Figure out what you want. Figure out how to get it. Get it. #purposed

February 24, 2011  |  reflection  |  Share

Figure out what you want. Figure out how to get it. Get it.

When I left school at 18, my history teacher wrote the words above in my leavers book. A simple message, but I think it is a pertinent one when discussing the purpose of education.

Several of the writers contributing to this debate already have discussed the importance of learning experiences that have nothing to do with school. This hints at a strong disconnect between what people see as learning that is valuable to their lives and what what we classify as ‘education’. For many people, education is not totally relevant to their lives.

The question of relevance is dealt with in the first part of my teacher’s advice. Part of of the purpose of education must surely to be to help people to find out what they want out of life. Doing this involves allowing young people to have experiences that are rich and diverse, to see what life has to offer. Diversity alone is not enough though. To really ‘feel it’ requires following passions and interests in an involved and meaningful way in order to discover where their individual talents can take them.

Hand in hand with this experience is the second part; figuring out how to get it. To my mind, this needs to be in the form of skills that people need to achieve their potential. There are unquestionably some basic skills that everyone needs to function in society, some traditionally seen as important and some new such as digital literacies. Other skills are more specific, and deciding on whether to persue them has to come from encouraging learners to reflect on what they need to develop, and the most fitting way for them to do so. These skills are different for everyone; personalisation in the truest sense.

The final point seems simplistic and perhaps naive- if learners do these things will what they want be handed to them on a plate? Obviously not, but it embodies a purpose that I believe should be intrinsic to education; empowerment. If we let young people figure out what they want and guide them to develop the skills they need, we need to actually allow them the power to go out there and ‘Get it’.

This is not a case of saving up this occasion to participate in the world for when they turn 18 and are handed their school leavers books full of notions of empowerment. It needs to be happening every day. They need to be not just imagining their futures but creating them, whether this is in the form of life changing projects or developing more specific, short term interests.

In England, our education system is largely geared towards producing conformists. However, we are facing unique challenges; a damaged environment, dwindling resources, and in this country an ageing population that needs to be cared for by a youth that is increasingly alienated by what they have been left.

Conformists are not going to handle these challenges. The people who are are those who have made a habit of defining and delivering their own futures. These are people who have been given the experiences and permission to figure out what they really want, been encouraged to reflect on and learn the skills and dispositions they need, and empowered to ‘get it’ habitually.

Such people could both imagine and learn how to create lives, and societies, that work for them. To me, that must be the purpose of education.

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30 Comments


  1. I love those words from your old history teacher, I think that sums everything up beautifully!

    I really enjoyed reading your post Oliver, and the links too. You’ve put your point across as eloquently as ever. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said and I do believe that empowering children has to ultimately be the key to everything we do.

    In reality, if I’m honest, I don’t always find it easy to give children adequate time and space to develop their own ideas about what they want and reflect on what they need to do next – this troubles me. However, I do strive to make the learning in my classroom more child led and I hope to continue to build on this in the future.

    • Thanks Claire. The issue of time is a really difficult one, so often we forgo some of the most important things like reflection. Certainly at Primary level where I currently teach I think these learning skills are so much more important than skating over lots of ‘content’ in the name of a varied curriculum. It is a such a can of worms though, as to shift the focus of curriculum also would require a big shift in assessment.

      In the meantime I think we need to make time. Obviously some things are statutory but they can be got through in an efficient way to make time for what is most valuable.

  2. I am really struck by your section on the future communal challenges that face us all in the next century – particularly that they pose huge uncertainties which our society needs empowered citizens capable of handling ambiguity and change … and most certainly not conformists. I think this is a really important contribution to the debate. It also places the recent twitter criticism of the #purposed debate being too focussed on individuals in context; beginning with the kind of people we want to cultivate through our education system we will move onto the communal and social. In fact seeing learning as a social process is central.

  3. Powerful stuff, Oliver! Love the way that you’re calling for an end to the churning out of conformists. This is why the government, as it has with the Bank of England, to delegate responsibility for the keystones of our society to the professionals. :-)

    • Thanks Doug. This is one of the points I wrote much more in draft on and will probably expand later. I am becoming more and more aware that huge swathes of what we do in primary schools is about conformity not learning.

  4. Truly inspiring post, has made me really think about what education does mean and how it needs to move into the present at least and start thinking of the future. Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  5. This is a powerfully simple message, Oliver.

    As I’ve thought about the #purposed posts, I keep coming back to the importance of developing autonomy (non-conformity?) in learners; autonomy to choose their own career, to challenge thoughtless beliefs and stereotypes, and to create and communicate in ways that make them happy and/or improve society.

  6. When I read this I started reminiscing. I was lucky enough to grow up as a member of a youth movement where as 16 year olds we would run educational programming for our peers and as 20 year olds we would run full blown Summer camps for 14 year olds. We were empowered.

    In school there is so much spoonfeeding, not only do children not want to think for themselves, but I found it so hard to get children to take on leadership roles. The opposite should be true and education should aim for this.

    • Thanks for the interesting reply Dan. I agree that there is far too much spoon feeding- I have been really surprised when talking to secondary colleagues about just how common spoon feeding has become in some schools when teaching for/to exams.

      As Stephen Heppell put very eloquently in his #lwf talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbGTl5UN-_o), we won’t prepare people to solve the problems of the future with a “met before curriculum”.

  7. Really enjoyed reading this post. What you quote from your History teacher has been encapsulated (in many more words, it has to be said) in the excellence and enjoyment materials published back in 2004. Designed to free teachers up from the pedagogically prescriptive national strategies, what they actually did in many schools was just add more workload on to an already busy profession. Teachers who were told from 1995 to ‘deliver’ the National Curriculum, as if they were posties, continued to deliver what they could, but many lost the passion and individualism they once held, thereby producing conformism in their students.

    However I don’t think it’s fair to blame solely the education system for producing conformists. The use of education as a political football, the legal system and the growth of celebrity culture must all surely take some of the blame.

    As a primary teacher myself, I can’t fix all that, but I can continue to teach knowledge and skills, model positive attitudes, provide a range of different experiences and raise aspirations. I’ve been doing that for years though. What’s changed for me in recent months is that I’ve realised that even if I’m wrong, it’s more important to be part of the debate than to be right in a little bubble of my own.

    • You raise an interesting point about trying to mandate for truly personalised learning. So often I think initiatives like this are counterintuitive; they are just trying to formalise the skills of knowing children well and being genuinely responsive to their interests. I think we have some exciting potential at the moment for a more ground up approach to moving forward with education, we just need campaigns like this to make sure that we make the most of it.

      You are of course right in that education is not the only factor in many of these challenges. However, it is a potentially powerful force to instigate changes wider in society.

      I couldn’t agree more with your last statement, and I think more teachers need to realise that their voice matters. Even if they do end up deciding, on balance, they are wrong- it is so important to come to a shared understanding around these issues.

      Thanks for a thought provoking comment!

  8. Another very perceptive interesting read Oliver that has prompted some great comments as well!

  9. This is a real gem of a post, Oliver. The prevalent spoon feeding within secondary & the production of conformists from primary schools certainly resonates with the growing concern of how youngsters are being suitably prepared to handle changes they will need to face up to in their future. Thanks for sharing your links.

  10. Have been reading back through some of the purposed posts and just realised that I didn’t comment on this however I had meant to.

    Having now read this for a second time I have come away with the same feeling and that is that education must be defined by the kids. The three statements that you built your post around can be achieved in a user-defined education. How this works exactly I don’t know but it appears that many of us involved in this debate are not happy with 1. the rigidity of the current curriculum and 2. the continual focus on content over skills and experiences.

    I’m not suggesting that content should not exist but that perhaps the content should be less set in stone. That education is about a set of skills that are agreed upon, will allow students to figure out what they want and how to get it. The content that is used to support this however should be fluid, defined by the students, there location, social status, interests etc.

    As a write this next bit I realise the many challenges that this would throw up but the simple fact that this would be difficult does not, for me at least, mean this can not work. Imagine you are a Maths teacher, you need to teach your students about percentages and making informed estimates. Why does every student in the class to learn this in the same way? Think of all the different professions where this math is relevant. So could you not begin by explaining the rules, working through some examples – teaching the skills. Then to embed the learning, based on your knowledge of your students, offer them a range of scenarios in which to work on solving some problems. Some of your students want to be engineers so you give them a set of problems related to engineering. A number of your students a really excelling in history so you give them a series of problems that are related to archaeology and so on. Personalise the content/context in which the learning happens. I might finish by getting the students to feedback their answers to each other to reinforce the fact that the skills they have learned can be applied in multiple contexts.

    Yes, this is hard to plan for. Yes, there are issues of sustainability. However, if we are smart I think that education can be this and much more. But we need to know our students and offer them the personalised curriculum that you have eluded to. One that allows them to figure who they are, what they want, how to get it and to have the will power to go and get it.

  11. Great post. I love this phrase “They need to be not just imagining their futures but creating them”. Any decent curriculum must have this goal as its cornerstone.

    • Thanks Jon. There are so many avenues for authentic experience for even younger children these days- why not encourage people to follow and achieve their passions? Been following your school’s work btw, really inspiring stuff.

  12. A great post, Oliver and I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said, particularly about the need to move away from an education system which produces ‘conformists’. It’s also interesting that you picked this quote from your History teacher which demonstrates the influence that teachers can have on students’ future.

    • That’s an interesting one Zoe. I have to say I don’t think this quote did have an influence on me at the time- it has taken me until my mid 20s to come to the conclusion that this has significant meaning. It is interesting how these things pop up again, as it was only when planning this post that I remembered that phrase and realised it summed up what I was getting at- to the point where it made me restructure the whole thing. Just shows how learning is such a messy and non-linear process: we need to embrace that. Well, mine is anyway!

  13. “In England, our education system is largely geared towards producing conformists.”

    Have you ever been to a school in England? I doubt there’s an education system in the world more scared of making children conform.

    • I attended schools in England my whole educational career, and have visited and taught in quite a few. I intend to expand on my thoughts around that statement in a future post as it is hard to develop and fully back up such a wide ranging post in 500 words.

      I would be interested to read how you would back up your statement that ” I doubt there’s an education system in the world more scared of making children conform.”. I infer from this that you think we should be making children conform more- I wonder why you think this is important, and whether you think encouraging non-conformity is failing them in some way?

      • I meant what I said. Our system has embraced non-conformism. We have whole subject areas (RE, citizenship, PSHE) where students are told there are no right answers and to just give opinions. We treat choices to underachieve or misbehave as perfectly valid and not to be condemned. We try to preserve the existing values and cultures of students (contrast with, say, the French education system). We do not teach loyalty to a nation, political system or culture (contrast with the US system).

        “independent learning”, “investigation” and tolerance of difference are built into our methods. Even in subjects like maths and science where there are definite right answers teachers are under pressure to leave students to “discover” their own answers. Rules are often not enforced, the requirement to recall established facts is reduced year after year, and even severe anti-social behaviour is excused in the classroom.

        This is an education system in love with non-conformity to the point of undermining the opportunity to learn.

    • Have you ever been to a school in Japan? They have a saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This belief is inherent and endemic in their school system. By the time my students got to my Humanities and English classes in middle school (grade 6) it took me and my IB teacher peers 2 to 3 years to foster and then attempt to coax any individuality and critical thinking out of them. One cannot begin to compare this to English schools. Both my kids completed primary schooling there and neither had the makings of conformists by age 11.

      • The trouble with this is of course that it is all relative. I’m not suggesting that schools in England are quite like that Ana, but I do think Primary Schooling is in a large part about encouraging cultural and intellectual conformity. As I said, I hope to expand on this further soon!

  14. I think conformity tends to be more a matter of perspective and local culture rather than national culture. I was born in Lancashire the birth place of the industrial revolution. Other places may have claim to being the birth place of the industrial revolution: but that’s another story. Point is the perspective taken on the history taught. This is what Britain was, or the people had this aptitude and this culture and adapted to their environment, in this way. Heritage can be a foundation on which to build greater things, or it can be an obstacle. It seems to be an increasing obstacle. I always liked the idea of Viking burial, take the chief all his junk, put on long boat send out to sea and set on fire. Then get on with the future, without hindrance of the past.

    So whilst one thing is taught, or rather presented, another thing is learnt. And it is the culture outside the schools that imposes conformity. Don’t make waves, regulations for this and regulations for that. How can you launch a revolution in such environment, or maintain innovative drive. People were not being taught science and technology: they were out there creating it. Science and technology now established, and we need cogs in the form of qualified people to sustain the machinery of industrial society. But the machine only needs so many cogs, what are the surplus cogs to do? So need to think beyond the employees needed to sustain the machine we have to the innovators of the machine of the future: the machine we want. Plus the life away from the machine: we don’t want to be slaves to the societal machine: but that machine meets the needs of the population with minimum effort. Probably not your effort (eg. not producing food), and so how do you gain access to its output?

    When figuring out what they want: also have to decide if can be met as an employee or by becoming a business owner. Schools tend to focus on becoming an employee. So I’d say more skills directed at finding a market and running a business are required.

  15. I know that you wrote this a long time ago but I think it is still incredibly relevant. I particularly like the quote from your teacher. I think our system has a lot of issues and through such a prescriptive curriculum we have, in a sense, already predetermined what we want children to achieve. I think that this goes against the feeling that children should be empowered and have autonomy over their learning. I think for this to really be in place there would need to be significant changes through the whole system. A thought provoking piece.

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