Space – The purpose of education

My Fun Elevator Story

<image by GollyGForce>

This is my contribution for the Purpos/Ed blog


In this post my default interpretation of education is that which I’m closest to, namely formal, tertiary education, although some of my points will be valid for other levels of education (primary and secondary) and informal, personal learning.

I’ve been writing about digital scholarship a lot recently, so one way to think of the purpose of education is to turn this on its head, and rather than consider what functions scholars perform, to suggest that the purpose of education is to have a place where these functions reside. Not all of them relate directly to teaching, but they can be seen as a collective set of functions that best make sense clustered around an education system. Boyer defined the four functions of scholarship as discovery, integration, application and teaching. Examples of these would be research, interdisciplinary analysis, public engagement and delivering lectures, respectively. All of these could be done separately and outside of the education system we know, but they are all so interlinked that it makes sense to have them combined within the same institutions and often within individuals who will span all four functions. Although research is often given priority (particularly in promotion), it is really the teaching function that acts as the glue holding these scholarly functions together. So one answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ is to say that it provides a means by which these functions can exist.

But I think if I was to have to give a simple answer I would say the purpose of education is space. For an individual student it provides space to learn without the need for immediate return or application, space to think, and for many young people for whom higher education is a formative experience, space to discover the sort of person they want to be. For society it provides space and distance from commercial pressure, where expertise can develop independently. Without this space the demands of the instant can overwhelm other considerations. This maintains a crucial mix within society. We need people who are commercially oriented, who react to trends quickly and make fast decisions. We also need those who consider many variables, who take a long view and who remain independent, just as any good group needs a mixture of hawks and doves. The danger of the commercialisation of education is that it seeks to cast everyone in the same mould, and thereby undermine a key function of education.

Your attitude to space will depend on your context: for the person buying a beach front apartment, then space is expensive, to the individual trapped in a packed lift, its absence is suddenly paramount. Getting the balance between these perspectives will be the challenge for education and society over the coming years.



  1. Doug Belshaw says:

    Fascinating stuff, Martin, thanks for the contribution!
    Do you think there’s different skills in negotiating these different spaces? Is that a purpose of education?

  2. Lou McGill says:

    Hi Martin
    I do like that line ‘space to discover the sort of person they want to be’ and I really like this very thoughtful post. I do agree that having space (virtual or physical)to learn and to grow into ourselves is the key.
    I also think that earlier educational experiences also need to be about this or the transition from one to the other could be traumatic. If the school based educational experience does not provide that kind of space then people wont learn how to make the best of the various spaces to reflect and learn and be.
    It seems to me that for institutions to provide such spaces they need considerable adaptation and, as Doug says, negotiation. So the learners would need to have an understanding of their choices and some independence to do this negotiation. I’m not convinced that our early formal educational experiences encourage this independence and capacity for self regulation. But I live in hope.

  3. Kerry Turner says:

    I like the idea of education providing the means whereby scholarship functions can exist. I also agree with the notion that the space wherein we learn enables reflection, growth and consideration of all variables. Strangely enough, something about this piece instantly reminded me of the poem “Leisure” by Willaim Henry Davis, particularly the lines,
    “What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.” Neither your comments nor the poem refer directly to my thoughts, but because we’re all so busy these days, learners and educators, we should ensure that we never lose the time and space which education allows us,that of just being able to think.

  4. Martin says:

    @Doug – I don’t know about different skills, in some ways education is the skill required, the ability to learn, think critically, to become independent. These have long been generic skills we try to impart. But key I think is the space and room to do this apart from direct commercial pressures eg it’s a very different thing to get a professional certificate because that’s what you need in a workplace to studying a subject you are interested in over a prolonged period.
    @Lou – yes, I think you’re right. That’s why I was a bit tentative at saying this definitely applies at all levels. Sadly, I suspect the tight control of curriculum, removal of experimentation and effectively the loss of space we have seen in primary & secondary will be the way tertiary will go also, rather than the reverse.
    @Kerry – that’s it exactly, we don’t really appreciate space (and it seems like an awful luxury in a financial crisis), as it is so intangible, but its absence can have impacts we can’t appreciate yet.

  5. Or turned on its head, the purpose of space is education.
    Sadly this space is sounding like a romantic tradition, but one that I cherish. When I was an undergraduate, even mostly as a graduate student, I had little focus on “I have to do X or take Y to get a job” — the space are those long running discussions about a poem, the all night effort to build a project– really when all the focus was on being in a place/time of just thinking, trying, learning.
    Ah, the good old days.

  6. Jim Groom says:

    Love this idea of space as a the key ingredient to the Purpose of Ed, and also love the way you open up the concept. Seem a nice, and refreshing, deviation from open. Like frank Black notes, “space is gonna me good.” What’s more, it is a theoretical framework that allows us to see how the actual space of higher ed has become a site of tension and potential colonization. No longer public, affordable, and imbued with a sense of non-ulterior motives. What’s more, it allows us to introduce the virtual as in many ways the current space through which much of this tension is being played out.There is a lot here in this simple idea of space, and I think it actually saves us from some of the obvious pitfalls of open because it has a sense of both topography and scale—and what those might mean for this “wild west” landscape right now.

  7. Martin says:

    @Alan – I agree, I had no idea what I wanted to do, I kind of drifted, did a degree in Psychology, then an MSc in AI, then a PhD. If I’d set out to be a Prof in Ed Tech I probably wouldn’t have made it. I feel sorry for young people these days, it seems they have to be career focused from the outset. It seems an awful luxury to say we need to space to just explore but we end up working all our lives, and to never have this space I think is damaging for society as a whole (which is not to say higher ed is for everyone)
    @Jim – careful Jim you’re sounding like an intellectual there. That’s a slippery slope. You’ve taken my idea of space much further than I’d realised, but goddamn it you’re right. Particularly that bit about online now being the place where we have the space we used to have in the physical domain, which is why it feels so liberating. Until they close it all off and give us blogging guidelines.

  8. Jim Groom says:

    Map the ideas of space and myths on that tradition of the West in the US as a global imaginative, and its ability frame the perfect narrative of both Darwinism and self-reliant capitalism. A perfect historical occasion for framing an ethos of a moment. What’s fascinating is what does our particular struggle right now tell us about our moment. Think about what is happening in the online education landscape right now—it’s an attempt to shape an ethos we are fighting over, and it is amazing how quickly that ethos becomes not about the relations and the land, but rather the railroad. And how the EDUPUNK becomes this problematic figure of the rigged individualist, space allows another way to think about how this “acculturation of the land” may be over both souls and real estate

  9. fred garnett says:

    Glad you brought up space Martin. Rose Luckin writes about it well in the Context chapter in Redesigning Learning Contexts, and it is what we are working on in Manchester on the Ambient Learning Cities projects
    A good way into conceptualising this is Bonnie Nardi’s concept of Information Ecologies. I wrote a paper on the Information Ecologies of Community Grids for Learning some time ago which applied this concept to a distributed learning network (based on one I helped develop in Lewisham)

  10. Pankaj Saraf says:

    Thank you for the all the great tips, good blogs that encompass all of these key elements are a rare find. I will definitely implement these tips on my blogs and keep them in mind going forward!

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