Education that transforms individuals and society

Educators recognize that formal schooling focuses on academic skills and content, but also has as its goal equipping people to be successful, contributing members of society. While teaching has as a primary focus a certain amount of academic pursuit, I think teaching and learning must find the balance between meeting the personal learning needs of the students and meeting the learning and socialization needs of society.

Some might argue that there was a time when the burden of moral teaching and upbringing was mainly placed on the family and the church, and public schools were free to focus on the academic and intellectual growth of the student, but I don’t believe this has ever been entirely true. Not so long ago the majority of students in public education were taught to read using the Bible, and democratic ideals and morality have always been infused in the public school curriculum. I believe the reason for this is fairly self-evident. As Thomas Jefferson wrote,”Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree (Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell).” Teaching and learning, therefore, have the elements of academic pursuit and personal actualization, and the overarching purpose of preserving personal liberty, national sovereignty, and societal wellbeing. It is the role of the teacher to somehow balance these varied pursuits in order to serve the students entrusted to his or her care.

For quite some time now, it seams to me, education has focused on raising academic standards. This is good. But let us not lose sight of the students in our pursuit of academia. Academic standards and learning goals, certainly, must remain at the heart of all we do, but must not rigidly dominate the school at the expense of the very students we are here to serve. Jean Piaget expressed that teachers needed to understand the steps in the development of the child’s mind. The very basis of learning, he believed, was discovery: “To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition (To Understand Is to Invent, 1973).”  In “Experience & Education (Macmillan, 1938/1997)” John Dewey maintained that good education had to have both a societal purpose and a purpose for the individual student. He contrasted two extremes in education; structured, didactic, traditional education with unstructured, student-directed liberal education. He argued that education tends to err on one side or the other of this paradigm war rather than striking a balance that is rooted in an understanding of human experience. The value of human experience, Dewey asserts, is to be judged by the effect that experience has on the student’s present, their future, and the extent to which the student is able to contribute to society. I believe Dewey’s understanding of the interconnectedness of personal experience and educational practice is critical to powerful teaching and learning.

Dewey (1933) saw the human mind as a meaning-making organ, relentlessly driven to make sense of its world. Realizing that making meaning of our world is a complex process that requires both intellectual and social-emotional growth is important if we are to effectively educate our students. We must constantly strive to find the balance between individual needs and the broad academic and social goals of education.   In the end, this is the transformative power of education – to guide students in developing the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their goals and, in so doing, make a positive impact on the world around them.

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