based idea to the challenges facing children as they move to transition to the modern employment market. It's drastically different from the one I inherited. And in this sense White's philosophical argument is strong. A pure academic focus (organisation/curricula) is outdated, outmoded and ill-equips children for the future. We need to move to something that really meets the needs of state and child for the future. If you were to simplify this down, you would like to produce economically useful people (to the state), who are happy and can operate successfully in a modern culture. That incorporates all the entities identified above. If we start from this basis, how would we organise our schools?

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