Definitions of education

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Definitions of education aim to describe the essential features of education. A great variety of definitions has been proposed. There is wide agreement that education involves, among other things, the transmission of knowledge. But there are deep disagreements about its exact nature and characteristics. Some definitions see education as a process exemplified in events like schooling, teaching, and learning. Others understand it not as a process but as the product of such processes, i.e. as what characterizes educated persons. Various attempts have been made to give precise definitions listing its necessary and sufficient conditions. The failure of such attempts, often in the form of being unable to account for various counterexamples, has led many theorists to adopt less precise conceptions based on family resemblance. On this view, different forms of education are similar by having overlapping features but there is no set of features shared by all forms. Clarity about the nature of education is central for various issues, for example, to coherently talk about the subject and to determine how to achieve and measure it.


An important discussion in the academic literature is about whether evaluative aspects are already part of the definition of education and, if so, what roles they play. Thin definitions are value-neutral while thick definitions include evaluative and normative components, for example, by holding that education implies that the person educated has changed for the better. Descriptive conceptions try to capture how the term "education" is actually used by competent speakers. Prescriptive conceptions, on the other hand, stipulate what education should be like or what constitutes good education.

Thick and prescriptive conceptions often characterize education in relation to the goals it aims to realize. These goals are sometimes divided into epistemic goods, like knowledge and understanding, skills, like rationality and critical thinking, and character traits, like kindness and honesty. Some theorists define education in relation to an overarching purpose, like socialization or helping the learner lead a good life. The more specific aims can then be understood as means to achieve this overarching purpose. Various researchers emphasize the role of critical thinking to distinguish education from indoctrination.

Traditional accounts of education characterize it mainly from the teacher's perspective, usually by describing it as a process in which they transmit knowledge and skills to their students. Student-centered definitions, on the other hand, emphasize the student's experience, for example, based on how education transforms and enriches their subsequent experience. Some conceptions take both the teacher's and the student's point of view into account by focusing on their shared experience of a common world.

General characteristics, disagreements, and importance

Definitions of education try to determine the essential features of education. Many general characteristics have been ascribed to education. However, there are several disagreements concerning its exact definition and a great variety of definitions have been proposed by theorists belonging to diverse fields. [1] [2] [3] There is wide agreement that education is a purposeful activity directed at achieving certain aims. [4] In this sense, education involves the transmission of knowledge. But it is often pointed out that this factor alone is not sufficient and needs to be accompanied by other factors, such as the acquisition of practical skills or instilling moral character traits. [4] [1]

Many definitions see education as a task or a process. In this regard, the conception of education is based on what happens during events like schooling, training, instructing, teaching, and learning. [5] [6] [2] This process may in turn be understood either from the perspective of the teacher or with a focus on the student's experience instead. [7] However, other theorists focus mainly on education as an achievement, a state, or a product that results as a consequence of the process of being educated. [5] [6] [2] Such approaches are usually based on the features, mental states, and character traits exemplified by educated persons. In this regard, being educated implies having an encompassing familiarity with various topics. So one does not become an educated person just by undergoing specialized training in one specific field. [5] Besides these two meanings, the term "education" may also refer to the academic field studying the methods and processes involved in teaching and learning or to social institutions employing these processes. [6]

Education is usually understood as a very general term that has a wide family of diverse instances. [5] Nonetheless, some attempts have been made to give a precise definition of the essential features shared by all forms of education. An influential early attempt was made by R. S. Peters in his book "Ethics and Education", where he suggests three criteria that constitute the necessary and sufficient conditions of education: (1) it is concerned with the transmission of knowledge and understanding; (2) this transmission is worthwhile and (3) done in a morally appropriate manner in tune with the student's interests. [8] [7] [1] [2] This definition has received a lot of criticism in the academic literature. While there is wide agreement that many forms of education fall under these three criteria, opponents have rejected that they are true for all of them by providing various counterexamples. For example, in regard to the third criterion, it may be sometimes necessary to educate children about certain facts even though they are not interested in learning about these facts. And regarding the second criterion, not everyone agrees that education is always desirable. [7] [9] Because of the various difficulties and counterexamples with this and other precise definitions, some theorists have argued that there is no one true definition of education. In this regard, the different forms of education may be seen as a group of loosely connected topics and "different groups within a society may have differing legitimate conceptions of education". [7] [1] [2]

Some theorists have responded to this by defining education in terms of family resemblance. This is to say that there is no one precise set of features shared by all and only by forms of education. Instead, there is a group of many features characteristic of education. Some of these features apply to one form of education while slightly different ones are exemplified by another form of education. In this sense, any two forms of education are similar and their characteristic features overlap without being identical. [1] [10] [11] This is closely related to the idea that words are like tools used in language games. On this view, there may be various language games or contexts in which the term "education" is used, in each one with a slightly different meaning. Following this line of thought, it has been suggested that definitions of education should limit themselves to a specific context without claiming to be true for all possible uses of the term. [2] The most paradigmatic form of education takes place in schools. [4] Many researchers have specifically this type of education in mind and some define it explicitly as the discipline investigating the methods of teaching and learning in a formal setting, like schools. [12] [2] But in its widest sense, it encompasses many other forms as well, including informal and non-formal education. [4] [13] [14]

Clarity about the nature of education is important for various concerns. In a general sense, it is needed to identify and coherently talk about education. [15] In this regard, all the subsequent academic discourse on topics like the aims of education, the psychology of education, or the role of education in society, depends on this issue. For example, when trying to determine what good education is like, one has to already assume some idea of what education is to decide what constitutes a good instance. It is also central for questions about how to achieve and measure the results of educational processes. [16] [17] The importance of providing an explicit definition is further increased by the fact that education initially seems to be a straightforward and common-sense concept that people usually use outside the academic discourse without much controversy. This impression hides various conceptual confusions and disagreements that only come to light in the attempt to make explicit the common pre-understanding associated with the term. [3] [18]

Many concrete definitions of education have been proposed. According to John Dewey, education involves the transmission of habits, ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, and opinions from one generation to the next. [1] [19] R. S. Peters revised his earlier definitions and understands education in his later philosophy as a form of initiation in which teachers share the experience of a common world with their students and convey worthwhile forms of thought and awareness to them. [5] For Lawrence Cremin, "[e]ducation is the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, provoke or acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, skills or sensibilities as well as any learning that results from the effort". [4] Another definition sees education as "a serious and sustained programme of learning, for the benefit of people qua people rather than only qua role-fillers or functionaries, above the level of what people might pick up for themselves in their daily lives'". [15] The English word "education" has its etymological root in the Latin word "educare", which means "to train", "to mold", or "to lead out". [4]

Role of values

There are various disagreements about whether evaluative and normative aspects should already be included in the definition of education and, if so, what roles they play. [16] [20] An important distinction in this regard is between thin and thick definitions. [16] [21] Thin definitions aim to provide a value-neutral description of what education is, independent of whether and to whom it is useful. Thick definitions, on the other hand, include various evaluative and normative components in their characterization, for example, the claim that education implies that the person educated has changed for the better. [16] Otherwise, the process would not deserve the label "education". However, different thick definitions of education may still disagree with each other on what kind of values are involved and in which sense the change in question is an improvement. [5] [16] A closely related distinction is that between descriptive and prescriptive or programmatic conceptions. [4] [20] Descriptive definitions aim to provide a description of how the term "education" is actually used. They contrast with prescriptive definitions, which stipulate what education should be like or what constitutes good education. Some theorists also include an additional category for stipulative definitions, which are sometimes used by individual researchers as shortcuts for what they mean when they use the term without claiming that these are the essential features commonly associated with all forms of education. [4] Thick and prescriptive conceptions are closely related to the aims of education in the sense that they understand education as a process aimed at a certain valuable goal that constitutes an improvement of the learner. Such improvements are often understood in terms of mental states fostered by the educational process. [5]

Role of aims

Many conceptions of education, in particular thick and prescriptive accounts, base their characterizations on the aims of education, i.e. in relation to the purpose that the process of education tries to realize. [22] [23] [24] [20] The transmission of knowledge has a central role in this regard, but most accounts include other aims as well, such as fostering the student's values, attitudes, skills, and sensibilities. [4] [1] However, it has been argued that picking up certain skills and know-how without the corresponding knowledge and conceptual scheme does not constitute education, strictly speaking. But the same limitation may also be true for pure knowledge that is not accompanied by positive practical effects on the individual's life. [5] [1] The various specific aims are sometimes divided into epistemic goods, skills, and character traits. [16] Examples of epistemic goods are truth, knowledge, and understanding. Skill-based accounts, on the other hand, hold that the goal of education is to develop skills like rationality and critical thinking. For character-based accounts, its main purpose is to foster certain character traits or virtues, like kindness, justice, and honesty. [16] Some theorists try to provide a wide overarching framework. The various specific goals are then seen as aims of education to the extent that they serve this overarching purpose. [25] [23] When this purpose is understood in relation to society, education may be defined as the process of transmitting, from one generation to the next, the accumulated knowledge and skills needed to function as a regular citizen in a specific society. [4] In this regard, education is equivalent to socialization or enculturation. [12] [2] More liberal or person-centered definitions, on the other hand, see the overarching purpose in relation to the individual learner instead: education is to help them develop their potential in order to lead a good life or the life they wish to lead, independently of the social ramifications of this process. [4] [25] [2]

Various conceptions emphasize the aim of critical thinking in order to differentiate education from indoctrination. [23] [24] [26] Critical thinking is a form of thinking that is reasonable, reflective, careful, and focused on determining what to believe or how to act. [27] [28] [29] It includes the metacognitive component of monitoring and assessing its achievements in regard to the standards of rationality and clarity. [28] Many theorists hold that fostering this disposition distinguishes education from indoctrination, which only tries to instill beliefs in the student's mind without being interested in their evidential status or fostering the ability to question those beliefs. [23] [22] But not all researchers accept this hard distinction. A few hold that, at least in the early stages of education, some forms of indoctrination are necessary until the child's mind has developed sufficiently to assess and evaluate reasons for and against particular claims and thus employ critical thinking. In this regard, critical thinking may still be an important aim of education but not an essential feature characterizing all forms of education. [23]

Teacher- or student-centered

Most conceptions of education either explicitly or implicitly hold that education involves the relation between teacher and student. Some theorists give their characterization mainly from the teacher's perspective, usually emphasizing the act of transmitting knowledge or other skills, while others focus more on the learning experience of the student. [7] The teacher-centered perspective on education is often seen as the traditional position. [30] An influential example is found in the early philosophy of R. S. Peters. In it, he considers education to be the transmission of knowledge and skills while emphasizing that teachers should achieve this in a morally appropriate manner that reflects the student's interests. [7] [2] [8] A student-centered definition is given by John Dewey, who sees education as the "reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience". [31] This way, the student's future experience is enriched and the student thereby undergoes a form of growth. [7] [19] [30] Opponents of this conception have criticized its lack of a normative component. For example, the increase of undesirable abilities, like learning how to become an expert burglar, should not be understood as a form of education even though it is a reorganization of experience that directs the course of subsequent experience. [7]

Other theories aim to provide a more encompassing perspective that takes both the teacher's and the student's point of view into account. [7] Peters, in response to the criticism of his initially proposed definition, has changed his conception of education by giving a wider and less precise definition, seeing it as a type of initiation in which worthwhile forms of thought and awareness are conveyed from teachers to their students. [32] [33] [34] This is based on the idea that both teachers and students participate in the shared experience of a common world. [30] [7] The teachers are more familiar with this world and try to guide the students by passing on their knowledge and understanding. Ideally, this process is motivated by curiosity and excitement on the part of the students to discover what there is and what it is like so that they may one day themselves become authorities on the subject. This conception can be used for answering questions about the contents of the curriculum or what should be taught: whatever the students need most for discovering and participating in the common world. [7]

The shared perspective of both teachers and students is also emphasized by Paulo Freire. [7] [30] [35] In his influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he rejects teacher-centered definitions, many of which characterize education using what he refers to as the banking model of education. According to the banking model, students are seen as empty vessels in analogy to piggy banks. It is the role of the teacher to deposit knowledge into the passive students, thereby shaping their character and outlook on the world. [7] [35] Instead, Freire favors a libertarian conception of education. On this view, teachers and students work together in a common activity of posing and solving problems. The goal of this process is to discover a shared and interactive reality, not by consuming ideas created by others but by producing and acting upon one's own ideas. Students and teachers are co-investigators of reality and the role of the teacher is to guide this process by representing the universe instead of merely lecturing about it. [7] [30] [35]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Education</span> Transmission of knowledge and skills

Education is a purposeful activity directed at achieving certain aims, such as transmitting knowledge or fostering skills and character traits. These aims may include the development of understanding, rationality, kindness, and honesty. Various researchers emphasize the role of critical thinking in order to distinguish education from indoctrination. Some theorists require that education results in an improvement of the student while others prefer a value-neutral definition of the term. In a slightly different sense, education may also refer, not to the process, but to the product of this process: the mental states and dispositions possessed by educated people. Education originated as the transmission of cultural heritage from one generation to the next. Today, educational goals increasingly encompass new ideas such as the liberation of learners, skills needed for modern society, empathy, and complex vocational skills.

Progressive education, or protractivism, is a pedagogical movement that began in the late 19th century and has persisted in various forms to the present. In Europe, progressive education took the form of the New Education Movement. The term progressive was engaged to distinguish this education from the traditional curricula of the 19th century, which was rooted in classical preparation for the university and strongly differentiated by social class. By contrast, progressive education finds its roots in modern experience. Most progressive education programs have these qualities in common:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Learning theory (education)</span> Theory that describes how students receive, process, and retain knowledge during learning

Learning theory describes how students receive, process, and retain knowledge during learning. Cognitive, emotional, and environmental influences, as well as prior experience, all play a part in how understanding, or a world view, is acquired or changed and knowledge and skills retained.

The philosophy of education is the branch of applied philosophy that investigates the nature of education as well as its aims and problems. It includes the examination of educational theories, the presuppositions present in them, and the arguments for and against them. It is an interdisciplinary field that draws inspiration from various disciplines both within and outside philosophy, like ethics, political philosophy, psychology, and sociology. These connections are also reflected in the significant and wide-ranging influence the philosophy of education has had on other disciplines. Many of its theories focus specifically on education in schools but it also encompasses other forms of education. Its theories are often divided into descriptive and normative theories. Descriptive theories provide a value-neutral account of what education is and how to understand its fundamental concepts, in contrast to normative theories, which investigate how education should be practiced or what is the right form of education.

A teaching method comprises the principles and methods used by teachers to enable student learning. These strategies are determined partly on subject matter to be taught and partly by the nature of the learner. For a particular teaching method to be appropriate and efficient it has take into account the learner, the nature of the subject matter, and the type of learning it is supposed to bring about.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Science education</span> Teaching and learning of science to non-scientists within the general public

Science education is the teaching and learning of science to school children, college students, or adults within the general public. The field of science education includes work in science content, science process, some social science, and some teaching pedagogy. The standards for science education provide expectations for the development of understanding for students through the entire course of their K-12 education and beyond. The traditional subjects included in the standards are physical, life, earth, space, and human sciences.

Bloom's taxonomy is a set of three hierarchical models used for classification of educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. The three lists cover the learning objectives in cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains. The cognitive domain list has been the primary focus of most traditional education and is frequently used to structure curriculum learning objectives, assessments and activities.

Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments to form a judgement. The subject is complex; several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, and unbiased analysis or evaluation of factual evidence. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Student-centered learning</span> Methods of teaching

Student-centered learning, also known as learner-centered education, broadly encompasses methods of teaching that shift the focus of instruction from the teacher to the student. In original usage, student-centered learning aims to develop learner autonomy and independence by putting responsibility for the learning path in the hands of students by imparting to them skills, and the basis on how to learn a specific subject and schemata required to measure up to the specific performance requirement. Student-centered instruction focuses on skills and practices that enable lifelong learning and independent problem-solving. Student-centered learning theory and practice are based on the constructivist learning theory that emphasizes the learner's critical role in constructing meaning from new information and prior experience.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pedagogy</span> Theory and practice of education

Pedagogy, most commonly understood as the approach to teaching, is the theory and practice of learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political and psychological development of learners. Pedagogy, taken as an academic discipline, is the study of how knowledge and skills are imparted in an educational context, and it considers the interactions that take place during learning. Both the theory and practice of pedagogy vary greatly, as they reflect different social, political, and cultural contexts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Experiential education</span> Philosophy of education

Experiential education is a philosophy of education that describes the process that occurs between a teacher and student that infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is not interchangeable with experiential learning; however experiential learning is a sub-field and operates under the methodologies of experiential education. The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities". Experiential education is the term for the philosophy and educational progressivism is the movement which it informed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Experiential learning</span> Learn by reflect on active involvement

Experiential learning (ExL) is the process of learning through experience, and is more narrowly defined as "learning through reflection on doing". Hands-on learning can be a form of experiential learning, but does not necessarily involve students reflecting on their product. Experiential learning is distinct from rote or didactic learning, in which the learner plays a comparatively passive role. It is related to, but not synonymous with, other forms of active learning such as action learning, adventure learning, free-choice learning, cooperative learning, service-learning, and situated learning.

Critical pedagogy is a philosophy of education and social movement that developed and applied concepts from critical theory and related traditions to the field of education and the study of culture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Constructivism (philosophy of education)</span> Philosophical viewpoint about the nature of knowledge; theory of knowledge

Constructivism is a theory in education which posits that individuals or learners do not acquire knowledge and understanding by passively perceiving it within a direct process of knowledge transmission, rather they construct new understandings and knowledge through experience and social discourse, integrating new information with what they already know. For children, this includes knowledge gained prior to entering school. It is associated with various philosophical positions, particularly in epistemology as well as ontology, politics, and ethics. The origin of the theory is also linked to Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Project-based learning</span> Learner centric pedagogy

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.

Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one's actions so as to take a critical stance or attitude towards one's own practice and that of one's peers, engaging in a process of continuous adaptation and learning. According to one definition it involves "paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight". A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Zone of proximal development</span>

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a concept in educational psychology. It represents the distance between what a learner is capable of doing unsupported, and what they can do supported. It is the range where they are capable only with support from someone with more knowledge or expertise, the degree to which children can rapidly develop under social guidance, as compared to alone. The concept was introduced, but not fully developed, by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) during the last three years of his life. Vygotsky argued that a child gets involved in a dialogue with the "more knowledgeable other" such as a peer or an adult and gradually, through social interaction and sense-making, develops the ability to solve problems independently and do certain tasks without help. Following Vygotsky, some educators believe that the role of education is to give children experiences that are within their zones of proximal development, thereby encouraging and advancing their individual learning such as skills and strategies.

Inquiry-based learning is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios. It contrasts with traditional education, which generally relies on the teacher presenting facts and their own knowledge about the subject. Inquiry-based learning is often assisted by a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Inquirers will identify and research issues and questions to develop knowledge or solutions. Inquiry-based learning includes problem-based learning, and is generally used in small scale investigations and projects, as well as research. The inquiry-based instruction is principally very closely related to the development and practice of thinking and problem solving skills.

Feminist pedagogy is a pedagogical framework grounded in feminist theory. It embraces a set of epistemological theories, teaching strategies, approaches to content, classroom practices, and teacher-student relationships. Feminist pedagogy, along with other kinds of progressive and critical pedagogy, considers knowledge to be socially constructed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Muhammad Iqbal’s educational philosophy</span>

Muhammad Iqbal was a prolific writer who authored many works covering various fields and genres such as poetry, philosophy and mysticism. He expressed his ideas in many forms and this article deals with his educational philosophy. His philosophy has tremendous significance not only for Pakistan educational system, but also for the entire world. His basic concept of education is based on the teaching of the Quran. To him the superior, reliable and faultless source of knowledge is only this one. His whole educational thought is based and revolves on his concept of Khudi. He had a unique concept of education that carries the vital significance being the contribution of both modern and ancient thoughts. His well balanced thoughts are based upon the strong roots of Islamic teachings on one side and being progressive and coping with the modern scientific age on the other side. He has been very categorical in expressing his views about the education, its nature, and philosophy in his poetical works, articles and speeches. He also wrote various letters to different people and discussed the educational phenomenon in detail.


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