The why in Education

Registration of my TED talk at TEDxAmsterdamED on March 26th 2015. The talk is a short (8 minute) version of the story below:

Did you ever ask yourself if the decisions you make are driven by what you know or feel is good – or are these decisions simply driven by your habits, by what you’re used to?

HabitsEach and every single one of us is a decision maker when it comes to education. As a parent, you decide on which school you pick for your young child and how you support and stimulate your children during their school years. When you grow up, you decide which school or university you pick yourself. As a teacher, you decide on the way you set up your classes. As a school director, you decide on the way you shape your school and facilitate your team. As a politician, you decide on how the money is spent.

But based on what? What drives your decision making?

Steady but slow change

The past few years, when creating a movement aimed at transforming education systems, I realized only recently that it’s simply a question of supply versus demand.

Supply Demand TED

On the supply side, I learned that a lot is already known, tried out or even existing. And I saw and experienced that -hurray!- things are changing in education, steadily and slowly. But why not rapidly and more fundamentally?

I saw, much to my surprise, great stuff happening on the supply side of good education. There are some well hidden but truly interesting and inspiring examples of education done differently – done better in my opinion. But even if these examples would be more known, to the general audience, they would still have a hard time. Simply because people, we, are too scared to choose a form of education which is far away from what we are used to. There is no, or very little, demand for education done differently – at least not from the masses. And when there is no “demand”, why would the “supply” move?

It’s the habit

People often asked me: Who’s your enemy? Who is throwing up barriers? It’s not the minister, it’s not the teachers, it’s not the laws. It’s the habit. The habit of thinking that “they” will have thought about it. That there must be a good reason why things are set up this way.

For a long time, this is what I thought. That they will have thought about it – at least, that’s how my husband and I acted when choosing a traditional school for our oldest child.

I still remember exactly where I was at my moment of realisation, suddenly realizing that how we generally do things in education is not based on what we know about how learning and development works, is not based on what is logical given today’s reality and is not based on what is truly valuable for learners or for society.

And I was shocked. How can we be so ignorant? How can we, while making a decision as important as choosing the school for our children, not think about what really matters and what really works? How come I didn’t really ask that many questions – even though I had this lingering feeling that something was not OK here?

Supply Demand Why

That moment, I decided to ask myself and other people questions

Why do we want children to sit still?

One of the most useful and praised qualities of a child today is the ability to sit still. But are you aware that sitting still is one of the most unfavorable positions for learning? Did you know that movement is very important for the processing of information? And that moving a lot at a young age has a lifelong positive effect on your brain fitness? Just ask brain scientists how this all works and they will tell you a lot of interesting stuff. So – why do we still do it? Because our systems are not set up to accommodate for a lot of movement? If so, why don’t we change it?

Why do we have long summer holidays?

We have long summer holidays because children had to help their parents when harvesting. Is it still logical today? Of course not. To the contrary – it is proven that children which have a not so stimulating background at home, stay behind in their development and need extra time and effort to catch up. And learning needs rehearsal and repetition – which is also why a long break is not very beneficial. So why do we still do it? Because it is a right we have earned, and we are just incredibly used to it?

Why do we have year classes?

I could go a long way into the comparison with the industrial ages but won’t do it here. Anybody who has multiple children of their own can witness with their own eyes that every child develops in a completely different pace and rhythm. Year classes don’t only imply a cognitive norm, they also imply a social norm: when you as a learner have different interests than the rest of the year class, it is hard to fit in and stick to what you find important and fun. I cannot find many good reasons to stick to year classes, other than our habits, and that ‘this is simply the way we have organized schools’. Or do you?

Yearclasses visual TED talk

Why do we split children into higher versus lower?

We don’t only do this in school, we generally do this in society. In my theory, this is still a leftover from the old industrial and pre-digital ages – when a top-down hierarchy was the only way to bring information and knowledge across.


The higher you climb in the hierarchy, the higher your status, income, esteem and the more acces you had to information.
We have transported this thinking to education, totally preparing children for a place in the hierarchy including a few measurement points to assess the place they can get in the hierarchy.

The hierarchy may still be how big organizations are set up, they are proving to be losing the battle from organizations which are fully based on how teams work best: as distributed autonomous networks. Powered by the internet. In the world of today and tomorrow, there is no such thing as more or less valuable, based on higher versus lower. Just close your eyes and think of those people who are valuable to your life or to your organizations.

A high chance that you’ll respond with nurses, carpenters, mothers or teachers. And not with highly educated consultants, bankers or managers. So, why do we still split children into higher and lower, when there are so many reasons not to do this?

Who is our education system?

This question came up while talking with Alette Baartmans. There we sat, at a terrace in Amsterdam, questioning who is actually at the controls of our system. Who is in charge? Who decides? Does anybody know? We couldn’t figure it out ourselves.

So what Alette did is that she, together with the Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) made a breakdown of the education budget of the ministry of education. There is 33 billion euro to spend here in the Netherlands, and they made a breakdown of where this money is going to. It became a long list of organizations – including schools of course, but also unions, various councils, cooperatives, associations and advisors. Many of them I had never heard of. They all receive money from the state – which means they receive money from us taxpayers to take care of education. Do we know why they receive this money? Do they still know themselves? Did they ever question their existence, how they contribute to learning and to the learners, and whether they are still needed given how the world looks today – or are they mainly busy surviving?

And then the most important of all: What’s the purpose of education? Why do we go to school?

Did you ever ask yourself this question? Is the purpose of education to get a diploma? Is it to be prepared for a job? But what if the role of jobs and diplomas changes massively, going forward? And what is the purpose of a school? There are quite some schools who have written in their school plan that their goal is to meet the minimum standards of the education inspection.

Consider this:
Children born today, have a life expectancy of about 100 years. How can you be prepared to live 100 years in a society which is rapidly changing? Is there any way we can predict what skills or knowledge will be valuable for their first jobs, let alone for their entire life? Or will it come down to some very fundamental stuff?

Bronnie Ware

An Australian palliative nurse called Bronnie Ware who cared for hundreds of people in the last 12 weeks in their lives, has written a famous book called the Top Five Regrets of the Dying.


[nr 2: especially true for men]

This is also quite in line with almost every single TED talk. And every motivational speech.
So, when it comes to the purpose of education: does our educational system provide the right balance between personal preparation for life and skills needed to contribute to the economy? And are the two conflicting?

We need humans

Before I decided to move into education less than 3 years ago, I was a co-founder of a technology company called Layar. We needed augmented reality specialists. Those people don’t come from university, and by the time a new study is set up and accredited, the subject will already have changed massively or even have become obsolete. So what were we looking for? For humans. For human beings with unique qualities that cannot be automated or robotized. Like creativity, imagination, intuition, entrepreneurship, the ability to express themselves, to cooperate, to be flexible and agile. To create totally new and unlikely stuff. To be an artist. Again, we needed humans, who know who they are, what they are good at, what they love doing most and how they can make that of value for others.

Should education prepare for the future?

My question with respect to the purpose of education. Or should education equip people such that they can shape not only their life but also society, given that everything is about to change and even facing exponential change?

Back to you

As decision makers in education – whether you are a parent, teacher, entrepreneur, school leader or politician: do you know why you are doing things this way? Do you have an answer to the question: what’s the purpose of education? And if so: do you act upon it?

I ask you these questions today. But I am not only asking you these questions, I need your help. The problem is we don’t really talk about it with each other. There’s very little conversation on the ‘why’ of education between the different stakeholders in education – between parents, school leaders, teachers, politicians, institutes, publishers etcetera.

Everyday now, for the past three years since I devoted my life to education, I noticed that people do have an opinion on education, a very strong one even. I need you as a stakeholder of the educational system to think out loud.

Why? I have noticed something interesting which happens all the time in the different networks we created such as Operation Education and United4Education.

Let’s create demand

People turn out to have so many shared views on how they would like education to be. And once people have expressed their feelings, and envisioned their ‘ideal’ learning environment, they suddenly start to look for schools or learning environments that meet their own ideal picture. They start to modify the way they work as a teacher, as a parent, as a leader. They start to discuss their views with other stakeholders and take an interest in the views of others.

What happens here on a larger scale? A demand is created. Which will require the supply to move. Because people will start to move away from education based solely on habits and conventions, towards schools doing it better.

So it looks like we may have found a recipe for transformation, maybe even to finally trigger that evolution or even revolution:

Model TED talk break habit

So I am inviting you all to, from now on, question your own and each other’s habits. Ask yourself, and everybody else, the ‘why’ question. A special callout to journalists of course: ask the ‘why’ questions everywhere and anywhere. Especially the ‘what’s the purpose of education’ question when you ask our politicians how they spend their money…

If each and every one of us starts to explore these questions, formulate answers, and act upon them, we can all together finally create that evolution, even a revolution. And we learn!

Thank you!!


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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.

One thought on “The why in Education”

  1. Dear Claire,

    We already have met a few times and every time I’m struck by the clarity of your words. I could not agree more with your exploration of the ‘ why’ in education.
    Recently, I have decided to leave my regular job as a principal in primary education and started to assist problematic school organizations and school teams to find their way again and re-create a school where children learn and learn to be happy, a school where parents fully trust the educational care to the teachers of their children and where teachers do their jobs with a smile on their faces.
    However, in most cases also those schools work and will continue working based on the principle of supply without considering the demand – side. The ‘ why-question’ is not being asked in many cases.

    In my daily practice working as an educational advisor and interim-manager in schools, I found that ‘cultural change’ and ‘ ownership’ are powerful change-agents and I believe that both concepts fit well to your line of thinking.

    But I guess that in order to reach closer to education serving future generations, we need to define the concept of ‘demand’ as well. Is it the demand of the children whom we want to educate? Is it the demand of parents we need to take into consideration ? Or is it the demand of political systems of our societies? If so, can we generate enough power and strength to revolve the educational system into an open structured and versatile meta-educational construct, which serves future generations the way it should?

    Right now I am in South Korea and participating in a discussion about needed changes of the Korean educational system. Your ‘ why education’ – question may certainly create new insights and a new angle to break down some parts of the conceptual walls which are defending also here the system from changes..
    The political demand, the will to keep the older concepts in tact is strong.
    The Why-Question may generate more ownership among the professionals , enhance cultural change within education and speed up the process , adding power to a stream of dripping water eroding the stones that form the old, old fundament of education, built by those who may fear change.
    Thank you again for your contribution to the needed discussions about change of education. I hope to keep in touch!

    Riemer Kramer
    (with regards from Nara)

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