Busting a hole in the wall (the purpose of education)

purposed-badgeWhen Sugata Mitra put a computer inside a hole in the wall of the NIIT building in New Delhi, he took the first step in proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, that education was a universal connector craved by people the world over; and that the traditional notion of classroom education was by no means the only way to do it. Now, more than ten years on from the beginning of the HITW experiment, the lessons remain unheeded by many of the people involved in mainstream education. In fact, concepts such as ‘self-directed learning’ and ‘the student voice’ are still scoffed at as Dawn Hallybone was reminded this past week, attending a debate on the National Curriculum review.

Are there still that many people connected to education that truly believe, we, the adults know what’s best for the next generation and the one after that? Nick Dennis spoke of the need for us to focus on principles in this debate and at first I disagreed, as principles like ‘purposes’ are rarely universally shared. However, I now see where he was going, and while I appreciated Doug’s question about whose “better” was Nick referring to, I think Nick’s conviction was what was most important. He asked the big questions about what we want education to be and what we are doing for each other as a community, not as definable roles but as human beings.

It is make or break time for humanity and we have a responsibility to draw a line in the sand, admit our mistakes and create a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world. For all the talk over the last twenty years of the ‘global village’, it has not stopped us continuing to destroy our planet, to wage wars and to continue to ignore the inequalities in society. What is the purpose of education? Surely, it is to create unity by helping future generation to recognise the values that humanity share.

Fred Garnett grapsed this when he argued that new (social) media can foster “collaborative, discursive learning, the kind of learning that creates a healthy, open and participative society.” Is this the extension of Mitra’s experiment? Is social media the natural evolution bringing learners to the stream rather than the well? Some of us embrace change, recognising the merits of experimentation and creativity; others fear it, seeing new as dangerous. I’m not suggesting that we should plunge head first into wildly unstructured models of learning but if it were not for people who dared to be creative, who dared to experiment, we would not be able to stare into the vast ocean that is our solar system, or be able to listen to Mozart on a device, so small, it can fit into the palms of our hands.

When Mitra began his experiment he was giving education back to the people and his observations of the children showed happy, creative, collaborative learnings, the sort of learning Tom Barrett hopes his son will continue to experience. I’d intended to say that education is about more than opening doors; it’s about what you do once the door is open. Now I’m asking who needs doors? Why not work together and bust a hole in the wall instead?

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James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

17 thoughts on “Busting a hole in the wall (the purpose of education)”

  1. Great point, James. The gatekeepers of education are changing, certainly in Higher Education. Credibility and certification based on reputation and social networks may be the new currency in the mid-to-late 21st century!

    1. Perhaps, I certainly believe that learning should belong to communities and thus be designed by that community. Learning at one time evolved to suit the needs and interests of the community, to help it grow. I think that a return to this approach but within a far larger community is what is needed.

      We should be listening to employers the world over, and certainly not just from big business, asking them what they want their employees to have when they enter their doors. We need to listen to learners and appreciate that their hopes, dreams and interests may not be the ones that we had when we were their age.

      One size, one model does not suit all. But I do believe that there are shared ideas, shared principals about what education can be and look like. The problem is that the future of education is in the hands of the few not the many.

  2. Great post James. I really like the way you’ve pulled several different points of view together here – all who’ve been a part of the purposed debate.


    1. Was not my intended approach. I had assumed that I would be more argumentative but the more I read of others posts I began to feel some hope in that many of us were driving in a similar direction. This then lead to me drawing upon more of what had already been expressed.

  3. I like your analogy about barriers in education. Exams are a barrier, curriculum is a barrier, teachers can be barriers. The hoops that must be jumped through and the barriers that must be navigated to let education happen are enough to put many people off, and often do.

    1. I experienced those barriers myself when I was doing my A-Levels. I had a passion for Art and was a good artist. However, there were mediums in which I did not wish to work yet would be made to. My response to this was to rebel, to ignore the work in media that I didn’t enjoy and to embrace the media that I liked working in. This resulted in a lot of pottery and stoneware, some oil painting but no watercolours, nothing hand drawn or realist. I liked abstract art, I liked physical art.

      When it came time to be assessed I achieved below my potential as far as the exam board and my teachers were concerned because I had not jumped through the hoops, providing all the expected pieces that the course required.

      Maybe, I was foolish? I certainly wouldn’t advise a member of my tutor group to take the same tact that I did. But I feel justified in my convictions. I learned loads during the course just not what the exam board wanted me to.

  4. GOOD post and also enjoyed reading the comments so far. And you have pointed out something very important – you spotted the push to jump through hoops and rebelled, but would not want to advise your pupils to do the same thing. Yet you’ve made a success of yourself due to those intuitive skills and solid convictions that were shaped during your time at school – skills I feel are sorely missing in the workplace at the moment. Why are we in this catch-22 situation?

    1. What complicates this debate for me is the question of whether we are discussing the purpose of education as a concept and principle or whether we are discussing the purpose of the education system. I found this challenging in writing my own contribution.

      Ideally, I would think, the systems would serve the same essential set of purposes as the concept.

      In most of the contributions, many of the purposes stated for the concept of education are shared. The differences in opinion begin to appear around the systems which might be proposed.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts on these two questions your post has led me to:

      Does it matter if there are diferent models of education if they all achieve the same purposes established by the communities they serve?

      In busting down the wall, how careful do you think we should be in analysing its parts, to make sure we don’t lose something of value?

      Perhaps your answers will enable you to resurect some of the words and ideas you culled last night.

      1. No, I don’t believe that it does matter if there are different models of education, in fact I would actually encourage it. If everyone experiences the same education where will the collision of ideas, thought occur?

        As I am writing this it has reminded me of a point I had to remove and that is that I don’t actually like the word education. I prefer to use the term learning. Some would argue that the two are interchangeable but no two words are wholly interchangeable. By our very nature we apply preferences. I was discussing this with my GCSE English students just this week. I selected students and gave them a binary opposite such as ‘hot / cold’ or ‘male/female’ and they had to pick one without thinking for too long. Because of their experiences, learning etc, they held in themselves preferences. They instantly applied feelings to each word.

        I feel this way about the words education and learning. Education to me, represents a system, a formality; it has a stigma attached to it like the word ‘Homework’ does. Learning on the other hand (IMO) is free of this stigma as learning can happen any time, anywhere.

        Unpacking this and helping young people to appreciate this I think is important and whatever model they find themselves in I think it is important that every facet of their learning is recognised. It is for this reason that I see value in courses such as COPE which allow us to recognise and credit the students for other aspects of their learning such as from their part-time job, volunteering or learning to drive. All highly valuable and important experiences.

        As for the wall, well yes, I don’t believe that I had anarchy in mind when I wrote that. What I was trying to express within the word limit was that sometimes we need to work within the limits of the system and other times, after careful analysis, we need to rail against those constraints until they are busted right open. There is value to be found in the education being offered in many traditional settings but that does not mean there is not room for improvement nor that it is the only model that can work.

    2. Exactly, I wouldn’t advise my students to do the same thing because the system will spit them out when they don’t obey the rules and jump through the hoops. But it’s the system that is wrong not the students – after all is it not in our nature to challenge, question, break the rules? Picasso, Schindler, Jobs – all rule breakers, all respected, all lauded for their achievements. What if they had toed the line and simply jumped through the hoops?

  5. The future of education definitely is in the hands of the few as you point out in this great post James. The ‘vision’ of education the current government are suggesting makes me cringe and has made my class quite angry. Who asked them want they wanted to learn? Does anyone? Is education merely what we, the adults, decide what the young should learn?
    I agree with your thoughts and I’m with you in busting holes through the walls.

    1. Thanks Kevin, getting the user voice to be seen as a valid part of this debate is very important and also quite difficult. Difficult because many people do not want them to be part of the debate and also difficult because while there are many students who are passionate and want their education to be meaningful there are many who simply do not care. It’s hard to get communities to care about learning when they don’t value it. However, arguably by inviting them to be part of it they may start to care. Is it not that for some time their voice has not been valued that they are switched off from the debate in the first place?

  6. It’s not a case of “knowing what’s best” for the next generation. It’s just that an education system can only pass on what is already known, and attempts to change the next generation in other ways are doomed to be indoctrination, social engineering or, most commonly of all, a futile effort to give children the qualities (like imagination, creativity, curiosity, the ability to learn, a social life) that they already have in abundance.

  7. James, thanks for picking up my point on discursive learning and society and moving the discussion on Mitra’s, admittedly wonderful work, and towards a discussion of ‘who needs doors’ lets co-create education.
    Yours are a very thoughtful 500 words which marvellously picks up a number of threads in purposed and moves the debate on. I hope Doug and Andy are taking notes 🙂

  8. James, thank you for sharing your thoughts. They are powerful and inspiring and urge us to move forward in our teaching to find creative and effective ways to help our students-even the youngest- reach whatever goals they have set for themselves. I am constantly amazed by the insights my students have beyond the curriculum maps and at how quickly they catch on to new ideas. Now I have my work cut out for me over this Spring Break as I look for ways to keep my students moving forward. Again, thank you!

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