9 March 2011
As educational professionals we are letting ourselves down by the continual use of wishy-washy statements about the purpose of education.
“We must prepare students for jobs that have not yet been invented.”
Really? Are workers going to live long enough to actually outlive whole occupational classes? Change doesn’t happen cataclysmically to the extent that in a short space of time, an occupational class disappears. In older times a book-keeper used to sit at a specially designed table that held the ledger book entering income and expenditure into it in a copper plate script. He (for it usually was) used the same principles that are used in entering income into a spreadsheet on a computer. Just as the pen replaced the quill now the pen is replaced by the cursor. The job has changed only to the extent that the tools required to undertake it have changed.
Sometimes new jobs arise such as, perhaps, a CNC Designer. Again, new tool but same old job that applies the principles of design learnt with a pencil and drawn on a drawing board. And so on.
“Well, then we must surely educate people to cope with seven jobs in a lifetime.”
Now, some people might work for a lot of bosses over a period of time but usually in the same occupational area. Even top executives who move from corporate to corporate would do so on the basis of taking with them a skill set that is identifiable, what they are known for and what is sought by the new employer. There is little evidence that we will have seven jobs that are in entirely different areas. We might well have seven jobs in the same discipline. I have personally had a huge range of jobs but all in educational institutions, each requiring growth in my set of skills and I have never sought a job outside of education. I guess that this is typical of most in education and in many other areas.
When the phrase “no previous experience required” is used in an advertisement it is usually code for a position that signals low or unskilled work. But people who develop a career usually do so within a pretty consistent skill set which might well continue to grow over time but which seldom head off in a wild tangential swing into a new field.
Finally there is that purpose that distracted us in the 1970s – we have to prepare people for increased leisure time. I didn’t know that back then when there was pretty well full employment they really meant part-time work or unemployment for they always spoke of a shorter working week, longer weekends. Well, it soon turned out in the 1980s that this was not to be the case – fewer people worked longer and increased numbers didn’t work at all.
So what is the purpose of education? Well I think it is simple. The purpose of early childhood education is to prepare children for primary school. The purpose of primary school is to prepare students for secondary schooling which in turn should prepare students for a vocational pathway. The notion of a “vocational pathway” includes all post-secondary education including the university.
The purpose of the university is to prepare people to contribute to society through high level thinking, the ability to have new ideas and to give new nuance to old ideas. But each of these high and new thinkers will need to make a living so regardless of the vocation they move into, it could be said that the purpose of a university is vocational. Of course some discipline areas – medicine, law, engineering town planning and so on – are blatantly vocational while other areas of study are preparing students for articulation into a postgraduate vocational programme such as teacher training and post-graduate specialist courses.
If the purpose of education ultimately boils down to being vocational then it makes sense to say that we are preparing people for whatever it is that they will need to next – in early childhood education it is primary school, in primary school it is secondary school and in secondary school it is post-secondary education and training or work. Good learning at every level is a mix of hard skills and soft skills backed by the technology that is typical of the time.
Simplifying purpose then sets the stage for a simpler set of goals and purpose. What should students know in order to be ready to start primary school, to enter secondary school and to graduate from secondary school into post-secondary education and training or into employment? Is that too hard for educators to agree on?
Now this simplistic framework is simply the skeleton on which education hangs so many exciting, extending activities introducing us to worlds we might never have known in which we might do jobs that we are prepared for because someone has the commonsense to teach us the skills and the knowledge to do a job that exists!.