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What does it mean to be well-educated?

This post originally appeared on my site a few months ago, and is running today on the Huffington Post. Read, then weigh in!

“What does it mean to be well-educated?”

This is another one of those simple, but complicated questions I consider daily. Whenever I summarize my view for others, I say something along the lines of, “An educated person is someone who has the habits of mind, hand, and heart to adapt to whatever life might throw at him or her.” So what does that mean?

Two of the six questions I used to guide the learning in my classroom.

Well, for starters, it’s a LOT broader than simply being prepared for the work force. My whole body cringes whenever I hear politicians and other public figures talk about education as though its most important (or even sole!) function is serving the needs of the economy. Of course, making a living is important. But one major reason we try to educate all of our citizens in America (something most other countries make no attempt to do–including many of those we’re unfairly compared to in those misleading international rankings!) is to prepare us to act as full participants in a democratic republic. Likewise, I believe that education can and should be personally fulfilling, allowing us to appreciate life more by giving us the power to do things like read for pleasure, or compose music, or better understand the world around us, and so on and so forth.

To me, a good education is about developing:

  • Habits of mind like curiosity, analysis, criticism, problem-solving and creativity.
  • The ability to make things, to satisfy a need or just for fun.
  • The capacity to love yourself, other people, and the environment; and to find an appropriate balance between your own needs and the needs of the group and/or the natural world.

That’s way more than can be accomplished in the school day, which is one reason why I reject the idea that teachers and schools are the only ones responsible for educating children. Everyone– parents, teachers, community members and institutions– has a role to play, and one of our main goals should be to work together to ensure that this happens.

During the school day, however, we can do a lot to achieve these goals. The best classrooms and schools I’ve seen/worked in embrace the idea that their job is not to fill students’ heads with facts and information, but to help them develop certain skills and habits that will be useful in a wide variety of situations. Some do it using project-based learning, where students are continually engaged in a collaborative process of researching, creating, and presenting their learning to others. Others integrate all aspects of the curriculum through the in-depth study of a topic (Ancient Greece, the local watershed, etc.) or questions generated by the teacher and/or students. They take the time to teach and review certain skills to ensure students “get it” whenever necessary. But students spend most of the day actively approaching their learning the way it happens in real life– where knowledge isn’t broken up into subjects, where you have to work with others, and where you must draw upon several skill-sets and bodies of knowledge simultaneously in order to solve problems.

I think there are a lot of ways to provide children with a rich, useful education; there is no one “right” answer that will work for every child or every school. I do believe there are some wrong answers, though, and that’s why I do what I do.

For starters, the schools I’d call great assess students frequently to ensure that they’re progressing, but their instruction is not “data-driven.” After all, if you’re trying to develop students into productive, whole people, there is no one measure– and no valid number!– that can tell you if you’ve done that. Great schools do not spend three months of the year on testing, and they certainly don’t base all of their instruction on measures as narrow as the ones required by state and federal law. Rather, they observe students all the time, examine the work they produce, and offer ongoing feedback and adjust instruction as necessary.

These schools also operate collaboratively, and recognize that all stakeholders’ input can be valid. They don’t persecute and blacklist teachers for having differences of opinion or philosophy, or retaliate against them for involving parents in important decisions. They share responsibility and accountability, rather than concentrating power and control into a select few people’s hands. (They also make sure that there is enough time for such collaboration to take place; the norm at these schools was for teachers to have 90 or more minutes of planning time. In Denver, for example, teachers get 45 minutes. Whatever additional time is needed has to come from your own “free” time. How many parents out there like the idea of their children’s teachers sacrificing sleep and/or lunch to get their work done? Fatigue and low blood sugar…A productive combination, no?)

Finally, good schools aren’t forced to treat children or teachers as objects to be standardized. They don’t necessarily expect that each student will graduate thinking, talking, and acting like everyone else in the class, and they don’t expect that all teachers will practice in exactly the same way. I think that’s a really important point to be emphasized. Right now, our school “reform” regime is pushing to make students, teachers, and schools increasingly alike– by adopting the same standards, pushing for certain types of performance on certain tests, and trying to identify and “scale up” teaching practices and interventions that increase test scores. This will never be a successful process– human beings are not widgets, and they won’t all fit the same mold.

And would that be desirable, if it were possible? I look back at the other part of my view of a good education– “to adapt to whatever life might throw at him or her.” What would happen to a society of people who have been trained to think and act exactly alike? Monocultures in farming are dangerous because when plants are genetically identical, anything that can destroy one of them can destroy them all, causing famine or other problems. Monocultures of thought could be equally dangerous– what will happen to our democracy if we create students who are uniformly incapable of thinking critically? What will happen if we encourage students to specialize in a certain field, in a world where people’s jobs and roles in life change every few years? What will happen if we train children to be dependent on “21st Century” technology, and something happens to render that technology useless? Individuals and societies need to have a wide range of capabilities in order to survive when— not if– the world around us changes. I don’t see how that can happen when school systems are bribed or forced to submit to one way of doing things.

But that’s enough from me. What do you think it means to be well-educated?

About Sabrina

At any given moment, I am some combination of the following: A teacher, thinker, advocate, writer, and student. A wife, sister, daughter, friend, and party-goer. A cook, knitter, reader, musician, and traveler. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, but I'm totally willing to give you the shirt off my back if it looks like you need it. (Kinda like lemon meringue...always seeking that balance between tart and sweet.)


9 thoughts on “What does it mean to be well-educated?

  1. Sabrina,

    This is solid stuff! From what I’ve read of others here, this will resonate with most of us. I would like to point to a couple of ideas upon which I believe real transformation is going to occur.

    You make the that schools can’t be solely responsible for the total education of the child. I would like to see us take this one further, and explore what it could look like if the education of our children were really seen as a nested enterprise. The family is the primary source of learning experiences (different, I believe, from actual learning) in the early years but very quickly other relationships in the child’s life become educative.

    While schools are framed as our main contributor to learning in a young person–to the point where school and education are most often used synonomously–there is so much untapped potential in the world outside the schoolhouse. I think that we need to start to give serious attention to the learning resources that are just waiting to be explored in the non-school world.

    I was talking to a teacher from British Columbia yesterday and he was talking about his role as Independent Learning Coordinator in his district. Under this fledgling program, students are able to create their own learning experiences and programs of study by finding a non-school placement and, working with the coordinator, plan the work that they will do, the expectations that they will meet, and he assessment piece that will frame the learning. He told of the example of a group of students who worked on a local farm in order to study and learn about sustainability.

    Here in Ontario, we used to have a program called, The Pizza Project, where elementary school students learned about the what went on their pizza by spending time on a farm. (Hmmm…there is a connection here).

    Embedded learning, project-based learning, community learning, extra-curricular learning…call it what you will, but it is time that we take a good look at what the world on the outside has to offer the inmates of this place we call school. If we want students to be awestruck by the world, learn to look at the world critically, and become active participants and citizens in the world, then it would sense that we would strive to construct an educational system that is centered, not on a building that more closely resembles a prison, but on the world in which we are asking them to participate.

    Enough for now!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 10, 2010, 9:42 pm
  2. Sabrina, In addition to the goals you outline, being well educated to me involves an awareness of the complexity of experience. Here is a paraphrase from Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, critic, author of Things Fall Apart:

    “[Teaching should] make people aware of the complexity of experience, of the complexity of the world–that our little corner is real and very important, but it’s not the whole. And we should make the effort to understand as much of the rest as we can possibly manage. This is not a threatening position: it is an enriching one. If we can do it, we will be richer, we will be better. This is what education should aim to do: to draw out from us what is there so that it can interact with what’s outside.”

    Our little corner of the world is real and important, but it’s not the whole. That seems very meaningful to me.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 10, 2010, 11:24 pm
  3. This I think is the critical question we need to ask before we can do any transformation of our system. Without an understanding of our goals of education and agreement of what these goals should be, how can we work toward a system which achieve these goals?

    I think our fundamental argument with the other mindset of education reformers (who want to change the system but in a very different direction than us) is actually about the goals we have. We both have very different perspectives on what a well educated child is.

    Posted by David | November 13, 2010, 8:32 am
  4. Excellent! I agree. How do we get others to listen now?

    Posted by Mike Roberts | November 13, 2010, 9:07 am
  5. Great post, Sabrina.

    To build on Kirsten’s response, I’d suggest that being well-educated means not only being able to adapt to life, but also being able to shape the circumstances of one’s own life and communities.

    At some point, in apprehending the complexity of human experience, I would hope that the well-educated would reach out to others to share their gifts and receive others in return for the betterment of our world. One person might invent a cure; another might volunteer to read to kids.

    It takes a lot of customized education and many opportunities for self-expression to make someone value giving those things to others. I think maybe that should be the goal of education: to provide such rich experiences in selfhood that our graduates can’t imagine a world where those experiences are denied others.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 14, 2010, 9:42 am
  6. Great post Sabrina! (And great comments too.) I usually pose a slightly different, but related, question: what is schooling for? I like your question a lot: what does it mean to be well-educated? The difference between the two questions leads to different approaches in the classroom – ones that can complement each other beautifully (assuming that the answers to the two questions are themselves complementary). As I have written on this blog (and elsewhere), I think that our answer to “what is schooling for?” needs to embrace a bigger goal than our current national approach, and that we need to embrace the goal of educating a generation of solutionaries who can solve interconnected and entrenched problems so that we can live more peaceably, sustainably, and humanely. But your question has me thinking. Am I well-educated? By the standards of our society, I sure am. I went to a fancy private girls’ school in New York City and got a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from two Ivy League colleges. Although in my early twenties I couldn’t remember what the Revolutionary War was, I was overqualified when I applied for a kennel job at a local humane society. On the other hand, I can’t fix a thing; I can’t build much of anything either (and even struggle to knit a scarf well). I don’t know how most of the things I depend upon work. When the tractor breaks, my husband fixes it. When my computer fails, my husband comes to my rescue. He’s a veterinarian. He can set a broken bone, perform abdominal surgery, sew up a wound and make sure it doesn’t get infected. But in terms of my own goal for education – graduating a generation of of conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers who perceive themselves as solutionaries no matter what fields they pursue, then I am well-educated. The system I’m trying to influence is the system of schooling, and I am bringing a solutionary approach to the problems that I see. I’m well-educated about global problems and the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection, environmental preservation, and issues related to media, consumerism, and psychology. In today’s world, we are all specialists (even seeming generalists like me), and that is why not all of us will know what to do if/when technology fails, climate changes, we’re on the other side of peak oil, and so on. We’ll still rely upon one other and bring our expertise. As long as we have expertise in something; as long as we are lifelong learners ready and able to always learn more, and as long as we’re solutionaries, prepared to solve the challenges we face because we have good critical and creative thinking skills, I think we can consider ourselves well-educated. We’ll have our historians and philosophers and psychologists whom we’ll need alongside our farmers and engineers and builders.

    Your great post has me thinking. Thanks so much! Much more to ponder because of your great question. Thank you Sabrina.


    Posted by Zoe Weil | December 7, 2010, 10:23 am


  1. Pingback: November 15, 2010 « ELL Reminders - November 14, 2010

  2. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?, Part 1 « Zoe Weil - December 8, 2010

  3. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?, Part 2 « Zoe Weil - December 10, 2010

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