I want to be irrelevant.

I mean, some of my students think I already am. I’m a teacher, after all – what could I possibly have to offer them? If I knew anything about the real world, they think – or sometimes say, in blunter language – I’d be in it, not at school.

I explain that they’re halfway there. I want them not to need me. I want to be irrelevant to their lives. I want them to move on. Because isn’t that what teaching is all about? I believed this when I started, and I’m only more convinced now I’m a parent as well as a more experienced educator. The whole point of me teaching my students (and my sons, too) is that some day they won’t need teaching any more.

I know they’ll not have learned everything I know. It’s not that it would be hard, but some of the lessons are ones that can’t be taught, only learned. They come from your own cock-ups, from over-sleeping when you meant to be up early, from failing to double-check you’d copied that file to your USB stick. They’re the memory that lingers after everyone else has forgotten, knowing that we could have done something better, or that staying up all night didn’t really make a difference in the long run.

It’s not just being able to ‘think like a scientist’. I mean, I want them to understand the beautiful simplicity, the elegance of the scientific method. I want them to question, to be sceptical, to test their ideas and improve their understanding. Like every teacher, a lot of what I teach them isn’t about my subject. They keep changing the names, but the idea of ‘key skills’ is something that’s in education to stay. And that’s good. I don’t expect my students to know absolutely everything; not that it’s especially challenging with the current syllabus… but I digress. Of course they need factual knowledge, but I want them to have skills too. I want them to be able to work as part of a team, and be creative, and to assess their own understanding, and all the other ‘Learning2Learn’ stuff that good teachers always did before it had a name. Mine did it. (Thanks, Mr Brock.) But the point of all of these things is that they’re learning how to be people, to be independent – to not need us as teachers.

Facts are easy. It’s not hard to impress a questioning student with facts when you’re a teacher with a reasonable memory. Real learning starts when a student listens to me when I say, “That’s a good question; I don’t know either. How are we going to figure it out?” At some point, one day in a lesson or one evening sat at home, I want all of my students to think the same thing. “I don’t need him.” Some will think it with a smile, and some with a snarl. But if they’re right, if between my teaching and their learning I really am irrelevant now…

…then I’ve done my job.


Many educators are taking the time to write their own ideas about the purpose of education in around 500 words, inspired by Purpos/ed. This is my effort. Like all others involved, the point is to start a debate, not to talk to ourselves. Comments?

9 thoughts on “Purpos/ed”

  1. Thanks for this – but isn’t this more the purpose of *teaching* rather than the purpose of *education*? I don’t doubt that the two, especially for teachers, are very closely linked but the debate is more wide-ranging, I think?

    Would be interested to read your more discursive thoughts. 🙂

    1. I see your point – maybe I’m just not thinking big enough! I guess my gut reaction is that the two should be the same, especially from the point of view of a student. Education is the process of making citizens, who by definition are independent of their teachers/parents. Perhaps a good analogy is that medicine as a concept makes well people (or allows them to die as painlessly as the local culture allows), which benefits the patient and the society.

      Hmm… maybe I should redo this in a week!

  2. I know what you mean about being irrelevant but I think that the teacher needs to be there as a co-learner and a facilitator: making the learning happen, arousing the learners’ curiosity, provoking thought, asking difficult questions and pointing learners in the right, and sometimes even the wrong, directions. This role is probably more skilled than the ‘teacher’ [as defined in my iPad Chambers dictionary as “A person whose profession, or whose talent, is the ability to impart knowledge, practical skill, or understanding”] and I know many ‘teachers’ who are excellent at it!

    1. I agree completely and try to make sure I’m always relevant in the classroom – perhaps especially when it seems like everything is going smoothly! (I like the way this blog post put it recently, for example.) But the point of my #500 words is that I want to *become* irrelevant – that’s my longterm goal, not my immediate aim.

  3. A very focussed perspective. I enjoyed reading it.

    I see real similarities in your approach and in my own in my equivalent post at http://www.darwinsbulldog.com/blog/2011/2/22/what-is-the-purpose-of-education-the-purposed-debate.html. We’ve both focussed on the ‘purpose’ part of the question.

    Some contributions to the debate have tended (I think) to talk more to ‘what should education be like?’ or ‘what should change in our education system?’

    1. We certainly seem to have a similar point of view – or perhaps it’s just that we’ve approached what is, after all, a very big question from similar directions. Thinking about it, mine seems to be influenced by a university module on education I did during my first degree. I ended up writing my assignments on ‘informal education’, discussing how activities like Scouting differed from formal classroom methods. Perhaps that’s why I see it as a process that makes people/adults/citizens rather than something more geared towards society.
      Thanks for the feedback!

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