The Aims of Education

Last week we were introduced to some of the ideas and values behind developing curriculum. This week we want to build a solid foundation on which we will build much of the rest of the course. You will be reading a variety of texts that present the main aims of education. Your goal for the week will be to gain a general understanding of the differences between these aims and how they might complement other aims or be in opposition to them.

Next week you will be returning to the readings when you decide which one you will become a “specialist” in, and perhaps you will read the full articles (follow the links) or do more research on your own. In Weeks 3 and 4, you will be starting to clarify your own priorities and be able to articulate reasons for valuing some over others. This will be evidence of deepening your own personal philosophy and emerging ideas about curriculum development. We are not seeking consensus in our discussions but appreciating one another’s different views because they will enrich our own. In Week 5 you will be incorporating the ideas of others and discussing how they mesh with your own.

Please pace yourself through the readings and take breaks, not just to give yourself time to digest the information, but also physically to avoid sitting continuously for more than one hour. Your brain will function better with intervals of reading, hydration and movement as well as it being better for your overall physical health.

The Competing Aims of Education

Please read the following excerpt from

Fain, Barantovich and Martin (2004)

The above article touches on many of the incompatibilities of some of the most enduring aims of education and more recent ones, and argues for a guiding principle that can bring the others into alignment. Here below is a list of the most often cited aims of education. Several would appear to overlap, while others seem in such stark opposition that it is hard to imagine how they could ever be reconciled. 

Human flourishing Thinking for oneself Moral education
Democracy Development Job training
Environment/sustainability Spirituality Happiness
Autonomy Character education Creating good citizens
Economic participation Ability to reason Caring
Self-government Social change Peace/human rights
Social justice Liberal education Functional aims

This next section will summarize a few of the main aims. 

Aim #1: Job Training/Economic Aims

Many people believe the primary purpose of education is to acquire marketable skills. Education is viewed as a practical pursuit where skills and knowledge translate into good jobs. If a student intends to go into a medical field, science and math curricula should directly prepare that student for higher, more specialized classes in university, while other subject curricula prepare students indirectly for jobs and for life. This is the more instrumental view, where students gain skills, for instance, on how to use a microscope or stain plant nuclei.

However, there is also a broader interpretation of what prepares students for jobs. For example, the creativity that is presented and appreciated in art classes can spur future medical students to see things in alternate ways or make different connections outside normal thinking patterns; the literature that students read in English classes may spark a growing sense of empathy for those who suffer; and the oppression of peoples studied in social studies classes make play a part in adopting more ethical actions in the willingness of doctors to treat all patients without bias.

Becoming a better person and being able to enter into dialogue in a number of disciplines will perhaps enlarge and enrich the number of ways a student can engage with the world, and thereby expand job opportunities.

Business CEOs who participated in a survey of skills required for employment in their companies created the following list in:

Aside from writing and oral communication, there are no instrumental or hard technical skills, for example, “should know how to use business management computer software” or, “type 100 words per minute”, listed here.

 Here is a more complex view of the interrelatedness of economic participation with other aims. (Brighouse, 2006, pp. 27–41)


Take a break and think about the above excerpt in terms of your own experiences.

The debate feels much different, however, when the aim of job training and economic participation is viewed from a global perspective.

 This next essay,Education for Economic or Work-Related Aims by Cohen (2006) is from a UNESCO report that looks at how to create educational systems that will contribute to starting developing countries’ economies.

As we sort through the ideas in these articles, we can see shifts in what educating for jobs means and how it can often be determined by local needs. For example, when quality of life is undermined for a worker who makes less than a dollar a day, then educating for economic gain and personal stability can be strongly justified (Cohen, pp. 1–23). However, when there are more opportunities for someone to find employment in a developed country, students may be better off being educated for a variety of types of employment and economic self-reliance (Brighouse, pp. 27–41).

Focusing mainly on preparation for employment, however, has not gone without criticism. 

Please read this excerpt from Fain, Barantovich, and Martin (2004).

What might this author be saying in view of the previous two articles? Can you name the strengths and weaknesses of this aim of education?

Aim #2: Autonomy

The educational aim of autonomy covers a wide area, from teaching students not to be complacent and to learn to think for themselves, to being able to reason about issues in society and politics and make decisions about who should represent them in government.

 Consider the ideas from Brighouse (2006).

As we will see next week, autonomy and the ability to reason and think for oneself is at the heart of Western education, sometimes called the “liberal tradition,” handed down to us from the ancient Greeks.

 Here is one view  by Fain, Barantovich, and Martin, (2004)  on what autonomy means, and what its shortcomings might mean, for the individual and society:

In these two articles we see both the importance of autonomy and the contradictions inherent in educating for autonomy. These contradictions also go right to the heart of education as an overall endeavour.

Try to name what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this aim of education.

Aim #3: Moral Education/Character Education

Our youth today have luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, and disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers.

Socrates ~400BC

How familiar is this?! Not much has changed in 2400 years, or perhaps it is just the essence of maturity differences between the generations. However, as it concerns educators, most of us would agree that we want students to have a sense of why it is important to be good.

A majority of cultures and all major religions can list similar moral behaviours that are recognized to be good or bad; for example, it is wrong to kill, to steal, to lie or cheat, to harm another person, and it is good to be honest, kind, charitable and take care of living things. But as educators, for different reasons, we suddenly become reluctant to say how we should devise curriculum to undertake a moral education.

 Please read this excerpt (Grace, 2003, p. x).

We may be able to identify specific virtues that we want students to be exposed to, either in direct teaching, or indirectly, as in teacher modeling, or reading and discussing situations in literature and drama. What may be the roots of teachers’ reluctance to teach moral behaviour?

 Here are the results from a study done with 1,000 students in 2 teacher education programs (Revell & Arthur, 2007).

Some researchers believe part of the problem lies with not having a clear definition of what “character education” is. Mention of character education or moral education on the BC government/BC Ministry of Education website is hard to find. The topic is certainly not prominently displayed or linked.

Alberta has an extensive document: (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)

Saskatchewan refashions it as “caring and respectful schools”: (Links to an external site.)

Several B.C. school districts and individual schools make reference to Lickona’s (1996) Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education:

  1. Character education promotes core ethical values as the basis of good character.
  2. “Character” must be comprehensively defined to include thinking, feeling and behaviour.
  3. Effective character education requires an intentional, proactive and comprehensive approach that promotes the core values in all phases of school life.
  4. The school must be a caring community.
  5. To develop character, students need opportunities for moral action.
  6. Effective character education includes a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners and helps them succeed.
  7. Character education should strive to develop students’ intrinsic motivation.
  8. The school staff must become a learning and moral community in which all share responsibility for character education and attempt to adhere to the same core values that guide the education of students.
  9. Character education requires moral leadership from both staff and students.
  10. The school must recruit parents and community members as full partners in the character-building effort.
  11. Evaluation of character education should assess the character of the school, the school staff’s functioning as character educators, and the extent to which students manifest good character.

Lickona, T. (1996). Eleven principles of effective character educationLinks to an external site.Journal of Moral Education, 25(1). Retrieved from

Many teachers independently implement lesson plans and draw on incentives from Character Education Partnership (CEP) for schools in order to facilitate character education: (Links to an external site.)

 Here is one attempt to define what character education is from a Canadian educational standpoint (Bajovic, Rizzo & Engemann, 2009).

Let’s hear directly from some teachers about their views on character education. Please view this short video. (Links to an external site.)

What are your views on choosing character education as the main focus of schooling? Can this be added to the BC Ministry of Education requirements? What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this aim?

Was this topic ever discussed in your PDP or other educational program? Do you agree with the study above that most teachers feel character education is important but they would be reluctant to tell students that their family values are wrong if they conflict with school values? What should be done about this? Should we ignore character education?

Aim #4:  Democracy/ Good Citizens

 This excerpt from Brighouse (2006) (On Education. Retrieved from gives an overview of what the goals are in choosing democracy as an educational aim:

One of the main educational theorists who is associated with democracy as an aim of education is Dewey.  Next week we will look in more detail at his impact on curriculum development. In more recent years, a form of “critical pedagogy for democratic society” has evolved into a stance of resistance.  To get a sense of the key theorists and their reasons for challenging curriculum, please read the introduction (pp. xix–xxiv) in Kirylo, J.D.Links to an external site. (2013).


Have a break, go for a walk, and think about how your school and teachers fostered a sense of citizenship.  Based on the ideas in the articles above, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this aim?  Why is citizenship education vitally important to a country?

Aim #5: Sustainability/Environmental Education

The U.S. Environmental Protection agency says,

Environmental education is a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem solving, and take action to improve the environment. As a result, individuals develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues and have the skills to make informed and responsible decisions.

The components of environmental education are:

  • Awareness and sensitivity to the environment and environmental challenges
  • Knowledge and understanding of the environment and environmental challenges
  • Attitudesof concern for the environment and motivation to improve or maintain environmental quality
  • Skills to identify and help resolve environmental challenges
  • Participation in activities that lead to the resolution of environmental challenges

(EPA, 2018)

Environmental education does not advocate a particular viewpoint or course of action. Rather, environmental education teaches individuals how to weigh various sides of an issue through critical thinking and it enhances their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Roczen, Kaiser, Bogner and Wilson (2014) state that the goal of environmental education is ultimately to enable a person to strive for and to attain a more ecological way of life. These researchers found that students’ attitudes toward nature—in comparison with environmental knowledge—was the crucial force behind the degree to which adolescents embraced ecological lifestyles, attesting—even in its magnitude—to what has been reported previously for older participants.

In developing countries like India, there is much debate around economic advancement and sustainability/protecting the environment. The environmental philosophies of environmentalists may differ from the students’ parents and even the teachers who teach environmental education; it all depends on how they see the environmental crisis and what its problems and solutions may be. Although Gandhi’s philosophy and Eco-Marxism play a major role, many Indian people from various perspectives lean toward an idealist faith that relies on a “balance of nature” that will rectify the immorality of human’s destruction of the living world (Hayden & Srivastava, 2017). This may sound familiar to some of you who are familiar with indigenous ways of knowing.

Aim #6:  Human Flourishing

At this point, it may be fairly obvious that there is great overlap between many of the above aims of education and that of human flourishing. For instance, if an aim is to become prepared for employment, this would enable the student to be qualified for a career and presumably get a job, thereby allowing them to reach some financial stability, which in turn would allow access to a better life, or to flourish.

Being educated for democracy would allow for participation in society and to contribute to upholding government, legal and social policies that would continue a civilized existence, or again, a quality of life deemed to enable flourishing.

 This excerpt from:  Cavanagh (2008) is focused on what some educators believe is at the heart of “flourishing” in today’s world, one centered on caring, healthy relationships and happiness.

 Here is a more traditional look at why human flourishing is an important aim and how teachers and schools can achieve this (Brighouse, 2006).

To end the section, there is one aim connected to human flourishing that is not as frequently heard as it maybe ought to be.

This excerpt from Cohen (2006) is a description of a more global, and universal, goal of education.

If you think back to your own education, you can probably identify times when a teacher, school, parent or community leader was advocating for certain ideals of education influenced by one or more of these aims as a means of creating human flourishing. Try to name what kinds of conversations, exchanges or activities revealed these values. Jot down some examples, try to capture those moments, whatever you can remember, and keep them for later reference.

In Week 2, you’ve been introduced to the most persistent aims of education and been given an overview of the key concepts. Perhaps you’ve been able to answer some of the guiding questions as you worked your way through the reading. We will return to these aims of education over the next several weeks and deepen our understanding.