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.