“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” Herbert Spencer – Education
What is the purpose of education?
Our society has always struggled to agree on the purpose of education. Some say the purpose is for students to acquire factual knowledge of subjects. Others argue that the real purpose should be to motivate action. In that sense the debate really comes down to a definition of what it means to be an informed citizen, and whether citizenship goes beyond just acquiring knowledge into what obligations we have to act on that understanding.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with guest State Senator Laura Murphy for a compelling conversation about education, enriched by the Teach Different Method. Whether you are a teacher, school leader, or simply someone interested in experiencing the joy and fulfillment of challenging kids with big ideas, join our worldwide Community of Practice FREE for 30 days. Membership includes access to our robust library of resources, conversation plans, and lively discussions among teachers and faculty.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Dan Fouts 00:01
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, homeschooler, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions, then join our community of educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources, and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty, free for 30 days.
Well, hello, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast. We are very excited tonight to speak with our guest, an Illinois State Senator. This is our first State Senator guest. We have a Herbert Spencer quote tonight on education that’s really compelling, and will hopefully lead to some really good stories. Before we get into the quote, and introduce our guest, let’s talk very briefly about the protocol. We’re going to start with a provocative quote, this time from Herbert Spencer. Then, we’re going to work with the claim of the quote, interpreting what it means in our own words. We always encourage sharing any kind of personal stories to help back up the meaning of the quote in our lives. Then, we’ll work through the counterclaim of the quote by thinking what if we had to disagree with this person? What would that statement look like? This is where critical thinking starts to build tension in the conversation, because now we have to see the world from a different perspective. This is what we need to do in our society, think more so we can appreciate each other’s ideas and come to a compromise over controversial issues. We’ll end with an essential question. We encourage everybody who is on the podcast to be thinking of questions in your head as we go through the conversation, and then share those at the end. Then, we say our goodbyes, and we’re all good. There’s a little intro and without further ado, let’s get to the quote by Herbert Spencer. I’ll read it twice. “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” Senator Laura Murphy, welcome to this podcast. Great to have you here. And you’re feel free to share your background and weigh in on the quote.
Laura Murphy 02:58
Well, thank you so much Dan, and Steve, for having me on tonight. I’m a State Senator in the 28th District, which includes parts of Des Plaines, a little of Park Ridge, Elk Grove, Schaumburg, Roselle, and Hanover, mostly Northwest suburban communities. I hope I can share with you that I first met Dan almost 20 years ago, or it was at least 20 years ago, when he let me come to one of his classes. I think it was an AP class, and I talked about why I was running for office that long time ago. I had a wonderful experience meeting his students, and some of his students helped me out on a civics project. Although we weren’t successful on that campaign, circle back 20 years later, and here I am. I’m just thrilled to be here with you.
Dan Fouts 04:02
What was that, 51% to 49%? It was so close. Wasn’t it?
Laura Murphy 04:07
Well, it wasn’t quite that close.
Dan Fouts 04:10
Laura Murphy 04:11 – Claim
The area wasn’t how it is today. It has certainly shifted a lot. From the effort that we put in, it was a victory, and for all the help that your students gave me, we certainly can claim victory for that. I think this is such a perfect quote for our discussion, and it’s the reason that I got into public service, which inspired me to later run for Alderman of Des Plaines for the Third Ward, which for those listening it goes right down the middle of the street at Oakton, but doesn’t include Maine West. Then, that got me involved in public service. I grew up in an environment where my parents always said, “actions speak louder than words.” That was one of the things they said that you have to have. You can’t just say something, or believe that you know something, you have to prove it. No matter what activity you’re engaged in, you need to prove that you know what you’re doing. That could mean taking a test, raking the leaves, anything. You can talk about doing something, but it doesn’t really matter until you put that into action. I think that’s what I really enjoy about public service. It gives me an opportunity to put solutions to problems into action. Part of my goal is to help people understand that government really can work for them. It’s really just a matter of people enacting policies that provide better opportunities to enhance their lives through policy and legislation. That’s what we do every day in the General Assembly, enact policies to make someone’s life better. I could tell you story after story of bills that I’ve passed that indeed do that. People always ask what kind of legislator I am and what do I specialize in. I tend to specialize in solving constituent problems. I don’t carry a lot of bills that are brought to me by a lobbyist or a special interest group. I carry bills that are brought to me by a constituent who walks into my office and says, Hey, this is a problem in my life. Then, we work to solve it.
Steve Fouts 07:09
You’re in a position of responsibility where you have to take action to keep knowing what your meaning is. It’s almost like remembering why you’re here. I’m here because we need to do things for people, for our constituents. We have to right wrongs and advocate for people. If there is no action, and we’re just talking about knowledge in general, or discussing ideas where people feel good because they’re being listened to, then that’s not enough. I don’t mean to associate education with only talking and listening, but you’re in a job that’s action oriented.
Laura Murphy 08:00
That’s a really important point, because not everyone feels like they’re listened to, and it is more than just listening. Now that I’ve told you, I want you to do something to solve the problem, because people just talk. I think that’s where we start to lose peoples’ confidence in their government. I think we are coming into a really bad place where people don’t trust, or have confidence, that government is going to be able to do something to better their lives. We live in the best type of government that’s possible throughout the world. It has its flaws and problems, and it is definitely not perfect. We have to work on it, but it is the best system out there to provide action that enhances people’s lives, and provides a level of equity and equality for everybody, so that everybody has a path to be successful.
Steve Fouts 09:09
Amen to that. Dan, what do you think? Why don’t you say the quote again and give us your take.
Dan Fouts 09:14
“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” It’s about doing things. You have to get things done. It’s not just about knowing things, but about doing them. Voting is often brought up as something very specific that is important to do and not just talk about. But, it goes beyond voting. Today I was contacted by the Mayor of Des Plaines, a former student of mine, who told me about a meeting in Glenview at 5pm tomorrow on gun violence. A federal representative and the state representative are going to be there talking with constituents. That’s action too, going to a meeting and meeting with people. It’s getting engaged and feeling like your government is responding and listening. Back to what you said, Laura, we’re listening to you, because how do you do your work? How do you put things into action? If you don’t know, the constituents who care enough to be there will tell you what to do.
Laura Murphy 10:28
That is so true. We know that people tend to get more engaged at the local level. There’s often a very vocal minority that likes to have their opinions heard. Those that think everything is okay, the status quo is okay, often don’t say anything. They wait until somebody does something really outrageous, and then say that went too far. We could have stopped it from going that far if we would have gotten involved. It’s coming up on campaign season, and people’s doorbells are going to be rung. We’re to the point of saying, would you just open the door to meet a person who wants to represent you? People will go out and vote, and voting is a great start, but it’s really not enough. Meet that candidate, know what they stand for, and find out what they believe, because those are the people that you’re going to entrust your livelihood to. Their making decisions for you, your family, your education, your retirement, your home, and all of those things are the responsibility of your elected officials. I think you should at least know who they are before you give them all that power in your life.
Steve Fouts 11:58
Well said. Read the quote again, Dan. I think we’re doing well with the claim here.
Dan Fouts 12:07
“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.”
Steve Fouts 12:13
This is saying, the aim of education. What’s education? Is it K-12? When you get into higher education, there are a lot of books and classes that cost a lot of money. He’s basically saying that if you go through all that, and all you do is think, and you don’t take action, then you’re not being true to the ultimate purpose of this education. Can we say that he’s saying education is a means to an end? We can learn things. but if we don’t put it into action, then the value of what we know is reduced. I’m just trying to really get at this. What are your thoughts?
Dan Fouts 13:16
Yeah, I think that’s a way to say it. The purpose of education is to do something with it. It’s not just something static. So, I would agree. Yeah, I would agree.
Laura Murphy 13:32
There’s no stop point on education, right? We can learn and be educated for our entire lives, whether or not it’s in a traditional school setting. Maybe you go on to college, or a trade school where you are in an apprenticeship, or another training program, or you just go right into the workforce. With any of those, you’re continually learning on the job. That’s education, and education should never stop, because that action should never stop. We need to continue that forever, and never close our minds to learning something new.
Steve Fouts 14:20
Well said. I like that as a consequence of the quote as well. There is no end to it. It’s not fair to say that he’s saying you should be educated and then go and do the things you need to do, and that’s what made education worth it. They actually go back and forth. It’s a process. Dan, read it again, and we’ll flip the script on this, Laura. I’ll show you how the counterclaim comes out of nowhere. I’ll take the first stab at it, or you can if you want to. Read the quote again, Dan. Let’s see if we can find another way to think about this quote.
Dan Fouts 15:03
“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” Okay, here’s where in class, Laura, there’s a chorus of agreement. All the kids are in agreement with the claim, thinking they’re all so smart, but then we have to stop in our tracks and think about the world from a different perspective. Who wants to start?
Laura Murphy 15:32
Go ahead, Steve.
Steve Fouts 15:33 – Counterclaim
My first thought is that sometimes when you know something really well, you’ve spent a long time living with it, and you’ve educated yourself, but you spent six months without taking much action. You didn’t talk to many people. You just immersed yourself in something. I think sometimes knowledge can actually motivate you more. Let me start. I would say that a counterclaim to this would be that knowing something very well is a catalyst to action. We shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to always feel as if we have to act, act, act. Sometimes we need to reflect and get to know ourselves deeply, so that when we do act, we have an aim and a purpose that we’ve thought through. There’s my attempt.
Laura Murphy 17:05
I think I agree. For me, it says that if you don’t do that for the greater good, then you are denying people. You have to share. It’s not about keeping it all for me, because you only get half the reward if you don’t impart that on to other people. It’s hard to find the counterclaim on this one, because when you’re only surrounded by like-minded people, then you only think that one way. I give you all the credit in the world, because some of these are kind of hard to find the counterclaim. I do agree we have to have that discussion, because kids in particular have to learn how to discuss things and disagree without being disagreeable. I think that different ideas really help contribute to a better end product. It’s not about insulting, condescending, or demeaning somebody. I’m sure you must struggle with that every day in the classroom, particularly when you’re teaching kids. Their level of confidence is not fully developed, yet. When I have a colleague who disagrees with me, I think, well, that’s your opinion. We can take parts of it, but we feel comfortable sharing our opinions, and I don’t think you always see that in a school or classroom environment. There are some kids who are afraid to say what they really think in that type of setting, and then group dynamics take over. Someone might have some really great input, but they’re not ready to share it yet.
Dan Fouts 19:08
You’re right, Laura. This protocol breaks down what you just described. It breaks that pattern, because the kids get used to hearing about different ways of looking at things, all of which can have good defenses with good evidence. That’s what builds kid’s confidence to disagree, because they’re used to disagreeing during these conversations. You’re right on.
I want to take a stab at a counterclaim. I think it’s similar to yours, Steve. It’s the idea that you have to know and be passionate about something in your heart in order for the action you take to have meaning. If you’re supporting some sort of cause, let’s say, but you have no background knowledge, and haven’t done any background research on the cause, and you’ve only heard that it’s kind of important and that your friends are doing it, then you’re not really personally or emotionally invested in it. But, you act on it. I think it does have value that you’re acting on it, but there’s something missing if you don’t have the knowledge or mental commitment to it first. I don’t know if that’s completely disagreeing with the claim, but it’s adding a higher value to knowing things before you act.
Steve Fouts 20:54
Something that you could ask the kids… Laura, this is another thing to do in these conversations. You want to think of prompts to get the kids to go down deep and think about their experiences to help flush out the claim and the counterclaim. What if you ask the kids, have you ever been cautious to act, because you were afraid you didn’t know enough? See what they have to say about that. I don’t know what they would say, but I feel like they would have something to say about that. Some kids are cautious. They don’t want to take risks. They feel like they need to know something before they act.
Laura Murphy 21:59
Yeah, I would imagine you see that in students at all levels. The higher achievers are afraid that they don’t have all the answers, then there are those who feel like they don’t have the knowledge. I think that crosses the spectrum of all your kids. I think something that is almost impossible to legislate, is the value of teaching critical thinking. You have to take steps like this, because you can’t just say you have to think. That is too abstract. How would you pass a bill that says we require you to think and learn how to solve problems? That’s so subjective, and you don’t know what might come up. I commend you guys for developing this program to teach it because I think that is the key to society, when people can think critically about something and determine what is right and what is wrong. I think that’s the basis of a successful society, for people to determine what’s right and what’s wrong, and then act appropriately.
Steve Fouts 23:23
Right. It takes trust and faith to give each other that space to have diverse opinions, to agree to disagree. Don’t just leave the table when somebody is disagreeing, listen, and then maybe you’ll learn something new that you can add to your position. That’s what critical thinking is, but it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do it. You have to be intentional, Laura.
Dan Fouts 24:04
Protocols like this make it intentional. You have to create habits for this kind of thinking, so that it’s not hard for kids to do it when they leave you. They become used to having other people share different ideas without seeing it as a threat, but as an opportunity to question their own beliefs and improve them.
Laura Murphy 24:30
You’re in the environment, while we’re just making the regulations, so tell me if we are providing ample opportunity in a school day for people to have this type of interaction. If we’re not, then we really need to fix it.
Steve Fouts 24:51
Dan, you have to answer it because I’m out of the classroom, now. Laura, I was a teacher in the City of Chicago for most of my career. I left in 2019 to do work with Teach Different. I’m letting my brother give his opinion first. What do you think, Dan?
Dan Fouts 25:15
It really depends on the high school environment, which is what I’m in, and it depends on the teacher. If the teacher weaves in critical thinking exercises to his or her lesson, then critical thinking is done every day. It’s sort of up to the preferences of the educator in front of the room. I think it’s easier to fit in critical thinking with certain subjects. Math is critical thinking in many ways. I don’t know how you can take a math class and not think in a very intensive way. Social Studies is a great forum for that. At Maine West, we all do this kind of thinking and promote it, but it really depends on the community. Some communities might not see critical thinking as having much value. I would say it depends.
Steve Fouts 26:26
Laura, I don’t know if you’re familiar with these terms, but in Chicago we had a class called advisory period, which is kind of like homeroom. There’s no curriculum. It’s not a taught subject. The idea was to provide a time in the day when we can talk about things that are a little beyond the subject matter. There are also restorative practices, which are essentially a way to deal with conflict in the building. We did peace circles in my schools on the west side, and those are very effective at allowing people to express different viewpoints.
I think that the struggle that teachers have in the system, correct me Dan if you need to, because we were in very different worlds, is that there are so many expectations placed on teachers and schools. We have to make sure that the data is getting better, and that students are doing better on standardized tests. Teachers have so many things that they’re expected to do, and what ends up getting lost are these more authentic experiences, the less scripted ones where people can be themselves. They can make mistakes, give their true opinion, and have a real discussion about something that they’re not graded on. I think critical thinking gets lost in the other 50 things that they need to do.
Dan Fouts 28:53
I would add that one of the reasons why this thinking is so difficult, seeing both sides and multiple perspectives, is because many of the issues that are brought up, especially in social studies, are very controversial. I think there’s a hesitancy on the part of educators to start these kinds of conversations for fear that they will blow up into something that they’re not going to be able to manage. This is precisely why we have to have more of these types of conversations, so it’s easier to deal with them. If kids are not talking and thinking this way in our classes or at home, and they’re probably not getting it on social media, then who’s going to be their role model as they move to college and beyond?
Steve Fouts 29:52
This is the next generation. They’re looking at the adults now, and seeing that we don’t have good models for this type of thinking. That’s what concerns me. If they don’t get it at school, some will never get this. They will not have other opportunities to have a trusting, caring environment where they can be themselves and express themselves with impunity.
Laura Murphy 30:25
I appreciate your comments on expectations, Steve, because we are at a place where we know we are losing a number of teachers. Look at yourself, and Dan might eventually have a retirement plan in mind. We’re not getting good people into the education arena. They’re not being encouraged to see that as a career. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories of people saying that they were in the classroom for a year, and they’re done. They’re not going back. We have a lot of work to do, because it is the next generation that’s at stake. It is way too important and valuable for us not to fix this problem. I think that we’re at a point in the next two years, where if we don’t do something about our teacher shortages, we’re going to have a huge problem. We know, from the past, that having 40-60 kids in a classroom is not a conducive environment for learning. There are going to have to be better answers for remote learning. I think we can all agree that was not the optimal place for all kids. Some kids don’t do well in a remote learning environment, and I think the social skills suffer. People become isolated, and that creates huge problems for society, when we have kids who are suffering from that. It’s such a huge dilemma, and we need teachers at the table to help resolve the problem. I don’t think that legislators can do it alone. I think that we have to have everybody together at a table to work through these things and find real solutions. I think we have to start doing that quickly. Since I’ve been in the General Assembly, we’ve tried to enact legislation that creates an objective formula for funding schools, so that we have equity and parity for schools in the northern part of the district. Wealthier areas are going to have the same amount of money as those in the poorer areas. It’s certainly not the ceiling of where we need to go, but it’s a start. I think we need more than just government employees making those decisions. We need real life experienced people also participating in that decision making.
Dan Fouts 33:40
Sign me up.
Laura Murphy 33:42
I would like to.
Dan Fouts 33:44
it’s so great to hear that. That’s such a reminder that you can’t do your job alone, and neither can I. We should be building more partnerships like this, because these problems have to be solved together with a lot of different groups.
Steve Fouts 34:05
There’s no question.
Dan Fouts 34:07 – Essential Question
This is where we get to the questions, Laura, that we don’t have to answer, but just think about. The first one that popped into my head is, what is the purpose of education? This is what this quote begs for me. “The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action,” makes me think what is the purpose? Does anybody else have one?
Steve Fouts 34:31
I was going to say to Laura, that the essential question, if it’s done well, gives you the space to answer it, whether you agree more with the claim or the counterclaim. That’s the whole purpose of the question. It can’t be leading. I like your question, Dan. It’s simple. I don’t have anything else. Do you Laura?
Laura Murphy 34:56
I think you guys have it covered. I don’t know.
Steve Fouts 35:00
We always say to teachers, that when you have your conversations with these quotes, it’s good to have an essential question in your back pocket. One that you have spent some time with, so that you can end the conversation with a reflection. Take the last five minutes and answer this question kids. If the kids come up with an essential question themselves, then you want to fish that out because those are the ones that are going to keep the conversation going. You’ll look at your question and say, mine was boring compared to that one, but you want to have one ready.
Laura Murphy 35:49
Well, I’m sure they have some really fabulous questions, and they probably have answers that are so far out of the realm of what we can do, because we often forget that we need to keep it simple. Not every question has to have this huge expanded solution. We can simply answer and do things. That’s where action comes in and we get things done. It doesn’t have to be a huge elaborate process, which is what happens when regulation comes in, they tend to add more, and then it gets so big that you forget what you were attempting to accomplish in the first place.
Dan Fouts 36:38
Well, fantastic. We really appreciate you coming on to the Teach Different podcast, Laura. You were a great guest. This was the right quote for you, with your background, the spirit of how you’ve grown up in your family, and your commitment to public service. We’re really lucky to have you as our State Senator for our high school. It’s been great.
Laura Murphy 37:03
Well, thank you. It’s really been my pleasure. I think that we are blessed because we have teachers who care, teachers who are not going to accept substandard. When I was doing more social work services, I knew if I set a high bar, kids would meet it. They will meet whatever expectation you set, but I think all too often we don’t have expectations of success, and we definitely need them. I know that you are setting this expectation, because this increases your student’s potential for success. Are you seeing that kind of success?
Dan Fouts 37:48
Yes. I’m specifically using this protocol. The more routines you put into your instruction, the better kids are able to rise and meet the challenge. They’ll get better and better and better at it. You have to be passionate about it as a teacher and be consistent in believing them.
Steve Fouts 38:12
I really appreciate that question, because when I was in Chicago, and we first started playing around with this protocol, this protocol saved one of my classes. There were about 30 kids in that class, it was a big class, and there were quite a few who had IEPs, individual education plans, so they had some challenges. When I put a deep, thought provoking quote in front of these kids, there was nothing stopping them. They had so much to say. Don’t overwhelm them with books and articles every day, just put a thought provoking quote in front of them, and give them a chance to express themselves and share ideas. It’s just magical. It turned things around for me, in one class in particular. I have a great story for it. So, thanks for that question. I really appreciate it because it reminds you of why you’re here and why you’re doing this.
Dan Fouts 39:39
Well, again, thank you so much, Laura. We really appreciate this and are looking forward to publishing this podcast to share it with the world.
Laura Murphy 39:53
Well, I thank you both for the passion that you bring to educating our kids. There is nothing more important in this world then our next generation and ensuring they’re prepared…
Steve Fouts 40:09
Laura Murphy 40:10
Yep with action.
Steve Fouts 40:11
Take care. Thank you so much.
Laura Murphy 40:13
Dan Fouts 40:15
Thanks everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join the community of educators, get additional resources, and to engage in discussions with fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there and next time on the Teach Different podcasts. Take care.