Perspectives on the Purpose of Modern Education

Technapex previously covered a CDW-G report which highlighted the effects that technology is having on traditional lecture-based classroom models. CDW-G interviewed several students and faculty members whose names and ages remained anonymous. Their responses provide insight into the mindsets of students in changing classrooms:

  • “I often got bored during traditional lectures where the teacher would just talk for the full class period. When we watch videos online, do hands on projects, etc., I am better able to learn the material and retain the information long term.”
  • “We are learning to think more independently and learning better time-management skills by doing more classwork virtually.”

I would like to take a closer look at a quote from a student with an interesting viewpoint about school, and offer some thoughts about the purpose of education in a changing world. The student responded:

  • “Technology makes you ready for a real-world experience and makes schoolwork seem more like a job.”

Now there’s a student who sounds beautifully poised for the future. It is my hope that more students are thinking in this way. Is it a stretch to wonder if that student’s response is in any way related to the tough economy and persistent joblessness plaguing the nation? Are students such as that one desiring more technology in the classroom because they feel it will adequately prepare them for careers? These questions are important to ask, especially as alternative higher education models are sprouting up that push their students toward vocational, career-based learning.

What are kids learning at this moment, and how are they learning it? What guarantees do we have that the education our kids are receiving is to the advantage of our society? Let’s take a detour for a moment and examine a thought from American computer scientist Alan Kay. In an interview with Dr. Dobb’s Journal the 72-year-old adjunct professor at UCLA said, “My interest in education is unglamorous. I don’t have an enormous desire to help children, but I have an enormous desire to create better adults.”

American computer scientist Alan Curtis Kay.

Kay was speaking about an experience as a young child when he saw some photographs from a German concentration camp. Years later, he dug up the magazine with the photographs and realized that adults can be very dangerous. It prompted his interest in education and “creating better adults.” Kay went on to a career as a prominent computer scientist, coining the popular phrase “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” He also pioneered the One Laptop Per Child educational platform, which is supported by two non-profit organizations to oversee the creation of affordable educational devices for the developing world.

The reason I bring up Alan Kay is to provide a scholarly context to the anonymous student’s quote about school providing preparation for the “real world.” As the world changes around us and technology continues to shapes our adult lives, it becomes crucial for educators to teach children with their tech-driven adult transformations in mind. The kids of today will grow up to be the career holders of tomorrow, and employment these days is largely concerned with technology’s role in the world. The above-quoted student appears to understand this. He or she appears to understand that in order for education to mean something, it must prepare them for real-world experiences, and using technology in the class is one way of achieving that.

Of course, that student can be one of a painful few number of kids who think about education in this fashion. Or the meaning I am deriving from his or her words could be a significant stretch. The student’s words spurred my thinking about the purpose of education in a changing world, and my thinking about technology morphing education.

I once met a teacher who unreservedly identified her vocation as the “most important work of democracy” and dared anyone to challenge her claim. A teacher’s objective is to aid in the development of “better adults” on whom each generation can rely to lead us into the uncertain future with confidence and clear thinking. This future may be uncertain, but the fact that it will be characterized in several ways by the impact of technology on our lives is very likely. When a student responds to a global IT leader’s survey on technology use in the classroom and reports that the usage of educational devices makes school like a job that prepares for the real world, there is actually a wealth of meaning in those words. That student is looking on his or her education as the means to bring him or her out of childhood and into the world of responsibility that ought to characterize every American adult’s life.

What thoughts do you have on the purpose of education?