Depth, Breadth, and Purposes of Education

Educating for a Purpose: What we all need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the future

By Gary Marx

Here’s the assignment:  Describe an educated person.  Include the academic knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes or dispositions that would, for you, clearly define any person as well educated.  Now, let’s figure out how to make sure we all fit that description.  All of us, not just a chosen few.  How will we get it done?  Maybe the very discussion will help us clarify our sense of purpose.

Instead of constantly striving to redefine and reset in light of new knowledge and exponentially expanding demands of a fast-changing world, we have, perhaps too often, spent our time and energy engaging in philosophical fisticuffs.

Visualize this:  Two psychologists climb into a ring.  It’s the age of progressive education.  They put on their gloves and start punching.  One is Edward Thorndike.  The other is John Dewey.  In a philosophical boxing match, Thorndike declares that schools should be “structured around the methods of industrial management.”  To him, they are just a delivery vehicle.  Teach it and then evaluate whether the students have learned it.  Dewey, on the other hand, counters that schools should cultivate a lifelong love of learning and develop the qualities of democratic citizenship.  Who won the fight?  Who should have won?  Are the fists still flying?

Somehow, the system and a plethora of politicians have staked their sacred honor on a debate that helped shape schools for an Industrial Age.  How much more mileage can we get from either-or when the answer is likely some reasonable version of this-and?

The upshot?  We have growing numbers of thoughtful educators, determined to get students ready for the future, constrained by a mentality, a schedule, and an infrastructure of another time.

Employers and civil society are demanding people who can think, reason, and problem solve.  Yet, as a society, as institutions, as politicians, we all but refuse to apply those skills to solving our own multiplying problems.  Purpose and substance get lost in a game of win and lose.

Of course, many of our students are moving on.  They’re already linked to a world of information and ideas, using interactive technologies and forming a new system of learning–any time, any place, any pace, and any way.  Some ask, “How will what I’m being asked to learn in school be helpful to me in my life, today and tomorrow?”  If we can’t answer that question, we’d better rethink the why, what, and how of education.

We’re well into the 21st century.  Isn’t it time we led a spirited community or national  conversation that zeroes in on the purposes of education?  Granted, science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (STEAM) are important, but aren’t they means rather than ends in themselves?

What are the purposes of education?  That should be a question we’re still trying to answer as the earth makes its final turn.  For the sake of discussion, let me suggest a few:  citizenship (of a family, school, community, country, world); employability (not just training for a job but the multitude of things we need to know and be able to do to be employable and to be good citizens); the opportunity to live interesting lives (the more we know, the more interesting life becomes); releasing ingenuity that is already there (which means we’ll be expected to discover and develop the interests, skills, talents, and abilities of our students); and stimulating imagination, creativity, and inventiveness.

In writing Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, I developed a list of twenty things we all need to know and be able to do to be prepared for the future.  It’s based on a review of what people and institutions have historically proclaimed to be essential.  In this case, I went back to Plato’s Academy, the Trivium and Quadrivium, the Seven Cardinal Principles, Multiple Intelligences, the Whole Child Initiative, 21st century knowledge and skills, even STEM and the Common Core.  I folded in the ideas of Horace Mann, John Dewey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mort Adler, to name a few.

I urge you to review these 20 broad categories.  They include:  communication; science; technology; math; engineering and architecture; thinking and reasoning; imagination, creativity, and innovation; knowledge creation and breakthrough thinking; the arts; judgment, ethics, and character; civil discourse and the ability to overcome narrowness and polarization; employability skills; leadership and management; economics and personal finance; social and behavioral sciences; civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions; global/international knowledge and skills; environmental and planetary security; health, well-being, life skills, and work-life balance; and futures processes and forecasting.  In chapter 14 of Twenty-One Trends, you can discover what we’ve placed in each category.  This review is an attempt to take a big picture look at what we will all need to know and be able to do, if we hope to be well educated.  It is not intended to be the final word but to stimulate a never-ending discussion.

A few years ago, after speaking about trends and the future to a large community gathering at the city hall in Intendente Alvear, La Pampa, Argentina, the host said, “Our students have a gift for you.”  One of those students, Florencia Fernandez, embraced her guitar and sang “To Begin Again.”

Let’s take Florencia’s advice and start a fresh conversation about education that will get our students ready for life in a Global Knowledge/Information Age, even an Age of Knowledge Creation and Breakthrough Thinking.  It could be among the most exhilarating, memorable, and influential things we ever do.  In a world of exponential change, time’s wasting.

Read More:

To read more about Depth, Breadth, and Purposes of Education, check out Chapter 14 of Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century…Out of the Trenches and into the Future by Gary Marx.  The full book and Guide versions are available for single- and multiple-copy purchases to help us build an understanding of these and other trends.  Order from the publisher, Education Week Press, (print and electronic); from Amazon at  (print and Kindle); or from Barnes & Noble (Nook).



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