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Definition of Education

The definition of education in common usage, that education is merely the delivery of knowledge, skills and information from teachers to students, is inadequate to capture what is really important about being and becoming educated.

The proper definition of education that I propose is that education is literally the process of becoming educated which is best understood as the development of a practice of cognitive cartography that maps access to optimal states of mind.

The idea that the definition of education is the delivery of knowledge, skills and information from teachers to students is misguided.

While this definition of education is partly true it is grossly inadequate and is probably the fundamental source of the vast tragedy of �accountability� which treats arbitrarily inadequate results on irrelevant tests as proof that some school communities need to be punished.

The logic of �accountability� in this instance is taken to be a literal �accounting� of units of knowledge and information through highly orchestrated student performances of test taking skills.

This is that same kind of literalism that causes absurd behavior in religious communities, too. (At least, in education the fundamentalists are only fiscally killing their enemies and not literally.)

Two Problems With This Definition of Education

There are two problems with this definition of education.

First, the definition of education using the delivery metaphor is too often taken to be literally true.

Knowledge, skills, and information, as we mean these terms in the field of education, are not literal units.

In computer science and telecommunications they deal with literal units of information in the form of electrical pulses that can be observed in a variety of ways.

In education we are dealing with entire realms and fields of both worldly phenomena and uniquely human narratives that have no literal, physical existence.

We use the term �unit� as a convenient way to organize our thoughts about a complex set of phenomena that is utterly incomprehensible without this metaphor.

What we know from the findings of cognitive and neuro-sciences is that even science and mathematics use metaphors to develop ideas about complex and otherwise incomprehensible phenomena.

If even our deepest scientific and mathematical understandings of the physical, literal world are based on metaphors, then it is neither surprising nor unusual to use metaphors in our defintion of education. (see Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff & Johnson, Basic Books 1999, and Lakoff & Nunez, Where Mathematics Comes From, Basic Books 2000)

But it is a problem to take a metaphor literally.

What we learn from this insight into how we understand the world is that our understandings of anything complex, especially something as vastly complex as education, are based on metaphors and the challenge is to figure out which of the metaphors are most useful for creating the right outcomes.

The second problem with this definition of education is that it is pathetically inadequate for describing what is most important about both the process of becoming, and the results of being, an educated person.

Whenever I have pushed people to really delve into what they mean when they talk about a person being educated they quickly abandon the notion that educated people have a greater quantity of information or that they have the traditional evidence of instructional bookkeeping like diplomas, degrees, certificates, etc.

An Educated Person

What truly makes a person educated is that they are able to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively according to self-defined goals and aspirations.

An educated person is also respectful of others regardless of their power and status, responsible for the results of their actions, and resourceful at getting what they need, both, personally and for their family, organization, and /or society.

It is true that the educated person needs information, but an educated person is not dependent on the information they have stored in their heads, because they have the ability to find information, create knowledge, and develop skills when necessary.

The delivery model inherently defines education as an interaction between a teacher and a student, since delivery requires both a person who delivers and a person who accepts delivery.

Achieving the status of being educated does not require a teacher.

The delivery model does not make any meaningful reference to the qualities of an educated person and the resulting system of schooling based on this definition of education has proven to be a highly unreliable producer of educated people.

A Proper Definition of Education

The common definition of education is simply wrong when you consider how education actually occurs.

A proper definition of education will have to cover these four important aspects of how we become educated:

  1. The necessity of having and manipulating knowledge, skills and information
  2. The helpfulness of teachers, without requiring them
  3. The constant need to see through the inherent illusions that arise from our unconscious thought processes, and
  4. Our ability to influence our states of mind
Based on these four criteria I define education as a process of cognitive cartography.

Cognitive Cartography Definition of Education

What all learners are doing is developing a map of reliable methods of getting from negative states of mind to positive states of mind.

The units of knowledge skills and information are points on the map, but what makes the map useful are accurate portrayals of the relationships between the points and how those points can be used to arrive at the desired states of mind.

Let�s pretend you want to get to Los Angeles from Seattle.

I make two points on a piece of paper then label them Seattle and Los Angeles, but, having given you two points of information is totally useless, so far.

The two points can only become a map after I depict actual 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 public 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.

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.

All of this is true in education.

"Units" are useless until they are effectively related to each other and even connected units are useless until the person with the original intention to travel can fit themselves into that particular picture of the world in a way the gets them where they want to be.

The key quality of an educated person is the ability to move from negative states of mind to positive states of mind and assist others to do the same.

This covers all situations where there are problems such as poverty, conflict, and pollution as well as problems like depression, ignorance, or ambition.

Navigating the Human Mind

The world that we are concerned with in elementary education 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 that confronts that mind with all the challenges of earthly human existence.

Therefore, what is elementary in elementary school is gaining control over your own behavior 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 realize that just because we think something does not make it so.

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

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.

The task of becoming an adult is mastering the process of disillusionment.

By the time children are of school age they have a lot of ideas based on a combination of the way their brains are built and how their experiences have shaped that building process.

We build up a vast repertoire of concepts, mostly unconscious concepts, about the world and our own minds.

Unfortunately most of those concepts are basically wrong except for accomplishing the simplest childish intentions.

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

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

We all know from first hand experience that positive states of mind are both the most enjoyable states and the most productive.

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

Consistent attainment of positive 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 a good attitude and help others do the same then the world will be a better place.

Thus education, the process of attaining and assisting others to attain a good attitude that enables a person to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively according to self-selected goals, is fundamentally about attitude no matter what age or level of schooling you are concerned with.

A Three Role Circus

There are three roles that must be fulfilled in becoming educated, but only one of them requires a person, the other two can sometimes be fulfilled by inanimate objects.

The roles are a learning agent, a learning catalyst, and the learning context.

The learning agent is the active map-maker.

The learning agent is obviously the student as that role is normally thought of in schools.

The learning catalyst is someone or something that the agent engages in a deep relationship with and attempts to understand how the catalyst fits into the agent�s world.

In goal directed activity the agent will engage with people or things that s/he assumes will be instrumental in the process of attaining the goal until the agent concludes otherwise and then may attempt to disengage.

A catalyst can be a person fulfilling the school role of teacher, but it can also be a book, a tree or a rock.

What causes learning in the learner is the development of a particularly deep relationship in which the learner opens him/herself to internal transformation under the influence of the catalyst.

The learning context is everything else around the learner and catalyst that influences their relationship.

The learning context is all the biological, psychological, cultural, social, and ecological factors that shape how the agent relates to the catalyst.

There are a myriad of variations that will occur based on differences of physical health, the presence of coercion, what particular slang or jargon is used, what language(s) are being used, and what the climactic conditions are in the learning situation.

In the school setting the context is the classroom, the school, the community, the society, and if we want a person to fulfill the role then the best icon is the school principal, who is supposed to be responsible for facilitating the educational aspects of the relationship between students and teachers.

The Classroom

Consider the classroom using the cognitive cartography metaphor.

The student is generally assumed to be the learning agent, but as Paulo Friere emphasized, the teacher who is not also learning is not really teaching.

The teacher is generally assumed to be the learning catalyst, but once again, there are many more opportunities for other students to be learning catalysts than the teacher given the usual ratio.

Finally the classroom itself is assumed to be the learning context, but there is an entire world

The No Child Left A Dime Act is a great example of the nefarious influence of a factor far removed from actual learning situations based on creating public policy using an inadequate definition of education.

Capturing The Complex Dynamics of Real Learning in a Definition of Education

The beauty of using the cognitive cartography metaphor as a definition of education is that it implies the actual dynamics and complexity of real life learning situations.

At any given moment in a solid well-led group of kids there may be a multitude of simultaneous catalysts and agents and the adult leadership will have plenty of opportunities to be both catalyst and agent, too.

What really counts is the creation of a high level of trust in and respect for each individual�s capacity for both learning and teaching.

When we, as teachers, create an intimate group that develops the love and trust to pay attention to each others needs, then we are immersing the children in the ultimate learning experience.

The inadequacy of the delivery of knowledge, skills and information as a definition of education is that it gives absolutely no account of the love and respect that are necessary for real education to emerge.

For instance, because of the nature of testing today, it cannot account for love and respect.

And until they can account for the quality of relationships in the educational setting, then testing is irrelevant to what really matters in education.

My definition of education is the cognitive mapping of the world by agents who have intentions to move themselves from where they are to where they want to be.

For a more comprehensive definition of education this links to the Wikipedia article on education.

Three Recommendations Based on My Definition of Education

There are three practical recommendations for teachers (meaning everyone who is interested in catalyzing learning in their students or children and not just delivering units) on this site.

First, teach kids attitude first.

Second, use an adaptive curriculum to make sure that whatever situation you find yourself in will anticipate the needs of your students.

Third, utilize every resource you have to immerse your students in being respectful of each other as they learn to govern their own and other people�s behavior.

The first and the third are actually unavoidable.

You are teaching attitude first and immersing your students in some form of governance, even if you don�t think you are.

What I am suggesting is that you stop doing it on accident and start doing it on purpose.

If you happen to be a classroom teacher in a mainstream school then you may be reluctant to acknowledge out loud the nearly absolute power over students that you are supposed to have.

I know that I was immersed as a student in public school classroom cultures of just this kind.

I was well schooled for 18 years, with 13 of those years in five different K-12 public schools.

The attitude I learned from it is a revulsion of the tyranny combined with a heavy dose of resignation that it is inevitable and therefore a shameful thing to point out.

For those in traditional classroom settings it is this necessary shift towards the transparency of power relations that I expect to be most uncomfortable.

The second recommendation for the adaptive curriculum may be the key to making that transition easier.

The adaptive curriculum can be used as a tool for collectively examining the reality of your situation.

If you can be honest enough to acknowledge that your concepts about reality are not reality, then the adaptive curriculum is an ideal method for working with others to truly discover whet is really going on.

Education is Free With This Definition

The wonderful irony of real education is that it is essentially free.

My definition of education is the mapping of access to optimal states of mind.

The result is an educated person, a person who is able to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations.

The process of becoming educated requires a practice of persistent disillusionment, a consistent method for having an on-going dialog between the world and your mind to constantly revise your concepts of what is really going on.

There are three roles that we all play in our own and other people�s education, the learning agent, the learning catalyst, and the learning context.

Our moral responsibility as educators is to align the bio-, psycho-, communo-, socio- and eco-spheres as best we can to assist our students (and ourselves) with this on-going mapping project.

Everything about this process has been available to human kind as long as we have been human.

Only recently have we become aware that this is true.

There is not a single technology high or low that is necessary to accomplish this, but just about every technology both high and low can help us educate ourselves and everyone of our students, if we use them with the right attitude.

Other Definitions of Education

There are other definitions of education that use other metaphors.

The core values that are important to me in defining education are providing a safe and empowering environment for children that nurtures them with opportunities for fulfillment. (See my curriculum page for the difference between opportunities for fulfillment versus judgment.)

The result of this set of priorities is the development of strong kids who are optimally capable of living a life that contributes to their family and community as well as being very resilient in the face of adversity.

This is a contrast with the values of some who believe that while an educational environment obviously needs to be safe the environment should make strengthening children's will and ability to withstand adversity a higher priority than nurturance.

The important test of whether a definition of education is one that is acceptable to me is how it is used to express the core values of safety and nurturance.

There are a variety of metaphors, such as education as gardening or a factory, and the test of their appropriateness is whether they can express the values I hold dear.

The factory metaphor definition of education inherently undermines the nurturance that is so important.

Education defined using a gardening metaphor is ambiguous since the majority cultivation of the plants today occurs on factory farms, but if the metaphor is painted as a personal relationship between the gardener and the plant, then it might work.

My definition of education reflects my values and my particular way of understanding education from the experiences I have had with both learning and teaching.

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