The importance of new answers

Try this little experiment in your circle: ask people if they have an answer to the question, “What is the purpose of education?” (or “Which purpose serves education within our society?”). There is a good chance that you won’t get one clear, direct answer, although these people clearly make decisions when it comes to education, as parents, students, teachers, administrators, executives or politicians. So what are these decisions based on?

In previous blog posts, we introduced our 4-step model for inquisitive change in education,  and elaborated on the first step: Inquisitive Awareness’ — or in other words, the question of “why”: why we do things the way we do in education (see grading system, classrooms, holidays, et cetera). We will now focus on the second step: ‘Redesign from scratch: what is the purpose of education?’ We will use a threefold approach:


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In the first part of the threefold, we will look at the question why it is important to formulate new answers. In part two, we will look at considerations to determine the ‘What for’ and in part three we will attempt to find personal answers to the ‘What for’ question.

How do we make decisions about education?

Pauline, a member of Operation Education, called the Dutch Ministry of Education last year and asked this question: “What is the purpose of education?”  The person on the other side of the line didn’t seem to understand the question and didn’t answer. After a few minutes, they hung up, possibly feeling embarrassed — according to Pauline –, as there isn’t really a clear answer to this question, although it seems such an obvious thing to ask.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in touch with the Ministry of Education quite frequently, both with politicians and legislators, and I have a deep respect for them. But this particular question seems impossible to answer and none of the policies seems to be based on this important question.

There are schools which — according to Dutch administrators and the Chief Inspector of Education — have stated in their school plan that their purpose is to “comply with the requirements as stated by the Inspection”. Do keep in mind that these requirements are merely minimum requirements. And so it seems that these schools have no clear answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of education’.

Of course, parents also make decisions concerning education: they are the ones who choose the school of their child, both in primary and secondary education, determine whether to opt for tutoring, and have a significant influence on their children’s overall attitude towards learning. But what do they base these decisions on? Many say ‘developing a broad range of talents is important’, but in the end, what seems to really matter is high grades and test scores. So, how consistent are we with what we say and what we do? How carefully do parents, including myself, think about what is really important during these first eighteen years in their child’s life?

Isn’t it strange that we put so much emphasis on the “what” and the “how” of education and have vigorous debates about it, while we have lost sight of the important ‘what for’ question: what is the purpose of education?

Creating unity

To my mind, this lack of clarity about the higher purposes of education, is exactly what’s in the way of a fundamental, but much needed transformation of our education system. We need a clear picture of the purpose of education, in order to bring unity among different parties and achieve our deepest desires through education. And to get to that clarity, we need to open the discussion, but currently, we do this far too little.

The Dutch “Platform Onderwijs 2032” (in English: Platform Education 2032, initiated by the government of the Netherlands) has initiated a broad and praiseworthy public discussion, but it currently still focuses on the ‘what’. On October 1st, 2015 they published their report of the first phase of this process which included these goals:

  • Education should stimulate creativity and curiosity, students should learn to continuously develop themselves
  • Students should learn to deal with freedom and responsibility and to think outside the box
  • Students should learn to use the possibilities of the digital world
  • Education should offer customized goals and is relevant

Although I am happy with this advice, and I think that the direction of “Platform Onderwijs 2032” brings hope, I am convinced that we must and we can go a whole lot deeper. And due to the debate this platform has set off, it seems to me that a much deeper and broader public dialogue is needed: a discussion about the ultimate goal, the ‘What For’ of education.

In his book The beautiful risk of education, professor Gert Biesta describes the three main goals of education. All three of them have been adopted by many education innovation initiatives:

  • Qualification (knowledge, skills and a learning attitude)
  • Socialisation (becoming part of traditions and practises, part of democracy)
  • Subjectivisation (personal development)

Biesta’s book isn’t a light read, but it forms a fantastic basis to start a public discussion. In the documentary What is the purpose of Education?” he makes a few beautiful statements about what in his opinion could be the ultimate goal, such as: “Let the child be in the world in a grown-up way.” It would be excellent if we can come to accessible answers together, in a language that is easy to follow and easy to propagate.

As a society, we are only at the beginning of a transformation that is already happening and is unavoidable; but we haven’t reached its tipping point yet. I think we can reach that point faster if we allow ourselves to dream again.


Imagine we could let go of the entire education system as it is and completely start over from scratch… How would it look like?

Everyone could start by formulating a personal answer which could function as their compass; a compass that drives their individual choices about personal development or their children’s development. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, just as there isn’t an ‘ideal’ political party. What’s important is that you give it a good amount of thought and can justify these choices to yourself.

Public Discussion

We, as Operation Education, would like to launch a massive open public discussion about the main question: What is the purpose of education to each of us? This society, this education system; it’s all us. Everyone is capable of starting a movement in education by making thoughtful and therefore better choices concerning this purpose.

For schools it is essential to define a clear vision and to act accordingly. The community needs this, and their new inspection framework asks for it: what is the vision of the school on education, how is this going to be adapted and how does the school show this in their actions?

If you, as a school team, organization or individual, would like to start this process of ‘Inquisitive Change’, but you are not sure where to start, please get in touch with us.  We (the people within our organization or other organizations in our network) might be able to help and support you.

Documentary ‘What is the purpose of Education’?

A group of young adults in collaboration with Tasty Green Lifestyle Experience produced a documentary in which multiple people talk about their vision on education. We are very proud, yet a bit surprised to hear this film has been awarded the ‘Education Film of the Year’ in the Netherlands! At the same time, we are receiving many positive reactions, and we are grateful!

We’d like to encourage you to share the film with your network and present it to your own school or community to feed the discussion. We strongly hope that this film will be used in parent information meetings, team sessions and professional days to start the debate on the ‘What for’ question.

We are very curious about your answers to the ‘What for’ question. You can add your own answer(s) to the comment section below or Youtube.