The Purpose of Education

The Purpose of Education

Recently a large gathering of primary and secondary school principals from all over New Zealand met with the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, and the internationally renowned educational researcher and scholar, Professor Andy Hargreaves, formerly of Great Britain and now at Boston College, Massachusetts. Professor Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The mission of the Chair is to promote social justice and connect theory and practice in education. 

The focus of this gathering was to launch a debate on “The Purpose of Education” in New Zealand. Some wonderful thinking, discussion, and idea sharing resulted, and I would like to share the best bits with you as I think this is an important topic for us to reflect on as parents, as teachers and educational leaders, and as a learning community focussed on doing the best we possibly can to educate, guide, prepare and support our children to become lifelong learners.


I was asked to reflect on the question, “if there was only one thing Western Heights could achieve for its children by the time they leave here, what would it be?

There are so many answers that come to mind - giving children a sense of self-worth, teaching them empathy, guiding them to become independent leaders of their own learning, helping them to be resilient and persistent… and many more.


In the end, I settled for embedding in them a love of learning that reaches down to the cellular level. A love of learning means that you will want to and love to learn about - first yourself; second others; third your world. 

  • Life-long learning about yourself will help you understand the importance of believing in yourself, having courage, confidence, resilience and persistence (among many other qualities).
  • Life-long learning about others will help you become empathetic (as you will learn not to judge others without first understanding them), cooperative, collaborative, and a team player (among many other qualities).
  • Life-long learning about your world will help you to be a caring, concerned and connected citizen. It will lead you to care more for your world as you understand and value the beauty, wonder, and finiteness of its resources.

We want to grow Learners who Love to Learn, Learn to Lead. Our WHS school Mission is “Love to Learn to Lead.”

If we can find ways to hook children into learning, and grow in them an ever-deepening passion for learning, so many of the challenges they (and our society) will face, will be overcomable.


Passion is an oft overused word, but I can assure you that I am passionate about achieving this goal, as are our staff.

As our Minister, Hekia Parata, stated, “Anyone not passionate about causing learning to happen should get out of the education business. I don’t want miserable people around our children, or around you,” she said.


It’s all very well being passionate about learning and growing Learners who Love to Learn and Learn to Lead, but passion has to be accompanied by action. 

A dream without a plan is empty after all.


For me, this brings in the power, purpose and possibility of the new Four R’s.

The original 3 R’s were reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic - a bit of a worry just in the name.

The new Four R’s are the means by which we ensure Reading, Writing, Mathematics and all the other wonderful components of our New Zealand Curriculum are taught, understood and mastered. They are the tools by which a passion for growing learners who Love to Learn to Lead becomes reality.


The Four R’s are:

  • Relationships - giving our children an opportunity to love and be loved. Treating every child in our care as our own flesh and blood.
  • Relevance - making sure children can make a connection to their learning through real-world/their-world contexts. Through this comes engagement, a sense of purpose, focus and a love of learning.
  • Rigour - is causing learning to happen, and knowing that it did. It is the analysis, assessment, discussion, conferencing, feed-back and feed-forward that allows us to know that learning has taken root, has been made into meaning, and become a part of the learner.
  • Reflection - requires the constant and consistent review of what we did, why we did it and what resulted. Reflection allows us to grow, to improve, to be better than before, and to understand the big picture around our learning.

The President of the NZ Principals’ Federation recently had this to say:                               

Our New Zealand teachers are world class professionals right across the deciles as proclaimed by the OECD recently. The close relationships our public schools have with our local communities mean that community aspirations and values create a context for each school's unique curriculum. This allows schools to continually adapt and change in response to demands for new skills. New Zealand schools can thus remain ahead of the game. Whilst much of the rest of the world is still immersed in standard methods of teaching and testing. New Zealand has leapt ahead into inquiry learning and teaching, problem-solving, critical thinking, self-management of learning and other innovative approaches.


'Our statement of purpose for education will inevitably involve knowledge and skills, it will also involve a range of values and competencies reflecting our growing cultural diversity, our environmental concerns, the need for equity, fairness and justice, inclusiveness and the desire to see our children grow into responsible, compassionate and contributing, global citizens.' 


In addressing "The Purpose of Education’ Minister Parata said that education is a 'powerful... social platform for excellence so that people can participate in the economy and grow in prosperity and cultural awareness. Minister Parata insisted the purpose of schools is to cause learning to happen and know that it did. 


She acknowledged that teaching was a complex and challenging job because it requires finding out how learning happens for each child. She spoke of the collapse of time and distance with the bright new digital world but quickly added that whether you are talking about the business of schools or of governments, the greatest influence comes from good quality leadership. 


Professor Hargreaves stated, "There are two discussion trends world-wide, progress and direction - how you are doing and where you are going. 

Professor Hargreaves’s purpose points to ponder were:                                                                      

  • Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom                                                                   
  • Education should be paid for, controlled and maintained by the public                                        
  • Education is provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds                                        
  • Education should be non-sectarian                                                                                               
  • Education should be taught using the tenets of a free society.                                                           
  • Education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers  

Cheryl Doig is a Futurist. She was the first principal to win the Goodman Fielder Wattie School of the Year award while at Richmond School in Christchurch. I have worked with Cheryl many times over the years and she is inspiring, challenging and an educational visionary.                                                                                                                                       

In addressing the purpose of education, Dr Cheryl Doig who works as a 'Futures Consultant' said there are more questions than answers. Whilst we want to value the past, it must be acknowledged that we are heading in a very different place now and that place is driven by technology and globalisation, not by learning to read, write and get a job.                             

Education will be a life-long learning process, according to Cheryl Doig, and school is just a small part of that.         

The world is changing at such a rate that you cannot have a school or university curriculum that is not instantly changeable. Our current system is not broken, she said. It works quite adequately for what it was designed for. The thing is, we must call time on that era. As Sir Paul Callaghan once said, 'New Zealand must become a city of four million people, a country where talent wants to live.’                                                                                           

It was also important to note the changing nature of work with 47 per cent of jobs that exist right now being capable of automation. The kids of today, therefore, need multiple opportunities to prepare them for a successful future because many will be in jobs that don't exist yet whilst many jobs that exist today will have disappeared. 

Professor Andrew Hargreaves summarised at the end. He noted the ideas and sentiments which principals repeated many times, including that we want the statement of the purpose for education to be bold, specific, holistic, encapsulating diversity, clear, inspiring, courageous, inclusive, passionate, bicultural, apolitical, collaborative, global, sharing, demonstrating professional ownership and reflecting New Zealand Curriculum.         

Further sentiments also echoed by the speakers included dignity, identity, ubiquity, authority, inquiry and intervention.                                                                                                        

Professor Hargreaves noted that 'if you don't know who you are, you are not self-confident enough to succeed.’ 

I am confident our WHS children are developing a very strong and clear sense of who they are, why learning is important and rewarding, and how they can lead in their own lives, with others, and in their world. This is our purpose in education, and your support, encouragement, engagement and commitment is greatly appreciated as it makes all the difference.

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