The Purpose of Education: Examining Philosophical Ideas

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring the purpose of education 
  3. Conclusion


Within this essay, the purposes of education will be explored with examples of how these aims have been put into practice within a school environment. When establishing a definition for education, it is difficult to define as it is highly contested topic with numerous ideas (Mathewson, 2008). The same applies to the purpose of education, due to years of conflicting research and various philosophical ideologies (Siegel, 2020). Even before the twentieth century, the philosophy of education was a highly debated concept (Noddings 2018). William Peters adopts a traditionalist approach to education, stating that 'Education implies that something worthwhile is being or has been intentionally transmitted in a morally accepted manner'. (Peters 1966, p25) On the other hand, theorists such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori hold an opposing progressivist view on education, child-centred pedagogy (Darling, 1994). Dewey also felt strongly about the importance of democracy within education (Englund, 2000). Whereas John White (2002) argues that education should relate to a child's upbringing and focus on equipping children for a fulfilling life. This essay will explore two key ideas in relation to the purpose of education. Firstly, knowledge and curriculum and then education for the development of the individual child. The SE1 school from which the observations were taken is a large rural village school in Selby with around 300 pupils. The class observed was a year two class with 26 pupils.

Exploring the purpose of education 

Education should equip children with knowledge and enable them to apply this knowledge (Whitehead, A). Peters (1967), refers to the notion of knowledge transmission: the teacher is the dispenser of knowledge and academic progress is measured on the ability of a pupil to demonstrate this knowledge in the form of standardised testing (Johnson, 2015). This approach to education was observed in the SE1 school when the teacher demonstrated to the children how to execute mathematic equations. For example, the addition of two-digit numbers. The children were shown examples on the whiteboard and then given a worksheet with numerous questions regarding this topic to test their understanding. The transmission of knowledge is the most traditional teaching style and is still dominant within education in most of the world (Saavedra, 2012 et al.,). However, Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke (2006), explain that for learning to occur there must be a change in long term memory and with this approach, the knowledge is often not retained long-term after it has been transferred (Wilson, 2021). This is supported by Aristotle who argued that knowledge can only be obtained through experiences (Pound, 2008). Furthermore, John Dewey adopts an alternative, progressivist view on Education explaining that instead of this didactic teaching approach, successful learning occurs when the child is at the centre of learning (Williams 2017). For example, through interactions with other pupils to discover ideas, solve problems and enhance meaning (Hargraves, 2019). This approach to learning was also evident in the SE1 school, as there was often discussion in pairs or small groups to stimulate and develop ideas. This challenged the conventional role of the teacher; teachers become facilitators of learning with a child-centred pedagogy rather than the instructor (Aubrey and Riley, 2016). Dewey's philosophy appears significant because he influenced several subsequent educational theorists and education in present society (Schutz, 2001; Haynes, Gales and Parker 2015; Aubrey and Riley, 2016). For instance, Cox (2011) who argues that children's learning may be hindered through the process of transmission and explains that children learn best when constructing their own ideas.

Monterossi was also a strong progressivist, arguing that education should allow children to be fully involved in their own learning experiences (Aubrey and Riley, 2016). However, instead of focusing on social interaction, Montessori emphasised the importance of a prepared environment, with the correct materials in it to aid the psychological development of each individual child. This learning environment allows children to have a sense of freedom within the classroom and become independent learners who are invested in their learning. This independence leads to children gaining personal autonomy which Silcock (1997) explains is a key aim for education. Furthermore, this approach recognises that children learn at different paces depending on their stage in holistic development, making it accessible for all abilities and inclusive of those with special educational needs (Meinke, 2019). Although it comes with many positives, Montessori's approach was not directly observed in the SE1 school, possibly due to its lack of order meaning the classroom can become disorganised. (Meinke, 2019) However, the SE1 school still catered for all abilities and ensured that learning was accessible to everyone. This was achieved through differentiation: the children were seated in ability groups but were all given access to the same work with varying levels of difficulty. This also allowed the children to have choices within education and become responsible for their learning (Weselby, 2021). 

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Another point that can be raised is what content should go on the curriculum and thus what children should be learning about within education. Straughan and Wilson (1983), explain that education must be carefully thought about with planning and sequencing so children can acquire the correct knowledge and facts. A knowledge-rich curriculum should be the fundamental aspect of education, so there needs to be a larger emphasis placed on the school curriculum and what is included within it (Ofsted, 2018: Gibb, 2017). Hirst (1974) holds the opinion that instead of separating learning into subjects, seven different forms of knowledge should be present in the school curriculum. These include: mathematics, physical sciences, knowledge of persons, literature and the fine arts, morals, religion and philosophy (Bailey, 2010 p.38). These forms of knowledge are based around true knowledge rather than beliefs or opinions, and aim to create a liberal education which Hirst (1974) explains is education accessible for everyone. Other individuals such as Apple (1979 cited in Aubrey and Riley 2021) and Jackson (1973 cited in Straughan and Wilson 1983), argue that the school curriculum is too heavily based around middle-class lifestyle and only presents children with limited knowledge which is culturally biased. This is further supported by Anyon (2011), who explains that education should provide children with a wider range of knowledge including knowledge about the working class, black individuals, and women. Another significant argument raised by Halfon (2021), is that schools' curriculum is too heavily based on knowledge. Instead, Education should equip children with the relevant skills to become prepared for future life and employment. Life skills are essential in education and The World Health Organisation (cited in Prajapati, Sharma and Sharma, 2017) define life skills as 'the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges in everyday life'. Problem-solving, critical thinking and decision making are all examples of these life skills (Sharna, 2019). According to Prajapati, Sharma and Sharma (2017), these skills can be implemented within the classroom through various activities such as brainstorming, storytelling and debates. In the SE1 school, there was little observation of these activities, and the school had a traditional curriculum that aimed to educate children through separate subjects such as English and mathematics.

As well as knowledge, education serves a purpose to develop children as individuals. For example, through the promotion of values. 'Values are fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions' (Mintz, 2018). According to Hawkes (2003), values should be taught in school through values education which occurs when a school intentionally promotes certain values through the curriculum to create an ethos throughout the school. However, Haydon (1997, cited in Bailey 2010) argues there is no clear vision as to how values can be implemented within school and questions the influence it has in a child's life. However, the promotion of values was evident in the SE1 school because values - Democracy, Individual liberty, and Mutual respect of those of different faiths and beliefs - were presented on all classroom displays. The SE1 school created this positive environment perhaps to repeatedly make the children aware of the values they should hold. One example of how democracy was promoted was through the multiple opportunities children were given to be involved in decision-making activities. For example, through the elected school council where children can listen to others and institute their ideas. This approach appears important because Dewey explained that through appropriate shared experiences that enable children to express their values and ideas, they become prepared for a future democratic life, a key aim in education (Noddings, 2018). One example of how Individual liberty was promoted was through the option of numerous extra-curricular activities. This enabled children to make independent choices and express their individuality. The mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs were also firmly established within the school. This was achieved through a focus on the importance of respect through values education. Frequent Religious Education lessons were also included within the curriculum, possibly to reinforce this important value through making children aware of different religions and cultures. The school also held a values-based assembly once a week, which aimed to bring the school together as a community and reinforce the values which the school represent. (Dabell, 2019). Although values education can have positive outcomes, Tucker (2018) proposes that only certain universal values should be taught in school. This is because children come from varied backgrounds and hold different religious beliefs, so some of their values may not align with the values promoted in school. This is further supported by Bailey (2010), who argues that this form of indoctrination may contradict a child's personalfamily views, causing issues for the child. Conflict could occur between home and school and standards of behaviour within the school may not be met. Therefore, schools should carefully consider the values they are promoting through education.

Oxford Languages defines character as the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2017) defines character education as helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons, such that they become more autonomous and reflective. Character Education is essential in schools because it aids children in holistic development and provides them with core values crucial to the fast-changing world we live in (Spallino 2017). Branon (2008) supports this point but argues that teaching character must be a shared responsibility between schools and parents. Haigh (2020) explains that character can either be taught through specific character lessons or woven into the curriculum and is essential in all schools. On the other hand, Robinson (2014) argues that character should not be taught in school; more time should be dedicated to listening and supporting children whilst providing them with the relevant help when needed. This appears important as it is vital that children can have access to a school counsellor when in times of trouble, especially with the circumstances our society is under today (BACP 2021). Robinson (2014) concludes that the importance of counselling sessions within a school contributes more to character education than character lessons themselves. In the SE1 school, it was clear that their vision aligned with this idea because they did not have individual lessons dedicated to character education but instead, a strong pastoral system was present that aimed to support the needs of all children. Teachers also had their own systems within the classroom to ensure all students felt happy and safe within the environment. One example of this was the classroom mood boards. When entering the classroom in the morning, children would write their initials on the board under whichever mood they were feeling happy, okay or upset. This was potentially carried out by teachers to establish any issues a child may be facing or feeling at the start of the day and ensure the child gets the support that is needed. Dedicated lessons towards character also further narrow the curriculum which appears significant because Ofsted's recent findings concluded that schools' curriculum was not broad enough (Harford 2017). This is further supported by Young (2014), who established that teaching character takes up valuable time in school. However, he refers to character as performance-enhancing virtues rather than moral character. Overall, children must develop character, however, we cannot solely rely on education to provide these opportunities.

Halstead (2015) defines moral education as 'helping children and young people to acquire a set of beliefs and values regarding what is right and wrong' and concludes that moral education aids children to follow and obey these taught beliefs. Haynes, Gale and Parker (2015) explain that it is widely recognized that schools are important places for moral education to occur, which is supported by Nucci (2001) who concludes that it is important schools promote positive morals because primary school children are in the early phase of adopting opinions about what is right and wrong. However, Kuar (2010) argues that moral education alone is not enough and that there must be a focus on supporting the moral development of children, rather than strictly teaching moral values. Moral development is 'the ability to face moral challenges and dilemmas in an informed, authentic manner that is in consonance with ethical values' (Kuar, 2010). This is significant because it recognises that teaching moral values alone does not result in children becoming good people. This is further supported by West-Burnham and Jones (2007), who argue that the issue with moral education is that it is easy for moral values to be taught to children, but it is difficult for children to make the right choices without moral confidence being developed. Elmore (2014) discovered that moral development can be achieved through several factors and that it cannot be taught in isolation. One example of this is through effective behaviour management strategies. These strategies were observed in the SE1 school through a clear behaviour policy scheme and a strong focus on positive reinforcement, rather than punishment. The teacher always made the pupils aware of what behaviour was recognised as positive in the classroom, by offering praise and rewards. For example, if one table of children were being disruptive, the teacher would praise the rest of the children in the class for sitting quietly as well as offering table points, rather than punishing the disruptive children. This principle results in a higher occurrence of positive behaviour in future, as well as the increased motivation of the children (Williams, 2021). Eaude (2006) however, found that moral development will best be achieved when the motivation becomes intrinsic, doing something because it is worthwhile rather than for an external reward. This is because children may only behave correctly if they receive a tangible reward, meaning they become reliant on it and may behave differently if this reward is removed. Overall, it is essential that children become morally educated, but education must provide opportunities for children to develop into morally confident individuals.


After researching the various philosophical ideas about the purpose of education and taking observations from the SE1 school, I have discovered that there are many significant points that appear relevant. In terms of knowledge, I believe this is the primary aim of education, as it equips children with essential facts and understanding about numerous important topics, which is essential for future life. However, I believe this knowledge is best presented to children through child-centred approaches. This way, children can become invested in their own learning, and develop as individuals through holistic development and personal autonomy. Furthermore, education contributes to the individual child's development with schools like the SE1 school promoting values to children and helping them gain moral confidence. But, this is best achieved through providing children with experiences for them to develop this moral confidence rather than the strict teaching of morals. However, we cannot solely rely on education to teach these to children because other contributors such as family and religion can have a substantial and possibly larger effect on the child's upbringing. 

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