The Purpose of Education

What is the purpose of education?  This is such a basic question. Such a duh question.  And yet, it seems so utterly neglected as all levels of education leadership in the United States either run around fighting fires or giving haphazard directives based on minute elements of the education experience.  All organizations need a mission statement and a framework to keep them focused.  Public education is no exception. And so, we must answer this very basic question. First. Now.  Before we do anything else.

The purpose of education is to teach students how to think.  Especially now, in our global, informationally-overloaded, Internet-infused culture.  We must teach students to think about the information they are receiving, process it with previously learned information, check it against different sources discussing the same information and make decisions about the quality of the facts, the biases of the information providers, and ultimately make decisions about how to act.

To this end, we must stop politicizing education.  If we are to teach our children to think, we must allow them opportunities to interact with information that touches various viewpoints.  Even if we personally, or the leadership collectively, disagrees.  Sure, we can provide more compelling evidence one way or another, but if we either tell students directly that one way is the only way or manipulate students into believing one thing over another by removing half the information, then we are insulting their intelligence and essentially brainwashing.  If the evidence really is more compelling, then we must allow students to experience both sides and teach them how to discern for themselves which side is stronger and more believable.

In Oregon, the Portland Public Schools recently passed a resolution banning all textbooks that deny climate change or even hint at possible doubt of climate change.  This resolution will fail students on two points.  One, it manipulates the information and the situation. Students should know that this issue is up for debate, even if it should not be.  They should be prepared to engage in such a debate by being presented with information from both sides so they know how to make an appropriate argument in a healthy manner.  When people are brainwashed into believing only one side of an issue is an option, they do not know how to deal with people who indicate different beliefs.  Things get violent and unhealthy.

Two, this resolution will allocate finances to new textbooks and personnel to deal with the changeover.  Climate change is important, but it is a minute issue in the large scheme of education and it is very politically charged.  We need not spend time and resources nitpicking when it could be resolved by simply bringing into the classroom an article that provides opposite information from the textbooks and then opening the classroom up for discussion.

Our goal should be to raise children who can solve problems without running straight to Google.  We must integrate knowledge, creativity, and grit.  Information and facts, the teacher-directed learning is the knowledge part of that equation.  Students must be able to interact with the information we are giving them as teachers, play with that information, manipulate it, talk about it, and question it (creativity).  Then we must allow them to chew on it for an extended period of time and teach them ways to find information without the Internet (grit).  Instant information gratification is detrimental until we teach students how to use that information productively.  If a student cannot find what they are looking for online, and yet has no other tools to work around that problem, they will give up.  I see this lazy lack of thinking everyday in the classroom.  Thinking and persistence go together to create well-rounded learners.

Finally, in order to encourage this lifestyle of thinking, we need to change the language we use so casually in teenspeak and social mediaspeak today.  So often we use the phrase, “I feel like…”.  Yes, we use it casually, but I think the implications of such language run deeper than we realize.  Everything we do and say is being evaluated on the level of individual feelings.  And yet, feelings, while an important part of experience, are not fact.  They do not fully encompass reality.  We must change the language of education to purposefully and regularly distinguish between opinions, feelings, and facts.  This too is part of the thinking process.

The purpose of education is to teach students how to think.


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