What is the purpose of education?

Gaylord Texan 120What exactly is the purpose of obtaining an education? If you answer “to learn” that is obvious, but that answer also side steps the question. It says nothing about what you are going to learn or the why you are going to learn it.  About 15 years ago as I sat at a university commencement,  the keynote speaker said the purpose of education was to make students “change agents.” This was the lingo of the time to say education was given the lofty goal of changing the world to make it a better place.

Roll forward a few years and post secondary educators are challenged to figure out if their graduates are going to know what they need to get a decent job. I have seen numerous articles directing students into majors that will actually results in careers based on their studies and allow them to pay back their student loans. Recently my daughter had a discussion with a philosophy major at a medium large state university. He was one of only two philosophy majors,  and after their discussion, it seems like he is bailing out, leaving one lone philosopher. It looks like making the world a better place will have to be put on hold for a while.

I thought it might be interesting to look back at some notable people in United States history to see what they had to say about the purpose of education. Benjamin Franklin said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  This definitely falls into education equals earning power camp. You may protest that interpretation saying that the founding fathers were noble seekers of freedom. However, you need to realize the Thomas Jefferson had considered using pursuit of “property” rather than “happiness” in the declaration of independence.  What did our first president George Washington say about education? He said that he owed great thanks to his mother for teaching him all that she did.

Abraham Lincoln noted that “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Although this president did not provide a lot of insight into what he thought should be the philosophy taught in the school room, he did make an astute observation. Philosophy is taught in school, even if there are no more philosophy majors. Text book writers, teachers, coaches professors all present morals and values as they instruct, and these do not all agree. If we think that can teaching without teaching beliefs we leave students awash with detailed minutia of facts and no coherence. However philosophy is often presented by behavior rather than the words we say, which makes me cringe every time I see someone in education getting arrested. This does affect how the next generation of leaders will lead. (It is interesting that both Washington and Lincoln praised their mothers for teaching them.)

However, my favorite presidential quote about education has to be the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He grew up in the gilded age, when the industrial age brought opportunity for men to make more of themselves, even if it meant building big business at the expense of others. Roosevelt said “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

football_edited-1Imagine a group of athletes from different sport that all have a  general idea about playing positions in the other sports. However, they  have little  to no idea how their skills stack up against other in their group, whom they barely know. They have never played together, and they are told “You are now a team; you decide who plays what position. This week we will play baseball, next week we’ll mix up the teams and play football.”  Most class group assignments are actually based on this model. Much of the work required is deciding how to organize the team before anyone actually gets anything done.

Encouraging students to work as teams in class has many shades of difference from getting a group of athletes to work as a team. Sports teams are formed to wage athletic “war” and win against other teams. In classes the goal is to create a viable product rather than to win. The decision making that goes into teamwork to achieve specific goals by creating products are often removed from the athlete. They do not decide what position they play, who directs the team,  or how much practice is required.  Often even eating, sleeping and exercise habits are prescribed by others to ensure peak physical performance. Students expect coaches to be concerned with their activities outside of sports. After all, school grades and behavior are often tied to whether or not a student is allowed to compete.

However there are some commonalities. I have seen some groups in which one or two students do most of the work, just like star athletes that carry a team. Only the rest of the team gains nothing from this because the objective is to learn rather than win. However, this is also what happens in the real world on the job, and the people slacking do reap benefits.

Try setting student teams at competition with each other for a limited number of passing grades – like a strict curve in which as many students must fail as those that receive A’s. This is the academic version of tryouts for limited slots. Students who could do the work would be cut because the class had a limited size, or those would could not might remain if there were no excelling students. However, determining which students should be in a particular level class doesn’t work the same way as determining who should be playing on a team. If it was you would probably find not so much an increase in effort as a sudden rash of cheating, sort of like the rise in performance enhancing drugs in sports when athletes must do well to keep their jobs.


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Who is responsible for learning?

swimmerOne of my friends mentions the local swim team as a possible activity for my children in the summer.  For the first one it was a good fit. When younger he had taken a swim class, which due to the overlap with the beginning of school, had only two students.  He had opportunity to practice frequently at a friend’s pools with encouragement from adults.  When the second child was the same age, it was a different story. The initial swimming class had been over crowded and useless; the friend with a pool had moved away.  It was fine to put the older child on a team with coaches.  But the second one needed a swimming teacher.

How many times have you overheard  teacher discussing a class say the words “they should already know how to…”  For students who just require coaching to learn, that is probably true. They have already been exposed to the many things that students are supposed to know by the time they get to school. They are familiar with the concepts of letters and reading, numbers and math, locations and maps.  But for students who do not have easily accessible books, maps and calculators (let alone computers) these are foreign concepts.

As the number of lower socio-economic status students increase in the country, so does the challenge of teaching. This is compounded by the lengthening of years required for education. Not too long ago in the last century, teachers had lower expectations of students coming to school. The teachers themselves were not as highly educated as today. Students stayed  beyond sixth grade in if they liked learning and their parents could afford to not have them working.  Parents and the children themselves where considered the ones responsible for knowing how much education was necessary.

Be we have gotten it backwards.  Recently I read an article with the following quote. “Although teachers play the predominant role in student achievement, substantial research has confirmed that parents play an important supportive role.”

This statement reverses the relative importance of the parent and teachers in the success of the students.  Teachers resist having the quality of their instruction quantified based on student achievement, because they realize they cannot always successfully overcome the handicaps last result from a students’ background, such as poverty or unstable family life. There is no one to make sure that students learn what “they should already know how to …” unless they are taught somewhere else than at school. Be honest, and let parents know that they play the primary part in their child’s success in school, and they will become more involved.

But beyond that needs to come the realization that some students just need a lot more personalized in depth instruction and not just guidance along the way. The same class, with same teacher will not suffice for both the student receiving an abundance of enrichment and support at home, and the one that has to struggle to find food. When my child took the swimming lessons, she had individual instruction, she was the only student. As unrealistic as that kind of one on one attention seems for schools, it is exactly what the parents provide that makes the difference in student achievement.

 “Those Persistent Gaps” by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley  Educational Leadership, December 2009/January 2010 (Health and learning Issue).
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Teaching academic classes like sports?


Sometimes students wish academic classes were more like performance based sports, but how would it work? How do they respond differently to coaching versus teaching?

Practice versus instruction

With coaching the emphasis in on practice; students spend time warming up before learning and practicing new skills. Then, coaches watch students practice most of the time. When teaching, warm-ups are typically used as a classroom management technique to get students quiet and focused, or as a daily assessment to identify students that are falling behind. In an upper level academic class, warm-ups are often disposed of as a waste of time. The emphasis is on instruction to master new skills. Although, there is time to practice in class students are expected to perform newly learned skills on their own at home without the teacher present.  The teacher requires more unsupervised effort than the coach does.

Effort versus attentiveness

Coaches watch students to assess skill level and make sure they are exerting effort. They often depend on other students to police student behavior. On the other hand, teachers usually watch students to make sure they behave properly. Good academic students are attentively occupied with their own work and do not bother to watch the behavior of others. However, they are often willing to help individual struggling students.

Making more effort at running increases a student’s ability in track. Making more effort in math, may allow a student to solve problems faster, but will not result in learning how to find derivatives of an equation. After all this is a procedure uncovered by someone far older and educated than they. The student must concentrate to master academic skills and attentiveness is not always observable. Teachers cannot tell precisely what skills students have mastered until they see the assigned work. So a lot of assignments have to be made.

Obvious versus out of sight accomplishments

Instruction on coaching indicates feedback is given to show that the coach cares rather than to let students know how well they are performing because athletes already know this.[1] They constantly watch what others are doing, comparing themselves. They tend to copy those who perform the best. In a class room, students are not always sure if they have mastered new skills. Sometimes they confuse and transpose two different procedures – especially in math and foreign languages. So they need feedback to know how well they are doing.

They may know who the best student in the class is, but copying the work of this student won’t help any.  The ability to learn is basically an invisible skill, which each student must be able to do on their own or they will fail.

[1] Coaching Principles, (2012) http://www.asep.com/courses/ASEP_Previews
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Living in a “weed-out” world

grass (1)In higher education, the “weed-out classes,”  freshman year classes that aim eliminate students that cannot survive a rigorous major, may not contribute to what a student needs for the current degree in science and technology fields. The information age has result in a plethora of new skills required by employers. It may be shorted sighted for them to expect college graduates with already honed skills in whatever form of technology the company utilizes, but they do. They weed-out prospective employees based on lack of current technical skills rather than lack of evidence of higher thinking skills.

What I’m discovering in the digital age are high school students that know most of the viral videos and personal secrets reveal by the stars of sports and the cinema, and yet cannot deal with negative numbers. Face it, given a complete choice of curriculum most students will veer towards the entertaining and sensational.

The constant flood of momentary sensational videos available on the Internet should eventually leave students bored. Yet they keep returning because sensationalism seems addictive as well as entertaining. It is not much different than games; the very characteristic which keeps them invested and involved in games, also keeps the playing rather than producing.

Before students can choose for themselves they have to go through the difficult process of learning to organize knowledge and fit it into real world applications. Most students never go through the process of using executive functions in education; they don’t figure out what they need to know. With the increase in amount of information needed for specialization, students should start figuring out how to learn what they don’t know, beginning at age 14. (A century or so ago it was the age when most children started working in their life careers.) The technology/science/math actually required in students’ chosen field should be the one they learn extremely well.

As an art major, I had to rely on chemistry for printmaking and photography. My knowledge of geometry and trig contributed to creating computer art before the software was developed which eliminated the need for math, but increased the need to memorize icons. Now, I develop training and curricula. How did I get from art to instructional design?  By learning how to figure out what I didn’t know.


Goldfarb, Robert W. How to Bridge the Hiring Gap, November 10, 2012 (viewed 24 Jan 2013)
Anderson, Janna; Boyles, Jan Lauren & Rainie, Lee. The Future of Higher Education, Jul 27, 2012 (viewed 23 Jan 2013)
Koebler, Jason. Experts: ‘Weed Out’ Classes Are Killing STEM Achievement April 19, 2012 (viewed 23 Jan 2013)
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Creative mess

DSCN0746Some researchers and psychologists study creativity like a kind of pathology, researching causes of creativity, methods to diagnosis it, and determining best practices. Others look at the creative person and delve into a personality that is often contradictory because a strongest drive in creative people is to not be like other people, even other creative people. Psychologist Frank Barron saw in holistically as he performed testing and conducted in-depth interviews with writers, architects, research scientists, and mathematicians during the 1950s and 1960s at UC Berkeley when creativity was newly studied as an scientific subject.

According to Barron the highly creative person is “both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner than the average person.” Creative people could appear and actually be conventional in many ways. However, “they tend to rebel against conformity as they accompany their own private visions down lonely, untrod paths.” They also could appear highly neurotic on personality tests while having an ego strength that could deal with stress, and psychological pain.

Barron attempted to describe the psychology of imagination, which found the need for both order and disorder as motives in the creative process. According to his research the creative writer espoused originality, complexity, independence of judgment, and aesthetics sensitivity. His creative subjects often took extremely complex elements to produce a final product that was elegant and deceptively simple.

Creative people can hold two opposite views at the same time and yet see no contraction, because they were prone to “Integration of dichotomies.” They can be both naive and knowledgeable, emotional and logical, disciplined and free spirited. When you think about it, an either or view does not necessarily make life easier. It is a refusal to deal with ambiguity that naturally abounds. The highly creative person’s tolerance for ambiguity and messiness is balanced by a strong desire to bring order. “It was a powerful motive to create meaning and to leave a testament of the meaning which that individual found in the world, and in himself in relation to the world.”

Barron, Frank and Harrington, David M., Creativity, Intelligence, and Personality by Frank Barron. Annual Review of Psychology, 32 (1981): 439–476.
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Group IQ

Picture 012a3One of the tricks in getting groups to be more creative is having a hand in determining who goes into the group. A number of gurus on increasing group creativity will mention the need for greater diversity in groups. How exactly does this work?

Wooley and Malone performed research on “group IQ.” Members of a group were tested for IQ individually and then randomly assigned to a team. Each team  was required to complete a number of complex tasks such as creative brainstorming, and solving puzzles. Interestingly enough the teams containing the people with higher IQs did not do any better. However, the teams that had women did.  The more women there were on a team, the better they did at the tasks, unless the team was entirely female.

Choi and Thompson found that rotating new members into already existing groups improved their performance in creative tasks. It was the influence of the “newcomers” that exerted a positive impact so that people already residing in the group increased both the number and diversity of ideas.

Of course, there are certain people you just don’t want to include in a group because it would drag the other people down, such as pessimists.  Right? Not at all. According to Haimowitz when people are primed to thing about difficult situations with negative outcome before work, their creative output was higher.  “Negative affect draws attention to problems and signals that effort needs to be invested to solve a problematic situation.”  The negative affect provides incongruent ideas that might not normally be considered a solution.  But this negative affect has to decrease to achieve the breakthrough idea. On other hand the person who starts positive and stays positive, remains less creative.

But can diversity be so great that it interferes with group creativity? Wooley and Malone point out that both extremely homogenous and extremely diverse groups simply aren’t as intelligent. So like anything, diversity can be pushed too far, but without it the group will just keep on churning out the same stagnant ideas.


Choi, Hoon-Seok and Thompson, Leigh. Old wine in a new bottle: Impact of membership change on group creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 98, Issue 2, November 2005, Pages 121–132
Haimowitz, B. For worker creativity, it helps to think negative, new research finds, Academy of Management. April 22, 2013
Woolley, A. and Malone, T. Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women, Harvard Business Review Magazine June, 2011.
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Stuck in a group

1024px-Allegorie_op_visserij (2)_edited-2The people making decisions at your place of work have bought into the concept of group synergy, the belief that combined abilities of people in groups produce equals more creative ideas than individuals working alone. Despite the fact that most research points in the opposite direction, your assignment is to work with a group to come up with brilliant new solutions. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?

First, it helps to understand some of the human characteristic that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge so others can build on their ideas.  It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of the group disseminating what they know with the others without the pressure to come up new ideas or commit to any new plan of action.  Clearly defining why we know what we know is another hurdle that may be nearly impossible to overcome.  People base knowledge on various underlying assumptions of which they are often unaware. Have the group take the time to locate and provide sources for the information each one contributes. Without exception  group members should be able to pinpoint the outlook that colors their knowledge.

Then, realize why people fear loss of status if they share their knowledge and creativity. This is a legitimate concern and there is no easy solution to this problem. However, skillful facilitation helps.  A facilitator needs to refrain from making own contributions while openly acknowledging the contribution of others. Skill in mediating a discussion also enables  a more equitable contribution from various members. How often have you been in a group discussion in which one of two people spend most of the time talking?  Take a timer and explain the time limits. After people have used up their allotted minutes, they must be silent and listen to others. This spreads the contribution made by various members and forces them to consider the importance of what they are actually saying.

Finally, choose a variety of activities to get out of the rut of group brainstorming sessions. Tell the group that they should try to push the limits in their attempt to come up with creative solutions. Let them question and critique each other’s work (but not each other as people.) Alternate between group and individual activities, with individual activities taking place away from the presence of the group. Simply having others around, possibly looking over your shoulder, tends to limit on the job creativity. Try improvisational tasks that do not require collaboration with others, such as design of a facility, coordination of an activity, or explanation of a theory. Alter the required mode of output so that group members produce results that are verbal, visual, constructed, active, quantitative and qualitative.

By now you should realize that it takes far more time for a group to produce creative ideas than an individual. However, the bonus to this method is the sense of is community and connectedness. You also have more viewpoints for promoting the acceptance of the creative ideas, if and when the group actually produces them.

Artwork based on painting attributed to Willem Eversdijck (circa 1620–1671)

Nemeth, Charlan J., Personnaz, Bernard,. Personnaz, Marie., and Goncalo, Jack A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, Issue 4, 365–374.
Oltra, Victor and Newell, Sue.(2006)  Knowledge Management Projects and the Learning Cycle: Synergy or Fallacy?  OLKC 2006 Conference at the University of Warwick
Sawyer, Keith.  (2008) Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration , Basic Books
Shalley, C. E. (1995) Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 483-503.
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Sweet solitude

switzerland1Recently I was involved in a survey rating classroom environments based how much they induced creativity. Encouraging students to work in groups was supposed to improve creativity according to this survey, but many instructors observed just the opposite happening. More unique ideas surfaced when the learners worked on projects individually.

Students collaborating in groups did not seem to be able to piggyback on each others’ ideas very easily to produce elaborate and sophisticated products. Sometimes everyone followed a leader’s instruction, but the leader rarely was the most creative person. Others spent time in long discussions, and then their work resembled that which had already been done before and was already familiar to all those in the group. In a few cases, there was disagreement which caused the end product to appear piecemeal and shoddy. But this seems to happen in the corporate world as well as in education.

Brainstorming has been touted as the way for groups to multiple creativity in the workplace. Groups sessions produce more ideas if people spend alone time considering and conceptualizing ideas first. However, the best performance as far as number and quality of ideas occurs when there is a brief group session followed by individuals brainstorming on their own. In research conducted in a manufacturing company a whopping 23 of 24 groups produced a greater quantity of high quality original ideas when brainstorming isolated and alone, than in groups (Dunnet et al, 1963).

In another experiment in which people worked on simulated work tasks, one group worked alone and the other worked in the presence of other  people. The results of those working in isolation were consistently judged more creative. It appears as if the very presence of others decreases creative output (Shalley 1995). This may be because we are unwilling to trying out new ideas and techniques that may flop in front of others.

Yet the survey I mentioned in the first paragraph assumed working in teams increased creativity. Why? Is this just another fad? Research has actually been done to discern why this mystique of greater creativity within teams exists despite so much evidence to the contrary. Allen and Hecht (2004)  have proposed it is the psychological benefits of teamwork contribute to this illusion. People with strong needs for social interaction feel more satisfied when working in a team, even if the results show lower quantity or quality of ideas. Teams have social appeal because inclusion in a team provides a sense of belonging. However, teams tend to enforce similar social behavior and thought in a manner more restrictive than that imposed by an individual leader of a group.  Belonging is based on conforming, and conformity is in essence the opposite of creativity.


Allen, Natalie J.  and Hecht, Tracy D.  (2004) The ‘romance of teams’: Toward an understanding of its psychological underpinnings and implications. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77, 439–461.
Dunnette, Marvin D.; Campbell, John; and Jaastad, Kay. (1963) The effect of group participation on brainstorming effectiveness for 2 industrial samples. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 47(1), Feb 1963, 30-37.
Shalley, C. E. (1995) Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 483-503.
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Mentors and masters

Telemachus_and_Mentor_cropIn the epic poem the Iliad, Odysseus was absent twenty years; first at war and then wandering on the long route home. Meanwhile his son Telemachus grew to an adulthood. Having pity on the basically fatherless youth, the goddess Athena disguised herself as an old man, took on the pseudonym “Mentor”  and became his guide.  For the novice in creative and experimental fields finding an appropriate mentor with experience and the willingness to advise seems almost essential.

Choosing a mentor often starts around college age as students seeking to further their experience in creative and research fields search for someone of standing that they can relate to  and latch on to. But mentors are real people, not deities that have set themselves up as guardians. Why would they want to enter into this kind of relationship? One obvious answer, is for the ego boost.  It is a great self-esteem builder to have someone select you as their role model, especially in fields where success is based on subjective judgment. Second would be a desire to maintain quality of creative work in their  area. However, a voluntary mentorship takes time away from the mentor’s own productive work, so this kind of relationship is not widespread.

Often mentorships are organized  programs in upper levels of education.  The tendency in many Master’s level creative writing programs is for the instructor to essentially perform the duty of a mentor among a small hand-picked group. Mentors unlike instructors, can only work with a few individuals, making this kind of relationship in education elite and partial (Churchman 1984). This may also lead to marginalizing those individuals that differ from the instructor. The Iowa Writers Workshops were initially promoted as collaborative. But by members own account, the weight of  praise and criticism came from the instructor. These workshops were also know for being male dominated (Bishop) .

However, look into another field, such a s science,  and slightly differing models for the mentor appears.  Male science field students tended to choose mentors who had distinguished themselves in the field and rarely chose a female mentor. While the female seem to be split in their criteria, with some seeking professional expertise and others concerned with the interpersonal aspects of the relationship. The females often preferred a mentor who provided encouragement (Dowdall, 1979).

Those who reached the highest acknowledgement in the realm of science, the scientific Nobel laureates,  were familiar enough with their specific domain that they selected both the university and potential mentors  “doing work at the frontiers of the field” (Zuckerman’s 1977). They did not just receive knowledge from mentors but also a socialization into the culture science that helped the students discern what the scientific community viewed as important problems and sophisticated solutions.

It is that socialization, basically an introduction into the tastes and sensibilities of the domain, that seems to be the driving force for most creative individuals seeking mentors,  no matter what field.

Illustration “Calypso receiving Telemachus and Mentor in the Grotto” by William Hamilton – http://www.wengraf.com/wengraf/ham-cal.htm. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Bishop, Wendy. “Teaching undergraduate creative writing: myths mentor and metaphors” Journal of Teaching Writing .pp 83-102
Churchman, Deborah. “Fertile Times for Creative Writing: More College Courses Every Year.” New York Times 8 Jan 1984: 42-43
Dowdall, Jean. 1978. “Mentors in Academe: the Perceptions of the Protege”, American Sociological Association Annual Meetings
Zuckerman,  Harriet. 1977. Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States, New York, The Free Press
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