Purpose and Goals of Education - Bringing Them Into the 21st Century

The purpose of public education tends to be driven by major changes in American society. Whenever there has been major social or economic change, the goals that were established for public education have changed. Over time, the following have all been goals of public education:
These goals become more or less important depending on major world events of that given generation. The philosophies that inform and guide the goals of education need to reflect the societal needs, culture, and norms of the time. Philosophies about how people learn have been articulated since the beginning of human thought. Plato and Socrates had their ideas, Dewey and Montessori had theirs. These philosophies were attempts by these philosophers to explain and influence the Zeitgeist of the times. As the human race is a product of preceding generations, the prominent educational philosophies of our past should inform our present systems of education. The key is that they should inform but educators should not be inflexibly tied to them. A good educational philosophy becomes an integration and synthesis of the thoughts, concepts, and principles from the historical philosophies with those that represent the current purpose and goals of education. The Millennium Generation is very different then the generation of youth who were educated with Socrates. They are digital natives, social networking multitaskers. To reflect the type of education needed for the 21st century, new schools of educational philosophies are emerging. They are being called social constructivism and collaborative pedagogy.

Foundational Philosophies

Progressivism ala Dewey

John Dewey believed the purpose of education is “to improve the human condition, increase productivity, and solve problems” (Gutek, 2004, p. 72). As the world has flattened (see The Flat Is World by Thomas Friedman) so has the awareness of the conditions around the globe. Schools should go beyond their four walls to connect and relate to those systems to which it is a part (Gutek, 2004). With a flat world of the 21st century, this system becomes the entire globe.

I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends. (see John Dewey, My Pedagogical Creed, 1897).


One of the goals of education, especially relevant in the 21st century, is to prepare students to be global citizens. To do so, students need to be exposed to and engaged in genuine learning experiences involving self-determination, initiative, and self-evaluation. This is congruent with the thoughts of existentialism as “it opposes the standardization of education, the rigidity of scheduling, and the tyranny of testing that restricts the interpersonal relationship between the teacher and student, and among students (Gurek, 2004, p. 93). Assessments based on an existential framework are authentic and student-driven. “Students maintain portfolios or journals that allow them to set their own goals, and determine their own achievement of the goals. Their own papers, drawings, essays, and other items help them track their own educational journey (Gurek, 2004, p. 96). Assessment artiffacts are student-determined and product-based. In the Classroom 2.0, e-portflios, Wikis, Blogs, and Social Networking sites are used as evidence of learning. While the Existential view focuses on the growth of the individual or Self, the social constructivism model directs attention on the collective group as the means for individual growth. “With new communication technologies-especially the Internet-huge numbers of people all over the planet can now work together in ways that were never before possible in the history of humanity. It is thus more important than ever for us to understand collective intelligence at a deep level so we can create and take advantage of these new possibilities” (MIT Center for Collective Intelligence).

What is Knowledge?

What is knowledge? What knowledge is worth knowing in the 21st century?

Linda Darling-Hammond (2007), the prominent Stanford faculty, in her article, Evaluating No Child Left Behind, discussed the role of US schools in a world where education is increasingly essential and the nature of knowledge is rapidly changing. What would we need to do to graduate all of our students with the ability to apply knowledge to complex problems, communicate and collaborate effectively and find and manage information?

Paulo Freire challenged the prominent US philosophical stance driven by the belief that there is a fixed body of knowledge that can be encapsulated through text and transmitted to students in an act analogous to making a bank deposit (Hirtle)

Much of what we're transmitting is doomed to obsolescence at a far more rapid rate than ever before. And that knowledge becomes what we call obsoledge: obsolete knowledge. We have this enormous bank of obsolete knowledge in our heads, in our books, and in our culture. When change was slower, obsoledge didn't pile up as quickly. Now, because everything is in rapid change, the amount of obsolete knowledge that we have -- and that we teach -- is greater and greater and greater. We're drowning in obsolete information. We make big decisions -- personal decisions -- based on it, and public and political decisions based on it. (Toffler).

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (2007), a group of corporate and education leaders focused on upgrading American education. believes there is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in the knowledge and skills they need to function in 21st century communities and workplaces. To cope with the demands of the 21st century, students need to know more than core subjects. They need to kn how to use their knowledge and skills-by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, and making decisions (Partnership for 21st Century Skills).

Constructing Knowledge Socially

Today’s children are growing up at a time when knowledge development is become a team-based and collaborative endeavor (Shore, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center). The process is increasingly participatory, democratic, and resistant to external control. For participants, this can be both empowering and confusing. Participatory knowledge tools tap the experience of countless people with many kinds of experience, factoring their insights and beliefs into the process and the result. They allow participants to engage in real-time collaboration and to co-construct solutions to problems (Shore, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center).

Social constructivism focuses on the interdependence of social and individual processes in the co-construction of knowledge (Palincsar, 1998). Palincsar (1998) describes social constructivism as a postmodern constructivist philosophy. It is a rejection of the view that the locus of knowledge is in the individual. It comes from a belief that learning and understanding are regarded as inherently social; and cultural activities and tools are integral to conceptual development. More current research is demonstrating that by drawing upon a larger collective memory and the multiple ways in which knowledge could be structured among individuals working together, groups could attain more success than individuals working alone (Palincsar, 1998).

The kind of knowledge and understanding that emerges from large groups of people is collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is based on the growing body of knowledge (see Wisdom of the Crowds) that a “group can generate not just more ideas but more kinds of ideas than the same individuals working in isolation, and a group consensus is often more accurate than the guess of the group's most knowledgeable individual” (Shirky, 2004). In the coming years, educational applications for collective intelligence will increase as evidenced in projects like the Wikipedia and in community tagging, and social bookmarking (Horizon Project, 2008).

Collective intelligence and mass amateurization are pushing the boundaries of scholarship
Networked composition would appear to have more scholarly and pedagogic merit in its potential to allow students and faculty to work together to build knowledge (Digital Digs: Collective Intelligence). Tools to record, discover, and manipulate the data make it possible for anyone "to delve into these datasets, allowing amateurs to juxtapose datasets and create sophisticated graphs and other visual representations". Questions have been raised how the wisdom of crowds could benefit the educational community; now, as this trend continues, we are beginning to understand its effect (Horizon Project Key Trends).

The fact that we are now in the process of connecting all the knowledge pools in the world together. By connecting all these knowledge pools we are on the cusp of an incredible new era of innovation (Friedman, 2005).

Social Constructivism and Global Education

If the community is perceived, as it should be given the current trends, as the globe, then education for and about the globe becomes imperative. Global education, in this flat world, is larger, more synergistic than the push for multicultural education that occurred in the latter part of the 20th century. The focus of the 21st century becomes educating students for global responsibility and stewardship.

Shore (2008) believes it is imperative to know about other countries and cultures. “We live in an interconnected world, and this fact presents challenges to an educational system that has historically downplayed the importance of international content. Experts say that educators need a broader understanding of global literacy, including world geography, world history, and one or more foreign languages. Today, almost every current issue has a global dimension, requiring students to learn innumerable facts not covered in the classroom” (p. 8).

The Role of the Teacher

Once students have obtained the basic skills needed to read, write, draw, add – usually gained in the Kindergarten through 2nd grades, they need to given the opportunity to drive and construct their own learning experiences. This is supported by the constructivist educational philosophical ideas such those presented by Paulo Freire (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage:
“To learn … precedes to teach … [T]o teach is part of the very fabric of learning … [T]here is no valid teaching from which there does not emerge something learned and through which the learner does not become capable of recreating and remaking what has been thought … [T]eaching that does not emerge from the experience of learning cannot be leaned by anyone." (p. 31)

"When I enter the classroom I ought to be someone who is open to new ideas, open to questions, and open to the curiosities of the students as well as their inhibitions … I ought to be aware of being a critical and inquiring subject in regard to the task entrusted to me, the task of teaching and not that of transferring knowledge." (p. 49)

After that early time of basic skill development, the role of the teacher becomes that of facilitator, resource-provider, coach, sounding board, and a co-learner. The constructivist teacher provides tools such as problem-solving and inquiry-based learning activities. Students formulate and test their ideas, draw conclusions and inferences, and pool and convey their knowledge in a collaborative learning environment. Constructivism transforms the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process” (Educational Broadcasting Association).

Even with a foundation in the constructivist philosophy, the role of the teacher has to be defined for the 21s century. McKenzie (2000) has describes the teacher for the 21st century as a techno-constructivist. Once a teacher immerses himself or herself in technology, accepts the knowledge of human cognition based on a constructivist perspective, and understands the needs of the future information economy, she needs to re-conceptualize her role as an educator. techno-constructivists willing allow their students to completely immerse themselves in the technologies. They allow their students to see the connections they can make using electronic mail, Web sites, multi-user environments, databases, spreadsheets, publishers, word processors while supporting and helping them successfully complete their tasks. (McKenzie).

The Focus of the Classroom - Students as the Constructors of Their Knowledge

The focus of the classroom is on student-centered, project-based learning. Students are asked to be active generators of their learning. They construct their knowledge by determining what they want to learn and then designing their own learning experiences to do so. They are asked to do so in pairs or small groups to encourage the natural processes of learning in social groups grounded in the beliefs described in the Wisdom of the Crowds. My role as the teacher is to provide the resources and feedback for them to be successful. The classroom becomes one whereby acquiring the skills, habits, and process of learning is of greatest importance. For many of these students, it is a breadth of fresh air. For a few, they struggle to learn this way to be a student as they as used to and successful in classrooms where the primary emphasis is on the products, tests, and papers.

The Research

contructivistcartoon.pngKinchin, I. (2004). Investigating students' beliefs about their preferred role as learners. Educational Research, 46 (3) p301-312.

Teacher practices are partially determined by their implicit epistemological beliefs: "whether a teacher expects students to act as passive receivers of information ( = the objectivist classroom) or as active builders of understanding ( = the constructivist classroom)." A total of 349 responses were obtained from students of which 39 (11.2%) chose the objectivist classroom and 310 (88.8%) chose the constructivist one. "After administering the question sheet with the concept cartoons, some teachers from the schools involved expressed surprise at the large proportion of student selecting the constructivist classroom, given that their students had seemed so comfortable in an objectivist one. Students who selected the constructivist classroom fell into three dominant categories which consider class B to be more interesting, more effective and allowing the students to have greater ownership of their own learning.


Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogical creed. Retrieved July 14, 2008 from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/My_Pedagogic_Creed.
Gutek, G. (2004). Educational philosophy and changes (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. Retrieved July 13, 2008, from http://cci.mit.edu/research/index.html.
Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345-75.
PBS School: History of Education Series. What is the purpose of public education? Retrieved July 13, 2008 from http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/get_involved/guide_p2.html