The definition of education guiding mainstream schools today is that education is the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information from teachers to students.
While the above metaphor—education as a delivery system—sounds reasonable, it misses what is most important about education.
This mistaken idea of what true education is and how it can be achieved is the root problem in mainstream education today.
This conception of education contributes to harming students and teachers by driving policy makers to insist on accounting for the "units" of information that students demonstrate knowledge of on tests.
The perceived need for mass scale standardized outcomes leads to a kind of instructional bookkeeping that drives administrators to control teachers' behavior, which in turn is directed to controlling students' behavior in ways that increases symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other forms of diminished psychological well-being.
Student outcomes as measured by tests bear little relationship to true education, and so the instructional bookkeeping scheme is a failure even before the harm it causes is taken into consideration.
Providing a proper definition of education is complicated by the fact that there is not a clear consensus about what is important about being and becoming educated.
For many people the importance of education lies in future job prospects, for others it's quality of citizenship, and yet others just want literacy, critical thinking, and/or creativity.
Behind all the differences of opinion about what it means to be educated is one very basic idea: an educated person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively on self-selected goals.
A better understanding of what education is, one that builds upon this idea, is crucial to enable people to reason about education productively.
This will lead to more effective school reform programs and improve the everyday lives of students and teachers.
A better definition of education that aligns with how many psychologists and other cognitive scientists talk about learning is "cognitive cartography," or mental mapmaking.
Mental Map Making Definition of Education
Let's go through an example of an everyday literal map-making process before we explore the metaphor.
Pretend you are here with me in Portland, Oregon, and you want to get to Los Angeles, California.
I make two points on a piece of paper then label them Portland and Los Angeles, but, having given you just these two pieces of information is totally useless.
The two points can only become a map after I depict the relationships between the two points, such as indicating which way is north and then adding a connection between the points, such as highways, trail systems, or transportation options like buses, trains or airplanes.
But even that is of limited use because if you do not know how you relate to the places I have already drawn, then the information is still useless.
If you falsely believe that you are on the west side of Portland then you are likely to make navigational mistakes that will get you ever more lost from the very beginning of your trip.
In order for the map to become useful, you have to know where you are and how your position relates to the points and lines on the map.
If I do an adequate job of depicting the relationships between you and 1) your current location, 2) at least one of the transportation options you have available to you, and 3) your destination, then you should be able to accomplish your goal of getting to Los Angeles.
If I do not do an adequate job, then you still might get to Los Angeles, but only if you overcome the limitations of the flawed map I provide you with.
All of this is analogous to our most common ideas about education.
Units are useless until 1) they are effectively related to each other, 2) the depicted relations reflect modes of change that are actually available to the learner, and 3) the learner can fit themselves into that particular picture of the world in a way the gets them where they want to be.
Instead of a spatial change of geopolitical state we are now talking about changing the learner's state of mind.
The key quality of educated people is the ability to move from negative states of mind to neutral or positive states of mind independent of the circumstances in which they find themselves situated.
Positive states of mind are objectively the most productive states to be in and provide the best quality of life as well.
Moving from one state of mind to another is the most elementary lesson that can be taught.
If we can ensure that everyone is capable of optimizing their own state of mind and persistently assist other's to optimize theirs, then everyone will have maximum opportunity for enjoying life and being productive.
Consistent attainment of optimal states of mind is better known as having a good attitude.
Thus if everyone can achieve an optimal attitude and help others do the same then the world will be a better place.
Thus my definition of education implies a process of attaining and assisting others to attain optimal attitudes that enable a person to perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively according to self-selected goals and aspirations.
Critique of Definition of Education as Delivery
My central criticism of the definition of education with the delivery metaphor is that children are being harmed by it.
Ever since intrinsic motivation began to be studied in the 1970's there has been an extraordinarily consistent set of observations of students' intrinsic motivation declining both within and across the K-12 years in traditional schools.
Declines in intrinsic motivation are associated with increases in anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of psychological distress.
Declining intrinsic motivation also indicates that schools have neglected to meet the basic psychological needs of the children in their care since that is what causes declines in intrinsic motivation.
Using the metaphor of delivery in our definition of education is responsible for harm to students because the concept does not in any meaningful way indicate the importance of taking the learner's goals into account.
The whole fiasco of accountability that has seized U.S. Federal Education Policy (along with many other countries) is based on taking the delivery metaphor in their definition of education too literally.
The basic logic is that what counts as education is the delivery of units of knowledge, skill, and/or information.
The only thing that matters is accounting for the deliveries.
As long as a teacher delivered the unit and the student can regurgitate the unit on a test, then the delivery has been accounted for and education is presumed to have happened.
The fact is, however, that the units are metaphorical, not literal.
It is a useful fiction to refer to the complicated sets of information as units but it is a fiction, and closer to fantasy fiction than science fiction.
In any case, whatever success is achieved within this delivery regime is in spite of that definition of education not because of it.
It is only recently that a few studies have demonstrated that children succeed in maintaining their levels of intrinsic motivation in certain kinds of alternative schools .
The thesis project I completed for my degree in psychology at Reed College was a study of patterns of intrinsic motivation in a democratic school and a home school resource center.
I found that those alternative schools did not show the kind of decline that has always been observed in traditional classrooms.
After completing my thesis I discovered that a team of Israeli researchers published a study in the 2010 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching in which they directly compared the patterns of intrinsic motivation to learn science in traditional and democratic middle schools.
They found, as I did, that the democratic school students maintained their intrinsic motivation in stark contrast to the declines in students attending regular schools.
A third group has studied EdVisions charter schools and found that they maintain their engagement, which is related to intrinsic motivation.
These various findings suggest that a healthier pattern of motivation can be accomplished in schools.
Perhaps some other kinds of alternatives are also maintaining children's motivation, and perhaps some schools that look traditional have cultural or organizational elements that also produce that healthier pattern.
Without appropriate independent research we simply do not know, yet.
The delivery metaphor as it's used in the dominant definition of education is one of those illusions that we need to overcome in order to relieve suffering in the world, in this case the suffering of children and teachers and probably all the other people in schools, too.
Using that metaphor in our definition of education seemed like a good idea for a while until we discovered the unintended side effect of suffering that it causes.
Now we know better and can take action to do better.
Changing Schools by Changing the Definition of Education
The big challenge is how to get the mental map-making definition of education to become the operational definition of education used in schools.
This is not a simple matter of changing one mind at a time.
This is a matter of a major cultural shift.
Effective implementation requires a strategy for cultural change and a suite of supporting ideas and institutions.
I have four tools that I have designed in order to accomplish a systemic cultural shift.
The first tool is defining education such that it has the core concept of perceiving accurately, thinking clearly, and acting effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations with the metaphoric extension as a mental map making process.
My second tool is a map of how insiders in schools can participate effectively in their learning community.
My book Education Can ONLY Be Offered presents the Participation Map.
This map is a way of explicitly acknowledging how everyone in the system is embedded in multiple levels of influence (a.k.a. power) within the organization and what they need to do at each level in order to have a healthy organization.
The basic level is accessible to kindergartners, so the map is a useful tool for everyone in schools, not just the adults.
The third tool is the Learning Tree to illustrate the priorities that follow from this definition of education.
Schools need to commit, independent of their other pedagogical ideas, to meeting children's psychological needs, and, second, creating the broader cultural change that will support them to continue meeting those needs in a sustainable long-term manner.
The fourth tool is a map of the system conditions that define the boundaries of sustainability of schools for outsiders.
This map explicitly acknowledges how reality is made up of multiple levels of systemic constraints that must be honored in order to reliably produce human well-being at scale.
I call it the Moral Universe Model.
The model is a principled extension of Karl Heinrich Robert's Natural Step sustainability model which consists of just four principles of global ecological sustainability.
Where the Natural Step could be said to identify the systemic constraints of the eco-sphere (planetary level system), this extension proposes similar principles for the socio-sphere (societal level system), the communo-sphere (organizational level system), the dyado-sphere (one-to-one relationship level system), the psycho-sphere (personal level system), and the bio-sphere (organism level system).
While the mental map making concept has the potential to be useful to teachers independent of the school culture in which they are embedded, it is unlikely for any small scale implementation to be capable of sustained resistance to culturally supported practices that are incompatible with the idea being implemented.
Even the most enthusiastic implementation by only a few people will eventually get undermined if there are social and cultural forces acting against it.
So if you find this definition of education interesting or exciting I would love to have you join with me in creating the movement towards making it a viable option anywhere in the world.
[Update 7/26/20: I have removed some references to "forthcoming" book projects that have been shelved. Since writing this post I published More Joy More Genius and Unfailing Schools. Also, I have modified my opinion about the relationship between the delivery definition and the mental cartography definitions. It is not necessary, nor even possible, to eliminate the delivery definition. The more realistic course is to ensure that the delivery definition is recognized for its limitations and to construct school policies to minimize the damage that is can do. The challenge is less about cognitive change and more about policy and cultural changes.]
P.S. Here is the Wikipedia definition of education, just in case you are interested in a generic overview of the definition of education.