Why do we educate?

As John Dewey proclaimed, education is a lifelong “continual process of reconstruction of experience” (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008a, p101). What characterises meaningful education for one, may be entirely inappropriate for someone else. I believe the unifying factor is that we are all continually growing, learning and evolving as we attempt to make sense of the world. Education is not limited to classrooms or schools, nor is it specific to children. However, as a future early childhood/primary school teacher, I will use the terms “teachers,” “children” and “schools” to refer to the broad range of educators, learners and learning communities across the lifespan.

The Purpose of Education

I believe that the fundamental purpose of education is to cultivate an intrinsic love of learning, through a developing awareness of self, of others; and of our interconnection with the world.

Specifically, the learning environment must ensure that learners:

  • experience connected relationships;
  • have their developmental needs met and valued; and
  • develop flexible skills and motivation to adapt and thrive in an unseen, unpredictable future.

Connected relationships

Education, at its heart, is a human endeavour which cannot exist without attentive relationships (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d). Empathy, authenticity and respect for the whole person are paramount.

A foundation built on humanistic or child-centred education philosophies resonates with me strongly. In particular, the work of Maria Montessori, backed by humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, who understood the necessity of meeting the basic physiological and psychological needs of the child, to guide them to self-actualisation (Weinberg, D. R., 2011).

Education is as much a process of exploring identity, moral reasoning and socio-emotional skills, as it is for academic pursuits.

Nel Noddings agrees that the process and outcomes of education, need to enrich lives and create compassionate, collaborative and reflective communities (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d). “Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework” (EYLF) supports the conviction that connected relationships are a prerequisite for engaged learning.  The EYLF illustrates how quality relationships extend beyond the teacher/child trust relationship, to forming a sense of personal identity, negotiating peer friendships, finding a sense of belonging to the group and eventually assuming skilful and knowledgeable roles within the local and global community (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009). The western inclination to administer schools on a business model of success, intent on delivering content and testing for compliance, is undermining the crucial role that connection and compassion contribute to growing well-adjusted, capable human beings (Robinson, K., 2010).

Developmental needs

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was influential in dispelling the beliefs of John Locke, that children are born, “tabula rasa,” a blank slate or empty vessel for filling with knowledge (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008c). Rousseau asserted that human beings are born innately good, with distinct personalities, temperaments and a propensity toward learning and seeking to understand (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008f). Locke’s position starkly undervalues the distinctively strong, capable and resilient nature of children (Dodd-Nufrio, A.T. (2011).

Noddings counsels that curriculum should be planned around key life phases (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d). We must honour individual growth and engage with children at their present point of emerging understanding. Dewey discouraged imposed or pressured introductions to reading, writing and abstract concepts outside of the child’s social experiences (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008a). Readiness is key when evaluating both behaviour and attentiveness to learning.

Maria Montessori was influential in attributing value to developmental readiness and for recognising that, every child is a whole person who will progress through the stages of physical, mental and emotional development, in their own time. Learning is an individual process of building understanding and unearthing personal capacity (Gutek, G.L, 2001). Moral development advances as the child matures from an egocentric perspective to an altruistic worldview (Cain, R., 2005).

Flexible skills and motivation

In the conceptual age, where technology is continually changing the way we live and communicate, creativity, inquisitiveness, critical processing of ever-expanding information, lateral (right-brain) thinking, problem-solving, design, collaboration and empathy, will be the most desirable future skills (Pink, D.H., 2006). The broadly accepted tradition of single curriculum for all, devised for an era that required specifically skilled, yet compliant workers, is no longer justified (Zhao, Y., 2016). The escalating dominance of the standards movement is actively working against creativity through its insistence on rewarding sameness (Robinson, K. & Aranica, L., 2016).

Children need to develop capacities to become active and responsible members of democratic society (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008a). Effective interpersonal skills for collaboration and social interaction, as well as intrapersonal skills including mindfulness for emotional well-being, will become vital for navigating the future with enthusiasm and empathy (Ozmon, H.A. & Craver, S.M., 2008b). Emphasis on creating original solutions to problems and entrepreneurial ability to apply concepts, ideas and philosophies to life, is predicted to replace memorising answers for standardised tests (Zhao, Y., 2016).

Although, eastern philosophies like Confucius’ vision of education for a harmonious society is an admirable goal, the suggested approaches prioritise “societal harmony” at the expense of the self. Furthermore, the constraints of a hierarchical structure undermine the central concept of mutual respect (Gutek, G.L., 2011). However, we can learn extensively from the central values of Buddhist education, by concentrating on:

  • collaboration over competition;
  • altruism over ambition; and
  • realising that genuine wellbeing is accomplished through caring for others (Bohdi, B., 1998).

Roles of the teacher and the learner

The teacher’s role is one of facilitator, mentor and guide. It is the function of a teacher to formulate a thorough understanding of what is important to each child, their individual capabilities, interests and prior experiences (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008a). The teacher is trusted to prepare the classroom with thought-provoking, developmentally appropriate integrated content and resources and foster an atmosphere that encourages and guides dialogue to strengthen skills for inquiry, discovery and reflection in the learner (Gutek, G.L., 2001; Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d).

Matthew Lipman appeals to teachers to encourage children to challenge the status quo, even when the teacher’s personal perceptions are confronted (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008b). The role of “carer” is not exclusive to the teacher and “cared for” is not confined to the learner. A pivotal part of the teacher’s role is to nurture the caring capacities of each child, by demonstrating and becoming an ally, who truly receives and authenticates what the child is expressing (Johnson T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d). As the learner’s self-image is emerging, the teacher is also on a parallel journey of evolving identity and growth. The child’s role is to be receptive and to reciprocate care and attention with interest, effort and appreciation of being understood (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d).

Parker Palmer expresses it well.  

“Good teaching comes from identity, not technique, but if I allow my identity to guide me toward an integral technique, that technique can help me express my identity more fully.” (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008e, p 295).

Teachers play a supporting role in guiding children to work through and cope with their feelings, negotiate conflicts and learn pro-social behaviour, in contrast to a punitive approach of dispensing penalties. This responsibility necessitates a deep understanding of holistic child development, encompassing socio-emotional, moral, ego, physical and cognitive perspectives (Cain, R., 2005). Embracing reasonable developmental expectations of children’s ability to comprehend and focus, are critical for building self-belief in the child.

Methods of education

The most effective educational approaches, which have a clear objective of developing a love of learning, place the utmost significance on the question:

How will this benefit the child?

Methodologies that put educational and behavioural outcomes, ahead of the well-being of the child, do not fit with a caring approach. While behaviourist techniques, such as those endorsed by Skinner, may elicit a desired response through rewards and punishments, it is inauthentic and counter-productive for encouraging empathy and caring (Ozmon, H.A. & Craver, S.M., 2008a; Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d). Behaviourism at best coerces children to work for extrinsic rewards, rather than self-fulfilment and at worst, crushes self-esteem and breeds stress and anxiety. While there is a place for behaviourism in understanding behaviour, I am strongly opposed to using this technique for control and coercion of others.

Dewey advocated the importance of play and self-activity as an ongoing process of a developing awareness (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008a). Noddings also argues that a universal curriculum for all is detrimental. She advocates for programmes of study that integrate themes of caring into traditional subjects and for developing “centres of care” which group children by interest, instead of age or ability (Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F., 2008d).

A classroom that affords children the autonomy to express themselves will acquire the skills and awareness to protect the needs of the collective (Cain, R., 2005). A commitment to play and experiential learning is indispensable in the early years through to age seven. When children show holistic developmental readiness, gradual transition to a framework which includes a balance of inquiry, explicit literacy and numeracy instruction and project work for encouraging creativity and problem solving. As children mature, they can be afforded more autonomy to manage their time and begin to explore topics through both hands-on and research assignments. The high school years should present students with choices and goal setting to design their individual educational path, without the limitations of year levels or a standardised curriculum (Burke, K., 2016). Integrated themes, investigation stations, a willingness to make mistakes and Socratic inquiry opportunities are central features of education needed for the intangible future (Robinson, K., 2010). 

I believe that teachers and schools have a duty of care to cultivate an intrinsic love of learning. Consequently, nurturing connected relationships and developing the child’s sense of identity, awareness of others and belonging within the community, must take precedence. Emphasis on personal growth and improvement should take preference to ranking and comparison of imposed standards. The teacher’s comprehensive understanding and respect for holistic developmental readiness, is foundational for supporting learners to develop the confidence, competence and motivation, to become active contributors in their local community and the increasingly global world.

Amy Cox


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Burke, K. (2016). Module 3 EDC1300 – The Future of Education. Retrieved 14 September 2016, from http://usqstudydesk.usq.edu.au/m2/pluginfile.php/1004257/mod_resource/content/1/EDC1300%20Module%203%20study%20guide%202016.pdf

Cain, R. (2005). Moral Development in Montessori Environments. Montessori Life, 17(1), 18-20.

Commonwealth of Australia (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.coag.gov.au/sites/default/files/early_years_learning_framework.pdf

Dodd-Nufrio, A.T. (2011). Reggio Emilia, Maria Montessori and John Dewey: Dispelling teachers’ misconceptions and understanding theoretical foundations. Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(4), 235-237

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Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F. (2008e). Parker J. Palmer. In Philosophical Documents in Education. (3rd ed., pp. 289-311). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Johnson, T.W. & Reed, R.F. (2008f). Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Philosophical Documents in Education. (3rd ed., pp. 72-81). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Pink, D.H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead.

Ozmon, H.A. & Craver, S.M. (2008a). Behaviourism and Education. In Philosophical Foundations of Education (8th ed., pp 191-223). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

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Robinson, K. (2010). Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms. TED talks. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms

Robinson, K. & Aranica, L. (20). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. Great Britain, UK: Penguin Books.

Weinberg, D. R. (2011). Montessori, Maslow, and Self-Actualization. Montessori Life, 23(4), 16-21.

Zhao, Y. (2012). World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


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