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what is education?

Three things mark out education: the intention to foster learning; a concern with environment; and certain values

photo: devon youth associationEducation is is future-oriented - it is about development and growth even when we are studying the past. Thus, as educators, the aspect of thinking we tend to focus upon is learning. As we have stressed, much thinking is commonplace - it goes on all the time, often without our being aware of it. Education takes us into the conscious world. It involves activities that are intended to stimulate thinking, to foster learning. We set out to help another person to learn, or to learn something ourselves (a process of self-education). Both can take place at the same time. We learn as we teach. In conversation we learn about people and communities and also learn the craft of informal education.

Intention. Sometimes, such as when teaching in a classroom, we may have a detailed idea about what we are trying to achieve. We might even have written down a lesson plan with some objectives. We may have a script and a syllabus - we know there are certain things about which we need to talk and things we wish to teach. However, a lot of the time we may not have such a clear idea of where things are headed. All we have is a picture of the general direction that we want to go in. However, we set out to foster learning - and this intention is a key characteristic of education.

Environment. John Dewey made the point that we are not able to plug directly into another person's brain. ‘We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment’. He continued, ‘Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference’. The physical environment - the shape of the room, the way chairs are laid out, lighting and heating will influence the way we feel and think about the activities we are engaged in. In turn, our social relationships will affect the way we view these things.

Commitment. Educators do not act in a value free way. In our view, for something to be called 'education', whether it takes place in the classroom or the canteen, it must be informed by certain values. There is a dividing line between education and indoctrination. Education, unlike the latter, embraces a commitment to:

These values should inform both the content of conversations and encounters, as well as our behaviour and relationships as educators. Julius Nyerere once summed these concerns up when he talked of the purpose of education as being the liberation of humans from the restraints and limitations of ignorance and dependency. ‘Nothing else can be properly called education. Teaching which induces a slave mentality or a sense of impotence is not education at all - it is an attack on the minds of men’.

infedcov.jpg (18462 bytes)Taken from Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (2005) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.


© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published October 4, 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014