In 1993 when Anne Meade and I started work on the longitudinal project that would become Competent Learners,[1] our first step was to define what the legacy of early childhood education experience should be.

Until we had a clear idea of what early childhood education should contribute to the development of New Zealanders, that is, its purpose, we had no way of identifying what we should measure in terms of children’s development and the quality of their education experience.

Some aspects were straightforward. The 3Rs are the spine of publically funded education. Without reading, mathematics, and writing capability it is very difficult in the contemporary world to live independently, access and build new knowledge, and deepen understanding of how things are related and how they could be changed for the better. But few people would think the 3Rs are the sole purpose of education, or the way its worth should be assessed.

The adults our society needs

What helped us crystallise the purposes of early childhood education was to think about the importance of lifelong learning capability, and to think about the kind of adult our society needed. Education should enable someone to become much more than had they spent their days in other activities: to be better informed, clearer thinkers and problem-solvers.

Education is about the development of individual talent, often through exposing children and young people to experiences they would not otherwise have, to discover interests and strengths and purpose that would not otherwise be identified.

It is also about gaining the capability to persevere towards a purpose, and have the patience to undertake tasks that may not be immediately appealing or gratifying. Education’s purpose includes providing a curriculum that supports such individual development, and provides school-leavers with a strong platform for gaining or making meaningful work.

The social world

Education’s purpose also needs to develop the ability of children and young people to be a positive part of their social world. Education doesn’t set out to mould raw material into uniform shapes; an impossible task with human beings!

But it is important that there are core social values threaded through the way we learn, and what we become through our learning. The concept of the good neighbour helped us in the conceptualisation of Competent Learners to bring together the role of education in fostering both individual talents and social values.

We don’t expect our neighbours to share all our interests and do things the way we do them, but we want our neighbours to be trustworthy, respectful of who we are, to talk with us clearly so we can make a common ground for discussion, work with us to resolve any issues that come up, and be prepared to put a common good first.

So our education system needs to produce such good neighbours. It has failed its purpose if students take from their early childhood and school experiences that they are not respected themselves, have little to contribute, or can only attract attention if they flout community values and harm others.

It should not be possible to leave school feeling that there is no place for you in the world, unless you go against the world. Nor should it be possible to leave school feeling that you are inherently superior, without a sense of your connection with others, and their wellbeing.

The ‘good neighbour’ concept is implicit in Te Whariki and the New Zealand Curriculum. Both are underpinned by an understanding that education’s purpose is both individual and social. The values that are threaded through our curricula are not doctrinaire.

The way we teach

Educators are also called on to enact these dual purposes in the way they teach as well as what they teach. If this is happening, then education is learning, and learning is ‘real life’, rather than a compulsory artificial chamber before adult life, or competing with more attractive experiences outside school. These curricula make it possible for education to really develop the habits of learning, for life-long use.

The emphasis on life-long learning is now an explicit purpose for education. No doubt it has come to the fore because of the rapidity of change, and our sense that we must ensure New Zealand children and young people can ride this relentless and mutating force rather than be swamped by it.

The importance of school experience in the readiness to take a learning approach to life came home for me when I heard someone contrast their own school experiences with their children’s:

We learnt the Pythagoras theorem because we were told we would be strapped if we didn’t. Now the kids are told they have to learn the Pythagoras theorem because it’s got practical applications, they can use it in this and that career.

This is definitely an advance if you want to build children’s motivation to learn, their willingness to actively engage with new knowledge and change their ways of thinking. Threats of punishment (and with it, often shame) position such engagement in learning as something hard and unenjoyable, and the content of learning something that has no inherent appeal or connection to “real life”.

 Three more steps to take

A generation later sees the content of learning linked to a later use to show students that it has value. But this is a value separate from the acts of learning. Learning is still separate from “real life”. It is still something that students have to be motivated for rather than through: the learning isn’t necessarily structured to be meaningful, rewarding in its own right.

There are three more steps we need to take in education to realise a more explicit purpose: to form life-long learners through the process of learning itself. First, we can show how the Pythagoras theorem relates to current real life, how it makes sense of current questions students have. And we can take the second step, of using the Pythagoras theorem in current real life inquiries that students make to find solutions to questions or problems that would improve the quality of the life of the school or its neighbourhood. This is a great way to show the value of learning in current real life, and to develop students’ life-long learning capabilities at the same time.

The third step is to use the knowledge we have now of how much individual learning achievement and outlook reflects a set of interactions directly between students and others” teachers, peers, and parents, and others, and to think more purposefully about those interactions.

Interaction between teachers and parents that focuses on student learning while using and further building adult knowledge and life-long learning capabilities is an important frontier in education. This kind of interaction creates a relationship that isn’t lop-sided, either in favour of “the expert”, or in favour of “the consumer”. It is student-centred, but also strengthens the adults’ capabilities, including their capability for life-long learning.

The more I think about these two main purposes of education: to create life-long learners and good neighbours, the more I see that they can’t be separated from the way we do things. We can’t realise these twin purposes in the sense of either understanding them, or coming close to achieving them, until all those involved in education “walk the talk”.


I have always liked the Declaration of the Right to Learn made by the 1985 UNESCO Adult Education Conference:

The act of learning, lying as it does at the heart of all educational activity, changes human beings from objects at the mercy of events to subjects who create their own history.

The right to learn is:

  • the right to read and write
  • the right to question and analyse
  • the right to imagine and create
  • the right to read one’s own world and to write history
  • the right to have access to educational resources
  • the right to develop individual and collective skills.

[1] This project has followed children from age near-five, in early childhood education, through their schooling and post-school education. This year NZCER returns to the study participants as they turn 25 to find out more about the long-term contribution of educational experiences to their engagement in meaningful work, relationships, and outlook on life.