What is the purpose of education?

Six or seven years ago my answer to this question would probably have been different. I am now both a teacher and a father, in fact I have been for nearly five years. I am both education consumer and provider. My son has just begun full time education and my perspective on what it should be is mixed.

I don’t have a clear idea about education’s purpose. I believe it is a whole range of things that I am sure are applicable to all of us in some respect.

My son is naturally curious, he asks questions when it seems there are none to ask. I don’t want education to answer them all for him necessarily – I want education to be there to listen to him, and to encourage him to question more. Education should help us to question what we see, hear and experience, and challenge the world we inhabit with our curiosity.

He dreams up imaginary characters / worlds / situations / predicaments / plot lines / battles / relationships and plays them out with what he has around him. I hope education shines a light on this creativity and seeks it out. Education should draw from him these precious sparks and help him craft them into something beautiful. Education needs to nurture the different precious sparks we all have.

I want him to struggle and to feel challenged. I want the education he encounters to be brave enough to let him fail and to support him if he does and help him learn the lessons. Environments that encourage risk and innovation will also intrinsically understand failure. Education should embrace all the ups and downs, the bumps in the road, the setbacks and hurdles, the scraped knees and bruises, the ‘Let’s have another go’, and not just the success at the end of the road / line / course / year .

To work in education it helps to be passionate. I want my son to see the drive and determination in another person at some point in the next few years. I want him to feel that human to human inspiration that is so powerful. Education should be about giving young people inspiration and belief – these can come from the environment that surrounds them. But it will probably resonate more strongly from one passionate person.

Looking out is as important as looking in. Education needs to support children to find out who they are as well as their place in the world and how they can make a difference.

My son is happy at school, he has made a great start. That makes us happy. Education should be about cradling happiness.




  1. I hope your son has as good an experience of state primary schools are my 2 children did. Funny how our perspective as parents can change our thinking as teachers.

  2. I’m Kinika
    Smart, department of business trade in Shenyang University of Chemical
    Technology China. I think education is an instrument used in boosting ones
    mentality and sense of reasoning on how to leave a sustainable life, the basic
    part in obtaining education is by parents while going to school is to rebrand
    and modify the one been obtained from your parents.

  3. one basic different that distinguish an educated fellow from illiterate is level of understanding when situation arose,composure,courage and the lit. there is no recognition of one that has noting to give now.I wonder what one with low level of education has to offer this modern word of ours full of technologies. Inshot and infact education make a man. Education! the strongest weapon to defeat poverty and ignorance.

  4. The purpose of education is to guide human
    beings to achieve the basic life goals, which is to exist, multiply and
    act positively in caring for the environment and contributing to the
    Education is more than schooling and is the process of dispelling
    human ignorance of the world as well as developing the inherent
    potential for perfection. Every human being without exception is seeking
    for happiness in life and has the inherent potential to live happily.
    Also, the resources needed to attain happiness in life are in the world.
    Unfortunately, human beings lack a clear understanding of how to
    development his/her potential as well as utilize the resources in the
    world to attain happiness in life. The purpose of education is therefore
    to develop our potential and to guide us to understand the resources in
    the world as well as utilize our potentials and the resources to attain
    happiness in life.


  5. Education is probably one of the core elements
    that contribute to the holistic development of a person. It is defined
    as the process of developing a person’s knowledge, skill and character
    by going through a learning process.today’s advancement and progress in modern science or present humen civilization is because of education.Soomro Noor Ahmed NoorGuddu Sindh


  6. fist greated him all this comment my name is abdirahman mohamed hassan iam somalia students
    degree of bachelor international university of africa faculty of engineering ok
    i don’t have clear idea but if guess education is the key of the life
    as we know education person and non education person are not same good byy

  7. Education comes from the Latin word for “To draw out from” meaning the answer is inside the child so will always be found when searched for from a higher level of awareness than the level that created the problem.
    Schooling is a system to produce unthinking cogs to support the corrupt political-economic system that only gives temporary gain for a few. Remember the reason why compulsory education was imposed under the Child Factory Workers Acts was to force poor people back into economic slavery for MP’s (the land owners who had robbed the poor people of their land via the Inclosure Acts) by reducing the poor family’s income (from child workers) & increasing their expenses (to pay for schooling).

    In School 1 + 1 = 2 only- while in life 1 + 1 = 1 pair, couple, household; 2; 3,4,5 (when a man + a woman have kids); 11; 0 or anything else when 2 people with a idea come together and are prepared to use their intelligence to solve problems.
    Intelligence is the application of knowledge.
    Bad schools install into the children a sense of failure if they can not regurgitate the opinions the Teacher or Examiner want when they ask for it.
    Good schools would encourage the pupils to explore & to discover new things & to cooperate because they understand the cone of learning and will use tools like NLP to help people access all their brains not just the 2 to 10% in the conscious left hemisphere.

  8. Last year I did a university paper in NZ Flora, At the end I knew it had been a great paper, because I finished with more questions than I had started with.
    Thanks for putting your ideas about nurturing the sparks, and inspiring children. One of the reasons I am so very uncomfortable with the huge emphasis these days on things like ‘learning intentions’ etc these days is that they are so teacher-driven. They don’t leave room for the artistry where a teacher can draw forth from a child those things they are most passionate about.

  9. Well, you know what Picasso said, “the problem is not becoming an adult but how to remain as a child”. I paraphrase but a lot of the “problem” of school lies in the purpose of producing conformity and consumers and sucking the “child driven” happiness and curiousity out of a person.

    I always look at adults with an eye to seeing how much of the child they have left in them….


  10. Simply to allow us to dream but also the important bit to understand those dreams and how we can get close if not accomplish them but also how we may be damaging them!

  11. To me, the goal is pretty clear: to cultivate contributors.

    Embedded in that idea are other large concepts. For example, if you aren’t competent, you aren’t contributing. So, developing competence is a major sub-set.

    Equally important is the idea that education isn’t something for an individual, it is a gift we give to others. For example, the people who finally solved the BP oil leak shared their deep knowledge and problem solving skills with the fisherman of the Gulf Coast.

    Contributing is the goal and incompetence or unwillingness to solve others’ problems are the hurdles.

  12. Well in whichever form your reflections take and whenever you feel ready to
    take that step, two things I can guarantee for you. 1) You will benefit
    hugely from the type of connections and conversations it generates 2) From
    your comments I can tell your contribution to the community will be hugely
    valuable to others, encouraging debate and inspiring thinking. Go for it!

  13. I am working toward that goal. It is a process for me. I blog with my students and have seen what a powerful tool it is. The very authentic feeling that someone out there is listening to what we have to say and respond. Is there a more important purpose for writing? I am still trying to figure out where I feel most comfortable putting my ideas out there and making myself uncomfortable. I am fortunate to work in a fantastic community where the sharing of ideas is well received and am being challenged to explore and connect with a more global community. Thank you for being willing to share your thoughts and reflections, and taking the time to respond. In a world where it sometimes it seems easier to close your classroom door and teach, it is invigorating to realize we are only as isolated as we let ourselves be.

    I work with 8 and 9 year old children. They amaze me daily and I am always working to help them find purpose in what they are doing. It is important to me that they know they are never too young to make a difference. It is important to me that in a world where there are a lot of things out of their control and that they have choices that reflect their interests. It is important to me that they have the opportunity to still be children. Will they know these are the things that are important to me if I do not breathe the life of personal experience into them?

  14. Yes, I am afraid that is very true. No more so than here in Bucks where we have a selective system. So many of our students arrive having had their uniqueness beaten out of them, lumped in with the rest of the kids that didn’t pass the 11+. This is part of the reason I have remained at the one school for the past eight years. I take great pride in working at one of the few public schools in the area; working with these supposed failures, helping them find their uniqueness again.

    While there are a myriad of challenges facing education, I think that one the problems that needs to be tackled by schools themselves is ensuring that teachers and staff work hard to recognise the individuality of all young people that come through their doors. Smaller class sizes, knowing the students names, developing 1-2-1 teaching strategies, putting in place a more personalised curriculum. None of these things are easy to achieve and certainly two of them have massive implications when it comes to funding but I believe with some creative thinking they can be achieved.

  15. As a parent I honestly just want my children to be happy at school. It’s what most adults want for the children in our schools. However, as an educator I think we don’t always understand what happiness means. I think students can be happy when they feel respected by the adults and students in the building. They develop happiness when they experience success and feel what they are doing each day makes a difference in the world. That’s what I want for my own children. That’s what I see in my students who come in eager to learn and make a difference.
    How do we help others understand this view of happiness?

  16. Indeed and if you write a blog I believe that it provides a wonderful opportunity to structure your reflections, to share what you are thinking and to gain valuable insight and perspective on your work. The process of writing and reflecting on my own teaching and involvement in education over the last 5 years has been incredible. Do you have such a space?

  17. It takes us to unlock that sometimes, as teachers we need to feel we can allow children to express what they want to find out – but also provide structure to allow them to enjoy that discovery. This also boils down to what extrinsic pressure the school is under, which permeates to the classrooms too. If that pressure is too apparent the reins get drawn in.

  18. There is much more but you touch on some important themes here, which I appreciate. Children can learn so much about what learning is like for themselves when on the journey of seeking out answers. Education is one of the main vehicles for exposing the message of what knowledge is, how we interact with it and make it our own. Education has a duty to get that right.

  19. I was raised up believing
    I was somehow unique
    Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
    Unique in each way you can see

    And now after some thinking
    I’d say I’d rather be
    A functioning cog in some great machinery
    Serving something beyond me

    Which of Robin Pecknold’s (Fleet Foxes) stanzas best describes what we seek within education? I’d like to think that the first is often where most five year olds begin and sadly the second is where they eventually end up.

  20. I think if we are seeing this in children in primary schools before pupils are 11 then something is seriously wrong in the system, because you can bet your bottom dollar that most children knew how to explore and play and express themselves when they were 5.

  21. By nature I tend to be a rule-follower. When faced with new programs, initiatives, legislation I work to implement them in my classroom What I sometimes let go of is reflection, of asking why. In this way, I sometimes give up what I am passionate about. I just hand it over No initiative police show up at my classroom door, and yet when something does not work I pour energy into trying to fix what may have been broken to start with. It is exciting to me to be discovering a network of others who are striving to find their own passion again. There will always be challenges, but without a community of learners who are willing to reflect the “purpose” can get lost. I do not think there is one missing ingredient in all situations. I think I need to be vigilant about reflecting to determine what is missing or broken and then hold myself to the standards I set for my students. Am I willing to be the risk taker I ask my students to be?

  22. Exactly and I think this born from the target driven culture that schools are now steeped in. The focus on targets results in most teachers teaching to the test – aiming to guarantee results not for the students but for themselves, their department, their HT, their school. In this culture creativity, freedom, exploration are as Tom put it: “strangled”!

    I see it everyday at my own school and no matter how many conversations I have, how many CPD sessions I lead many of my colleagues still will not acknowledge that they could achieve the same or better results by allowing the students to be more autonomous; by acting as facilitator from time to time rather than standing at front teaching for 50 minutes; or by planning more creative less didactic approaches to learning.

    There is a place for every teaching/learning style but stifling students within a framework of “learn this and only this because it is going to be on the test” is criminal in my book. Film does not feature significantly on the Media GCSE curriculum at present, this does not mean that I ignore it. No, in fact I have made sure that it is used by my department to support the teaching of key concepts. And we go out of our way to encourage students to watch all sort of film genres in preparation for the A-Level course as film features far more there. Could I teach these important key concepts using the texts they will encounter in the exam? Yes, but they will encounter them during the course any way, why should I not broaden their understanding?

    And lets not forget the long term drawbacks of spoon feeding students within this test driven system. If students are taught in this way until they are 16 then they are certainly not ready for the more autonomous approaches they will (hopefully) encounter at A-Level. Or even worse should they be spoon-fed throughout their A-Levels they will find themselves at University, sitting in their dorm room, reading list in hand; essay title staring back at them; a minimal 2 lectures and 1 seminar a week and not have the faintest idea where to start. A sense of dread will then encapsulate them when they realise that Google and Wikipedia do not have all the answers they seek either.

    In short, the Government and the many teachers who perpetuate a system of spoon feeding and teaching to the test are doing young people a serious diservice. They are not educating them to be ready for the challenges that life will throw at them. They are simply ensuring that their own careers remain intact and that their boss will be satisfied with their results.

    Young people need input into their learning; they need freedom to “express and discuss what they think” and they need to be allowed to fail but as Tom has also said “be supported” if they do.

  23. Thanks for the post Tom, I also have that “parental vested interest” I became a teacher 4 years ago after a 13 year career as a programmer. I wanted to be involved with teaching and be in a position to guide my own children (as my dad, also a teacher, did for me). I was really fortunate to be on the Warwick GTP course, who taught me the “mechanics” of teaching.
    Initially it was easy to think that the National Curriculum was the beginning and end of what kids “needed” from their schooling.
    I love the current debate about “why” we are teaching, it is having a massive effect on what I do in the classroom, I am increasingly asking pupils what they want, and how they want to learn. It is very exciting and humbling asking what pupils want to learn.

  24. I think education is about engendering a certain disposition towards knowledge. It should be about making children feel empowered by their own questions and the exciting journey of seeking out answers.
    And I feel it is imperative that education reveals that knowledge is not just a mass of facts and figures to learn, but that it is CREATED – and we all have the potential to discover and create knowlege.

    There’s much more, but I only have a few minutes spare!

  25. As a trainer who works in a wide variety of schools (on student voice) I find this to be completely true. The more controlling the school is the more difficult students find it when I ask them to work independently or to manage their own groups. It is also in these schools where students struggle to actually express themselves. It takes a lot of work for them to realise that I want them to express and discuss what they think; rather than giving *me* the ‘right’ answer.

  26. Yes James I also think control is an important player in all of this. Teachers controlling what learning should look like, controlling how we judge and assess children and their learning – even controlling how they demonstrate learning. Understandably there needs to be some and some schools need more than others. When we step aside and allow children to respond naturally we see this control – in a school where freedom of expression and demonstration of learning is strangled, children struggle with moments where they rely on themselves.

  27. Thanks for your comment – the idea of education giving children the chance to find their passions even when “they did not even know they were passionate” is key to all of this. If we are writing about places that either have this sort of environment or do not, what are some schools missing? Is it a type of leadership? A type of person? A style of curriculum?

  28. It may also be a question whether the process holds equal importance to the “outcome”. As Oliver suggests in his post above. Perhaps the means with which we get to a place is the important part of learning.

  29. Can’t fail to agree really – the pressures we place on children seem to be getting growing, we want them to do so much at a young age. Holding on to the questioning ethos that permeates so many good early years classrooms would be a good aim for everyone.

  30. Deni I have to agree with Oliver’s response – for me the learning journey is probably more important than the outcome. Do you consider the process or journey to have some significance?

  31. “I don’t have a clear idea about education’s purpose. I believe it is a whole range of things that I am sure are applicable to all of us in some respect.” <– I think this hits the nail on the head Tom. I don't think there is going to be a clear answer to the question: "What is the purpose of education", over the coming months those os us signed up to contribute to Doug and Andy's campaign are all going to offer different versions of what we believe the purpose of education to be. Yes, there will be some of us whose ideas are similar but I don't believe that there will be a consensus.

    However, what I think we must do is embrace the honest sentiment tied up in your post which was that (school based) education is about the child and for the child. It is not about teachers and it is not about parents. Education should nurture a child's gifts, hopes, dreams and interests; while introducing them to new ideas, concepts and emotions.

    I think that the vision of education you elude to can only be achieved if we can relinquish some of the control over education from the government and put it back in the hands of Heads, classroom teachers and students. Then I believe there would be a good chance that education could help "children to find out who they are as well as their place in the world and how they can make a difference."

  32. This post has been a catalyst (expect a Ping back) for my post Why teach Simultaneous Equations?. It probably resonates the most with your first paragraph as well as provide some insight on issues that plague education. No answers, just more questions. But that act of questioning and deliberating is important in itself.

    Your work is awesome.


  33. I have to say I don’t agree with this at all. In life a ‘strong finisher’ is judged by what they leave when they are dead. Is that how we want people to define their lives? Finishing projects is undoubtedly as skill, but as learners is it not more about the journey? The process, and what we gain from it must surely be the ultimate aim. Everything is a work in progress, it is making that journey fulfilling and valuable that must be the aim surely?

  34. I agree with the essay above because the questions that students ask reveal their thinking. As a high school teacher, I believe that secondary education must foster the idea that a person needs to be a strong “finisher”. Only when we finish well can we go through the many doors that are available to us all.

  35. What’s the point? As a teacher, that is not how I want my students to feel when they are faced with another day of school. It does seem too often that there exists a relationship between creativity, and the number of years spent in school and I am afraid it is not increasing with education. Is it possible to teach creativity? Is it possible that students learn not to be creative from today’s classrooms? Children of all ages will be creative in spite of us if we just get out of their way. How much more powerful would the experience be for everyone if we created together. Created conversations, created communities, created risk takers, created spaces safe enough to make mistakes. There are places where this kind of creativity exists, and it is in these spaces that I believe students find the purpose of education. Not because they answered a multiple choice question correctly, but because they were passionate enough about something to look deeper. Maybe they did not even know they were passionate about it, but they caught the spark from a classmate, a teacher, a parent, a co-learner. I hope the purpose of education is to foster a hunger for learning.

  36. The natural curiosity of a five year old is an extraordinary wonder that, at some point, our school system does its best to crush. Just walk into classes of 12-14 year-olds (yes of course, I’m generalising) and you can see it in their eyes. Curiosity and creativity are often far from the minds of our educators. At times. So, can we decipher the purpose of education from this? Probably. It should be about developing curiosity and wonder and using that to open doors. Doors of opportunity, doors to new wonders, new questions. As educators developing creativity and curiosity should be our ‘Learning Intention’ for every class.

  37. As a fellow father and educator, the line “I want the education he encounters to be brave enough to let him fail and to support him if he does and help him learn the lessons. Environments that encourage risk and innovation will also intrinsically understand failure” captured exactly what I want for my son and daughter. I absolutely agree about happiness being a function of education, I just wonder whether there’s a tension between doing something that makes them (slightly) unhappy in the short term can justify longer-term goals. In other words, the ends justifying the means.

    Difficult to say, I suppose, in the uncertain times we live! Thanks for this Tom, struck a chord with me. 😀

  38. How very sad indeed. Often what we see in schools is a result of the
    assessment system that governments and systems adhere value to. Assessment
    of learning is such a brilliantly complex and colourful entity. Does it
    always have to mean a test?

  39. In reading this, I am reminded that standardized testing and merit pay (two big issues in education in the U.S. right now) are built on the idea that education should never be about failure or creativity. While we standardize curriculum to fit pre-determined tests, and punish teachers whose pedagogy strays from that lock-step plan (as they are “leaving the children behind”), we create an education system that convinces our students that there is no room for wonder or joy or confusion or wandering off the path to behold something strange and new. How very sad.

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