What is Education Really For?

Education is about what we are doing, not only what we are thinking or what we know.

I contend that education is really for the following purposes:

  1. To produce individuals that practice behaviors which promote personal and planetary wellness as a baseline
  2. To allow freedom for students to learn what they want using their own unique learning styles so they can understand who they are and gain a sense of purpose
  3. To allow students to discover and hone their talents and skills in real-world contexts so that they can be of service to the world
  4. To produce responsible and creative citizens that can invent virtuous and environmentally sustainable systems for all life to thrive


To achieve these goals, we need a behavioral approach, because it is the current collective behavior of humans (e.g. deforestation, factory farming, driving, and mining) that is harming the planet. Additionally, research suggests that traditional educational approaches, such as increasing knowledge or awareness about an issue, are weakly correlated with behavior change. Fortunately, this is not an obstacle, because behavioral approaches can be infused into the education system with positive outcomes; one example successfully promoted climate change mitigation and health promotion behaviors using a behavior change curriculum for high school.

A better approach than fitting into the current system, according to the famous Buckminster Fuller quote, is to throw a better party, making the existing system obsolete.

In this respect, I agree with David Orr that all education is environmental education; operationally, this means that students, from the moment they begin school, need to learn about the earth from the integrated perspectives of physics and ecology, energy efficiency and renewable energy, carrying capacity and sustainable agriculture, as well as biomimicry. Fundamentally, K-12 schools must adopt an approach that focuses on grooming young leaders who understand how their world works,  what it needs and how to meet those needs. Much more work is needed at the K-12 level, to get us to this ideal.

The better party is one that creates conditions conducive to life. Around the world, it looks like we’re heading for that better party, at least in higher education.

Place-based, project-based, indigenous, experiential, and other learning-by-doing, process-focused approaches are becoming more popular. Higher education in particular is growing more and more enamored with these behavioral approaches, as evidenced by findings from interviews with design thinking students at Stanford, which seem to match the way TeamLabs in Spain functions, with a focus on real-world business performance instead of grades. The rise of innovative institutions of higher learning like the new IKIAM Amazon University in Ecuador, which aims to create an entire undergraduate and graduate education system founded on learning-by-doing, is also evidence of this shift away from knowledge-based approaches to a behavioral focus in higher education.

Of course, indigenous knowledge systems are the holy grail of learning-by-doing, and we will do well to preserve and harness this wisdom to transform educational systems at all levels.

Ultimately, we must produce creative, healthy, and environmentally-responsible citizens who can work together to lead our planet out of crisis by putting humanity back into alignment with the rest of life.

That’s what education is really for.

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