What’s the point of it all?

My colleagues Chris Jones and Gráinne Conole are at a learning design workshop hosted by Peter Goodyear, listening to contrasting talks from John Sweller and Roger Saljo.  Chris tweeted that he didn’t like the Information Processing view:

John Sweller argued “the purpose of education is to get information into long-term memory”. I just don’t buy that at all!

but he’s

Much happier with Roger Saljo’s position “the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs”

I think both are right, in some senses, and both are wrong in others.  It’s a question of what you mean by purpose, and what level of description you’re talking about.  I strongly uspect that you need to get information in to long-term memory in order to gain the ability to transofrm and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

This problem of levels of description has a long history: Aristotle argued that there were four sorts of causes of any change: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. (It gets a bit confusing since the Greek word Aristotle was using isn’t quite the same as cause.)  The last two are the ones we’d think of as causes: the efficient cause is what makes a change happen, and the final cause is the purpose.

In more modern times, Systems Thinking embodies these distinctions in the notion of a root definition of a system, which goes “A system to do X by means of Y in order to Z”, and implicit in any definition is the possibility of considering a system one level up or down.

So to come back to education, it could be a system to get information in to long-term memory by means of (something we need to work out) in order to gain the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

For me, though, the top-level purpose,  goal, or point of education is to make people better people.

This might well – at several levels of description down – require changes in the bonding between molecules in synapses in their brains, but that’s not (yet) a level of description that’ll help you much as an educator. And focusing on that level of description as your goal could easily distract you from better ways of achieving your aims.  So, for instance, the purpose of a carved wooden table is not chipping away at a block of wood with a chisel.

The focus on making people better people is an important one. It makes it clear that education is a social, political and fundamentally moral enterprise.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

1 thought on “What’s the point of it all?”

  1. “the purpose of education is to get information into long-term memory. I just don’t buy that at all!” Me neither:

    Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. B.F. Skinner

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