Planning for educational change : what is education for?

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that impact both education as a system and challenge some people’s conceptions of what learning is and might be for. The latter is compelling, and projects like #rhizo14 and #rhizo15 have led to some amazing conversations, some interesting papers, and, more importantly for me, have broadened my network of good educators to work with. While I am interested in this work, and plan to potentially host another one this fall, I think of these projects as an exploration space to think about what learning is for. They are not ‘the change’ they are more the ways in which we consider what might be possible… what learning could be for.

Education vs. learning
I’ve been making this distinction for years, but I’m not really sure if I made it up or if I stole it from someone. For me ‘education’ is the system that we have in place as a society to allow us to ‘educate’ most people in our society. Education is by its nature normative, meaning that it has a particular perspective on what a society is and enforces that perspective in curriculum, in classroom structure, in assessment as well as across the social contract among teachers, students and administrators.

Learning is something that can happen in an education system. Frankly, it pretty much necessarily happens in an education system, but more because humans are learning machines and will learn from any situation. What they might learn… now that’s a bit more individual. I, for instance, believe that high stakes testing leads people to believe that there are ‘answers’ to important questions and makes it more difficult for them to deal with complex situations later in their lives. Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?”

What learning can be for?
Learning can be for a tonne of different things. Sometimes we want to learn something to accomplish a specific task. I, for instance, am a proponent of spatchcocking turkeys. This article from the excellent, does a good job explaining the technical skills required for the process. What I like about the article, is that it also provides the rationale for doing it that way. That may or may not be something you want to learn. I learn a bunch of other things from serious eats. I learn about taking my cooking seriously. About the value of questioning established orthodoxy. Just in time learning. Clear end goal. Clear pathways to getting there. I have a pile of literacies I’ve acquired over the years that allow me to get there. I can read. My parents taught me to question the status quo. I’ve been cooking since I was ten. Now I cut the backbone out of my turkey and cook it flat. And, maybe most importantly, i can afford a turkey.

Learning is also something we want each of our kids to do. We want them to learn how to keep themselves safe. We want them to learn to be creative. We want them to learn how to be happy. Maybe their Timestables. Maybe some chemistry. Maybe writing. The pathway for each of these kids, though, is not as clear. I figure that I’ve got decent odds of teaching any individual person something at any individual time. Most teachers, i think, probably feel the same way. How does it scale? How do we contribute to a system that chooses good things for them to learn. Or, maybe more importantly, a system that embodies things that we want them to learn. What should that education system be for? Can we have an education system that embodies happiness or wellbeing? Should math be the hidden curriculum and self-respect what is actually studied?

What is education for?
Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.

That’s not to say that we don’t teach ethics, or that most of us haven’t combed through our history books to try and find ways to address issues of race and gender… we have. But for every attempt to address complex societal issue there has been another (another 10) addressing basic skills. Cross reference that with provincial, national and international standards testing and you’ve got yourself a nice complex problem. Bring it to, say, the university level, or lifelong learning or pre-k and with all the added power structures… you’ve got yourself a really interesting ecosystem to think about.

What’s it for? What does success look like? Who does that success serve?

Thinking about change in Education
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design at Georgetown University earlier this year (excellently hosted by Eddie Maloney, Josh Kim and Peter Stokes). It was a gathering of folks interested in change (mostly related to edtech). Lots of excellent debate. While this was mostly a conversation amongst people in Higher Education (who’s voices are not likely to be marginalised given their place of employment, race etc…), the themes I saw emerge there are similar to those I have seen before and since in these discussions around the world. The discordance (to my ears) between the words change and innovation. A challenge to differentiate between change from (this terrible thing is happening and it needs to stop) and change to (there’s this thing we’d really like to have happen, lets figure out how to do it). The multiple perspectives on the value proposition of higher education. Are we doing basic skills? Are we preparing students for jobs? Are we the last bastion of the mid-nineteenth century vision of a better society?

All of these things could be true. Most of them could be true at the same time. This is what, i think, makes the field of education so compelling right now. What I’ve become most interested in is how we can make change stick, at least partially. Part of that I think, like any other complex project, is to keep a constant conversation going around what the goals ACTUALLY are. I think goals on complex problems need to be expressed, yes, but they are a journey of becoming. You can say you want an education system that emancipates a society, but what is that going to mean when you’re choosing curriculum? When you’re doing teacher training? When you’re talking to parents about the possibility of changing what it means to succeed? How many times are you going to come to understand what emancipation REALLY means and develop a shared language with everyone in the system.

Are we ready to commit to change that could take a generation… with constantly renegotiated change? Can we even do that?

I’m interested.

A last thought about learning
Learning is going to happen. I might learn to write a good sentence. I might learn I’m too dumb to write a good sentence. I might learn that writing a grammatically correct sentence is more important than writing an interesting one. I will learn.

Learning will happen. The question is… what learning do we want our education system to be for?

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

3 thoughts on “Planning for educational change : what is education for?”

  1. Hi Dave
    An interesting post that I enjoyed reading, as I did the reply from Jon Dron and the comments there.
    I have posted a response that is mostly links to other ideas framed by Mark K Smith on the Infed website. In particular the idea that we are mixing up ‘education’ and ‘schooling’, in our definitions.
    He argues that education can and should be defined thus
    “Education is the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life.”

    and that it is schooling that is
    “trying to drill learning into people according to some plan often drawn up by others”

    My post with the links is at

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