What’s the point of school?

Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

Schools have only ever existed in cultures where culturally specific knowledge has outpaced universal folk knowledge. What is universal – speech, recognising distinctions between the properties of inanimate objects and plants and animals, cooperating in groups, etc. –  is clearly the result of evolutionary adaptions; if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be universal. Children don’t have to go to school to learn how to walk, talk, recognise objects or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these things are much harder than reading, adding or remembering dates in history. The reverse is true of machine learning. Fascinatingly, robots and computers are excellent are learning how to do many of the things we’re bad at but, thus far, have found it practically impossible to learn those things we find easy.

Schools exist to transmit that which is culturally specific and does not emerge in the absence of formal instruction. We send children to school to learn written language, arithmetic and science because these bodies of knowledge were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for acquiring them to have evolved. Children are born equipped with adaptions which allow them to learn and reason in specific ways, and, in order to learn and reason is new ways, theses adaptations must be harnessed to master skills for which they were not designed.

As all teachers will know, it’s not enough to simply tell children stuff they don’t know. Schooling also involves three important, but poorly understood processes:

  1. Debugging –  Certain ways of thinking are wonderfully adapted for ensuring surviving in a primitive environment but less useful for flourishing in the modern world. For instance, in order to understand Newtonian physics, children have to unlearn intuitive impetus-based physics. Likewise, to get to grips with modern biology you first have to rid yourself of the folksy ides of vitalism. And no one can truly comprehend evolutionary theory until they unburden themselves of the naive belief in intuitive engineering and intelligent design.
  2. Making the implicit explicit – The process of becoming educated also requires children to bring into consciousness that which routinely goes unobserved. For instance, while learning to speak is effortless and intuitive, in order to learn written language children need to become aware of phonemes before they can associate them with graphemes.
  3. Repurposing – We can make it easier to learn culturally specific knowledge by harnessing evolutionary adaptions. For example, innate ways of using language can help children learn mathematics: harnessing rhyme and rhythm: “five times five is twenty-five,’ or recognising that number places are order in the same way as English noun phrases: seven thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two has the same linguistic structure as eggs, bacon and toast.

The final purpose of school is to provide an environment in which children will learn this hard to master stuff. Because we’ve evolved to find learning some things easy, we’ve also evolved a preference for engaging in these activities. Human beings are  well-adapted to making friends, acquiring status, honing motor skills and exploring the physical world. In fact, as every parent knows, it can be very hard to stop children doing these things.  Left to their own devices the vast majority of children will not learn mathematics, written language or science. Instead, they’ll sit around chatting and messing about with stuff. Any vision of schooling which champion’s the Noble Savage and seeks to follow AS Neill’s belief that children are “innately wise and realistic” and if left to themselves without adult supervision “will develop as far as [they are ] capable of developing” is unscrupulously optimistic. Such beliefs fare badly when assessed objectively, which is presumably why their proponents disdain standardised tests.

If you’re interested, I believe the wider purpose of education should be to make children cleverer.

16 Responses to What’s the point of school?

  1. Doesn’t the question also imply: e.g. why do we think ‘school’ = putting humans between the age of 3 and 18 into separate, specific buildings for 6 hours a day? (Alternatively, we think that people between 18 and 100 are not suitable as pupils in such places.) Why we assume that the best way to ‘rank’ these humans is by age? Why we think the rooms we’ve created are the best shape and size for what is already age-specific and rank-specific?

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t think the question “What’s the point of school?” implies “What’s the best way of organising a school?” But in answer to your question, we do these things for reasons of efficiency. Of course you can organise an education system differently but I think you’d have to show that the current standard was somehow not for for purpose to justify investing time & resources messing about with school structures. (This kind of thinking is the same sort oflogic that leads some people to believe more grammar schools would be a good idea.)

      • I think I was making a different point. Everyone i meet in FE tells me that adult education is being wound down and written off. Why? Why do we think education = school? It’s illogical, wasteful and discriminatory to assume that all of us can benefit from and only from education 3-16 and education thereafter is a Cinderella.

        • David Didau says:

          Ok, that’s not something I’m advocating. I’m using ‘school’ in its broadest sense

        • Michael Pye says:

          Michael you were making four different points plus an extra one in the next post. I work in further education and there has never been a well held belief that education=school. There has always been alternative routes, (the majority of FE colleges were of course born from those technical college routes)the debate is on relative proportions. Even the government wants more alternative routes, it just turns out that expanding these types of provision is not always as easy as people think.

          You are correct that most people in FE (including management) take issue with the significant lack of resources dedicated to the sector. This is over and above cuts to higher and compulsory education. FE teachers get paid less because college’s get paid less for teaching the same course to students then sixth form colleges. Adult course are chronicle underfunded, and philosophically with enough resources everyone should have the option of returning to full time education but we would need a radical rethink at a national level to achieve this and there would be significant costs not just financially.

          These are not easy issues to address, especially in our current financial climate.

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  3. David F says:

    I’d add that morals and values (something that has been part of ed since Plato through the humanists) is also important–providing students with the ability to think beyond themselves, thereby overcoming the innate tendency towards self-preservation/self-indulgence is important as well.

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t believe we have an “innate tendency towards self-preservation/self-indulgence”. Certainly this isn’t supported by evolutionary evidence. We’re well adapted for cooperation and altruism. Indeed, Freidrich Hayek advocated a ‘self-directing automatic system’ in which society’s ends are best achieved by everyone pursuing their own selfish ends. Unfortunately, his theory doesn’t work because we tend towards cooperation and altruism. Do you know about Nash and Game Theory? This is interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/So_Long_Sucker

      • David F says:

        Thanks–I’ll look into that. I think in this area I have a tendency to read more philosophy/history than psych (Arendt, eg)–just finished Tombstone by Yang Jisheng on the Great Leap Forward (36 million dead!), where the combo of a desire to impress those above in a bureaucracy combined with fear led to disaster. Then there’s Solzhenitsyn’s chapters in The Gulag Archipelgo (starting with the one entitled The Blue Caps)…

  4. Joe Mulvey says:

    I quite like the idea of the “Nobel Savage” – extreme intelligence coupled with practical mammoth-killing skills 🙂

  5. Hugh says:

    Grand statemenrs like these are impressive until we consider what is done in theif nsme. Vast swathes of children emerge from school apathetic, mutinous and unemployable. We’ve been trying to educate the b8ttom half 8f the ability range f8r 70 years, and getting worse all the time.

    • David Didau says:

      What was the grand statement?

      Do “Vast swathes of children emerge from school apathetic, mutinous and unemployable”? Is there empirical data on that or is it just what you reckon?

      On what basis do you claim that we’ve only been “trying to educate the bottom half of the ability range for 70 years, and getting worse all the time”?

  6. Art says:

    Education essentially gives reasonable value by: 1) learning about and developing organized thinking, 2) baseline knowledge through facts as a spring board to personalized development afterwards, and ….? The other social stuff is for family and community experiences. Resources for public education are extremely limited. We should get good at these limited and very challenging goals….that’s enough to succeed at.

  7. […] science can be hard to learn because it contradicts what we intuitively believe about the world. Schools exist to teach this type of knowledge. Mistakes is commonplace and, without careful attention, students will either continue to repeat […]

  8. Art says:

    In regards to DD’s comment- and in agreement about inaccurate intuition and education.
    I’m a science teacher. Instead of just facts and processes, if in science class we also emphasized the process of identifying basic elements of a phenomena and getting data, assessing data, making data based assumptions/predictions, and testing that would be the greatest contribution of science classes…but in the US we do the polar opposite due to the invasion of testing.
    This is part of what I meant in my above comment when I say “organized thinking”.
    This, I believe, is a truly educated mind.

  9. Study Abroad says:

    Good article, thanks for sharing

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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