Monday, August 22, 2011

The purpose of an education

As millions of kids start back to school today, and millions of teachers re-enter the classroom, I thought I would take the time to share with you something that was never addressed during my education classes.  It is, I believe, the reason that our education system is in so much trouble - we have lost sight of the purpose of an education.

There are some children who can be motivated to excel in the classroom simply based upon the fact that they desire to please the teacher or to please their parents.  There are some children, however, who will never be motivated to learn until they understand why they are learning what they are learning.  Until a child is motivated to learn, no amount of effort on the part of a teacher or a parent will induce them to learn.

Unfortunately, most adults - including teachers - can no longer articulate to a child why they are learning what they are learning in a way that is meaningful.  In the two years that I spent taking elementary education classes, we discussed what to teach and how to teach it. We discussed learning styles and personality types. We discussed lesson planning and classroom management.

Never once did we discuss why we were teaching what we were teaching.  This is a serious problem.  If we, as adults, do not understand the true purpose of an education we have no hope of communicating that purpose to children in a way that is meaningful to them.

Talking about future jobs or future opportunities is meaningless to someone who is 7 or 10 or 14. They don't have the life experience necessary to understand why that matters.  Talking about college is pointless to most kids, especially kids who already dislike school and can't imagine spending money to sit in a classroom for more years than they are legally required.

Talking about it being the law is equally pointless and simply causes the child to feel as if the adults are out to control him or her. Trying to convince the child on the basis of how the adults feel about it is manipulative and fails more often than it succeeds.  I know. I tried all of this with my own son from kindergarten all the way through his first time in 7th grade.  Nothing worked.

I was pulling my hair out (almost literally), until the day I did something I should have done from the start.  I prayed to God for help.

Two hours later, it hit me that education is nothing more than a toolbox handed down from one generation to the next.  Inside that toolbox is everything the student needs to answer the questions they naturally have about life, the universe, and their place in it. Education is not an effort by adults to control children, but an effort to give children the tools they need to control themselves and to develop to the fullest the potential that lies within them.

Each portion of a well-rounded education is important. Speech enables a child to exchange information with the people closest to them.  Reading enables a child to learn from a broader selection of people - including those who have died.

Writing enables a child to exchange information with people regardless of distance, and to record the information they have learned to pass on to future generations.  Grammar is the key that unlocks the code of writing and allows for reading. Learning a foreign language widens the circle of people from whom a child may learn.

Science allows a child to test the information they have received from others to see whether it may be trusted or not. Math permits the child to analyze the results found through scientific investigation, to learn how to solve problems, and to recognize and apply the patterns they find in life. 

History is the study of all the social experiments people have conducted in the past and the results of those experiments so that a child may learn from both the mistakes and successes of others and begin to understand why their world is the way it is.

Government allows a child to know the rights he has and how to exercise those rights so that no one may take them from him.  Economics teaches a child how to control his money so that his money does not control him.

In art we explore the world from someone else's perspective and, in it, we learn that there is much more to the truth than any one individual can experience by themselves.  Music is a universal language of applied math (fractions and timing) and science (frequencies and vibrations).  Dance is the body's natural response to music.

Health is about learning to care for the body and the brain so that the child can continue to seek and find answers to their questions. Physical education applies part of what is learned in health, keeping the body fit and ready to serve the child in any way needed.

Though these last two subjects may be disputed by many, they are just as essential to a well-rounded education as any of the other subjects.  Here, I talk about philosophy and religion.  Philosophy is a quest for the truth - the truth about what is right and wrong and how one can know those things.

Religion is a quest for the answer to the biggest question of all: Why am I here?  Finding answers to these questions is crucial to the development of an individual as a moral and purpose-filled individual. It is instruction in how to have meaningful relationships both with God and with other human beings.

So, the next time your child or student asks you why they are learning a subject, or why they must go to school, you now have something to tell them other than "Because I said so!". 

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