The melody of education: what should we be accountable for?

Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end, it would not have reached its goal. A parable.


This is the third in a series of posts about what I’m calling Intelligent Accountability. Peter Blenkinsop pointed out that a problem with holding teachers to account for their professional judgments is that we may not all be playing the same melody.

I’ve written before about the battleground that is the purpose of education. The problem with trusting schools and teachers to do what’s right is that we don’t really agree on what education is for, and we don’t agree on its purpose, how can we go about improving it? Other industries or areas of public service are more straightforward: aviation is about transporting people, as safely and efficiently as possible from one destination to another. Medicine exists to improve and prolong the life of patients. Now, I acknowledge that these purposes may be simplistically naive, but they are uncontroversial when compared to the many and various purposes of education.

Is education about economics? Citizenship? Social justice? Cultural transmission? Personal fulfillment? Empowerment? Are we trying to teach dispositions, skills or knowledge?  What’s more important: exam results or character? Do we care more about making children happy or clever? Can we just do a bit of everything without detracting from one or another? These are not easy questions to answer, and it’s difficult to get people to agree. For my money, Eric Kalenze gets to the heart of it in his book, Education is Upside Down.

After analysing how we’ve gone wrong and suggesting ways we could hold the competing aims of education in creative tension, he concludes with these words:

Education transforms people: from stagnant to spirited, from apathetic to sympathetic, from reactionary to rational. Though transformation comes in many shapes and sizes, the fact remains: designers and providers of education transform people as a matter of course.

Because of this, public schools have an awesome responsibility. They must provide education that transforms students properly. In other words, they must move students toward acquiring  the knowledge and virtues they need to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school.

This is our mission: to prepare young citizens for meaningful participation in mainstream institutions.

[My emphasis]

Does that sound uncontroversial? I think we can probably agree that whatever our philosophy of education if we’re doing it ‘right’ then it’s transformative. Doing it ‘properly’ is about transforming students so that they can, “find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school.” Surely, whatever else you believe, this must be the purpose of education? Is this something against which we could hold schools and teachers accountable?

  • OK, you’ve covered the curriculum, but are your students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • Does this year’s cohort of Year 11 students have the exam results they require to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • Right – the exam results look great, but have your students developed and practiced the personal characteristics they need to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • You appear to be working hard to mark your books, but are your students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • Great! You’ve graded all your teachers and put them through an appraisal system, so can you students now find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • Well done on making sure schools meet your inspection standards, but are their students able to find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside the school?
  • Oh, and how do you know?

These sorts of questions aren’t easy to answer, but they might help concentrate our minds. I’ve helped students to pass an English language GCSE who I have known are still functionally illiterate. And I’ve taught children who haven’t managed to get a magic C grade who are, nevertheless, well-prepared to meet the challenges of adult life and content with the, admittedly narrow, options available to them. But I’m most proud of teaching children who are both ready to make a positive difference to the world and have the examination results to make the widest range of possible choices about what they want to do. This seems a worthy aim and one on which I don’t mind being held to account.

17 Responses to The melody of education: what should we be accountable for?

  1. jfin107 says:

    Good and as you show, it does matter. And this might encourage the ‘effectiveness’ brigade to address ‘effective for what’?

  2. Working with children with severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties, my purpose is to do everything I can to make sure that the pupils I teach go on to have rich, varied, fulfilling lives in which they are able to both access and contribute to the community in which they live. Sadly the depressing impact of society, in both senses of the word, can mean that this is at times elusive. It is however a constant driver not just regarding what happens within the classroom but beyond it as well.

    • David Didau says:

      I feel your pain Simon. Do you think the purpose to “find fulfillment in – and contribute to the improvement of – the world outside school” applies to special ed? Or do you need to define a different purpose?

  3. “Medicine exists to improve and prolong the life of patients.” Even this is too vague and I think it’s generous. Medicine exists to prevent our physical bodies unnecessarily dying(?). Part of this is to look after things that wouldn’t cause death, but it’s basically all in the name of preventing unnecessary death. Experiencing and interacting with our world, people and art of all time is what improves life; if we’ve our eyes open. As for education – I’ve never felt the need to know what it’s for in general terms. Think if it this way; why do we even care about having an industry about “transporting people, as safely and efficiently as possible from one destination to another”? why do we care about preventing our physical bodies from unnecessarily dying? It’s all for something else, but what that is – it’s ours to make up and share while we’re alive and have the chance. People who feel they have nothing worthy to share or no one to share it with wish for death. Education is not about transforming others. That’s been our biggest mistake for so long. It’s about transforming ourselves. Teachers transforming themselves, students transforming themselves and sharing the journey with each other. I don’t care what the world thinks education is for, I care about what you -the teacher stood in front of me- have to share about the world so I may choose to follow you or not. My aim? To figure out why I’m here so I can offer something tangible to others and share their journey in doing so. And that’s how education continues.

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t mind at all that you disagree with my definitions, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, when push comes to shove, medics and aviators know what they’re being judged against. Teachers, less so. Can you imagine an airline being told, well all the passengers arrived happy, safely and on time but we don’t like the way you did it?

      If teachers and schools are to be trusted to do what’s best for students then we need to be a bit clearer on what our purposes are. I think I see what you’re saying about education being about students transforming themsleves, but clearly teachers have a role in this otherwise, what’s the point? If I. as your teacher, think the purpose of ed is something other than fitting you for a productive, fulfilling role in socitey, then you might be scuppered.

      • David, I’m in full agreement with everything you say in this reply and also in your post; I guess I’m performing a clumsy attempt at pushing further past assumptions we consider permanent. Like this; “Can you imagine an airline being told all the passengers arrived safely and on time but *we* don’t like the way you did it?” Who is this *we* ? This nameless, faceless authority seems to exist only in formal education, but not in other fields because other fields are built up around their own purposes which look, to me, to be sub-purposes of something else; an aplha-purpose (I’m not good with names :D). What is the point of travel, for example? Or fixing our bodies, even? So we can do, what? Travel for the experience (education), don’t die so you can keep – breathing? (or educating?) e.t.c What if ‘education’ as a field needs no purpose, because it’s actually one of the alpha-purpose of all our sub-purpose (services) we could ever invent?

        If you were my teacher, David, I’d have loved to know what *your* purpose was in what you were doing. I’ve been close to quitting school from year 8 onwards because of feeling stuck funnelling into rooms with good people trying to ‘educate’ us when, really, they were trying to do everything for everyone in that room (for randomers outside, too, bless them!), while also following a content heavy constantly changing national program and forgoing what made them brilliant individuals in the process. Will it ever be the case that individual teachers declare and work for their own purpose? Instead of “I’m here to teach you [subject] so you can get brilliant qualifications and have amazing lives” or some variation of that idea. Educators outside of formal education are already doing this; they have their own purpose, it’s specific and students who want that… follow them by choice. They also get hired for their purpose. They love their work because their work is their purpose. They love their students because they’ve shaped what they do to attract students they want to work with and know they can help the most. It may well be, David, that you, as my teacher, tell me your purpose and I say; ‘thanks, but that’s not what I need right now’ or ‘I’m already ahead of where your course would end’ and then I’d simply go work with someone else OR I could say ‘Yes please! And I’ll tell my friend to join in your course too. It’s exactly what we’re looking for! – Thank you’ Crazy? Too crazy?

  4. vlorbik says:

    i like it here a lot and will come back.
    but, this. “education” in this context
    is… *essentially*… a sub-question of
    *politics* (and *not* of, say, “science”).

    and so there are certain obviously-relevant
    facts-of-the-matter that are, well, “taboo”.
    in plain language, who gets to *do violence*…
    and who does not (for example).

    most of the “discussion” will turn out to’ve been
    devoted to *who*… not “what”… should be treated
    “seriously”. an obvious error if we were *merely*
    interested in philosophy (and not, you know,

    but what does one mean by “seriously”?

    it is (seriously) impossible to do any reasoning…
    in a “social” setting… without a certain amount
    of agreement on, whatever, the “rules of engage-

    “peace, peace”… when there is no peace.

  5. julietgreen says:

    Yes – you have highlighted a key issue. We are not sure to what degree we all understand the aims or share them. Teachers are under pressure from a variety of ‘stakeholders’ with different views of what it’s all about. I am sceptical (as I think, are you) of the solely economic aim of education. I always thought it was about being equipped to make informed choices. This is not far from the fulfillment and improvement aim, but without the value judgement. It is still a bit of a brick-building operation though and as such, having different aims makes it very difficult.

  6. jfin107 says:

    In debate about the purposes of education fulfillment is often viewed as a component of eudemonia. Somebody wrote (lost reference, sorry)

    ‘In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that eudemonia means ‘doing and living well and being content’. For Aristotle this implies that eudemonia involves activity and a striving for excellence. It is human nature to strive for self-development. Therefore the best form of eudemonia is gained by the proper development of one’s best powers and the most humane attitude. This identifies us as ‘rational animals’. It follows that eudemonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (arête) through the use and application of reason.’ [1]

    So eudemonia represents a life-long goal. There is no point of arrival and ‘happiness’, merely being a state of mind, is not what Aristotle is thinking of. And ‘well-being’ misses the mark too.

    I think eudemonia a helpful idea in clarifying purpose.

  7. […] October The melody of education: what should we be accountable for? If teachers and schools are to be held accountable then is should be for something which we all […]

  8. And extrapolating the principle, are Teachers necessarily able to find fulfilment in and contribute to the improvement of the world outside the school. An interesting one to ponder………

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