An Education

What is ‘An Education’?

Some say education is about making people cleverer: about ensuring that people have access to lots of knowledge. I can’t see anything to argue with in that (although I don’t think teaching lots of knowledge necessarily makes anyone any cleverer, they just know more things than they did before). It’s a bit of a reductive viewpoint though, surely, to suggest that this is all that educators can achieve?

As a parent, that does not look like ‘An Education’ to me. It’s part of it, for sure, but it’s a tiny part out on the far right hand side of the field. Because if my children can read, and want to learn, then all that knowledge is freely available to them in books.

So, what is it that I would like teachers and schools to achieve for my children during their education?

* A love of learning that reaches far beyond the school gates.

* The ability to use language in a rich and varied way, that suits the situation they are in.

* To keep them reading, and to cultivate the love of reading that they have at present.

* To build their imaginative powers, and to place value in things that cannot be measured, as well as in those that can.

* To interact with the world in all its multi-sensory glory – with the outdoors seen as an important aspect of that world.

* A set of moral principles that guide their behaviour (not based on an external faith based system, but on an intrinsic desire to do good).

* A sense of courage, and self-discipline, and the ability to focus and work hard.

* A variety of experiences, and opportunities, perhaps ones that they might not get at home.

* The ability to co-operate and work well with others, to be supportive of other people’s ideas and efforts.

* A sense of what it means to be inclusive, and why equality matters, and a strong sense of empathy.

* The ability to be creative, and to find joy in taking risks and experimenting.

* A broad and balanced understanding of the world and the people in it – how it works, our history, our future, the links between subject areas, the knowledge and skills within each one.

* An understanding that there are people in the world who have much less than they do, and what they might do to make the world a more equitable place.

* A wide set of skills that will equip them for what looks to be a very challenging future.

* Some kind of sense of what they might like to do with their lives, which doesn’t have to involve going to an ‘elite’ university, if that is not what they want to do.

* For them to feel happy, and relaxed, and to have fun.

I’m not convinced that any of this will make them ‘cleverer’. Smarter, yes, more fully rounded, more sensible and more knowledgeable as well. But what I really want is for them (and for all children) to reach their full potential as human beings.

This, to me, is ‘An Education’.

This entry was posted in Children, Creativity, Parents, Reading, Teaching and learning and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to An Education

  1. avawhinge says:



  2. Harry Webb says:

    I agree that, “if my children can read, and want to learn, then all that knowledge is freely available to them in books”. However, this is a very big “if” and I don’t think Rousseau’s 18th century prescription is very successful at achieving this. We have created an education system where children of the middle class may thrive but naturalism-inspired teaching practices rob the poor of their cultural inheritance.


  3. suecowley says:

    I would love to know how you define ‘cultural inheritance’. There’s so much to choose from!


    • Harry Webb says:

      I would start with an ability to read. I would move on to being able to do basic arithmetic. Then, maybe key scientific ideas… When I think about it, there’s quite a lot there and that’s probably why we set aside 13 years for the task.


  4. ladyjustine says:

    Absolutely, Sue. Absolutely. If everybody held these things to be the purpose of education, maybe we’d have a few more lightbulbs flick on. Education for me is about illumination. Looking back on my own very middle-class education, our school motto was ‘The sacred key that opens all doors’. I’m sure my own teachers would feel a deep sense of gladness that I finally agree with them on something.


  5. suecowley says:

    Absolutely Harry, but is learning to read a cultural inheritance? Or just a basic assumption? I had assumed you meant a specific canon of literature or other subject related material when you talked about ‘cultural inheritance’.


    • Harry Webb says:

      Treating the ability to read as a basic assumption is very telling. Hirsch writes at great length about a failure to teach children to read past basic decoding; they can’t make the necessary inferences because they don’t know enough. Hence, knowledge is at the core of reading comprehension. I think we can assume that middle class students will pick up this knowledge; all those discussions with parents and trips to museums. It is working class students from deprived backgrounds that are disadvantaged by a de-emphasising of knowledge, turning these romantic notions into instruments of social immobility.


      • suecowley says:

        But then isn’t that an argument for a massive focus on the early years to get children reading and understanding, rather than on Dickens at secondary level? (And incidentally a very good argument against ‘pure’ synthetic phonics.) At our preschool we do all these things with children that you seem to believe are not possible for students from certain backgrounds – we go on trips, we focus on talk as a priority, we get involved in approaches such as the story making project, we do yoga, and grow vegetables, we get visitors in to teach the children about rainforest animals, or birds of prey, and so on and on and on. All this ‘knowledge’ can be learned through experience (those museum visits again) as well as through books. I suspect we may just have to agree to disagree as I do not see myself as promoting social immobility, I just don’t buy that argument I’m afraid.


  6. It seems to me that so much of what you want for children is about who they become rather than what they know. For this to work we need schools to connect with each young person to recognise their strengths and to inspire them to make a good and authentic life. I came from a poor background and I had the good fortune to go to schools that did just that, they talked to me about what was possible and what I could achieve.


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