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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


The purpose of education?

By Samantha Ahern, on 25 January 2018

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”
John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Over the last few weeks I have attended a number of events, but they have all the same common thread.

They have left me asking two questions; firstly, what is the purpose of education and secondly, what do we mean by learning?

This has reminded me of comments made by Peter Goodyear in his keynote at the 2017 ALT Conference regarding learning spaces, ‘attributes and qualities of spaces do not determine the learning and outcomes and objectives’ and ‘it’s what students actually do that effects what they learn .. can not be designed’.

In the #IOEDebates event What if… we really wanted evidence-informed practice in the classroom? Gert Biesta (Professor of Education and Director of Research, Brunel University London) noted that ‘Teaching is: Open, semiotic and recursive’ and this makes teaching a messy business. We can remove the messiness but would this reduce teachers to technocrats and create an education environment of uniform conformity, evidence must not become another thing to tell you what to do.

Professor Biesta went on to ask ‘What do we want education to work for:’

  • Qualification?
  • Socialisation?
  • Subjectification?
 This had parallels to discussions at the debate What is a university education and where is it going? where Lord Willetts discussed the wider benefits of Higher Education:
How do these benefits relate to the learning or the learning gain that takes place within our universities?
Many of the presentations at the HEFCE open event Using data to increase learning gains and teaching excellence hosted by the OU primarily focused on non-subject knowledge gains and employability.
HEFCE define learning gain as ‘an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education.’ (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/lt/lg/). They go on to state that measuring learning gain will ‘contribute to a broader international understanding about the value of higher education, and help governments shape their policies and investments accordingly.’.
So what is primary purpose of learning within our institutions? Can this learning be effectively measured?
I don’t know. All I do know is that I now have more questions than answers about the nature of learning and the purpose of a university education.

3 Responses to “The purpose of education?”

  • 1
    William Hay wrote on 25 January 2018:

    “All art is quite useless” – Oscar Wilde. I think much education falls into the same category even if some of it is utilitarian.

  • 2
    Just a student wrote on 30 January 2018:

    Nice quote William, but I think it is different with education, as long as education is about knowledge and supports the progress of the human mind.

  • 3
    Peter Twining wrote on 31 January 2018:

    Important questions Samantha – I think we need a national debate about the purposes of education (e.g. see from 1:49:33 on https://livestream.com/openminds-talks/events/7872893 )

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