Given the posts I have already written about the nature of education, here I present a working definition. This will always be in some ways incomplete due to the vast nature and complexity of the concept, but it is still useful to present a definition if offered as a starting point for dialogue and reflection. Based on the posts so far, together with the processual stance that I take in understanding reality, I offer the following as a definition.
"Education is an emergent tangle of the contextualised processes of teaching and learning."
Education occurs across many contexts. It can be formal, predominantly located in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities but also non-formal and informal, where it can occur just about anywhere, in homes, sports facilities, museums and galleries, virtually, etc. This means that contexts of education will be multiple for an individual, with each context having very different processes, sometimes complimentary, sometimes not. How they coalesce gives a starting point for the educative experience of individuals.
In each of these contexts there is a dynamic relationship between teaching and learning. As explored in earlier posts, teaching might occur between friends, relatives, or in the case of formal education, professional teachers. It is also possible for an individual to teach themselves, albeit often with the help of others through blogs, websites, videos or books, etc. Teaching is a complex adaptive system in its own right, constituted of a multitude of processes. This is particularly the case where teaching occurs in formal educational contexts. Here, a very unnatural context exists, where a group of individuals are enticed to learn content which has not always any natural interest by a teacher. This makes classrooms extremely complex processual tangles, hence the need for the expert understanding and practice of the teacher to keep the teaching/learning context going.
Symbiotic with the processes of teaching are the processes of learning. This symbiosis varies in nature as identified above. The individual learns within the context of their own experience, but also in interaction (Illeris, 2003) with society. Much of the current Anglo-American narrative of formal education suggests a lonely individualism in learning, a hyper-reductionist model of knowledge (information) transfer from teacher/textbook to working memory and from there to long-term memory. However, whilst these cognitive processes are important in individual learning, they do so through interaction with emotional processes within the individual, impacting on their function, and also as part of society, as part of a community, a family, or with friends. These social aspects are particularly important in informal contexts but are also crucial in formal settings. Whilst in much of formal education the outcomes of learning are increasingly given primacy, it is the processes of learning which are central, and these are an ever-shifting tangle of processes which interact with teaching processes, and the contexts within which both occur.
Curriculum and assessment are not explicitly mentioned in the definition because they are only important as processes in some contexts if defined as formal aspects of education. It is the case that even playing a computer game could be argued to have a curriculum (the order in which aspects/problems are presented to the player) and assessment (making it from one level to the next), but here I see them as resultant processes linked to teaching and learning.
Given the processual nature of education, and the many contexts within which an individual learns and is taught, it is emergent in character; the various experiences an individual has and how they entangle with wider social aspects of their education, emerge and change over time. As argued above these different contexts and processes entangle to give a complex, emergent experience to the individual and the social contexts of which they are a part, hence the definition of education as being an emergent tangle of processes which are contextualised from moment to moment, and which are reliant in the main on learning and teaching.
Illeris, K. (2003) Workplace Learning and Learning Theory Journal of workplace Learning 15:4. (link)
What does it mean to be a teacher? In trying to define education and taking into account the previous two posts to this, the concept of teacher needs some thought. At a basic level a teacher might be defined as someone who teaches. But in turn, what does it mean to teach?
A simple definition from Merriam-Webster is:
This suggests that teaching as a process is not only carried out by qualified individuals in formal education, but by most people given the right context. This means that children might teach children, adults can teach children and children can teach adults. The reasons for teaching and the form of teaching may also take many forms as the aims, processes and ongoing results of teaching may all be different.
Therefore, we might say that most people have a natural capacity to teach, to explain things to each other, to demonstrate something or to help someone become more expert at a given process. In this sense, most people, at a very simple level, might be thought of as teachers. However, are most people the same as those teachers who work in formal settings like schools.
We can think of teaching as being a collection of processes within a spectrum. Most people teach in informal settings, often helping only a single other person, sometimes as part of a group. The settings also tend to be focused on a specific skill or area of knowledge. This might be a child teaching another child how to overcome a problem in a video game, or an adult showing and then observing another individual as they hang wallpaper for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum are teachers in formal educational settings.
Professional teachers tend to operate in a very different context, one where they have to teach larger groups of individuals at the same time; they need to develop and/or follow a set curriculum; most often they have to assess learning in some way. Due to these facets of formal teaching, the processes involved are more complex and interconnected than in informal settings, and hence a greater level of understanding and expertise is needed relating to the action of teaching. Therefore, qualified teachers are separated from others who teach in that they take an explicit interest in how to teach, and how to relate teaching to other processes such as learning, curriculum development, child development, assessment approaches, etc. The process of teaching is also at the core of their activity, and often becomes part of their identity as professionals.
We often see teaching as a defined set of processes taking place in formal educational contexts. In thinking about how we characterise and define education, we have to see teaching as a holistic set of processes which occur in many different contexts, and which focus on many different foci for learning. However, we also have to differentiate between qualified teachers and informal teachers based on the degree to which they engage with conscious development and increasing expertise as teachers, particularly when working with learners in formal educational contexts.
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education