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Under Construction: The Objective of Education

alesnick's picture

Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education
K-12 Summer Institute 2010



  Session 14

The Purpose of Education?

Alice Lesnick


. . . I can not predict the output from each student based on my input. Each student processes the ideas generated in our class via different pathways. The output is affected by both the pathways traveled by the input and the output generated by the students' brains without input that affect the input.  Susan Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE

The conversations gave me an opportunity to express myself with less fear than usual.  Regina

Find out where my students are and then give them what they need to move.
Paul says that “they need to feel that there is a future that they can change”.  Joyce

. . . again and again and again.  Jack

NY Times: A Scientist Takes on Gravity 7/13/10  Readers' Comments

Response to NY Times article

Ask a Physicist: Life Without Gravity

The purpose of education: preparation or ... living?



alesnick's picture

define rigor?

Hi Ashley,

Would you say more about how you think about/with the "rigor?"  I share the concern that an open and inclusive system also needs to be a challenging one -- is there a way to think about inclusiveness and challenge that doesn't set them in opposition to each other?


Jessica Watkins's picture

It's All About Diversity

The metaphor of inquiry as a horizontal plane, not a mountain with a reachable "peak" or pinnacle, was particularly compelling.  It not only implies that inquiry is a process experienced by all and attainable by students at all levels, but that it is a never-ending process. We never stop walking across this plane, regardless of what point we are at in our lives or how much we already know.  And since the learning process is constant, the possibility of the young teaching the old (or the "unintelligent" teaching the seasoned, academic veterans) becomes more likely.  It's all about embracing and accepting diversity of thought, gender, culture, and everything in between, which means letting students bring their unique views and contributions to the classroom. 

Which means teachers must be:

  • patient
  • self-restraining (In other words, let students express their full view before jumping in to correct them if they're "wrong!")
  • willing to give up some authority
  • not ashamed of putting themselves on the level of students who are "less educated" merely because of their lower status
  • humble (They are in the process of learning, just like their students.)


RecycleJack Marine's picture

Alice's Restaurant

Dear Alice,

 I really enjoyed your format for learning!

I wish you and Paul much success in your endeavor to decipher what education is out to do for the child. Wil and I were trying to figure out how freedom and liberation, or for that matter, how integration and freedom are opposites. If you use integration in the way that students were integrated into another school system, maybe they achieved freedom from the reigns of oppression that stifled them in the schools they were in before. In this way, freedom and integration actually compliment rather than oppose each other. So what I am suggesting is, watch your word use, or explain your word use better so that lay persons understand what you mean to say!

alesnick's picture


Thanks, Jack.  What you say about how freedom and survival/integration are not always opposites is important.  Are you saying that we need to be clearer about how that is not always so? 

Also, if you care to offer it, I would welcome more feedback on what you mean by my format for learning. 


Mattie Davis's picture

Education: Preparation or...Living

A major part of my education, for as long as I can recall, tended to be based on the notion that there many possibilities in life if you get a "good education", and that that good education prepares you for a better life.  Most boundaries and guidelines surrounding what was acceptable and what was not were very limiting.  The idea of an open-ended approach to teaching, allowing diversity in its natural state to exist was practically unheard of.  Integration and freedom are a part of life.  Survival and liberation are also a part of life.  Education could be thought of as not just learning things in life, but as life itself.    

alesnick's picture

how ideas are silenced

I appreciate the idea that the notion of accepting/embracing diversity in its natural state is often unheard of.  I feel as if one purpose of education, if we are to foster students as explorers, is to make as many ideas heard of as possible.  And to keep track of how we lose access to them?

Susan Dorfman's picture

Education: Perhaps it should be about an approach

This afternoon's reading of excerpts from Paul and Alice's paper and the discussion that ensued stimulated me to think that education is not so much about teaching, learning, and grades as it is about an approach to learning that each person must develop for herself or himself.  As a teacher, I can be a role model and provide the tools, materials, and opportunities for my students to explore and revise the stories of their unconscious brains. As a teacher of a specific content, biology, I will provide the framework for the exploration in my course as I suspect the teachers of other content must. My job will also be to initiate the connections among the different frameworks whenever there is an opportunity to do so. I will also give thought to the widely used hero approach to education- talking only about those people who have achieved recognition in the content. While these role models are important, I will continue to ask students in the high school to share their experiences in science with the middle school students.


Kim Fuller's picture

You Must Be Ready!!

It is the responsibility of the educator to be ready for his/her students at all times. If you do not know what is supposed to happen in a give class how do one expect the student to be willing and ready to go. It is a benefit to the educator to be ready for the class so that they now are ready for that student that is board easy and will disrupt your class room before you can get yourself together and get started. You have to be ready when they walk in the door.

A process that was created to keep the schools and the teaching staff on top of if has become the very thing that hinders the school and the teaching staff. (PSSA testing)  I believe that some testing is needed but this test is a disruption to the very process of what is supposed to be done to and for the student. Somebody needs to come up with a better way, perhaps not as often.


We also have to offer our students more options for careers so that their job opportunity are better. 
So people make it without the formal education but we must encourage our students to get as much of an education as they can get.  Having two careers is not a bad idea.



Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

2nd Tuesday PM

This segment was rich for me in that I realize, yet again, just how lax society is (and is willing to become), even in Education.  As we read the handout Mrs. Resnick shared with us, I noticed the first reader did not start at the beginning and no one redirected them to do so.  I believe there is learning in the details.  When we don't teach our students to respect the details by paying attention to them, I believe their success is not as successful as it has the potential to be.  For example, this could easily be the difference between earning a 3.8 and a 4.0, and in terms of quality points, cause one to miss the Deans' List by one sad.  Where, had they paid attention to the details this might not have been the case.  Now is making the Deans' List the most important aspect of a person's university experience...probably not; at least not for this conversation.  However, it is not a negative experience/aspiration.  I believe it is more important to start at the start and move forward...being as prepared as a person more of an advantage than the person who just starts somewhere and goes anywhere.  In saying that, I believe there are those journeys with merit in just getting going and seeing where you go.  I agree that doing something is better than doing nothing; realizing that nothing is something.

My grandmother taught me how to set a table, my mother taught me which to use for what, and both of them taught me table manners...not putting my elbows on the table, not singing/dancing/ or whistling at the table, eat with on hand keeping the other in my lap across my napkin, not being late to the table, and washing my hands before coming to the table (even to the point of using finger bowls after eating finger food while at the table).  Once taught these social skills, I sat at the table with everyone else and used this knowledge set, as I watched and demonstrated what was modeled before me.  Had I not be taught these globally accepted rules, I would have been totally unprepared, and less accepted, in family and foreign settings.  My point is that there is more to life than just letting everyone go for themselves and wherever they end up is fine, because it's their experience or story.  Many things in life must be taught, as well as modeled.  There is an essential component of learning that is imparted in the conversation of teaching that simply modeling will not and can not relay.  These are all aspects that have made us socially adept and without them we would be socially inept and unacceptable in personal and profession settings.

As a career educator I have sat through many superintendents and their 'vision'.  Every time there is a regime change, the baby often gets thrown out with the bath water.  That is to say that programs that are working get scraped and we start something new, yet again.  This provides instability for the teacher and the students, the parents and the community as well.  One the of entities that benefits the most is the book publishers.  They bank on decision maker turn over, because they know this profits them.  Often it is proven that the decision makers are getting kickbacks for this.  How sad.  I am all for making a profit; although I am not interested in these types of kickbacks.  These benefits comes at the detriment of effective programs where teaching and learning is taking place.  School districts spend fortunes on professional development and training, only to have to 're-tool' and spend again with the next new idea and/or changing of the guard.   ...and we wonder why itinerant and after school programs are always getting cut, thus leaving students at a disadvantage for extra-curricular learning, activities, and exploring.


alesnick's picture

learning via direct instruction and experience

I appreciate this critique -- being able to "sit at the table" and be recognized as belonging there and thus invited to participate is achieved at least in part via direct instruction by elders.  To me, this is analogous to teaching kids in school to use the conventions of academia (like the proper utensils for a meal), not so that they believe in them and can never question them, but so they can participate in conventional spaces and be seen as legitimately there.  To me, a question is how to teach conventions (not whether to teach them): to enable choice and a space for generative conflict, or to socialize people into not seeing the choice or experiencing the conflict?

joycetheriot's picture

Explorer Model

A really good connection for utilization between the “Explorer” (in the model that Judith and I drew) and the other parts is conversation as Paul suggested.
Best learning can occur when the Explorer is first having an internal conversation (reflection) about the meaning s(he) has discovered. Also important is the safety felt in discussing those meanings with her guides (parents, teachers) without judgment. Equally necessary is peer (conversational) interactions about these ideas within a safe environment often constructed by the guides.


Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

The Purpose of Education

Alice Lesnick's conversation took me through the looking glass of education.  The big question as I understand/perceive it in my mind is how can I engage my students in exploration without infringing on their unconscious or can I?  I enjoyed this conversation because it helps me to understand that diversity in education has taken on many roles/faces and still the "Big" question has not been answered.  How do we engage our explorers?  I am curious to see if this conversation will catch on in the education/business world.  Thanks again for allowing us to see the looking glass in the wonderland of education is still progressing.

cdivo39's picture


The title of this paper struck me, The purpose of education:preperation; education to my mind is neither.  What it is to me is the gaining of knowledge in order to create a more fulfilled and informed life.  Also, it's purpose is to acquire all the knowledge one can so that one can live a purposeful and educated life.

alesnick's picture

know, then live?

To me, this connects with the usefulness of looking to evolution as a model for education.  Do you agree that it terms of evolution, living things, including ourselves, don't learn first, then live/play out that learning, but instead learn and live in a mutually reinforcing process?  If so, I wonder if knowledge is not so much acquired as something already out there and now assimilated,  but constructed -- even at the beginning (when first learning "the basics," for example). 

GShoshana's picture


The teacher needs to be prepared in order to prepare the students.

The teacher needs to give to the student a feeling that he or she has the power to learn in order to shape their future.

In my opinion education is influenced by three different factors: school,  family and community. All of these contribute to the environment in which the child learns.

The difference between parental involvement in schools is vast.  Sometimes parents are overly involved, and other times they are not involved nearly enough.  When they are too involved they take independence away from the student.  I think communication with the family is very important because it makes the student feel like his or her family and teacher are working together to help them succeed in school and in life.

Wil Franklin's picture

Grades anyone?


Very thought provoking conversation this afternoon.  One question that I'd like to explore more is the problem of grading in a system of education as life... education as participation versus preparation.  Seems to me as soon as I assign a grade to a student I undermine and betray all of my work to engage students in this re-imagined world of exploration.  Echoing Alice Lesnick, I place very little stock or value on a student’s ability to demonstrate pre-existing knowledge, at least it is only important in so far as it helps students become more competent at solving problems using the tools in their possession. I place more value on creativity and construction of solutions or answers. If one assumes or sets up the presumption that there are no “truth” only stories and diversity is a source of novelty, then perhaps at least in science I could grade students on the following criteria:

  • Clarity of defining questions or problems
  • Clarity and elegance of methods to explore possibilities
  • Clarity of reporting and synthesizing data
  • Clarity and elegance of solutions/conclusions
  • Level of engagement with conversation as a means to construct all of the above

My hope is this criteria would not betray my goal of helping students become empowered, better problem solvers and comfortable with contextual and uncertain dynamics of the self and society.

Yet, I am still passing judgment when I assign a grade. Is there a way out? How do educators evaluate and assess in a system of education as life.


Keith Sgrillo's picture

The Objective of there or should there really be?

After Alice's presentation, I feel further supported in the idea that, maybe at times, educational planning and the educational expectations that exist need to be completely thrown out the window in order to "truly" inspire creativity and a passion for that creativity.  In my mind, creativity is sparked not through rigid planning, oppressive objectives, and a set of bureaucratic standards, but through spontaneous insight coupled with the comfort to express those ideas. Upon reflection of some of our greatest contributors to social and artistic change (Ozzie Osbourne, Picasso, Mozart).  These individuals are not recognized and revered for their ability to conform, adhere, and promote the status quo.  Yet, they are identifiable for their willingness to be spontaneous and flexible, and to act on those impulses, even if it is in conflict with what is expected from the establishment.  It seems to me that in order to recognize establishment, you need those and that which is counter to the establishment.  When this conflict appears, we see the greatest in human achievement.  One can believe that there exists the possibility that none of these individuals "planned" to have the cultural influences they had, but merely acted upon intuition, creativity, and passion to see these ideas come to life. 


This then motivates me to reflect on education and its role on planning for learners.  Is the purpose of education to help learners plan for a finite goal or achievement in life, or is it to provide them with the tools to better sort their way through the experiences of life in order to build their own understanding of what is happening around them?  In some sense, formal education can be an inhibitor of learner achievement.  We often start out telling students in the elementary years..."You can do and be anything you want.  You just have to work hard and put your mind to it."  However, that sentiment changes greatly when students reach the secondary and higher learning environments.  There the notion shifts to "what college are you going to go to" to "what are you going to major in" and so on and so on.  This becomes a much more rigid plan than one could have ever imagined based on the elementary perception that is passed along. So in this sense, we like to believe that the triangle of education is pointed at the bottom and opens up to a variety of opportunities as we progress through formal education.  However, this is in contrast to the explicit specialized nature of secondary and higher education.   Before you graduate, you must have a degree in a specialized field and certification before you are even able to consider being accepted by that field. Even the names of some of our institutions reflect this.


The role of informal education is critical.  The title "teacher" is now merely a word to identify a particular occupation for which you receive compensation for your services. But in a more global sense, parents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers and so on offer a variety of learning experiences that no school or formal institution could ever emulate.  Therefore, it is in my opinion that equal attention to informal education, one without rigid standards, one that allows for the growth of the inquisitive self, one that encourages risks and the comfort to take them, and one that does deviate from a plan (if it has one at all), is well over due. 



Regina Toscani's picture

The purpose of education

I enjoyed Alice discussion exploring the purpose of education.  I am fortunate that my teaching is not limited to a restrictive curriculum.  My purpose is not only to prepare students to earn money, but to teach them how to seek out the things in life that brings them joy. 

jpfeiffer's picture

Afternoon Comments

After discussing with a partner a piece of Alice's and Paul's paper that we found the most interesting, Kate and I decided to pick the 5th paragraph.

"Our notion of education as "life itself" draws on biological evolution as both a foundation and a metaphor, and integrates it with considerations of brain function and cultural organization. Our hope is that others may find that the "education as life itself" perspective opens the door to reconsiderations of the idea of preparation in pegagogical practice at all levels of the educational enterprise".

I think this excerpt draws a lot from what we have been talking about in the institute in previous days with regards to the aspect that not all individuals learn best in a classroom setting. Better yet, many people learn new things not even with the motivation of setting out to learn a particular thing but rather simply through living their life. I know that personally many of the things I have learned since stepping foot on the campus of Bryn Mawr three years ago have not even been directly through the classroom. Through listening to my peers, living amongst them other students from all around the world, and by conversing with peers and professors alike, I have learned a wealth of knowledge that could have never been pre-meditated. 

I think this excerpt is seriously interesting even more so since beginning my work as an intern at this institute which has allowed me to think in ways that I may not have before!

Ashley Dawkins's picture


Thank you Alice. Great discussion! I am most interested in the possible framework that could make learning more accessible in areas that tend to "weed" people out, but in the same token, maintains rigor.

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