What is your purpose of education? Best educational approach?

Particularly in America, there has been a lot of talk about educational reform yet it has not transpired because reaching a consensus about the purpose of education and effective teaching approaches has been a challenge. Before diving into your thoughts about what education means to you, I’ll start with some background knowledge about the types of curricular designs, curricular conceptions (approaches), philosophical foundations, assessments, and how they connect to each other.

There are three major types of curricular designs – subject-centered, learner-centered, and society/problem-centered designs. Each curricular design connects to a corresponding curricular conception: subject-centered with academic rationalism, learner-centered with humanism/self-actualization, and society-centered with social reconstruction.

  • The rationalism conception focuses on classical subjects and essential skills, and the transmission of intellectual tradition and culture (Vallance, 1986). The assessments are standards-based, with an emphasis on high-stakes testing. It is associated with the philosophies of perennialism and essentialism in which assessments evaluate the mastery of timeless knowledge or the principles of subject matter (Ornstein, 1990/1991).
  • The humanism/self-actualization conception focuses on developing students’ identities and full potential (Vallance, 1986). The main purpose of assessments is to monitor student effort and progress, and improve student learning and motivation. Common assessments include student self-assessments, teacher observation, and constructed-response items such as performance tasks, oral questioning, and essay items (McMillan, 2014). It is closely linked to the philosophy of progressivism, in which learning is based on students’ interests, and involves the application of meaningful, real-world problems (Ornstein, 1990/1991).
  • The social reconstruction conception focuses on empowering students to improve society (Vallance, 1986). The main purpose of assessments is to ensure that students develop the critical thinking and skills needed to reconstruct society. Common assessments include teacher observation, and constructed-response items such as performance tasks, oral questioning, and essay items (McMillan, 2014). It is directly connected to the philosophy of reconstructionism, in which education serves as the foundation for social reform by examining social, economic, and political issues (Ornstein, 1990/1991).

Critics argue that rationalism neglects student interests and needs and encourage student passivity (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013). In terms of high-stakes testing, “critics claim that they narrow and distort the curriculum, hold students and teachers with inequitable resources to the same standards, and solidify class and ethnic disparities” (Blazer, 2011, p. 1). As such, more educators and higher-education institutions are moving away from the rationalism conception and opt for humanism or social reconstruction approaches. However, the humanism approach is criticized to have no standard body of knowledge, inadequate exposure to cultural heritage, and its emphasis on individuals does not meet the social goals of education (Sowell, 2005). Similarly, the social reconstruction approach is criticized in the superficial teaching of some topics, inadequate exposure to cultural heritage, and ironically may perpetuate current social structures (Sowell, 2005).

Now I’d like to open the dialogue to you all… I’m curious as to what you think is the most appropriate or effective educational approach? What is your purpose/philosophy of education? Is the ideal any of the aforementioned approaches, a combination of them, or an entirely new approach? Feel free to share whatever you’d like, as there’s absolutely no right or wrong answers! :)




Blazer, C. (2011). Unintended consequences of high-stakes testing. Information Capsule Research Services, 1008(1), 1–21. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED536512.pdf  

McMillan, J. H. (2014).  Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective standards-based instruction (6th ed., pp. 1-20,  57-64,74-88). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ornstein, A. C. (1990/1991). Philosophy as a basis for curriculum decisions. The High School Journal, 74, 102-109.

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed., pp. 149-173). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 52-54, 55-61, 81-85,103-106). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Vallance, E. (1986). A second look at conflicting conceptions of the curriculum. Theory into Practice, 25(1), 24-30.


Welcome to LINCS, Nancy, and to the Teaching and Learning group!

What a great thought exercise you have shared here. For me personally, the purpose of education is largely a blend of all of three, and I am not confident that we can have one alone without elements of the others and be able to call it "education". However, my personal preference for methodology is definitely rationalism conception as I tend toward being very classically-minded.

I'm looking forward to hearing others' thoughts!


Moderator, T&L Group

Hi Nancy,

What a great post! For me, education is all about the students we teach. Based on the conceptions and curricular designs you’ve outlined; my teaching practice touches on both the humanistic and social reconstruction conception. I believe that education should not solely be the transaction of knowledge, it should be focused on the learner. As time goes on, we learn more and more about the educational system, we discover better ways to teach and alter our teaching methods completely. This does not go to say that we should completely disregard what we have been doing in the past. We can still continue to have tests in our class; however, we should also have different forms of assessments such as projects. Additionally, not all of what we teach should come from textbooks, we should incorporate what happens in society into our teaching as well. I think that teachers should address the social, emotional and academic aspects of education, and to do so a combination of all conceptions and curricular designs is needed.

Thanks so much for your wonderful insight! I personally think the point of education is to foster the holistic child. As you said, to address the social and emotional aspects of education without neglecting the academic portion. Nowadays it's so common to work in a career path that is different from the degree that one majored in college because ultimately, education is about transferrable skills. We need to be able to self-learn, critically and creatively think, problem solve, work well with people, and self-reflect. I also like how you touched upon how learning should come from textbooks and beyond. For students to apply theories and philosophies to real-world contexts is not only helpful and relevant but also engaging at the same.

Hi Nancy,

What a wonderful and important discussion to start up! Thank you for sharing a bit about each conception and critiques of each. In my opinion, I think it depends on what our society values as knowledge and what the goals of education are. For example are we trying to teach youth to be free thinkers or are we trying to teach them skills to be in the workforce? I do however think that it would be best if curriculum structure was a balance of the three conceptions. I see the benefits and downfalls of each conception and ideally education should be a balancing act of the three in order to meet the needs of society, children and to impart larger cultural norms.

Thanks so much for your insight! Absolutely, I agree that ideally education should encompass all three conceptions in a way that addresses the weaknesses of each. The big question is how to incorporate them together. Should all three conceptions be incorporated simultaneously? Should the conceptions be chosen based on each unit? Should we alternate the conceptions among units or among subject matter? Do we ensure the equal application of all three conceptions, and if so, how? What methods can we use to assess our application of the conceptions so that we can continually improve upon it?

Greetings to you and Thank you for bringing a diverse group of minds together to share and support educators and students grow in our communities.  All of the conceptions you presented addresses the many methods we as educators can apply in the classroom. The good thing about education is that we can always adjust these conceptions to incorporate the way we teach and to keep up with the ever changing society we live.  So I don't believe I can choose either or,  because we can learn from each one of the conceptions depending on the culture and age of our students.