Where’s the “Why” in Education?

Male and female students looking at a workbook

For many millions of people worldwide, there is an overwhelming why for education (poverty, hunger, unemployment, desperation), but there is no what (no means to pursue it, no education or technology infrastructure to bring it to life). Others have a what (the financial means to pursue education and a strong infrastructure in which to do so), but they have no why…or maybe they just haven’t found it. Neither scenario is ideal.

This morning, I received a Facebook message from my older brother, linking out to a video clip of him giving a short speech in front of his speech class at the community college he attends. It sounds like a small and commonplace thing, but what can’t come through in the video is how much progress he has made.

My brother was very good at being a “bad student.” He was diagnosed with ADD at a very young age. He consistently failed classes, misbehaved, and seemed (to me) to always do things the hardest possible way. Many of his teachers liked him and in some cases felt sorry for him, but as it happens, sympathy and personality don’t earn grades. He didn’t fit into a definition of success that was defined long before his teachers even met him. And they did their part to make sure he understood that.

At 17, he graduated from high school, and with the full support of my parents, enrolled in a community college. That endeavour lasted less than a semester. He dropped out and, eager for financial independence, joined the Army. We all applauded his decision, and although logically I believe my brother to be among the brightest people I know, I chalked it up to “college isn’t for everyone.” Shortly after he completed basic training, the US military invaded Iraq. My brother was among the first American troops to be deployed to combat. He spent a year in Iraq working with radio signals in combat zones, and then returned to the US. Almost immediately, he began to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Not long after, he was asked to return to combat for another year, but due to his worsening anxiety, was instead assigned to carry the caskets of fellow soldiers who had been killed in action. (It’s hard to say whether combat could have been any worse than that.) He finished his Army service with an Honorable Discharge, and thus began a long period of worsening personal issues for my brother, and strain on my family. I didn’t see my brother for eight years. Education was surely the last thing on his mind.

In 2012, my brother became a father and his priorities shifted. He now had a why. He found low-paying work on forestry sites, and seemed to have fallen in love with working outdoors. He met like-minded people and sought help for his anxiety. A few jobs later he came to the conclusion that he wanted to find more stability in his life (his why grew stronger), and that getting a degree in Forestry at a community college would be the best way for him to provide for his daughter while doing something he loved. He matched his why to a what.

At 34, my brother has now completed his first month of community college. He still struggles, but he is focused and driven. As a “mature” student, he feels a bond with his instructors, and is comfortable asking for help when he needs it. He works hard and long to complete his assignments, and he still struggles to control his anxiety, but his sense of purpose is strong. What gives me the most hope is that he feels proud…proud enough to share with me a glimpse into his life and progress as a student. (Eight years ago, this would have seemed impossible.) To see him standing at the front of his class, his hands trembling slightly, but otherwise confidently delivering a two-minute speech in front of a class full of people, many of whom are 15 years his junior, reminds me that educators have the world’s most important job to do. They must not only teach the what…the substance and the facts…but they must constantly remind and inspire students, many of whom are fragile and impressionable, about the why. And the universal “why” is that education improves lives, no matter what form it comes in.

When intelligent people talk about the disruption of education in terms of technology alone, I can’t help but feel that they aren’t even close to hitting the mark. Shouldn’t we first consider disrupting existing structures, assumptions, pedagogies and long-held norms in education? This post is a plea for all of us to start first by disrupting how we think about education, and the kind of change/disruption that will make education a more inclusive and realistic venture. I think education has to be about more than just the what.

Last week I attended the Virgin Disruptors event in London, and I must admit I thought this would be another conference about technology. But I’m happy, because what was also on the event menu was talk about the why and not just the what. Virgin Galactic made a compelling case for building 1:1 mentorship into early education (as they are doing), in order to encourage more young people to go after STEM careers. Google urged educators to model optimism for children, so they will come forward with what might initially seem to be “stupid ideas” instead of feeling afraid. And Pearson made the case for supporting entrepreneurial ventures in education, as we do through our Pearson Affordable Learning Fund. (PALF operates by funding grass-roots education startups in poor communities. One such startup is in India, where local women are educated to become preschool teachers in their communities, and are then able to offer free education to children in turn.)

Technological disruption, curriculum, exams and education policy – it’s all undeniably important. But maybe more important is building an education system in which people feel safe and free to find and express their real passion, and to have their minds set alight by a greater purpose. Before we even begin to talk about technology that will bring about great change, I hope that we can build the necessity of purpose into every decision made about education.