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Not an End in Itself

March 20, 2010

Near my desk at work, I like to post important quotations to keep me reflective and inspired.  One of these quotations is from an English educator and writer named Sybil Marshall:

“Education must have an end in view, for it is not an end in itself.”

In the current education climate, that strikes me as an important idea to bear in mind.  We’re all about student learning and measurable outcomes these days, and sometimes, I think we forget why.  The adults can come up with a quick enough answer if we remind them to: our students need critical thinking skills, they need to compete in a global economy, we need to prepare them for jobs that don’t even exist yet, and so on.

The problem is that those reasons don’t resonate with students so much, at least not when presented that way.

So the first sin of omission is that sometimes we are so caught up in helping students develop skills, that we neglect to talk to them about why they need those skills.  Or if we do talk about it, we do it in terms and phrases that mean little to students.  More importantly, we often neglect to model for them how we use those skills, and we neglect to create opportunities for them to use those skills outside the classroom.

But look again at Sybil Marshall’s words.  If we communicate our mission ineffectively and indirectly, we allow people to believe that the end goal of student endeavors is being educated, rather than using education.  Debates that fetishize statistics and test results do a similar disservice.  Educated, yes, but why? Our students need opportunities to experience the usefulness of being educated, rather than just receiving grades and test results that tell them they’re educated.

Much of the broader educational debate misses this important point.  Too few people are asking why.  National arguments about education policy fail to reach any consensus about teaching practices because we haven’t first agreed on teaching purposes.

In my own practice, though I still have much to improve, I know that I’m effective when I provide structures that support student choice and independence, giving them chances to read, write, speak and listen for reasons that are meaningful to them.  Such views are criticized by some who think “constructivism” is rudderless and relativist.  I would counter that education that doesn’t lead to construction isn’t even education – it’s just transmission.

In fact, the Latin word educare means “draw out.”  Our purpose should be to equip students with skills and support to pull something new out of the themselves – to extract a better self.

Daniel Pink talks about the three underlying conditions that motivate people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  What teachers know from the classroom is that students will not take our word for it that education is a separate endeavor, and that if they study, they may enjoy autonomy, mastery, and purpose later in life.  We need to offer all of that now, because motivated students will practice the skills we hope to teach, and practice makes perfect.

We can offer direct writing instruction all day long and half our students will tune out.  We can offer students a chance to write for their peers, community, or even a national or international audience, and they will take it upon themselves to look up spelling and double-check grammar, to ask for additional rewrite opportunities, and to produce the best work they can.  When we tell students what to read, half of them won’t.  When we can give them opportunities to do something important and worthwhile that will involve reading, then they’ll come to us for reading recommendations and go search independently for other sources.

If you work in a school, or spend time in one because of your own children, look for this dynamic playing out in classrooms.  Students acting with a sense of autonomy and purpose will be motivated to develop mastery.  Look for the students engaged in self-directed research, community events, blogging, or interdisciplinary projects.  Teachers who facilitate this work are helping students learn content and practice skills in ways that will stick with students for a lifetime.  Meanwhile, students told to demonstrate mastery without autonomy or purpose will more likely master the skill of repeating what they’re told, rather than pulling out something new, important, and dynamic – something worthy of the word “education.”

If you’re stuck in an office or a board room, or some other isolated place from which you offer up opinions about students and teachers and schools, get out to a school and see what I mean.  Stop thinking about education as a goal, and think of it as a means to a greater end.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Edward C permalink
    March 20, 2010 8:10 pm

    Insightful and thoughtful. After many years of schooling and “transmission”, I look back upon those times when I did independent research for a paper as those times when I learned and grew the most. I chose the topic, usually from a broad offering, but I was going to make it mine.

    I heartily endorse the views in the paragraph beginning, “We can offer…”. However, those truths apply to the already motivated student. Do you think the same is true of the student who, for whatever (family, social, cultural, linguistic, etc) reason lacks the necessary motivation? Some of the wrong-headed external attempts at a fix, are driven by the idea that if the teacher’s job is linked to a measureable outcome, the teacher will somehow be able to overcome the student’s obstacles.

    Your thoughts on movivation?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 21, 2010 12:30 am

      I highly recommend that Daniel Pink video. I only watched it once, but it was quite effective. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. If we accept the idea that everyone wants these – even if they don’t know it – then I think we have some tools to look at an unmotivated student, or undermotivated student, and consider how to help. For the students who struggle most, the problem is probably in all three realms, and the biggest mistake of “back-to-basics” advocates is that they think mastery is the only place to start when all three are a problem and a balanced approach can help all three at once. Some people believe that students have to know how to do something well enough before we grant them any autonomy or allow them to explore their own purposes. How does that mesh with what we know from everyday observations of learning? Most of what we learn doesn’t come from the pursuit of mastery in the absence of purpose and autonomy. That’s why the little kids who can barely hold a bat and never catch a pop fly still play baseball games and don’t just have practices. That’s why there are recitals for the piano students whose internal metronomes are still not ready for prime time.

      One other thing I’ll say about motivation is that it shouldn’t come from “bells and whistles” and entertaining gimmickry. That stuff works in the short term – it helps generate attention, engagement, and perhaps a brief, external motivation. Teaching a lesson that involves humor or food will get students’ to focus. They’ll cooperate and participate. But in the long run, an engaging but ineffective lesson does not help with mastery or purpose. I’ve seen teachers and even college professors whose charisma was quite compelling. Some were wonderful and caring people who had a positive influence on their students, and some were really cultivating a following. But the motivation I’m aiming for lasts beyond my time with a student. If my absence diminishes their motivation, then I haven’t been successful. Perhaps in a future blog entry, I’ll tell a longer story about the most vivid example I’ve seen of a student finding motivation, and explain how little that process actually had to do with me trying to give motivation.

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