How often do we read stories arguing about what we’re teaching our children in school? STEM vs the humanities. Evolution. Sex ed. Slavery. Parents, policymakers, and other community members alike tend to have very strong opinions about what belongs or not in a classroom. It makes sense. We want our kids to learn consistently with our values and prepare them to succeed in life. These debates are certainly important, but they also completely miss the point of education.
Education is not about content taught. It’s about thinking. What we teach kids matters because it helps them navigate the existing world. Teaching kids how to think critically: to examine, analyze, conclude, and discover – that is what education is about. Because then they have the ability to access far more of the world. They’ll have the ability to understand why things are as they are. And they’ll be able to adopt diverse perspectives and understand the world more clearly and in far greater detail. Through that, not only do they grow, but society as a whole also advances.
Teaching content alone isn’t education, it’s training. It replicates what we already have instead of pushing us further, perpetuates what already is, and confines students to the thoughts and conclusions already drawn. Education, true education, is the antithesis of confinement; it’s liberation. Liberation from limitation. It frees us to go seek, discover, and create. It exposes faults in society. It equips whole generations to view those faults with fresh eyes and open minds and to devise ways to fix them. True education opens the mind to the experiences and contributions of others and inspires students to pursue horizons unimagined of yet.
The best image for this comes from a common expression. A box. How many times a week do we say or hear that we need to think ‘outside the box’? A professor of mine in college, Charles Tesconi, used this image in class. He said each of us is born in and usually grow up inside a box. Everything we know is inside it. How we view the world and what we believe is in the shape and color of our box, and what happens to be packed inside. No other information or perspectives or ideas. And as we grow, we learn all of it. This is teaching content alone.
But what happens when we leave the box? Maybe when we go to college. Or take a trip. Or even just watch some videos online. Whatever the push, in those moments, we leave the box. And what we see, what we learn, is no longer consistent with the views and beliefs, and even general knowledge, we had inside our box. Learning content alone doesn’t prepare us for these moment. But if we are taught how to think, if we are truly educated, we can access the wealth of knowledge that’s out there, piece it together, and create new knowledge. In this way, education as liberation can be transformative. While teaching content alone is prohibitive.
In life, this difference matters. If there’s a law or program isn’t working as it needs to, we need to be able to analyze it, its impact, and its implications. This allows us to change and grow. Without that, we can base our choices on models or thinking from the past and perpetuate a bad situation. Similarly, teaching a kid to think critically may help her find flaws in old research methods, and maybe she helps find a cure for cancer; if we only teach her existing methods, that discovery may never happen. In an extreme example, someone who lives in a country under an authoritarian regime is typically taught content that reinforces the narrative of the regime’s legitimacy and greatness. Exposure to alternative narratives and information, plus the ability to consider and assess that information critically, can break tacit acceptance and start a movement for change, even if it is a long and rocky way.
That’s the power of true education. It frees us to move forward individually and together. STEM subjects are absolutely necessary. Existing knowledge is crucial. Trades and job training can be the difference helping a family rise out of poverty. Content is absolutely important, and I do not mean to imply that it isn’t. I do mean to say that if we are seriously about giving our kids a “quality” education, we need to cultivate curiosity, nurture socio-emotional literacy, root our curricula in their contexts, and show them that oftentimes coming up with more questions is more important than coming up with answers. This kind of education is how we will actually build our future.