Friday, November 19, 2010

What is the essence of "education?"

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie was knocked unconscious in a recent game against the Philadelphia Eagles.  The story ended better than expected and Collie sat out a week's worth of practices and the following Sunday's game.  Nonetheless, it was a frightening reminder of the violent nature of football and the risk players assume when they step onto the field.  The NFL has tried to find ways to protect players (penalties for "unsportsmanlike" play, fines for particularly violent hits, etc.).  But, this has raised interesting questions about the nature of football and how much "violence" can reasonably be removed from the game while preserving the essence of the game.  The PGA was faced with a similar dilemma a few years ago when Casey Martin appealed to the association to be able to use a golf cart on the tour.  His case, which eventually was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, hinged on whether "walking" was a fundamental part of the game of golf.

Situations like these are interesting because they force us to examine a practice (golf, football, etc.) and determine what the fundamental and cores aspects of the practice are.  In short, how much can we change about a thing, be it sewing, driving, cooking or otherwise, before it is a different thing?  

With the rapid pace at which education is advancing, developing, and evolving, those of us who care about learning will be faced with this question more and more.  And, it seems to be at the very core of many of the debates being waged in education today from online/distance education (does it count as education if the students aren't all in the same classroom?) , to school vouchers (is it education if the government doesn't dictate what happens?), to teacher education (can someone who didn't go through a formal teacher training program really educate our children?).

Thinking about these and other similar questions seems important because it requires us to separate ancillary trappings from those core principles that define education as a meaningful process.  And, it seems like a really useful way of keeping us focused on the part of education that really matters--human beings and what they are learning.

So, what is the essence of education?  I'm not sure that it has anything to do with buildings, teachers, technology, or administrative structures.  Those things can and generally are part of an educational environment and are likely to facilitate a number of pretty desirable of outcomes. So, what are the aspects of education that cannot be altered?  Some things I would include on my list

  • Environments and experiences that change those involved in fundamental ways.  I don't just mean the acquiring of knowledge.  What I'm talking about is a change in the identity of the participants (sometimes minor, sometimes major) and a parallel change in the community of practitioners.  If this is true, a lot of what passes for education really isn't.

  • Relationships, interaction, and joint participation around a common purpose.  This doesn't mean that education always has to take place in the presence (virtual or face-to-face) of others.  Sometimes the relationship is with someone's ideas (a book, recorded lecture, piece of art, etc.) or the interaction is with an artifact.  But, education is inherently social because we interact and participate with people or things people have created or produced.  

  • Support and resources that facilitate the pursuit of individual goals for learning & growth.  But, the individual goals should align with or flow from the common purpose shared across the community.  
For me that's about it, which means that I see "education" happening in formal school settings, in businesses, on athletic teams, within musical ensembles, and lots of other places.  In fact, those of us who are involved in more formal or traditional forms of education could learn something by examining the learning that goes on outside of our institutions.

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