Towards an Educational Philosophy|What is the Purpose of Education?

A Less Than One and a Half Tweet Statement of Purpose of Education:

Empowering learners to uncover and develop their innate gifts and talents to become leaders who are equipped to learn and contribute in their local and global communities in the 21st century.

It was a reading of Cathy Davidson’s book, Now You See It and a week long (Spring Break) discussion on Twitter with @toughloveforx with valuable feedback from @edu_ivers that inspired and challenged me to think of a statement of purpose for education that could be expressed in as few words as possible.  My goal-a statement of purpose that is deliverable in less than a Tweet and a half (I couldn’t get it down to 140 characters) that could be a starting point of discussion around which key stakeholders could collaborate.  It begins from the premise that education seems to constantly reinvent the wheel without moving forward.

We are 15 years into the 21st century, yet we are still talking about creating change so our students graduate with 21st century skills while our schools are still stuck in the Agrarian-Industrial Age model.    My thoughts started with @toughloverforx’s suggestion of a general statement of purpose: “The purpose of education is to graduate students who make mindful decisions for themselves and their communities”.  Rather than complicate purpose, “can we please simplify things?” is the core question of this discussion.  Let’s begin with an agreement to K.I.S.S.-Keep it Simple, Smart.  The nation’s education system appears to be at a tipping point for revolutionary change as a result of current conversations that are birthing movements each day around the globe.

Empowering Learners

Empowering learners speaks to the goal of an education system to meet the demands of our new, rapidly evolving world.  Gone are the words “teaching” and “student”.  Enter the words “empower” and “learner”.  Teachers become learning leaders and coaches who facilitate the creation of the culture inside classrooms that embrace learning and learning how to learn as a chief end goal.  This implies a school culture and infrastructure (including classroom and building design) which facilitates the end goal-learning.  It requires project-based and inquiry-based learning.  It breaks away from stand and deliver instruction as the primary delivery mode.  It requires students to be curators and creators of content.  In doing so, each student becomes a learning leader-a classroom expert in his current area of study.  It broaches learning as a lifelong survival skill.  Yes, lifelong learning is no longer a skill that sets one apart for success.  It is a skill set that sets one up for survival.

A teacher who empowers is a learning leader who serves in the role of coach of learners.  School administrators and leaders move into the role of coach of learners and learning leaders as they engage the school community with LBWA (leading by wandering around).  These leaders must be equipped and freed up to lead so they are inside the classrooms, which are now our “learning labs”, working in the trenches at times alongside learning leaders (teachers) and learners (students). Good-bye hierarchical, ivory towered structure of old.  It is far past time for school administrators “to get dirty” in the business of learning.

 Uncovering and Developing Innate Gifts and Talents

“…to uncover and develop innate gifts and talents.”  Too often the current factory, assembly line style of education shuts down innate gifts and talents in favor of a model that gets children through the system.  Teachers are given the burden of differentiating instruction which for many parents and teachers seems more like this: “get students to create the same widget in a slightly different way that doesn’t delay production”. Our new statement embraces the idea that we all have genetically (some can argue God-given) driven talents and gifts and is built on the belief that we will all be better off societally (stop, imagine, think and count the ways) when each of us is prepared for and does work that expresses those gifts and talents.

The aforementioned models of inquiry-based and project-based learning can be excellent vehicles for uncovering learners’ gifts and talents when collaboration amongst learners is in the mix.  There are also tools available such as the Signature Strengths Test developed and tested by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s Values-in-Action Institute (VIA) that empower learners (and learning leaders) by uncovering strengths.  “Students take the Values in Action Signature Strengths Test ( and use their highest strength in a new way each week” (Seligman, pp. 84-85). Evidence from blinded studies demonstrate that this program “improved the strengths of curiosity, love of learning and creativity, by the reports of teachers…”  “The program also increased students’ enjoyment and engagement in school.  This was particularly strong for regular (non Honors) classes.”  Seligman’s Flourish [Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish, (New York: Atria Paperback, Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2011)] and follow-up studies should be required reading for educators and aspiring EDU leaders.

To Become Leaders

“…to become leaders who are equipped to learn and contribute…”  I have received some criticism on this component of the statement regarding the word “leaders” and the associated connotations, semantics and semiotics.  Becoming leaders who are equipped to learn and contribute refers to the development of learners who can contribute at multiple levels depending on their sphere of influence.  In the classroom (learning lab), it might begin with a student taking the lead on the investigation of one aspect of humanistic psychology (e.g. unconconditional positive regard), working to curate/create content and reporting back to the group as the lead on this aspect of a collaborative research project.  In essence, this student becomes the lead expert on UPR.

We are and we are not talking about the development of executives, presidents, principals and city officials.  We are talking about the very basic needs in society for people who will lead themselves (self-leadership) and the groups (where 2 or more are gathered) they will be part of throughout their lives (families, churches, schools, communities…).  We are talking about creating citizen-leaders who are able to make “mindful decisions”.  Leader as used here implies participating rather than spectating.  A leader is equipped to contribute…

 Contribution to Community

“…in their local and global communities in the 21st century.”  The world is shrinking at a fast pace.  The opportunity to influence for the greater good and destruct for the greater harm is an ever present reality.  The purpose of education should be to equip lifelong learners as local and global citizens who are prepared to contribute to the success/survival/growth/change of society at the most local of levels and globally.  This speaks to the global nature of our interactions and the impact of our actions on the persons in the room and the persons on the other side of the globe.


7 thoughts on “Towards an Educational Philosophy|What is the Purpose of Education?”

  1. We must not reform school, but reimagine education. Until we stop pigeonholing curriculum (i.e. World History, Algebra II)and students(by grade level, by ability…) we will continue in the same path. A few new strategies, perhaps, but within the same design, will not change our outcomes. Visionary, creative leadership outside the bounds of the current school structure is needed. If you could start from scratch, how would you reenvision education to live up to the purpose you’ve stated?

  2. John a very thought provoking piece. If education could achieve all of that, we will have achieved a great deal. You touch on an important point on your discussion on ‘Values in Action’. Our values are the underlying reason why we do something or preference a particular action over something else. It follows that if a student valued what they learned in one subject, say what can be learned about mistakes made in the past via the study of History, then more effort and time will be committed by the student because it us valued. In this regard, can education ever be truly free of values? In the context of 21st Century learning, in Australia, the State Governments and the Federal Governments base their agenda / reform of education on a joint document entitled “Melbourne Declaration On Educational Goals For Young Australians. For more information Go To The bottom line, well nuanced in your paper, Education today must be for the 21st Century.

  3. Hello John,

    Thanks for the post. It is extremely thought provoking. Succinct, concise and well thought out.

    Only the other day I attended a family birthday where I was challenged, in a gentle way, with “We need to go back to back to what we used to do in school. What’s wrong wit school today?” The question came from an educated man in his 70s.

    As part of my response I stated that there is not clarity around the purpose of education. I wish you had written this a week ago and I could have passed this straight on! You have thought deeply and constructed a concise statement about the purpose of education.

    For what it is worth, I have shared this a few times…… “Our purpose as a school is to support students become young adults who can recognise and accept opportunities that will grow them as compassionate people with integrity and moral strength to make right and just decisions.”

    Is the purpose of education different to the purpose of a school?


  4. John,

    Thank you for your candid insights and sagacious reflections. Under your thoughts on Contribution to Community, you hit the nail on the head when you opined, “The purpose of education should be to equip lifelong learners as local and global citizens who are prepared to contribute to the success/survival/growth/change of society at the most local of levels and globally.” Regrettably, not all teachers think like you. As Michelangelo observed, “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.” Hopefully your attitude becomes infectious among those in pedagogy.

    We will not be able to solve the complex problems of our communities, our nation, and the world unless we encourage students to apply creativity while learning and problem solving. The key to a successful future is ensuring our current students have the desire, ability, and opportunity to innovate.

    Stay calm and enlighten on,
    Shannon Faith

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