The goals of a well-rounded primary education are concise: to ensure that the young student is capable of completing set tasks in reading, writing, and mathematics. However, there is another main goal which is often overlooked: to ensure that the young student is capable of thinking. This might seem self-evident, yet students who later finish high school and begin college are quickly separated into those capable of complex problem solving, and those needing an introduction to the skills required for research, lateral thinking, and self-guided learning.
Charles Dickens described the main misconceptions about the goals of education prevalent in nineteenth-century Britain in his novel "Hard Times," where the schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, considers his students "little pitchers" to be stuffed "full of facts." This approach has historically been proven to be counterproductive. The Greek Socratic method---of leading students interactively to form their own conclusions---works just as well now as it did over two thousand years ago, and the current United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] cites access to such Socratic methods as being the most important of the six main aims of Education for All. Such an education is "a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment" (John Henry Newman) and it is based on the foundation of a common set of rudimentary cognitive skills that build common knowledge and an awareness of the world.
The function of education, however, is open to controversy. The use of standardized tests to assess student skills can often lead to the assessment of a student's ability to take a test (rather than to cope with the multifarious complex problems that life or any specialized career can throw at the student when he leaves the safety of the schoolroom). Deciding when students are best able to understand and synthesize new information can lead to controversy, too, resulting in a first world nation (the US in the following example) forcing children to start reading at age five---and yet letting them wait until they are fifteen before teaching them long division. Understanding the complexities of an individual student's approach to learning can be ignored by busy primary school teachers, as can understanding that young children are increasingly responsive to visual aids rather than verbal prompts. Agreeing on the function of a basic education can therefore be a reflection of community values rather than an ideal. The so-called No Child Left Behind initiative in the US holds elementary schools accountable for achieving proficient scores in reading and math; this focus on scores ignores students in favor of outcomes.
The twentieth-century propensity to theorize rather than act led to several distinct theoretical approaches to education which may have shared many of the same goals but which advocated very differing methods. Progressive methods (Dewey, Kilpatrick, Childs) include many Socratic ideas; Perennialism (Hutchins, Adler) focuses on preparation for, rather than experience of, life; Essentialism (Bagley, Horne) reiterates the need for training and facts in quite a Dickensian manner; and Reconstructionism (Counts, Brameld) posits that society shapes educational forces and that education should respond to societal needs rather than shaping tge future societal environment. The goals of education, surely, should include an ability to use any of the above theories and approaches as necessary to encourage responsible student interaction and future action.
The goal of education is the development of competent adults capable of reading a newspaper, balancing a check book and figuring simple percentages, fractions and decimals---and until another method of ensuring students can complete these tasks comes along, standardized testing is going to continue. The benefits of letting children conform to the requirements of standardized tests may outweigh the disadvantages and disappointments of missed opportunities or missing cognitive skills needed to read quickly or respond correctly. It can be posited that such testing is a rehearsal for the realities of the workplace; however, the teachers themselves recognize that it stifles creativity and gives lateral thinking and problem-solving no outlet for consideration in computing the students' final scores. There is no denying that, whatever test methods are used, the benefits of education translate into improved living conditions in developing countries and a dollar value in industrialized nations.
The goals of education are therefore going to vary from nation to nation and will depend on other factors such as gender roles and workforce requirements (in developing countries, for example). You will know your children are receiving a sound education if they question you about the world, your values, and the status quo. In this case, they will naturally be using the skills of reading, research, and mathematics to form their interpretations of the world they see around them. This is an ideal, however, and if your children are more introverted it does not mean they are not thinking about the world and its complexities. But there is so much more. For example, listening to Baroque music has been proven to soothe or even augment right-brain activity: the brain is just beginning to be understood, and it is likely that much more research into how children use different parts of their brains in different learning capacities will illustrate the differences between left-brained and right-brained learning approaches.
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