The purpose of education

Registration of my TED talk at TEDxErasmusUniversity on October 24th 2015. The talk is also set out in the story below.

I have spent the first 30 years of my life trying to fit the mold.

  • In school, I tried to cope with the social norms of my year class – but I never really fitted in. Which made me feel very insecure.
  • In university, studying to become a TU Delft Civil Engineer, my interests were broader than the available curriculum – which made me think that I wasn’t a very good engineer.
  • In my corporate career at KPN and Unilever, I didn’t meet the nicely rounded profile of the ideal manager. So I had to do less of what I was too good at and was continuously working to improve my weak, or so called development points.


I tried to aim as high as I could – because higher is always better, right? I was listening very strongly to all the good advice that others in my “system” gave me: parents, educators, study advisors, mentors, managers, society – all advice given out of love, and best intentions. Because this is the way it works. This is the system. We don’t know any better.

Looking back, the mold or the norm was not, or only in a limited part, in line with my natural strengths. And my natural strengths were not acknowledged and not developed – not by myself and not by others.

Outside the box and thriving

It is only in the last 10 years that I gradually managed to work in and create an environment where I could thrive. I discovered talents and interests that always had been part of me, which were highly useful in life, but to that point, not at all acknowledged as strengths, underdeveloped and which I needed to rediscover and redevelop – like my imagination, intuition, creativity, having a holistic view, openness, being soft and kind, as well as my feminine side.

Six years ago, my co-founders and I created a whole new company in the field of a completely new technology – Augmented Reality – which required skills for which no description yet existed. I was finally outside of any box, and finally thriving.

Infinite diversity of talents and roles

Slowly I started to notice that we have so many of these norms by which we judge people- whether it is in education or in working life. With sometimes dramatic effects on people’s self-confidence, on their behaviour and on the way they deal with the pressures associated to it.spectrum engelsIn the many different roles I have played in my life, and now also being a mother of three young children, I have experienced that there is a huge natural diversity in talents that people can have. I’d like to argue that the diversity is infinite. And there is also an almost infinite amount of different roles that people can play in life.

I feel we fall ourselves short if we do NOT develop all these talents. Simply because they are needed in life. Just imagine what would happen if we manage to do this?

Fundamental change

Do understand me very clearly – the education I had, including the good and the bad sides of it, is what shaped me, is what made me become me. But looking ahead at all the changes we are going to and the challenges we are facing as a society, as humanity and with our planet – I feel it is more than worthwhile for all future generations to seriously assess and change the system we have created, and change it on a very fundamental level. Like Einstein says:


And if you want to change society, we have to start at the source: in the way we prepare people for later life. In their education. 

Which is why, three years ago, I decided to dedicate my life to education – and education for me is the full combination of upbringing, schooling and other development.

I want to contribute to bringing movement into education on a systems level. The system is us. Each and every single one of us is the system. Each and every single one of us is also a decision maker when it comes to education, at some moment in life – as a student, as a parent, and maybe even more closely involved as a teacher, school leader, employer or politician deciding on where the money goes.

Transformations are painful

When it comes to education, there is a very interesting effect happening when talking about transformation and change.


Our education is what shaped us, is what made us to become who we are today. When questioning our education, we are implicitly also questioning who or what we became. And we turned out just right, didn’t we? So why change?

Somehow, education is so closely related to our deepest beliefs, habits and loyalties that it is maybe the most difficult area for change and transformation. Which is perhaps also why education innovation is facing so much resistance.

I have experienced myself, time and again, that transformations are painful. Every transformation is about saying goodbye to something that was part of us, which felt comfortable, which gave certainty. And even if we wanted to go through the transformation ourselves, it is still difficult and often takes time. I think it helps if we accept this fact – and help people to go through this process rather than being frustrated about the resistance – although I have to say this loud also to myself, because it is sometimes frustrating to face so much resistance and disinterest.

Facing the near future

And yes, there will be pain. Because we have to go through lots and lots of change. Not only because of certain problems our education system is facing today. But mostly because of what we are facing in the not so distant future.


This is Moore’s law, which shows that computing power doubles every 1,5 to 2 years, at a constant price level. This law was formulated by Gordon Moore in 1965 and was later proven to already be valid since 1900. Today, it is still valid and it even became the roadmap for chip manufacturers such as ASML.

This will mean that in the coming decades, the computing power of chips, computers and robots will exceed that of all human brains. What this will mean is very hard to imagine. I am a tech girl, but also my mind boggles when trying to grasp the idea.

Ray Kurzweil, a renowned computer scientist, inventor, futurist and author of ‘The Singularity is near’, recently made a set of very interesting predictions on what we will be facing somewhere in the 2030’s. Here’s a selection:


Human capacities

Of course we can argue if things will really go this fast and this far, there are lots of ethical discussions still to be conduct and regulations to be adjusted before we are here, but technologically, this is all very likely to happen.

So what will this mean for the different roles we will play in society, and for the way we educate and prepare people for it?

It is very likely that a lot of today’s jobs will be replaced by robots – this is just very logical from an economic and efficiency perspective. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any more roles to play for us as humans.

To the contrary.

Human capacities english

What is very clear for me, is that precisely these traits that make us unique as humans, will become the most important ones again.

How to set up education?

So, what does this all mean for the way we set up our education?

Most people that are giving substance to education, fill in what education should include. Which is very understandable if you are a teacher who has to choose a lesson plan, a parent needing to choose a school for your child, a school leader needing to decide on the school set up. What do children need to learn, what subjects should go in or out, what schools are good, what methods work, what do I need to spend my money on?

But before we can answer this question, we first have to take some steps back and answer two other questions. Let me take you through a little model which explains this.model engelsIn education, we are driven by our habits. Which is why we need to create inquisitive awareness. Why do we do things the way we do? How did it originate? What are advantages, disadvantages, alternatives? When we fully understand why, we are able to redesign from scratch. What is the purpose of education? When we are aware of that, we can purposefully compose education, choose from subjects, methods, schools and other solutions that fit the purpose. And when the composition fits the purpose, we are able to sustainable adoption, to sustain and scale a diversity of solutions.

In order to create movement in your school, organization or in society, we have to do two things:

  1. create massive demand for a more contemporary education by asking why and what for
  2. enable the supply by composing what and how

The beating heart in the middle of the model represents the believers, networks of dreamers and do-ers organizing and orchestrating this, pushing the boundaries, showing the way it can be done. They exist in every school, in every organization and they are everywhere in society. The only thing that needs to happen is to connect and empower them – as they currently still feel alone calling in the desert. So if you recognize yourself in this – find those like-minded people around you and just make it happen.

The purpose of education

There is already so much happening – especially on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. The pace of development is amazing, movement can be felt everywhere. But, as mentioned earlier, the most important thing that is still missing, and which surprises me every time again: We don’t have a clear answer to the most important question of all: What’s the purpose of education? What is it for?


Just ask around. Just ask yourself. Everybody is a decision maker when it comes to education, but we don’t have a clear answer to the most important question of all. So what do we base our decisions on?

What if we would allow ourselves to dream – to re-imagine education, starting with re-imagining its purpose.

With Operation Education, the non-profit organization I founded, we want to feed the global movement to revolutionize education by asking this question. We created a documentary about the purpose of education – ‘Wat is het doel van onderwijs?’ – and it is our aim that everybody formulates their own answer to this question. And starts to act on it. We are very confident that it will help in creating this massive demand.

If you ask me

So of course I also have thought about my own answers. There are no right or wrong answers – so also mine are not. But you can use them to inspire your own. Or to discuss. I have thought long and hard for three years, so if you ask me, this is what I’d say: 

I see 4 main purposes of education:

purpose #1

Take for example people who are good at drawing, at visualizing thoughts. Right now, the ability to draw is not widely stimulated, assessed and valued in today’s education systems – but in working life, visualizers, designers and video makers are highly valued – as one image can often express more than 1000 words. What if such talents could already be developed right away?

I truly believe that everybody has at least some kind of genius from the inside. Something that is unique to this person and worthwhile. Whether you are a dyslexic pain in the ass street kid from Rotterdam Zuid who happens to be the best hip hop teacher around, learning other street kids to develop their own dignity or whether you are a supersmart physician with an IQ of above 150 who just simply loves and prefers to make stuff – with your hands.

I feel that if we manage to unleash this potential in everyone and learn how to make it valuable and meaningful for others, we can enter a whole new era. What if we could, with this, give everybody a sense of dignity, of value, of feeling you matter simply by who you are.

purpose #2

This goes way beyond ‘preparing’ for the future. Rather than preparing children for the future – which is rather passive and arguably impossible to do, as we don’t know how history will develop – we might teach children how they may have an influence on society; how they may shape, design, develop, articulate, make and programme ideas and things.

purpose #3

We all live on the same planet, we all breathe the same air, are mining the world’s resources, fighting each others wars, being confronted with each other’s problems. We try to put borders around our countries, but we cannot deny the fact that we do need to deal with each other on this planet, as a society. We’d better be brought up with this understanding – and with a notion of respect, empathy and intercultural awareness.

purpose #4

What makes a healthy lifestyle? There is so much knowledge nowadays about the importance of doing things right in children’s early years which have a lifelong positive effect – we’d better get this right.

What about knowledge?

Then there is of course the question: but what about knowledge? Yes, what about knowledge? What is the purpose of knowledge, of having knowledge, of acquiring knowledge, of testing knowledge?

Whenever there is a discussion on education reform, the discussion on the role of knowledge pops up. This is how I feel about the role of knowledge:model purpose

On top is the self, who you are, on the bottom is the world around you: the people, the planet, universe, technology, et cetera. 

On the left side is the notion of getting insight. To really understand how things are. 

With respect to the self, it is extremely important to understand who you are as a human being, to develop your self-awareness, to understand what makes you unique in terms of talents, interests, motivations, values and skills. To acknowledge who you are and not try to be somebody else.

With respect to your surroundings: to be totally amazed by the wonders of nature, to truly understand how things work. When I think of this part, I see kids in front of me with sparkles in the eyes when they have finally figured out how a plane can fly, be totally astonished that the universe still expands, and to have total respect for our ecosystems.

On the right side is the influence. Positive influence, obviously: how to make things better.

With respect to the self: simply saying ‘this is who I am’ displays a fixed (in contrast to growth) mindset. It is all about how you can continuously evolve, discover new layers within yourself, develop new skills.

With respect to the surroundings: this is about pushing the boundaries of what is known, to advance technology and mankind, to make things better, to find new solutions.

Knowledge lies underneath of all this, is important to acquire in order to do this. But it is in my opinion a means (it can lead to insight and influence), and never an end – or a purpose on itself.


So now you know how I feel about the purpose of education. Some people already said that these are things you cannot be against. So if we cannot be against it, maybe we can be in favor of it?

I described higher goals. Of course they need to be substantiated and made more specific when it comes to the organization of a school. But they are now my guiding principles which I’m very happy to further sharpen and discuss.

I do also think that such a set of higher purposes where nobody can be against could serve as something that unites us all, as people trying to make education better. It could be used as a set of criteria to define what is ‘good’ and what is not.

Anyhow, let’s discuss.

And please do formulate your own answers, ask yourself why you do the things the way you do, re-imagine education and it’s purpose – and do act on it. Because I truly believe that each and every single one of us is capable to bring movement into our education system. Just by being aware, and acting on what we truly believe in ourselves. And yes, these transformations will be painful – but I have learned time and again that once you get through the transformation, everything is beautiful.

Thank you.


Published by

Claire Boonstra

Claire Boonstra, founder of Operation Education - feeding the movement to revolutionize education. I have lived many different roles in life - as a student, engineer, corporate employee, wintersports-blogger, strategic marketing manager, mobile future event organizer, augmented reality startup co-founder and now an education reformer and public speaker. But I am also a mother of three young children, a daughter, wife, sister, utopist dreamer, asker of difficult questions, visionary, improv dancer, skier, former glider pilot – and most of all a human being in search of how I can best balance my three main priorities in life: my family, my personal wellbeing and my mission to feed the movement to revolutionize education.

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