The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Sarah Hopp

What is the purpose of education?

Critical, creative and divergent thinking are often overlooked in favour of employability skills. Sarah Hopp suggests a different approach.

The definition of education has been the subject of intense debate since the time of Aristotle and Plato.

The word itself comes from the Latin ‘e(x)ducare’, which means ‘to lead out’, but I wonder how many educational practitioners take the time to truly reflect on what ‘education’ means to them personally and professionally?

In my view, it is crucial to ask ourselves this question in order to properly understand our ethos and values as educators and determine whether we are living out those values in our daily educational practice.

Beck et al. (1985) argue that our minds are shaped by our perceptions, emotions and life experiences, and that these interact to form our ideas and beliefs. These factors are addressed and nurtured in education.

Learners also have many different mindsets, not all of which respond to the standardised, meritocratic and memory-based, skills and employability-driven approach to education in the UK today.

This is the legacy of an education system that has its origins at the dawn of modern industrialisation.

Bethamite thinking

Jeremy Bentham, writing when mechanistic technology and mass production were seen as key to the economic security and collective wellbeing of society, set out three aims for his pedagogical model:

  • saving time
  • saving money
  • increasing academic aptitude.

Despite its intention of bringing education to the mainly illiterate masses, the Benthamite system is based on control, enforcing prescribed and uniform thinking, and focusing on employability skills.

Under such a regime, emotion and intuition are stifled and there is no place for critical, creative and divergent thinking. The resulting learning environment is based on surveillance, competition and prescription in a classroom fraught with punitive accountability, stress and fear.

What is the purpose of education?

This type of educational model treats the individual learner as a means to promote the collective happiness of society, rather than encouraging them to flourish holistically.

Ignoring the role of emotion and interaction in promoting mutual understanding compromises the idea that the learner is a unique contributor to education.

We therefore need to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of education?

Is it to prepare young people for a place in the workforce, to endow them with academic qualifications and to catalogue their skills so that they can perform well in a given job?

Or is it about nurturing every aspect of their personalities, so that they can make free, autonomous decisions about their own lives, as well as being successful in their chosen career?

People are not blank canvases for self-expression without interaction

I manage a department whose clientele do not fit within a standardised, meritocratic and funding-driven education system. They are divergent and creative thinkers who are often misunderstood by society. 

I can see that, as teachers, we are often so caught up in fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum, in meeting targets and ensuring value for money, that we lose sight of the fundamental principles of education.

We end up merely complying with a narrow definition that fails to address what it means to be fully human.

Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach

We need to open our minds to a broader understanding of different ways of thinking and being, to incorporate people who may not fit into the accepted social norms. 

Nussbaum (2010) adopts this broader understanding in her Capabilities Approach. She lists 10 central capabilities upon which to base a life worthy of human dignity. These include promoting bodily health and integrity, using senses and imagination, developing emotional literacy, recognising and showing concern, empathy and compassion for others, playing, and having control over one’s environment.

It is up to us as educators to provide the learning opportunities for these capabilities to be nurtured and to enable learners to freely make informed life choices.

Two inspirational educators

I have had the privilege of working with two educators who follow Nussbaum’s capabilities. 

They are divergent and creative thinkers; one is now a retired teacher and the other is at the beginning of his career. 

While observing them interacting with their students, I have been humbled. The working relationship is of mutual respect, acceptance and trust. It is not sacrificed or compromised by the drive to achieve academic success, although learners’ resulting grades are high.

These teachers also understand that any behaviour perceived as ‘poor’ is an attempt to communicate an unmet need, and so they try to understand that need.

Building relationships of trust

Trusting teacher-student relationships are key to successful education and nurture creative, divergent and dynamic thinking and collaboration. Recently politicians have observed that these skills will be crucial for a successful workforce – but ironically they are often taught separately from academic subjects, being seen as ‘soft skills,’ and offered as ‘critical thinking’ courses or covered only in PSHE lessons.

Creative and divergent thinkers, including those with autism and ADHD, need to have learning opportunities to explore ideas and concepts. 

Education is the most human of undertakings and it should be recognised as such

Educators need to come together in discussion, collaborating to improve our understanding of the nature of learning and the role of emotional intelligence to provide these learning opportunities to our students and for ourselves.

A central dialogical relationship of trust, based on empathy and compassion, makes students feel safe, valued and respected. This can create mutual learning experiences for the teacher and their peers as well as for the students, contributing to the journey of self-realisation for both.

Furthermore, teachers need this mutual working relationship of trust to help them feel more confident and autonomous and thus less prone to ‘burn out’.

According to an NEU survey (2021), 35% of respondents plan to leave teaching within five years because they perceive that the profession is not valued or trusted by the government, and increased workload has affected teacher wellbeing.

Space for creating relationships and dialogue

Effective working relationships of trust need learning space to be nurtured. 

Instead of trying to cram too many topics into one syllabus or curriculum, perhaps policy makers and exam boards need to provide time to develop these working relationships. They could allow students to find things out for themselves, nurturing active listening and positive growth mindsets instead of the fear of failure. 

There needs to be a move away from an education system that is based on accountability, surveillance and perfectionism

We tell our students that failure is part of life’s learning journey and to see mistakes as learning experiences, yet we also tell them to strive, through meritocratic contests, for a perfect knowledge that does not exist.

Similarly, we tell teachers to constantly reflect and not be afraid to experiment with new and dynamic techniques. Yet often education policy holds professionals to account, creating a profession that is fraught with pressure, stress and anxiety.

Education is the most human of undertakings and it should be recognised as such. 

The pandemic, with its periods of socially isolating lockdowns followed by mass crowding on beaches and in pubs and restaurants, has highlighted the importance of social relationships to humans flourishing.

People are not blank canvases for self-expression without interaction. 

Becoming truly educated

At the end of my life, what will be important is not what grades or qualifications I have achieved, but what sort of life I have lived, the experiences that I have had and, most importantly, what I did for my fellow humans. 

This will require me to have the capability to truly reflect, discuss and collaborate. This capability and potential within myself is realised through education, an education that takes place through working relationships with my students, colleagues, peers and elders, and by awakening knowledge within the students, leading them to express that knowledge through these relationships.

We talk about developing courage, resilience, determination, kindness and forgiveness, but we can only do this through dialogical relationships, developing the ability to communicate effectively. 

There needs to be a move away from an education system that is based on accountability, surveillance and perfectionism. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have high expectations of both ourselves and our students but, if we value our human relationships first, then we are likely to develop the confidence and self-esteem to fulfil our potential, to flourish and to become truly ‘educated’ rather than merely ‘trained.’


Beck, A.T., Emery, G. and Greenberg, R.L. (1985) Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Books.

Bentham, J. (1787) Works vol. 4, Panopticon; or, the Inspection-house. Dublin and London: Payne.

NEU (2021) ‘The State of Education: Staff Workload, Wellbeing and Retention'

Nussbaum, M.C. (2010) Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality and Species Membership. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press


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