Education isn't simply about achieving a “higher state of knowledge”; it’s about equipping our students with the tools they need to go out into the world and shape it for themselves.

Miranda Meents, PhD Candidate in Botany

The British biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer said “the great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” As a PhD student, I have been a great consumer of education, and I believe that my education has dramatically shaped my decisions and actions. But I still wrestle with understanding the broader purpose of postsecondary education in our society. I struggle with this idea now more than ever, because I have now become part of the team providing undergraduate education here at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In the past four years, I’ve worked as a teaching assistant, supervised undergraduate students, and am now helping to shape how we teach at UBC through my research. At UBC there are thousands of people, all working together, to provide an education for over 50,000 undergraduate students. So many people are putting in so much effort, that I think we should occasionally take a step back and consider the impact we’re having. What is our goal? In considering this question, I have concluded that the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to achieve a “higher state of knowledge”. Instead, I think we should work to equip our students with the tools they need to go out into the world and shape it for themselves. I think Herbert Spencer would agree.

Education Changes the World of Our Students

It’s not a trivial thing, to decide to go to university. For one thing, it’s expensive, both in terms of tuition and student fees, and in the income you lose by not working full-time. There’s also no guarantee that you’ll get that promised higher paying job, with greater job security. But despite the costs and the uncertainty, getting an education will probably change your life for the better. If you want to be a nurse, or an engineer, your chance of reaching this goal is improved by going to university and getting training in these fields. People less certain of their paths post-university can explore their options, and discover their passions. In the classroom, students gain skills and abilities they can take away with them. But education also broadens the mind and provides alternative perspectives, and this can change our students’ outlook and their approach to the world. Beyond that, the people they befriend and connect with can be just as influential to their lives as what they learn in the classroom. There is strong evidence suggesting that when our students graduate, they will be more likely to earn more money, be more employable, and be more financially secure. But they will also be profoundly changed. Their worlds will be forever altered, and because of this, our students will go on to alter the world around them.

Education Changes Society

It’s not just our students, or their friends and families, who are investing time and money into higher education. All of us collectively are investing our tax dollars to subsidize our universities and colleges. Some of this investment will be paid back, in increased tax revenue from higher wages, and reduced drain on welfare programs. There are, however, many less tangible benefits to a more highly educated society. Education can stimulate economic growth less directly, by increasing innovation, productivity, and human capital. And education also has a history of fostering positive social change, by encouraging things like political participation, social equality, and environmental sustainability. Through its collaborations, our educational institutions also promote engagement with our communities, industries, governments, and the media. We are motivating our students to become more open, thoughtful, and responsible citizens, who are prepared to put these skills into action in our society. When they graduate, they will take their values with them, and go on to make the world a better place.

Tools for Changing the World

Having concluded that education should help students develop the skills they need to best take action in the world, I think we must also consider what we, as educators, think these skills should be. In doing this, I also feel we must be respectful of the wishes of our students and communities, and consider what is most beneficial for our society. I think most would agree that we should help our students develop their skills in areas like communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. In fact, part of my research focuses on how to best develop students’ problem-solving skills, a skill which has been identified as one of the fundamental qualifications for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Problem-solving can include things like the ability to identify obstacles, to devise innovative and effective solutions, to implement the solutions appropriately, and to persevere with challenging problems. However, it is often far from clear how we can best provide our students with these skills.

My work builds on a body of literature in a field called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). This literature gives us an idea of which teaching techniques have been most effective in similar situations, and I am applying some of these practices in real-world biology classes here at UBC. In these classes, the students are frequently confronted with a biological problem they’ve never seen before and they have to figure out how to solve it. We’re trying to figure out the best way to teach our students how to do that. We are testing these different teaching practices to see what effect they have on student problem-solving abilities, as well as the quality of the students’ learning experience. My hope is that this research will help me, and others, become better educators. This will, in turn, help us better prepare our students for the problems they will encounter in their lives, and prime them for a life of action.