Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

A Place to Begin!

Glittering Generality—an emotionally appealing word or phrase so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that it carries conviction without supporting information or reason. (Examples: patriotism, success, goodness, democracy, love, justice, equality)


he debate about the state of public education has been, and continues to be, one of the most hotly contested topics of the past several decades. Unfortunately, like so many other important societal issues, complex ideas are typically reduced to sound bites—to "glittering generalities"—a propaganda technique that seeks to make people approve and accept an idea without examining the evidence. If we are to avoid being unduly influenced by these sound bites, we must dig below the "virtue word" and analyze the the merits of the idea itself.

For example, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) conjured up a pitiful image of children being abandoned on the path to success as their peers race happily toward a bright future. What hard-hearted person could possibly suggest that a program designed to give those poor children an equal shot at success is not in the best interest of this country's citizens. Who would risk being accused of the "soft bigotry of low expectations?" Bogged down in the emotional tone of the phrase, few think to ask the question "Left behind what?" The phrase assumes that, in order to achieve "success," everyone must follow the same linear path at the same rate. Is that true? Few reflect on whether all children of a given age should be, want to be, or even can be in the same place as all other children of that age.

Race to the Top simply shifted the horizontal orientation of NCLB to a vertical representation. Again, the implication was that getting to the top (of what?) signified success. But this time, the government would pit states against one another, rewarding those with ideas about how to "get to the top" faster with larger monetary rewards. But wasn't it more important that "everyone" reach the top? Did states need to be "incentivized" to work equally hard for all children?

The latest and greatest federal attempt to "fix" education is entitled the Every Student Succeeds Act! How can any caring person object to this idea? Don't we want every child—every person—to be successful? But once again, the "feel-good" language lulls us into ignoring a very important question. What, specifically, do the authors of this law mean by succeed?

The dictionary defines success as "the accomplishment of a desired aim or purpose." What is your definition of success? What aim or purpose would you have to accomplish to consider yourself a success? Is it the same for everyone? Here are just a few quotes pulled from a quick Internet search.

To what definition is the government referring when they promote the success of every student? Although they never define the word, it's relatively easy to figure out what behaviors they consider successful…and therefore, should be everyone's ultimate goal.

In our "sound bite" culture, many people simply pick up bits and pieces of educational rhetoric without any real thought about what the words mean and how those meanings play out in the decisions made in schools on a day to day basis.

Starting With Questions Rather Than Answers


hatever questions led to the "answers" now being proposed by everyone from educational policy makers to "experts" and reformers, to teachers and parents, those questions have long been forgotten. If we hope to develop an informed view of what education is and/or should be, we must begin at the beginning. We must set aside all of our ideologies. We must question all of our assumptions. As we explore these questions, we can take another look at the research leading to the most meaningful answers. While this will not necessarily guarantee agreement, it will at least force us to make choices based on facts rather than sound bites or emotion-laden glittering generalities.

Question Everything!

Here are just a few of those questions, each of which will be explored in various articles on this website. As the questions suggest, education is an extremely complex issue in which many factors interact. Ignoring any of those factors will lead to incomplete answers and poor decisions, as they have already done. Links are provided to get you started on some of the questions.

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. How has the history, culture, and values of the times affected the purpose of education?
  3. Has the role of public education changed over time? Do today's public schools fit the needs of society at this point in time?
  4. How does the stated purpose of education affect the pedagogy and methodology?
  5. What beliefs and assumptions now drive American education?
  6. To what extent is public education consistent with research findings about learning?
  7. What does it mean to learn?
  8. What is the relationship between learning and teaching? For example, can one learn with a teacher? Can one teach without any learning taking place?
  9. Is there a direct relationship between what a teacher does and how well students learn?
  10. Is there an agreed-upon body of essential knowledge and skills that all children need in order to function effectively in the world? If so, what is included?
  11. What is authentic learning?
  12. What role does developmental readiness play in learning?
  13. Is developmental readiness determined by age?
  14. Is a child who learns literacy and numeracy at an early age smarter than one who attains these skills at a later age?
  15. What are standards?
    How did their use in education begin?
    Are standards an appropriate structure for education?
  16. What are expectations? What role do expectations play in learning?
  17. Is there a direct relationship between standards and expectations?
  18. Are there conditions that support or inhibit learning? Are any current educational practices counterproductive to learning?
  19. What is motivation and what role does it play in learning?
  20. What is the meaning of assessment? Does assessment require measurement?
  21. Can learning be measured? Can it be assessed?
  22. What is the purpose of standardized tests? What do they claim to "measure?" What do they actually measure?
  23. What is the role of accountability in learning, teaching, and education?
  24. Is the same type of learning environment appropriate for all learners?
  25. How can schools provide equal access to learning to all children?
  26. What paradigm currently forms the foundation of public education in the United States? Are there any alternate paradigms that might prove more effective?
  27. Is the one-size-fits-all standardized education now mandated in most public schools consistent with research on how chldren naturally learn?
  28. If schools are "failing," what are they "failing" to do?
  29. Is school choice a viable way to "fix" education?

These questions barely scratch the surface, but they are a place to begin. In these pages, you will find articles that explore each of the questions and analyze how the current "answers" influence the educational environment and the learning of our children. Because each question provides insight into a small piece of the complex educational puzzle, the reader will find many links to other articles that provide more information on relevant terms. I invite you to "follow the breadcrumbs" in whatever way you find valuable. Hopefully, you will gain insight into what is currently being done to our children in the name of "success."

  1. Kohn, Alfie. (Jan 29, 2013) Five Bad Education Assumptions the Media Keeps Recycling, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/08/29/five-bad-education-assumptions-the-media-keeps-recycling/

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