The Purpose of Education – critical and creative thinking

It is important that all students learn certain basic skills. The 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – are, as Dr Cathy Wylie describes, “the spine of publically funded education.”…

It is important that all students learn certain basic skills. The 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – are, as Dr Cathy Wylie describes, “the spine of publically funded education.” It is also important that students leave secondary education with some record of their academic history to assist employers and tertiary education institutes in their judgement of applicants. Measurable indicators attained through standardised testing have their role here. They can also help parents and teachers to identify areas where a student requires more support.

However, outcome achievement as measured through test results is not the purpose of education. The purpose of education is learning, and, even more importantly, instilling in students a desire to continue to learn, beyond the abstract and somewhat arbitrary confines of standards and outcomes. The creation of policy which focuses intensely on outcome achievement sends the message to teachers and students that the point of education is to do well on tests.

Creating outcomes with which learning is assessed has the inevitable consequence of creating winners and losers. Where there are quantifiable standards, there are students who fail to meet those standards. I know from personal experience, and the experience of my peers, how disheartening it can be to be ‘fail’ at an age where one is acutely conscious of the expectations of teachers and parents. When a student is told that they have failed to pass test or make a grade, they are told that they are bad at that subject, and they are discouraged.

Negative associations with certain areas of learning, and eventually with learning as a whole, can be gradually developed. Some students come to associate the process of education with frustration and doubt. Even those who excel feel immense pressure to consistently perform. As a student progresses through the education pathway and testing becomes more frequent, more and more mental energy is spent on working out which information must be memorised in order to get a certain mark on a test. Intense assessment positions the assessor as the opponent of the student, and learning as an instrumental process to obtain a grade. It can discourage creative and original thought.

Teaching students how to excel in an academic environment is important, but it is equally important to show every student how interesting learning is in its own right. Every discipline has writers and popularisers who can eloquently communicate their passion to the layperson. Education should include the provision of inspiration and role models alongside knowledge. Engaging and challenging figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson can spark lifelong interest and engagement.

A healthy democracy needs citizens who are willing and able to engage on a wide range of issues. It is continually frustrating to see such low voter turnout rates among young adults. Some young people feel like politics doesn’t affect them; others think that it does, but that there’s no way they can make a difference. Generation Zero activist Simon Cross has said of his experiences,
I find people are more receptive when you engage with them as equals. Ask them what they care about, and they’ll tell you. And then, once you’ve built up that rapport with them, they’ll respond well to your recommendations about which parties they fit. People appreciate respect for their views, and don’t react well to aggressive debate or criticism.

Education needs to foster curiosity-driven learning. With curiosity and open-mindedness comes a respect for new ideas and an interest rather than a distrust of difference. As New Zealand society becomes increasingly diverse, and our economy and culture become more globalised, our education system needs to keep pace. All students should feel safe and accepted within their learning environments.
Following this, I have seen how the new focus on Te Tiriti o Waitangi within the NCEA History curriculum has made young people more interested in our heritage, and more understanding of the continuing relevance of Te Tiriti in current politics. This synthesis of important issues and classroom learning should be developed as a vital part of modern education. The education process should continue to integrate examples of how concepts and tools learned in the classroom can be applied beyond it, with an emphasis on issues that are relevant in NZ society.

Correspondingly, it has been frustrating as a campaigner to see so many people become disinterested or frustrated with the topic of climate change as soon as science is mentioned. People who have had a narrow or negative experience of science in the classroom are much less willing to engage with it as citizens, and this limits and stifles public debate. As the world and the challenges we face become ever more complex, and the pace of change increases, it becomes even more important for all students to feel like continuing to learn is possible and interesting. Multi-faceted issues like climate change and wealth inequality require educated input from citizens from every group in society. They require critical and creative thinking. If our education system enshrines knowledge and questioning rather than outcomes and tests, our debates on these issues will be elevated beyond the politics of opinion. They will properly include our most vulnerable. Such education is vital for our democracy.

Zoe Russell currently attends Victoria University of Wellington, where she is studying towards a double degree in Public Policy, International Relations, and Law. Zoe is involved in policy development, student media, and climate campaigning, and hopes to see RockEnrol make a positive difference in this election.