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What is education? Is it different from schooling? In this piece Mark K Smith explores the meaning of education and suggests it is a process of inviting truth and possibility. It can be defined as the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life.

Contents: introductioneducation – cultivating hopeful environments and relationships for learningeducation, respect and wisdomeducation – acting so all may share in lifeconclusion – what is education?further reading and referencesacknowledgementshow to cite this piece

When talking about education people often confuse it with schooling. Many think of places like schools or colleges when seeing or hearing the word. They might also look to particular jobs like teacher or tutor. The problem with this is that while looking to help people learn, the way a lot of schools and teachers operate is not necessarily something we can properly call education. They have chosen or fallen or been pushed into ‘schooling’ – trying to drill learning into people according to some plan often drawn up by others. Paulo Freire (1973) famously called this banking – making deposits of knowledge. Such ‘schooling’ quickly descends into treating learners like objects, things to be acted upon rather than people to be related to.

Education, as we understand it here, is a process of inviting truth and possibility, of encouraging and giving time to discovery. It is, as John Dewey (1916) put it, a social process – ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’. In this view educators look to act with people rather on them. Their task is to educe (related to the Greek notion of educere), to bring out or develop potential. Such education is:

  • Deliberate and hopeful. It is learning we set out to make happen in the belief that people can ‘be more’;
  • Informed, respectful and wise. A process of inviting truth and possibility.
  • Grounded in a desire that at all may flourish and share in life. It is a cooperative and inclusive activity that looks to help people to live their lives as well as they can.

In what follows we will try to answer the question ‘what is education?’ by exploring these dimensions and the processes involved.

A definition for starters: Education is the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life.

Education – cultivating hopeful environments and relationships for learning

It is often said that we are learning all the time and that we may not be conscious of it happening. Learning is both a process and an outcome. As a process it is part of living in the world, part of the way our bodies work. As an outcome it is a new understanding or appreciation of something.

In recent years, developments in neuroscience have shown us how learning takes place both in the body and as a social activity. We are social animals. As a result educators need to focus on creating environments and relationships for learning rather than trying to drill knowledge into people.

Teachers are losing the education war because our adolescents are distracted by the social world. Naturally, the students don’t see it that way. It wasn’t their choice to get endless instruction on topics that don’t seem relevant to them. They desperately want to learn, but what they want to learn about is their social world—how it works and how they can secure a place in it that will maximize their social rewards and minimize the social pain they feel. Their brains are built to feel these strong social motivations and to use the mentalizing system to help them along. Evolutionarily, the social interest of adolescents is no distraction. Rather, it is the most important thing they can learn well. (Lieberman 2013: 282)

The cultivation of learning is a cognitive and emotional and social activity (Illeris 2002).


Education is deliberate. We act with a purpose – to develop understanding and judgement, and enable action. We may do this for ourselves, for example, learning what different road signs mean so that we can get a license to drive; or watching wildlife programmes on television because we are interested in animal behaviour. This process is sometimes called self-education or teaching yourself. Often, though, we seek to encourage learning in others. Examples here include parents and carers showing their children how to use a knife and fork or ride a bike; schoolteachers introducing students to a foreign language; and animators and pedagogues helping a group to work together.

Sometimes as educators we have a clear idea of what we’d like to see achieved; at others we do not and should not. In the case of the former we might be working to a curriculum, have a session or lesson plan with clear objectives, and have a high degree of control over the learning environment. This is what we normally mean by ‘formal education’. In the latter, for example when working with a community group, the setting is theirs and, as educators, we are present as guests. This is an example of informal education and here two things are happening.

First, the group may well be clear on what it wants to achieve e.g. putting on an event, but unclear about what they need to learn to do it. They know learning is involved – it is something necessary to achieve what they want – but it is not the main focus. Such ‘incidental learning’ is not accidental. People know they need to learn something but cannot necessarily specify it in advance (Brookfield 1984).

Second, this learning activity works largely through conversation – and conversation takes unpredictable turns. It is a dialogical rather than curricula form of education.

In both forms educators set out to create environments and relationships where people can explore their, and other’s, experiences of situations, ideas and feelings. This exploration lies, as John Dewey argued, at the heart of the ‘business of education’. Educators set out to emancipate and enlarge experience (1933: 340). How closely the subject matter is defined in advance and by whom differs from situation to situation. John Ellis (1990) has developed a useful continuum – arguing that most education involves a mix of the informal and formal, of conversation and curriculum (i.e. between points X and Y).

The informal-formal education continuum - John Ellis

Those that describe themselves as informal educators, social pedagogues or as animators of community learning and development tend to work towards the X; those working as subject teachers or lecturers tend to the Y. Educators when facilitating tutor groups might, overall, work somewhere in the middle.

Acting in hope

Underpinning intention is an attitude or virtue – hopefulness. As educators ‘we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know’ (hooks 2003: xiv). In other words, we invite people to learn and act in the belief that change for the good is possible. This openness to possibility isn’t blind or over-optimistic. It looks to evidence and experience, and is born of an appreciation of the world’s limitations (Halpin 2003: 19-20).

We can quickly see how such hope is both a part of the fabric of education – and, for many, an aim of education. Mary Warnock (1986:182) puts it this way:

I think that of all the attributes that I would like to see in my children or in my pupils, the attribute of hope would come high, even top, of the list. To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live. Hope is akin to energy, to curi­osity, to the belief that things are worth doing. An education which leaves a child without hope is an education that has failed.

But hope is not easy to define or describe. It is:

  • an emotion,
  • a choice or intention, and
  • an intellectual activity.

As an emotion ‘hope consists in an outgoing and trusting mood toward the environment’ (Macquarrie 1978: 11). As a choice or intention it is one of the great theological virtues – standing alongside faith and love. It ‘promotes affirmative courses of action’ (op. cit.).

Expectation makes life good, for in expectation man can accept his whole present and find joy not only in its joy but also in its sorrow, happiness not only in its happiness but also in its pain… That is why it can be said that living without hope is like no longer living. Hell is hopelessness, and it is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the words: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ (Moltmann 1967, Introduction)

Yet hope is not just feeling or striving, according to Macquarrie (1978:11) it has a cognitive or intellectual aspect. ‘[I]t carries in itself a definite way of understanding both ourselves and the environing processes within which human life has its setting’  This provides us with a language to help make sense of things and to imagine change for the better – a ‘vocabulary of hope’. It helps us to critique the world as it is and our part in it, and not to just imagine change but also to plan it (Moltman 1967, 1971). It also allows us, and others, to ask questions of our hopes, to request evidence for our claims.

Education – being respectful, informed and wise

Education is wrapped up with who we are as learners and facilitators of learning – and how we are experienced by learners. In order to think about this it is helpful to look back at a basic distinction made by Erich Fromm (1979), amongst others, between having and being. Fromm approaches these as fundamental modes of existence. He saw them as two different ways of understanding ourselves and the world in which we live.

Having is concerned with owning, possessing and controlling. In it we want to ‘make everybody and everything’, including ourselves, our property (Fromm 1979: 33). It looks to objects and material possessions.

Being is rooted in love according to Fromm. It is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. Rather than seeking to possess and control, in this mode we engage with the world. We do not impose ourselves on others nor ‘interfere’ in their lives (see Smith and Smith 2008: 16-17).

These different orientations involve contrasting approaches to learning.

Students in the having mode must have but one aim; to hold onto what they have ‘learned’, either by entrusting it firmly to their memories or by carefully guarding their notes. They do not have to produce or create something new…. The process of learning has an entirely different quality for students in the being mode… Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, they listen, they hear, and most important, they receive and they respond in an active, productive way. (Fromm 1979: 37-38)

In many ways this difference mirrors that between education and schooling. Schooling entails transmitting knowledge in manageable lumps so it can be stored and then used so that students can pass tests and have qualifications. Education involves engaging with others and the world. It entails being with others in a particular way. Here I want to explore three aspects – being respectful, informed and wise.

Being respectful

The process of education flows from a basic orientation of respect – respect for truth, others and themselves, and the world. It is an attitude or feeling which is carried through into concrete action, into the way we treat people, for example. Respect, as R. S. Dillon (2014) has reminded us, is derived from the Latin respicere, meaning ‘to look back at’ or ‘to look again’ at something. In other words, when we respect something we value it enough to make it our focus and to try to see it for what it is, rather than what we might want it to be. It is so important that it calls for our recognition and our regard – and we choose to respond.

We can see this at work in our everyday relationships. When we think highly of someone we may well talk about respecting them – and listen carefully to what they say or value the example they give. Here, though, we are also concerned with a more abstract idea – that of moral worth or value. Rather than looking at why we respect this person or that, the interest is in why we should respect people in general (or truth, or creation, or ourselves).

First, we expect educators to hold truth dearly. We expect that they will look beneath the surface, try to challenge misrepresentation and lies, and be open to alternatives. They should display the ‘two basic virtues of truth’: sincerity and accuracy (Williams 2002: 11). There are strong religious reasons for this. Bearing false witness, within Christian traditions, can be seen as challenging the foundations of God’s covenant. There are also strongly practical reasons for truthfulness. Without it, the development of knowledge would not be possible – we could not evaluate one claim against another. Nor could we conduct much of life. For example, as Paul Seabright (2010) has argued, truthfulness allows us to trust strangers. In the process we can build complex societies, trade and cooperate.

Educators, as with other respecters of truth , should do their best to acquire ‘true beliefs’ and to ensure what they say actually reveals what they believe (Williams 2002: 11). Their authority, ‘must be rooted in their truthfulness in both these respects: they take care, and they do not lie’ op. cit.).

Second, educators should display a fundamental respect for others (and themselves). There is a straightforward theological argument for this. There is also a fundamental philosophical argument for ‘respect for persons’. Irrespective of what they have done, the people they are or their social position, it is argued, people are deserving of some essential level of regard. The philosopher most closely associated with this idea is Immanuel Kant – and his thinking has become a central pillar of humanism. Kant’s position was that people were deserving of respect because they are people – free, rational beings. They are ends in themselves with an absolute dignity

Alongside respect for others comes respect for self. Without it, it is difficult to see how we can flourish – and whether we can be educators. Self-respect is not to be confused with qualities like self-esteem or self-confidence; rather it is to do with our intrinsic worth as a person and a sense of ourselves as mattering. It involves a ‘secure conviction that [our] conception of the good, [our] plan of life, is worth carrying out’ (Rawls 1972: 440). For some, respect for ourselves is simply the other side of the coin from respect for others. It flows from respect for persons. For others, like John Rawls, it is is vital for happiness and must be supported as a matter of justice.

Third, educators should respect the Earth. This is sometimes talked about as respect for nature, or respect for all things or care for creation. Again there is strong theological argument here – in much religious thinking humans are understood as stewards of the earth. Our task is to cultivate and care for it (see, for example, Genesis 2:15). However, there is also a strong case grounded in human experience. For example Miller (2000) argues that ‘each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace’. Respect for the world is central to the thinking of those arguing for a more holistic vision of education and to the thinking of educationalists such as Montessori. Her vision of ‘cosmic education’ puts appreciating the wholeness of life at the core.

Since it has been seen to be necessary to give so much to the child, let us give him a vision of the whole universe. The universe is an imposing reality, and an answer to all questions. We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity. This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed, to stop wandering in an aimless quest for knowledge. He is satisfied, having found the universal centre of himself with all things’. (Montessori 2000)

Last, and certainly not least, there is basic practical concern. We face an environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions. As Emmett (among many others) has pointed out, it is likely that we are looking at a global average rise of over four degrees Centigrade. This ‘will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth would become a hell hole’ (2013: 143).

Being informed

To facilitate learning we must have some understanding of the subject matter being explored, and the impact study could have on those involved. In other words, facilitation is intelligent.

We expect, quite reasonably, that when people describe themselves as teachers or educators, they know something about the subjects they are talking about. In this respect, our ‘subject area’ as educators is wide. It can involve particular aspects of knowledge and activity such as those associated with maths or history. However, it is also concerned with happiness and relationships, the issues and problems of everyday life in communities, and questions around how people are best to live their lives. In some respects, it is wisdom that is required – not so much in the sense that we know a lot or are learned – but rather we are able to help people make good judgements about problems and situations.

We also assume that teachers and educators know how to help people learn. The forms of education we are exploring here are sophisticated. They can embrace the techniques of classroom management and of teaching to a curriculum that have been the mainstay of schooling. However, they move well beyond this into experiential learning, working with groups, and forms of working with individuals that draw upon insights from counselling and therapy.

In short, we look to teachers and educators as experts, We expect them to apply their expertise to help people learn. However, things don’t stop there. Many look for something more – wisdom.

Being wise

Wisdom is not something that we can generally claim for ourselves – but a quality recognized by others. Sometimes when people are described as wise what is meant is that they are scholarly or learned. More often, I suspect, when others are described as ‘being wise’ it that people have experienced their questions or judgement helpful and sound when exploring a problem or difficult situation (see Smith and Smith 2008: 57-69). This entails:

  • appreciating what can make people flourish
  • being open to truth in its various guises and allowing subjects to speak to us
  • developing the capacity to reflect
  • being knowledgeable, especially about ourselves, around ‘what makes people tick’ and the systems of which we are a part
  • being discerning – able to evaluate and judge situations. (op. cit.: 68)

This combination of qualities, when put alongside being respectful and informed, comes close to what Martin Buber talked about as the ‘real teacher’. The real teacher, he believed:

… teaches most successfully when he is not consciously trying to teach at all, but when he acts spontaneously out of his own life. Then he can gain the pupil’s confidence; he can convince the adolescent that there is human truth, that existence has a meaning. And when the pupil’s confidence has been won, ‘his resistance against being educated gives way to a singular happening: he accepts the educator as a person. He feels he may trust this man, that this man is taking part in his life, accepting him before desiring to influence him. And so he learns to ask…. (Hodes 1972: 136)

Education – acting so that all may share in life

Thus far in answering the question ‘what is education?’we have seen how it can be thought of as the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning. Here we will explore the claim that education should be undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life. This commitment to the good of all and of each individual is central to the vision of education explored here, but it could be argued that it is possible to be involved in education without this. We could take out concern for others. We could just focus on process – the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning – and not state to whom this applies and the direction it takes.

Looking beyond process

First we need to answer the question ‘if we act wisely, hopefully and respectfully as educators do we need to have a further purpose?’ Our guide here will again be John Dewey. He approached the question a century ago by arguing that ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’ (Dewey 1916: 100). Education, for him, entailed the continuous ‘reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience. (Dewey 1916: 76). His next step was to consider the social relationships in which this can take place and the degree of control that learners and educators have over the process. Just as Freire (1972) argued later, relationships for learning need to be mutual, and individual and social change possible.

In our search for aims in education, we are not concerned… with finding an end outside of the educative process to which education is subordinate. Our whole conception forbids. We are rather concerned with the contrast which exists when aims belong within the process in which they operate and when they are set up from without. And the latter state of affairs must obtain when social relationships are not equitably balanced. For in that case, some portions of the whole social group will find their aims determined by an external dictation; their aims will not arise from the free growth of their own experience, and their nominal aims will be means to more ulterior ends of others rather than truly their own. (Dewey 1916: 100-101)

In other words where there are equitable relationships, control over the learning process, and the possibilities of fundamental change we needn’t look beyond the process. However, we have to work for much of the time in situations and societies where this level of democracy and social justice does not exist. Hence the need to make clear a wider purpose. Dewey (1916: 7) argued, thus, that our ‘chief business’ as educators is to enable people ‘to share in a common life’. I want to widen this and to argue that all should have a chance to share in life.

Having the chance to share in life

We will explore, briefly, three overlapping approaches to making the case – via religious belief, human rights and scientific exploration.

Religious belief. Historically it has been a religious rationale that has underpinned much thinking about this about this question. If we were to look at Catholic social teaching, for example, we find that at its heart lays a concern for human dignity. This starts from the position that, ‘human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction’ (Groody 2007). Each life is considered sacred and cannot be ignored or excluded. As we saw earlier, Kant argued something similar with regard to ‘respect for persons’. All are worthy of respect and the chance to flourish.

To human dignity a concern for solidarity is often added (especially within contemporary Catholic social teaching). Solidarity:

… is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. On Social Concern (Sollicitudo rei Socialis. . . ), #38

Another element, fundamental to the formation of the groups, networks and associations necessary for the ‘common life’ that Dewey describes, is subsidiarity. This principle, which first found its institutional voice in a papal encyclical in 1881, holds that human affairs are best handled at the ‘lowest’ possible level, closest to those affected (Kaylor 2015). It is a principle that can both strengthen civil society and the possibility of more mutual relationships for learning.

Together, these can provide a powerful and inclusive rationale for looking beyond particular individuals or groups when thinking about educational activity.

Human rights. Beside religious arguments lie others that are born of agreed principle or norm rather than faith. Perhaps the best known of these relate to what have become known as human rights. The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it this way:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 26 further states:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms….

These fundamental and inalienable rights are the entitlement of all human beings regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status (Article 2).

Scientific exploration. Lastly, I want to look at the results of scientific investigation into our nature as humans. More specifically we need to reflect on what it means when humans are described as social animals.

As we have already seen there is a significant amount of research showing just how dependent we are in everyday life on having trusting relationships in a society. Without them even the most basic exchanges cannot take place. We also know that in those societies where there is stronger concern for others and relatively narrow gaps between rich and poor people are generally happier (see, for example, Halpern 2010). On the basis of this material we could make a case for educators to look to the needs and experiences of all. Political, social and economic institutions depend on mass participation or at least benign consent – and the detail of this has to be learnt. However, with our growing appreciation of how our brains work and with the development of, for example, social cognitive neuroscience, we have a have a different avenue for exploration. We look to the needs and experience of others because we are hard-wired to do so. As Matthew D. Lieberman (2013) has put it:

Our basic urges include the need to belong, right along with the need for food and water. Our pain and pleasure systems do not merely respond to sensory inputs that can produce physical harm and reward. They are also exquisitely tuned to the sweet and bitter tastes delivered from the social world—a world of connection and threat to connection. (Lieberman 2013: 299)

Our survival as a species is dependent upon on looking to the needs and experiences of others. We dependent upon:

 Connecting: We have ‘evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives’ (op. cit.: 10)

Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically… This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly (op. cit.: 10)

Harmonizing: Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. Whereas connection is about our desire to be social, harmonizing refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own. (op. cit.: 11)

One of the key issues around these processes is the extent to which they can act to become exclusionary i.e. people can become closely attached to one particular group, community or nation and begin to treat others as somehow lesser or alien. In so doing relationships that are necessary to our survival – and that of the planet – become compromised. We need to develop relationships that are both bonding and bridging (see social capital) – and this involves being and interacting with others who may not share our interests and concerns.


Education is more than fostering understanding and an appreciation of emotions and feelings. It is also concerned with change – ‘with how people can act with understanding and sensitivity to improve their lives and those of others’ (Smith and Smith 2008: 104). As Karl Marx (1977: 157-8) famously put it ‘all social life is practical…. philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; ‘the point is to change it’. Developing an understanding of an experience or a situation is one thing, working out what is good and wanting to do something about it is quite another. ‘For appropriate action to occur there needs to be commitment’ (Smith and Smith 2008: 105).

This combination of reflection; looking to what might be good and making it our own; and seeking to change ourselves and the world we live in is what Freire (1973) talked about as praxis. It involves us, as educators, working with people to create and sustain environments and relationships where it is possible to:

  • Go back to experiences. Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. We have to look to the past as well as the present and the future. It is necessary to put things in their place by returning to, or recalling, events and happenings that seem relevant.
  • Attend and connect to feelings. Our ability to think and act is wrapped up with our feelings. Appreciating what might be going on for us (and for others) at a particular moment; thinking about the ways our emotions may be affecting things; and being open to what our instincts or intuitions are telling us are important elements of such reflection. (See Boud et. al. 1985).
  • Develop understandings. Alongside attending to feelings and experiences, we need to examine the theories and understandings we are using. We also need to build new interpretations where needed. We should be looking to integrating new knowledge into our conceptual framework.
  • Commit. Education is something ‘higher’ according to John Henry Newman. It is concerned not just with what we know and can do, but also with who we are, what we value, and our capacity to live life as well as we can . We need space to engage with these questions and help to appreciate the things we value. As we learn to frame our beliefs we can better appreciate how they breathe life into our relationships and encounters, become our own, and move us to act.
  • Act. Education is forward-looking and hopeful. It looks to change for the better. In the end our efforts at facilitating learning have to be judged by the extent to which they further the capacity to flourish and to share in life. For this reason we need also to attend to the concrete, the actual steps that can be taken to improve things.

As such education is a deeply practical activity – something that we can do for ourselves (what we could call self-education), and with others.

Conclusion – so what is education?

It is in this way that we end up with a definition of education as ‘the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life’. What does education involve? First, we can see a guiding eidos or leading idea – the belief that all share in life and a picture of what might allow people to be happy and flourish. Alongside is a disposition or haltung  (a concern to act respectfully, knowledgeably and wisely) and interaction (joining with others to build relationships and environments for learning). Finally, there is praxis – informed, committed action (Carr and Kemmis 1986; Grundy 1987).

The process of education

What is education? Illustration by Mark K Smith. It can reproduced under the conditions on the copyright page.

At first glance this way of answering the question ‘what is education?’ – with its roots in the thinking of  Aristotle, Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Dewey (to name a few) – is part of the progressive tradition of educational practice. It seems very different to the ‘formal tradition’ or ‘traditional education’.

If there is a core theme to the formal position it is that education is about passing on information; for formalists, culture and civilization represent a store of ideas and wisdom which have to be handed on to new generations. Teaching is at the heart of this transmission; and the process of transmission is education…

While progressive educators stress the child’s development from within, formalists put the emphasis, by contrast, on formation from without— formation that comes from immersion in the knowledge, ideas, beliefs, concepts, and visions of society, culture, civilization. There are, one might say, conservative and liberal interpretations of this world view— the conservative putting the emphasis on transmission itself, on telling, and the liberal putting the emphasis more on induction, on initiation by involvement with culture’s established ideas.(Thomas 2013: 25-26).

As both Thomas and Dewey (1938: 17-23) have argued, these distinctions are problematic. A lot of the debate is either really about education being turned, or slipping, into something else, or reflecting a lack of balance between the informal and formal.

In the ‘formal tradition’ problems often occur where people are treated as objects to be worked on or ‘moulded’ rather than as participants and creators i.e. where education slips into ‘schooling’.

In the ‘progressive tradition’ issues frequently arise where the nature of experience is neglected or handled incompetently. Some experiences are damaging and ‘mis-educative’. They can arrest or distort ‘the growth of further experience’ (Dewey 1938: 25). The problem often comes when education drifts or moves into entertainment or containment. Involvement in the immediate activity is the central concern and little attention is given to expanding horizons, nor to reflection, commitment and creating change.

The answer to the question ‘what is education?’ given here can apply to both those ‘informal’ forms that are driven and rooted in conversation – and to more formal approaches based in curriculum. The choice is not between what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ – but rather what is appropriate for people in this situation or that. There are times to use transmission and direct teaching as methods, and moments for exploration, experience and action. It is all about getting the mix right, and framing it within the guiding eidos and disposition of education.

Further reading and references

Recommended introductions

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963). In this book Dewey seeks seeks to move beyond dualities such as progressive / traditional – and to outline a philosophy of experience and its relation to education.

Thomas, G. (2013). Education: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Simply the best contemporary introduction to thinking about schooling and education.


Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (eds.) (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.

Brookfield, S. (1984). Adult learners, adult education and the community. Milton Keynes, PA: Open University Press.

Buber, Martin (1947). Between Man and Man. Transl. R. G. Smith. London: Kegan Paul.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

Dewey, J. (1916), Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.). New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963).

Dillon, R. S. (2014). Respect. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). [http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/respect/. Retrieved: February 10, 2015].

Ellis, J. W. (1990). Informal education – a Christian perspective.  Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Emmott, S. (2013). 10 Billion. London: Penguin. [Kindle edition].

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fromm, E. (1979). To Have or To Be. London: Abacus. (First published 1976).

Fromm, E. (1995). The Art of Loving. London: Thorsons. (First published 1957).

Groody, D. (2007). Globalization, Spirituality and Justice. New York: Orbis Books.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum. Product or praxis. Lewes: Falmer.

Halpern, D. (2010). The hidden wealth of nations. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Halpin, D. (2003). Hope and Education. The role of the utopian imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge.

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Acknowledgements: Picture: Dessiner le futur adulte by Alain Bachellier. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/alainbachellier/537180464/

The informal-formal education curriculum diagram is reproduced with permission from Ellis, J. W. (1990). Informal education – a Christian perspective. Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith (eds.) Using Informal Education. Buckingham: Open University Press. You can read the full chapter in the informal education archives: http://infed.org/archives/usinginformaleducation/ellis.htm

The process of education diagram was developed by Mark K Smith and was inspired by Grundy 1987. It can be reproduced without asking for specific permission but should be credited using the information in ‘how to cite this piece’ below.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2015). What is education? A definition and discussion. The encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-education-a-definition-and-discussion/. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K Smith 2015

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