Definition of Education

The definition of education guiding mainstream schools today is that education is the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information from teachers to students.

While the above metaphor—education as a delivery system—sounds reasonable, it misses what is most important about education.

This mistaken idea of what true education is and how it can be achieved is the root problem in mainstream education today.

This conception of education contributes to harming students and teachers by driving policy makers to insist on accounting for the "units" of information that students demonstrate knowledge of on tests.

The perceived need for mass scale standardized outcomes leads to a kind of instructional bookkeeping that drives administrators to control teachers' behavior, which in turn is directed to controlling students' behavior in ways that increases symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other forms of diminished psychological well-being.

Student outcomes as measured by tests bear little relationship to true education, and so the instructional bookkeeping scheme is a failure even before the harm it causes is taken into consideration.

Check out my video about Waiting For Superman to see how the delivery metaphor was presented in that movie as an utterly obvious truth for mainstream audiences, much to my chagrin.

Providing a proper definition of education is complicated by the fact that there is not a clear consensus about what is important about being and becoming educated.

For many people the importance of education lies in future job prospects, for others it's quality of citizenship, and yet others just want literacy, critical thinking, and/or creativity.

I propose that behind all the differences of opinion about what it means to be educated is one very basic idea: an educated person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively on self-selected goals.

A better understanding of what education is, one that builds upon this idea, is crucial to enable people to reason about education productively.

This will lead to more effective school reform programs and improve the everyday lives of students and teachers.

A better definition of education that aligns with how many psychologists and other cognitive scientists talk about learning is "cognitive cartography," or mental mapmaking. In this essay, I will first present the cognitive cartography definition of education.

Second, I will explain the primary flaw in the dominant educational system, one that results from using the inadequate delivery metaphor in our definition of education.

Finally, I will preview four proposals for large-scale and sustainable systems changes in education that will enable us to implement a new definition of education.

Cognitive Cartography Definition of Education

Let's go through an example of an everyday literal map-making process before we explore the metaphor.

Pretend you are here with me in Portland, Oregon, and you want to get to Los Angeles, California.

I make two points on a piece of paper then label them Portland and Los Angeles, but, having given you just these two pieces of information is totally useless.

The two points can only become a map after I depict the relationships between the two points, such as indicating which way is north and then adding a connection between the points, such as highways, trail systems, or transportation options like buses, trains or airplanes.

But even that is of limited use because if you do not know how you relate to the places I have already drawn, then the information is still useless.

If you falsely believe that you are on the west side of Portland then you are likely to make navigational mistakes that will get you ever more lost from the very beginning of your trip.

In order for the map to become useful, you have to know where you are and how your position relates to the points and lines on the map.

If I do an adequate job of depicting the relationships between you and 1) your current location, 2) at least one of the transportation options you have available to you, and 3) your destination, then you should be able to accomplish your goal of getting to Los Angeles.

If I do not do an adequate job, then you still might get to Los Angeles, but only if you overcome the limitations of the flawed map I provide you with.

All of this is analogous to our most common ideas about education. Units are useless until 1) they are effectively related to each other, 2) the depicted relations reflect modes of change that are actually available to the learner, and 3) the learner can fit themselves into that particular picture of the world in a way the gets them where they want to be.

Instead of a spatial change of state from Oregon to California we are now talking about changing the learner's state of mind.

The key quality of educated people is the ability to move from negative states of mind to neutral or positive states of mind independent of the circumstances in which they find themselves situated.

Positive states of mind are objectively the most productive states to be in and provide the best quality of life as well.

Moving from one state of mind to another is the most elementary lesson that can be taught.

The primary topic that elementary education is properly concerned with is the human mind.

Children need to learn to navigate the terrain of their own minds so that they can effectively navigate the real world and the challenges that confront that mind.

Therefore, what is elementary in elementary school is gaining control over your own behavior (both mental and physical) and learning to coordinate your behavior with others.

The most fundamental lesson of elementary school is governance of behavior, our own and other people's.

The mastery of our own individual behavior requires us to realize that just because we think something, it doesn’t make it so.

Our minds, especially when we are children, are highly productive illusion machines.

The task of becoming an adult is mastering the process of disillusionment, the process of uncovering mistaken and/or ineffective thought patterns.

By the time children are of school age, they have many ideas about themselves and the world based on a combination of the way their brains were built and how their experiences have shaped that building process.

Young children live in a magical realm in which thinking makes things happen.

The popular success of The Secret, a motion-picture-length infomercial on the power of positive thinking, shows that magical thinking is not limited to children.

Throughout our lives, we build up a vast repertoire of mostly unconscious concepts about both the world and our own minds.

Unfortunately, many of those concepts are inappropriate for the purposes we have today.

They may have been perfectly adequate for the purposes of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, but our society has become too complex to navigate with the relatively simple understandings that worked in the deep past.

The eternal moral challenge of living as a responsible adult is to persistently inquire into how our concepts mislead us into causing our own and other people's suffering.

One of the most remarkable examples of this is Allan Greenspan's admission before the U.S. Congress that his ideas about the economy failed to anticipate it’s actual behavior and, in essence, caused the financial crisis of 2008.

Greenspan acted with complete confidence in his mental model despite evidence that had been accumulating since the 1970's in the field that has become known as behavioral economics that some of the fundamental assumptions of his model, such as the assumption that people always act rationally when making economic decisions, are incorrect.

The way that we rise to meet the moral challenge of adulthood is by examining how our own mind deceives us through practicing empathy for the states of mind we cause in others by our actions and actively taking responsibility for preventing and alleviating suffering in every way we can.

Magical thinking and using the goodness of our intentions to justify ignoring the results of our actions are forms of illusion that perpetually inhibit the fullest expression of our moral values.

I have no doubt that Allan Greenspan had very good intentions behind the decisions that he and his colleagues made as they managed the U.S. Federal Reserve system, but they relied on the goodness of their intentions and ignored the actual human results of their actions for so long that the consequences became monumental.

Illusions are a mismatch between the way the world is and a part of how we cognitively map that world.

This is most evident in perceptual illusions of two dimensional images that our brains automatically map as three dimensional objects.

Watch this TED Talk by Al Seckel on perceptual illusions in my illusions series to see several examples.

Naturally, we are often completely unaware of our mapping processes.

(I favor the phrase "cognitive cartography" to "mental map-making" for my definition of education because using the term "mental" suggests more conscious processes, whereas "cognitive" suggests more unconscious processes.)

The reason we can discover our mapping errors is because we have multiple methods of mapping and various sources of information to feed into those methods.

In the illusion video I mentioned we can make observations over time of the same object that reveals how our initial maps were erroneous.

We can also use multiple sensory systems to make sense of the world such as when we are hearing someone speak we use a confluence of both the auditory and visual information to decide what we are hearing, which is known as the McGurk effect and is explained in this short BBC video.

We do not simply make a map and then use it forever after.

Except under stressful conditions, we constantly verify our maps by cross-checking various sources of information.

And even under the best of circumstances, some kinds of illusion are only susceptible to social disconfirmation, such as that provided by participation in the scientific community.

The organization of the solar system and the shape of the earth are classic examples of how entrenched interpretations can be extremely persistent even in the face of long lines of contrary evidence.

If we can ensure that everyone is capable of optimizing their own state of mind and persistently assist other's to optimize theirs, then everyone will have maximum opportunity for enjoying life and being productive.

Consistent attainment of optimal states of mind is better known as having a good attitude (you were probably wondering when attitude would come in.)

Thus if everyone can achieve an optimal attitude and help others do the same then the world will be a better place.

Thus my definition of education implies a process of attaining and assisting others to attain optimal attitudes that enable a person to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively according to self-selected goals.

And the self-selection of goals is not merely the result of the efforts of a single ego, but the result of the interactions between the minds of many or all of the members of a caring community.

The goals of people who are well-connected to many other people will generally reflect the concerns of the whole or else will present the community with new concerns that they might be well advised to take into consideration.

In everyday reasoning about education the cognitive cartography image suggests that the participants in an educational interaction are each bringing to bear their understanding.

If one of the participants is charged with facilitating the learning of another then it is self-evident from the metaphor that the learners' goals, methods of pursuing their goals, and their relationship to the context of the learning situation are all crucial to success, for both the learner and the facilitator.

Critique of Definition of Education as Delivery

My central criticism of the definition of education with the delivery metaphor is that children are being harmed by it.

Ever since intrinsic motivation began to be studied in the 1970's there has been an extraordinarily consistent result that students' intrinsic motivation declines both within and across the K-12 years in traditional schools.

Declines in intrinsic motivation are associated with increases in anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of diminished psychological well-being.

Declining intrinsic motivation also indicates that schools have neglected to meet the basic psychological needs of the children in their care since that is the cause of declining intrinsic motivation.

Using the metaphor of delivery in our definition of education, I would contend, is responsible for harm to students because the concept does not in any meaningful way indicate the importance of taking the learner's goals into account.

The learner's goals matter because one of our basic psychological needs is autonomy; the sense that you have some influence or control over your own activities and experiences.

The ways that schools impose standardized requirements currently ignores the goals of those who are subject to the imposition.

Professor Johnmarshall Reeve's research has shown that teachers are exposed to multiple levels of pressure to be controlling, the exact opposite of autonomy supportive, which means that teachers are constantly encouraged to engage in harmful teaching practices.

This leads to my further suspicion that teachers are also harmed by schools since the pressures for accountability applied by society presumably reduces their autonomy and the high turnover rate in the field may suggest a generally harmful situation that drives people away.

The whole fiasco of accountability that has seized U.S. Federal Education Policy (along with many other countries) is based on taking the delivery metaphor in their definition of education too literally.

The basic logic is that what counts as education is the delivery of units of knowledge, skill, and/or information.

The only thing that matters is accounting for the deliveries.

As long as a teacher delivered the unit and the student can regurgitate the unit on a test, then the delivery has been accounted for and education is presumed to have happened.

The fact is, however, that the units are metaphorical, not literal.

It is a useful fiction to refer to the complicated sets of information as units but it is a fiction, and closer to fantasy fiction than science fiction.

In any case, whatever success is achieved within this delivery regime is in spite of that definition of education not because of it.

To be clear I have no problem with the units that teachers teach, per se.

Even in the cognitive cartography definition of education units play a role.

It's just that the role they play is not central, it is peripheral.

Units are only useful to the degree that they ultimately serve the goals of the learner getting from one state of mind to another.

The units that a teacher might present will only be useful to the degree that they are fit into the web of relationships between other units within the students' experiences of life, including the goals that the student considers important.

The teaching methods may be the same, but what must change is the ways in which the relationships between teachers and students are organized and how decisions are made about what students are to learn and which teachers will teach them.

It is only recently that two studies have demonstrated that in two kinds of alternative schools children succeed in maintaining their levels of intrinsic motivation.

The thesis project I completed for my degree in psychology at Reed College was a study of patterns of intrinsic motivation in a democratic school and a home school resource center.

I found that those alternative schools did not show the kind of decline that has always been observed in traditional classrooms.

After completing my thesis I discovered that a team of Isreali researchers published a study in the 2010 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching in which they directly compared the patterns of intrinsic motivation to learn science in traditional and democratic middle schools.

They found, as I did, that the democratic school students maintained their intrinsic motivation in stark contrast to the declines in students attending regular schools.

Given these two studies suggest that a healthier pattern of motivation can be accomplished in schools it is critical that further research is done to discover what are the true causal factors that produce it.

Perhaps some other kinds of alternatives are also maintaining children's motivation, and perhaps some schools that look traditional have cultural or organizational elements that also produce that healthier pattern.

Without appropriate independent research we simply do not know, yet.

The delivery metaphor as it's used in the dominant definition of education is one of those illusions that we need to overcome in order to relieve suffering in the world, in this case the suffering of children and teachers and probably all the other people in schools, too.

Using that metaphor in our definition of education seemed like a good idea for a while until we discovered the unintended side effect of suffering that it causes.

Now we know better and can take action to do better.

Changing Schools by Changing the Definition of Education

The big challenge is how to get the cognitive cartography definition of education to become the operational definition of education used in schools.

This is not a simple matter of changing one mind at a time.

This is a matter of a major cultural shift.

Effective implementation requires a strategy for cultural change and a suite of supporting ideas and institutions.

I have four other proposals that follow from this one in order to accomplish a systemic cultural shift.

My second proposal consists of a cultural strategy for change and a district-level mental model intervention plan to work towards the creation of what I call Schools of Conscience.

Schools that are, first of all, committed, independent of their other pedagogical ideas, to meeting children's psychological needs, and, second, creating the broader cultural change that will support them to continue meeting those needs in a sustainable long-term manner.

The third proposal is a map of how insiders in schools can participate effectively in their learning community.

This map is a way of explicitly acknowledging how everyone in the system is embedded in multiple levels of influence (a.k.a. power) within the organization and what they need to do at each level in order to have a healthy organization.

The basic level is accessible to kindergartners, so the map is a useful tool for everyone in schools, not just the adults.

The fourth proposal is a map of the system conditions that define the boundaries of sustainability of schools for outsiders.

This map explicitly acknowledges how reality is made up of multiple levels of systemic constraints that must be honored.

The model is a principled extension of Karl Heinrich Robert's Natural Step sustainability model which consists of just four principles of global ecological sustainability.

Where the Natural Step could be said to identify the systemic constraints of the eco-sphere (planetary level system), this extension proposes similar principles for the socio-sphere (societal level system), the communo-sphere (organizational level system), the dyado-sphere (one-to-one relationship level system), the psycho-sphere (personal level system), and the bio-sphere (organism level system).

Finally, I am organizing the Schools of Conscience Consortium to bring together like-minded individuals and organizations that want to implement or provide support for implementing these proposals to change the operational definition of education.

In summary my five proposals are:

  1. Define education as cognitive cartography,
  2. Implement mental model interventions based on a cultural change strategy,
  3. Guide school insiders with a participation map,
  4. Guide school outsiders with a multi-level sustainability map, and
  5. Organize and administer the Schools of Conscience Consortium to encourage mutual support for implementing these proposals.

The latter four proposals are simply what is necessary to effectively implement the first on a sustainable basis.

While the cognitive cartography concept has the potential to be useful to teachers independent of the school culture in which they are embedded, it is unlikely for any small scale implementation to be capable of sustained resistance to culturally supported practices that are incompatible with the idea being implemented.

Even the most enthusiastic implementation by only a few peole will eventually get undermined if there are social and cultural forces acting against it.

So if you find the cognitive cartography definition of education interesting or exciting I would love to have you join with me in creating the movement towards making it a viable option anywhere in the world.

P.S. Here is the Wikipedia definition of education, just in case you are interested in a generic overview of the definition of education.