Aims Of Education Essay

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Educational aims express the social and developmental outcomes that schools hope to achieve. Herbert Spencer approached educational aims through the question, What knowledge is of most worth? This and the following related questions have long been central to educational scholarship. Why are certain types of learning valued over others? Should schools strive for critical thinking or cultural literacy? Should they seek practical relevance or academic rigor? Should schools prepare students to accept social norms and the responsibilities of adult life? Should they prepare students to reform society through civic participation and activism? Or are all of these aims equally important?

Some educational writers treat the terms aims and objectives as synonymous. Objectives, however, are usually more specific than aims because the former are justified largely on the basis of how they contribute to a particular discipline or subject area. Knowledge of grammar, for example, might be justified as an objective of the English language arts if it contributes to literacy. In contrast, aims typically go beyond subject matter to ask, at a more general level, who benefits and how. To what use, for example, should literacy be put? Why is it valued, by whom, and in what contexts? Must everyone learn grammar? Why or why not? This entry examines educational aims as broad statements of intended outcomes and desires. It discusses how social and developmental needs serve as key sources of educational aims, and it addresses how these aims function within education to inform both its theory and practice.

Sources Of Educational Aims

Socrates was one of the earliest western thinkers to explicitly link education and social needs. He argued that a good education could not be formulated directly without first addressing the question of what constitutes a good society. A clear understanding of the good society would then provide the logical foundations for determining educational aims. This approach places education largely in the service of the state and its citizens, a perspective widely evident today as schools are called upon to address an ever increasing range of social needs—from the nation’s economic security to responsible citizenship.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and child-centered progressives such as John Dewey would later challenge the adequacy of social needs as the sole basis for education. Albeit for different reasons, both Rousseau and Dewey sought to balance the needs of society with needs of individuals. This balance is well illustrated in the National Education Association’s 1918 report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. The report lists seven educational aims: (1) health, (2) command of the fundamental processes, (3) worthy home membership, (4) vocation, (5) citizenship, (6) worthy use of leisure, and (7) ethical character. Today’s curriculum may seem less generously conceived, but concerns over individual needs are still widely evident in the guise of human development training, in constructivist theories of learning, and in concepts such as self-actualization.

How Aims Contribute To Education

Theorists and the public at large rarely agree over what counts as a social need, and even developmental needs often spark controversy. Nevertheless, aims remain squarely at the center of education. The intractable importance of aims can be understood by recognizing the key roles that aims play in both the theory and practice. Theory and practice in education are closely related, much like two sides of the same coin or like the rows and columns that define each cell in the table as informed by both types of activity.

Theory, the first dimension, is used here to include the competing schools of thought that are found in common approaches to conceptualizing curriculum and instruction. These approaches include, for example, essentialism, perennialism, social adaptation, social reconstructionism, constructivism, and progressivism. Space does not allow a full description of these approaches other than to suggest that each approach is distinguished largely on the basis of the educational aims it adopts. In essentialism, for example, the primary aims of education are to bequeath our cultural heritage as it is represented in the academic disciplines. In perennialism, the aims are to cultivate the intellect and promote rational thinking. In social adaptation, schools are to prepare individuals in ways that will make them fit for the roles of adult life. In social reconstruction, schools are to promote justice and equity through social reform. Constructivism and progressivism seek individual development for participation in democratic life. Many of these aims clearly overlap. Yet, each approach possesses enough distinctiveness and coherence to give its proponents their own sense of identity and rallying points. Moreover, the aims of each approach hold far-reaching implications for the practical work of program design.

Program design is the second dimension of education, in which aims play and necessary and leading role. For more than fifty years, the chief paradigm for program design has been the “Tyler rationale,” named for Ralph W. Tyler, the author of the highly influential book Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (1950). In this slim volume, Tyler organized program design around four questions. First, what aims should schools seek to attain? Second, what experiences will be useful in attaining these ends? Third, how can these experiences best be organized? Fourth, how can the effectiveness of these experiences be evaluated? In this approach, aims not only come first, but they require almost half of total number of pages that Tyler’s book devotes to the whole design process. Moreover, the four steps are sequenced so that experiences and organization follow directly from program aims, and the program itself is finally evaluated by comparing its outcomes with its original aims. Thus, one could argue that once aims are determined, the remainder of the design work is largely mechanical or at least prefigured by the first step of specifying aims.

The preceding discussion is meant to highlight two key functions of educational aims. First, aims tether education broadly to social life and individual wellbeing. Second, aims guide the basic approaches and processes of educational design. Because contemporary education is dominated by talk of standards and high-stakes testing, aims talk seems to be on the wane. In particular, content standards and test scores are often assumed to be important without questioning why, for whom, or under what circumstances. But if history is our guide, the perennial and complex questions that surround educational aims will not quickly yield to simple and expedient remedies.


  1. Kliebard, H. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum. New York: Routledge.
  2. Noddings, N. (2004). The aims of education. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
  3. Peters, R. S. (1960). Authority, responsibility, and education. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  4. Tyler, R. (1950). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Whitehead, A. N. (1967). The aims of education. New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1929)

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