A Humane View of Education


A Humane View of Education

Friday the 26th of July, 2019

Information at our fingertips alone, does not amount to a great education. How we approach learning, matters.

It was a beautiful and warm Sunday afternoon after the cold of winter had earlier in the week gripped Auckland. On a gorgeous walk around Devonport to look back at our glorious city, a concrete plinth with a descriptive plate caught my attention. On closer read, it was about a murderer, Joseph Burns hanged on that very spot as punishment for killing a family.  At home, I used Google to source the story – clearly a part of our history and found a biography of Joseph Burns – an Irish immigrant who had become desperate for money and had killed the family for 12 pounds and made it look like local Māori were to blame. I reflected on how I would have found all this information before – at a library perhaps. But the effort to source it online was light, easy, and available.   

Such is the power of information at our fingertips and the beauty of what we have achieved. There are some fantastic opportunities that the Internet provides, but information at our fingertips does not amount to a great education. It amounts to information that we can choose to access, and for the vast majority of students, education has a much wider purpose than finding out things for ourselves. At our recent open day, a parent was particularly interested in our views on this topic given recent trends in education where in modern learning environments with a range of technologies, learners are put in charge of their own learning. 

While it is true that many inventions that changed the world were incidental, even accidental, most of the work was achieved by experts in their field who had a deep conceptual understanding of what they were trying to achieve. Children and young adults do not have this foresight and are unable to conceptualise easily and realise consequences until the age of 25. An approach to education that leaves the critical input of knowledge, intellectual guidance, social role modelling and values to the students themselves is a hit and miss model of education we cannot afford to condone. Accessing information, even from Wikipedia has a significant rate of error and liability around accuracy. While knowledge does develop, change and modify with research over time, young people are not blessed with a depth of wisdom to discern legitimacy of the information.  

A wider approach to education offers views on how knowledge is constructed – the social, political and cultural factors that define knowledge as well as an understanding of the moral and ethical influences that imbue how knowledge is learned and applied. Developing broader competencies for this level of discernment explains the complexity of education. Measuring and ranking schools simply on examination outcomes demonstrates a flawed view of education where these complexities are ignored. While the wider populous may fall for the lure of seemingly straight forward data to rank schools, it underserves the real value of education for students as well. Results “become prizes for students to win rather than signs that point to actual learning. In the end, grades are the quintessential extrinsic motivator, whereas educational pursuits need to be primarily intrinsic if they are to be transformational” (Eyler, 2018).

While an education without grades is indeed idealistic, the question about how to educate our young people in ways that builds on their natural intrinsic curiosity and prepares them to live meaningfully in a pluralistic world of change is in constant debate. What we do know is that there is a balance as Eyler says between hard-headed pragmatism and poetic idealism. To be truly transformational in education we must accept the wider human purpose of education and acknowledge that education is so much more than examination statistics. There are attributes, values and competencies that are part of creating great young people who can lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives. Part of this view is about recognizing students’ cultural and social knowledge as well as understanding what it means to be a compassionate, ethical and caring member of society. This doesn’t just ‘fall out’ of socializing at school or surfing the Internet. Achieving excellence is far more than grades and examination results.  
Excellence comes in many forms, and it is this wider belief about the capacity of human development that is the true meaning of a great education – and this goes well beyond our traditional views of schooling. The data is highly complex and there are many variables specific to each context, so comparing schools does not give a true picture of what is happening in those schools/communities. The work we do with our young people is high stakes in the eyes of any community and we believe it is up to every school to be accountable directly to them.  Data is never more important than the people involved and it is our opinion that a narrow focus on data and results cuts across this and promotes a narrow view of education. 

How humans learn will continue to challenge and transform how we lead our schools in the future. While the technology enables us to find information about a historical murder in Auckland, it does little to explore the cultural impact of the murders, the ethics of capital punishment, the impact of the victim’s families and friends, financial hardship or the missed opportunity for human redemption. These are the ethical dilemmas and the insights we may miss that remain relevant to us all as humans as we seek the deeper benefits of a humane education.

- Heather McRae

Eyler, Joshua R. (2018) How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teacher. West Virginia University Press.