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EDUCATION IS A SIDE EFFECT

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

"EDUCATION IS A SIDE EFFECT"


When this meme popped up in my feed, it gave me pause.


As an educational consultant, I’m used to hearing private schools’ pitches about "commitment to education", "unique approaches to education", and "dedication to educational standards". The idea that education should be the focus of a child’s school experience seems to be an unquestionable norm. But what is education?


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

Education can be thought of as the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society. [...] Children [...] are born without culture. Education is designed to guide them in learning a culture, molding their behaviour in the ways of adulthood, and directing them toward their eventual role in society.

Note that this definition intentionally draws a distinction between education and the natural socialization that occurs outside of the school environment. Children do not stop acquiring information about their culture once they leave the classroom. In fact, most enculturation occurs outside of the school and is largely subconscious. Note, too, that the above definition does not include knowledge acquisition - a process through which students acquire and organize new information, such as mathematical formulas. Let us not equate education, then, with either socialization or knowledge acquisition. Education is purposeful enculturation.


If education is intentional instruction aimed at teaching students about their culture, how could it be, at the same time, a “side effect”? Of what? I propose that education can - quite often - occur as a byproduct of the very instruction aimed at educating students about societal and cultural norms. Indeed, the goal of educators is to guide students in the quest to understand themselves and their place in society. One must wonder, however, whether educational providers are always in the position to control educational outcomes. 


I am reminded of my encounter with a ninth-grade student a few years ago. Her English class was asked to write an end-of-the-year essay, recounting a transformative personal experience. My student, usually uninspired by essay writing, rose to the occasion and wrote about her difficult childhood, a neglectful father who had never attended her sports events and, even now, had not made the time to visit her at boarding school. She shared how hurt she was by her parents’ indifference to her academic and athletic success and compared herself to a candle, the flame of which was being extinguished by her parents’ neglect. I had to hold back tears as I read her plea for help. The teacher’s response: “Don’t be so personal in your essays. It could make some people uncomfortable.”


What, I wonder, was the real lesson learned by my student that day? Certainly not one that helped her become a better writer or to evaluate her life’s experiences through a lens of self-reflection. She did learn, however, that adults were hypocritical and could not be trusted, that vulnerability is trendy only when it doesn't make others uncomfortable, that even those assignments which appear to be “fun” are not. They, too, come with a firm set of rules, like everything else at school. She also learned that, although the people around her proclaimed to care about the emotional well-being of every student, her plea for help was dismissed.


This is a perfect example of education occurring as a side effect of instruction.


Consider a few other common scenarios:

  • A mediocre student struggles in a rigorous academic environment. Unable to excel, she learns that her efforts are always only 'barely good enough'.

  • A struggling student enrolls in a small school, finds a supportive mentor in one of his teachers and graduates at the top of his class. He learns about unlimited possibility.

  • In a large urban school with an enrollment of over 2,000, students don’t have regular advisory hours or access to their teachers outside of the classroom. Some of them learn the necessity of self-reliance. Others - the fact that society cares little about their contributions.

  • A student works hard to complete a difficult assignment, but receives a grade of “C” with little or no explanation. He learns that effort does not guarantee success.

  • A student puts little effort into her work, but consistently receives high marks and praise from her teachers. As did her peer, who received a "C" for his work, she learns that effort does not always correlate with success.

In each of these scenarios, the true educational outcomes were beyond the focus of the assigned tasks. Moreover, in each case, the students were heavily influenced by the environment in which the learning took place, while the educators’ impact on shaping the students’ perceptions of themselves and their roles within society was indirect.


When considered from this perspective, education - inasmuch as it teaches students about themselves in relation to society - often really is the “side effect” of formal instruction.





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