Sunday, 18 September 2016

What is the purpose of education?

In the run up to the Scottish Learning Festival this week, I have been thinking a lot about professionalism and values and why these are so important. This then led me to the biggest question of all, which is, what is the purpose of education? How do values and professionalism tie in with the purposes of education? So here are some thoughts.

In discussing the purpose of education, there is often a narrow view about the products of education and the current theories of learning are insufficient to capture what education is about. Education can be described as multi-dimensional. The multi-dimensions that it serves are economic, social, spiritual, cultural and political aspects of individuals lives. Education for the masses was originally about promoting a literate society, which has evolved to a learned society where educators are being asked to prepare young people for their futures in a rapidly changing world and to enable them to compete in a global economy.  Politicians often discuss education in terms of economic capital, being a cornerstone of society and essential for developing life skills.

Key documents in Scottish Education such as those relating to the Scottish Attainment Challenge, the National Improvement Framework and Curriculum for Excellence all have as a central tenet that the purpose of education is to create a more successful country with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth. This is to ensure that all our children and young people are equipped through their education, to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens, the 4 capacities of Curriculum for Excellence.

According the Biesta (2010), the point of education is “not that students learn but that students learn something, that they learn for a reason, and that they learn it from someone”, [original emphasis]. This can be restated as students need to learn - content with purpose within a relationship. The purpose of education is multi-dimensional and Biesta (2010) has suggested three domains of purpose which are interdependent and these are;

·         Transmission

o   qualifications (the acquisition of knowledge, skills and dispositions)

·         Socialisation

o   traditions and ethical norms for their culture

·         Subjectification

o   impact on the student as their own person

Learning is more about developing skills and capacities to keep pace with the changing global economy. When we are born we have innate instinct that can keep us alive but our ability to learn and to continue learning is what makes us human. We learn to continue to feed our brains new experiences, creating new connections and to reinforce existing connections. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. We learn more from independent study, play through interacting with others informally, sharing our learning and through trial and error.

The language of learning is insufficient for expressing what matters in education and has moved teachers and learning into the abstract of ‘supporting’ or ‘promoting’ learning, while discounting the ‘of what’ and ‘for what’ in the learning. ‘Learnification’ is a term coined by Biesta (2010) to describe the ‘new language for learning’ which has been created in the discourse. This ‘learnification’ has moved the language to everyone being described as ‘learners’, schools becoming ‘places of learning’ and adult education becoming ‘life-long learning’.

So the purpose of education can be considered from two different world views. The first, the formal world, which consists of schools, further and higher education, creating a standardised model of ‘21st century learners’. The second, the informal world, where knowledge, information and skills are transmitted to the willing by the wise.


Biesta, G. (2015); What is education for? On Good Education, teacher Judgement, and Educational Professionalism: European Journal of education, Vol 50, No.1

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