Musings on the purpose of education for EDG6226 Foundations of Research in Curriculum and Instruction, Fall 2014.

How do we resolve the varying needs and demands on our formal educational system?

There are many differing and conflicting views about the purpose of formal education. As community college faculty, in a career and technical education discipline, we are told that our purpose is to prepare students to fulfill the employment needs of local employers. As educators, we also hope to inspire our students to develop a passion for learning, and ultimately fulfillment in life. As members of society, we aspire to prepare knowledgeable and productive members capable of supporting a diverse and successful society.

The formal educational system spans the breadth from pre-k, through secondary school, trade and community education and the university system. We also have military and employer sponsored education. For the purpose of this essay, we will consider formal education as any educational component which is planned and delivered in a structured format. There are many ways we can look at formal education. For the purpose of this essay, I am going to look at formal education through three lenses. The first is the three antimonies proposed by Bruner in The Culture of Education (1997). Next I’ll look at General Systems Theory which is a foundation of Instructional Design Theory (Richey, Klein, & Tracey, 2011). Finally, I’ll look at the various stakeholders who place demands on the system of formal education.

The Antimonies

According to Bruner (1996) there are three antimonies of education. The first antimony, individual-realization vs culture-preserving, deals with the function of education. One view says the function of education is to fulfill the individual human need for self-actualization and offer the opportunity to challenge ourselves and follow our passions. The opposing view says the function of education is to reproduce the culture that supports it, to create citizens who are prepared to further the economic, political, and cultural mores of our society. The second antimony, talent-centered vs tool-centered, involves contradictory views about the uses of the mind. One view is that individuals must rely upon their own intelligence and motivation to create learning. The opposing view contends that learning is more or less enabled by the cultural setting in which it occurs. The third antimony, particularism vs. universalism, is about how ways of thinking and ways of constructing meaning are judged. One view is that human experience is “legitimate in its own right”. The opposing view is that there is an inherent universal voice, or source of knowledge. Bruner’s three antimonies of education describe opposing forces that shape formal system of education.

General Systems Theory

Another way to look at the formal educational system is through the lens of general systems theory (GST). A simple system takes inputs, subjects them to some sort of process and produces outputs. In its simplest form, the formal education system takes students, subjects them to education, and produces graduates.

Putting Pressures on Formal Education
Figure 1: System (Inputs -> Process -> Outputs)

In order for the system to work, it needs resources (academic institutions, teachers, curriculum, etc.), persons (students, teachers, administrators, staff, etc.), objects (books, computers, classrooms, whiteboards, projectors, etc.) and information (content, discussions, lectures, etc.). In turn it is bound by constraints (time, money, location, prior knowledge, etc). It produces outputs, primarily graduates and research who may then become inputs to start the process all over again.

The quality of the inputs (persons, teachers, content, resources, etc.) largely determines the quality of the outputs. If students are subjected to poor quality instruction, or content, or resources, the quality of the graduates will falter. The academic system is also a suprasystem. We can define many subsystems within the academic structure. All of which are dependent upon outputs from other systems.

GST allows us to take an interdisciplinary orientation (Richey et al., 2011) and look at schools as living systems that are in constant interaction with their. This is similar to Bruner’s focus on the culture of education and the three antimonies that focus on the processes and outputs of education. What is missing in both of these theories is a consideration for the individuals in the systems. Thus I think we need to take a look at the individual stakeholders and the pressures they introduce to the system.


There are many stakeholders involved in the formal education system. First, we have the learners who are seeking to obtain an education to achieve better employment or personal fulfillment. We have educators, researchers, teachers and administrators who are developing and delivering education. We have funders, these could be parents, state and federal governments, or other funding sources. The funders want to make sure they are getting value for their dollars. Finally, we have the benefactors. Benefactors can be employers who are hiring learners, the learners themselves, or society as a whole. Each of these entities (the learners, the funders, the educators, and the benefactors) come to the table with multiple agendas which create a paradigm of influence over the formal educational system.

Learners. Learners come from all walks of life. Learners have different goals in their learning progression. Children participate in education because society or their parents say they have to be there. As they mature, and enter their adolescent years, learners will begin to have their own opinions of what they want from education. Others, won’t have defined ideas until they reach higher education or even later as they return to school after time outside of the formal educational system.

Educators. Many educators enter the field because they believe they have something to offer. They provide research and contribute ideas and knowledge to the process. Others enter the field because they are lifelong learners and enjoy the process of continually being in a learning mode. Among educators there are differing opinions about the best way to facilitate learning. We have behaviorists who believe in structured, task oriented, externally rewarded learning. We have cognitivists who believe that we need to consider how the mind processes information, and the internal rewards for learning. And then we have social constructionists who believe learning should occur in social context with meaning derived from the learners themselves or the experience. (McMurtry, 2014)

Funders. Funders represent all of the various sources for funding educational institutions and research. They can include state and federal government entities, private corporations and foundations, personal benefactors, parents and the learners themselves. Each funder feels the need to get value for their contribution. The larger the funding dollars, the larger the influence on the end product. Funders probably create the most stress on the system. They hold the keys to resources which are critical to maintain the success of the (current formal educational) system.

Benefactors. Benefactors are the entities that benefit from the formal educational system. The most obvious benefactors are employers, or the economic system of society. The societal culture and individual members of the society also benefit if learners are educated in a manner that furthers the cultural norms of society. Learners are also benefactors as they gain the skills for successful employment and learn the skills necessary to be productive members of society.

All of these stakeholders contribute to the system and put pressure on the system simultaneously. Some collaborate and reinforce each other. Others introduce differing and often opposing forces into the system. The result is a system that is constantly in flux, being pulled one way or another. The trick is to find a way to bring balance into the opposing forces.

Putting Pressure on Formal Education
Figure 2: Putting Pressure on Formal Education

In Conclusion:

There are many pressures on the formal education system, but however we look at those pressures, we need to consider them in relationship to our society and to our culture. Society and culture are the larger, suprasystem, which the system of formal education operates in. For the purposes of this essay, I used Bruner’s three antimonies and general systems theory to analyze the educational system. But I think the real challenge of the educational system is to look at all the stakeholders and understand that each one of them is an individual. An individual with ideas, beliefs, and fears. If we are to be truly successful with a formal educational system, we have to make sure whatever theory, or model we use, we never lose sight of the fact that we are helping individuals to meet their own personal goals and fulfilment in life as well as helping to build a strong culture and economically sound society.


Bruner, J. S. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA, US: Harvard University Press.

McMurtry, K. (2014). Review of The Instructional Design Knowledge Base: Theory, Research, and Practice. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 58(3), 97. doi: 10.1007/s11528-014-0757-2

Presno, C. (1997). Bruner’s three forms of representation revisited: Action. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 24(2), 112.

Richey, R. C., Klein, J. D., & Tracey, M. W. (2011). The Instruction Design Knowledge Base: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.