The purpose of Education: Using the imperfect tools of today to prepare for the unknowns of tomorrow


I am enjoying the distributed debate about the purpose of education – but wonder whetherwe are getting in too deep, too personal, too philosophical and missing something along the way?

At its simplest, every day in lessons and class groups across the world, educators are faced with the same, seemingly impossible mission:

How to use the imperfect knowledge and tools I have available to help prepare my students to solve problems that haven’t even arisen yet and a life that none of us can predict!

(Or at least, they could be. In reality this theoretical mission gets swamped by the day-to-day pressures. But assume for now that they are …)

Surely this can never work? How can I even prepare myself for an uncertain future, let alone helping others along that path?

Isn’t this exactly what education is about? If we don’t acknowledge the basic impossibility of this task; the ridiculousness of preparing to solve problems that don’t even exist yet; the woeful unpreparedness of any system to prepare for an unknown future; we trick ourselves into thinking that all we need is a better system, or newer tools rather than dealing with the real challenge.

I had a fantastic school experience. And it had nothing at all to do with the curriculum (which, growing up in apartheid South Africa was extremely conservative). It had everything to do with individual teachers, and school management who chose to rise above the curriculum, and challenged us to think differently. To do projects spanning multiple subjects. To reach beyond school. To develop political voices. To build daft sounding skills like problem solving and brainstorming.

I realise now that these were futureskills.

If we want to have any hope at all of preparing for the unknown, surely we need to take more pride in developing futureskills like confidence, autonomy, tolerance, curiosity?

Others have done a far better job than I can of describing these futureskills:

  • Cristina’s “building of Personality & Good Character”
  • Ewan’s “ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life”
  • Leon’s ” curiosity; engagement; reaching out; building networks between people for the Common Good”
  • Simon’s “education is about change”
  • James’ “balance of freedom and responsibility”
  • I especially liked Paulo Freire describing tolerance as a basic skill, and essential first step in learning from, and about others

But how to influence the system to embrace these? If we have to have school league tables, why not measure success on how many students have excelled in a profession that only got invented after they left school? Or how many have managed to live and work in another language and culture?

As an employer, I can say without doubt that my most valuable members of staff are not the ones with good qualifications, but rather those good futureskills. Who help me solve a problem even when I cannot quite describe it well enough. Who have the vision to paint pictures of the future, combined with the handcraft (technical) skills to make them happen.

If we really want to change education – why not celebrate and prize these futureskills in increasingly vocal ways, and try to weave them deep into the fabric of the system. We may never be able to stop the system being about “competition”, but at least if we compete on futureskills it might be of more benefit to us all …


About Geoff Stead

Geoff is Tribal's Head of Innovation and a thought leader on new technologies and how they could be used for learning, communication and collaboration. He and his team of technical inventors and educational wizards build apps, tools and websites to serve learners and tutors across the world. His mission: find practical and meaningful uses for emerging technologies, embracing the power of web2.0, Social Media and Open Source Solutions to help to make learning and working better for all. He has a special interest in empowering hard to reach, excluded or disadvantaged learners. Follow Geoff on Twitter.
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  • Doug Belshaw

    Great stuff, and thanks for the contribution, Geoff! You’re absolutely correct about the system needing to measure things that are actually important – to individuals and employers alike. What I’d like to see is educational institutions be a whole lot more transparent (in which case perhaps we wouldn’t *need* league tables)

  • joythompson

    I so endorse the essence of what you say here. I’ve been a classroom teacher since 1973 and always believed that education is for exactly this purpose (hence the decision to stay in the classroom when my peers moved into management). I have seen how the principles underpinning this view of education have been subverted and undermined to the point of disillusionment over the last decades as the business model of education has taken over. It is very heartening to hear these views being discussed again. I had thought I was a dinosaur in the staffroom!