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The Purpose of Education – Creating Responsible, Productive Citizens

“All the art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds in order to satisfy it later”. -Anatole France

The purpose of education is to create responsible, productive, and socially responsible citizens – people who can support their own families while contributing to their community. As Toffler says, education in the 21st century should enable people to learn, unlearn, and relearn. But I’m not sure our schools and colleges are committed to it.

Education is one of the least scientific of human endeavors. You do well in school to get into a good college and get a good degree. A good degree is supposed to be a passport to a good job. Based on your credentials, you can move up to a reasonably senior position without having to demonstrate exceptional ability.

Beyond that, however, you may run into trouble. There is no established link between your performance in school and your performance in a job. More importantly, there is no connection between your performance at work and your performance in life.

To be true to its purpose, education must help a child develop three basic abilities:

1. Discover, develop and continually evolve a vision for becoming a useful member of society:

Many of us have an advantage – our parents envision our future for us, pushing us to work towards achieving that vision. However, it is not as common among the poor. The education system must step in to help everyone create that vision, and to build the confidence of even the poor child to pursue the vision.

Balaji Sampath, who runs Eureka Child – an NGO committed to improving literacy and math skills in public schools, told us a touching story in this context. Returning from the United States to do something meaningful in education, he immersed himself in local issues by spending a few months in a village. He was in a classroom in the village when a child asked the teacher if it was possible to travel to the moon. “You and I can’t fly to the moon,” replied the professor. “But scientists in the United States can…” We need to stop depriving our children of goals and dreams.

2. Understand that questions are more important than answers:

Our education system places an undue emphasis on providing answers – often to questions that children don’t have. In other words, we too often teach children concepts without context; we need to show them why learning is important. We need to focus on awakening children’s natural curiosity and teaching them to love learning. A good way to do this is to place children in natural experiments or games where they can ask questions. In these contexts, the learning is immediate and strong. Learning can be a structured process of discovery, providing students with varied learning outcomes – just as our situations and decisions later in life provide different outcomes.

For example, an NGO in Mumbai went to schools with experience teaching students about water conservation. The students measured the amount of water consumed by brushing their teeth with the tap on, then again with the tap off. Imagine, if we all learn this type of lesson in school, how we can apply the principles to so many other aspects of our home and work later in life.

3. Learning to learn:

The world is moving too fast for schools and colleges to keep up. What is taught is inadequate and outdated, or soon will be. It is important that children are encouraged to find answers on their own – through the internet, by experimenting and by having access to leading experts in each field.

It is important for students to learn the scientific method –

(a) create a hypothesis based on observations,

(b) design and conduct experiments to prove or disprove these hypotheses and

(c) reach conclusions while acknowledging that the conclusions could change with additional information.

With the level of knowledge available in the world today, it is also important to exercise judgment about what to learn, and how and when you should learn it. We need to teach children when to trust their own judgment and when to trust the expertise of others. Our children need to learn that even when you outsource the effort, you remain responsible for the outcome.

What do you think? Do you agree with these ideas about the essential skills our children need? Does our education system respond to it? Share your thoughts and experiences with all of us.

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