Is the goal of education “learning”?
Pretty much everything you hear and read about education these days assumes that “learning” is the goal for our students. And all this focus on “learning” — how it occurs, whether it’s happening, how to measure it, how to make more of it happen better and faster is leading us astray from our real goals.
Our real goal in educating our kids, and sending them to school, is NOT learning. The real goal of education, and of school, is becoming — becoming a “good” person, becoming a more capable person then when you started, and becoming someone who is world-improving.
Learning is nothing but a means of accomplishing the goal of becoming, and it is misleading to confuse the ends with the means.
Learning might be the right aspiration if we wanted our children to become learnèd (in the old sense of “knowing stuff”), or scholars, as some parents and teachers still demand.
But that’s hardly today’s ambition for most of us — or our kids. Although we all like our kids’ getting good grades, what we really want, through education, is for our children to become the very best people they can be, capable of effective thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing — in whatever field they enjoy and have a passion for.
Yet, with the exception of some independent schools and the small character-based education movement, the only type of becoming that our conversation about education and school seems to focus on is the one in which young people “become” a member of a particular college class.
School focuses almost exclusively on kids’ learning four basic subjects: math, English, science, and social studies (My personal acronym for this is the MESS). Our tests — big and small —are an attempt to put numbers around learning the MESS and to rank students in their acquisition of it. Ad infinitum we ask: How much are our kids learning? Are they learning enough? What is the best way to measure their learning? How do they learn best? What gets in the way of their learning? Are their schools making adequate yearly progress?
But wouldn’t it be more instructive — to our kids and to us — if, instead of asking our kids “What did you learn in school today?” we asked them “What did you become today that you weren’t before?” If we asked “Have you moved in a positive direction to better yourself and society?” That’s the information we really want to know as concerned parents, citizens, employers, and taxpayers.
Rarely do we require our K-12 kids to become anything because of school — besides good test-takers. We certainly don’t expect them, by means of their education, to become what the Dalai Lama would call “good” people. Nor do we expect them to become good thinkers, actors, relaters, or particularly effective in our rapidly changing world, except, perhaps, in tiny and often outmoded number of ways. We talk with students about “changing the world,” but rarely do we use their school time to do projects that actually improve the world.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with our kids’ learning; in fact, there is a great deal to be said in favor of it. But it should be seen as a means to an end. Learning for its own sake — enjoyable as some may find it — is pale compared to learning as a means to becoming. There are probably billions of people in the world who have finished school without “becoming” what they could have — people who may have acquired knowledge and skills through their education, but have accomplished little or nothing.
We can do much better.
(Next: A better means to “becoming”. )
Your comments are always welcome.
(Note: A version of this post was originally published in Education Week)
The opinions expressed in Prensky’s Provocative Ed-Tech Thinking are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.