What is it to educate?

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In February, 2016, I was asked to participate in a round table discussion at the International Congress of Educators in Lima, Peru. The topic of the discussion was “What is it to educate?”

At first, I was overwhelmed at the thought of dealing with such a broad topic. How could I possibly reflect on forty years in education and put into a few short words the answer to this very weighty question?

I finally came up with these thoughts:

To educate is to develop in our students the knowledge, skills, and characteristics that will promote  personal success, economic viability, and active engaged citizenship. As we educate, we must provide opportunities that encourage students to see themselves as capable lifelong learners who continually seek self-improvement.

As children we have an innate desire – and a great capacity – to learn. But as we grow into adults, many of us lose those characteristics.  Educators must find ways to preserve motivation and nurture our students’ capacity to learn.

Students must be encouraged to ask questions and seek out answers with increasing levels of sophistication. They must be engaged in inquiry where they can develop critical and creative thinking skills. They need opportunities to collaborate with others so that they can learn from others – and others can learn from them. This kind of productive collaboration will afford them the experience that Peter Senge speaks of when he describes the dynamics of Learning Communities, communities where learners become masters of self-improvement.

Students need opportunities that challenge them at the right level of difficulty. Educators must be aware of each student’s Proximal Zone of Development, to coin a phrase from Vygotsky, and plan tasks that allow students to build on what they already know and can do. Students also need to engage in tasks that are meaningful to their lives, and that involve them in making products that have significance beyond receiving a grade for their work. Gone are the days when we would ask students to complete a project on Peru where they simply present information they have gathered about the country…they need to do genuine intellectual work that has relevance and purpose.

Today’s students need opportunities to monitor their learning, to understand how they learn, and to set goals for continued learning. Such opportunities increase the likelihood that students will become self-directed lifelong learners. The use of Assessment for Learning strategies that we see around the globe is a testament to the importance of developing these critical skills.

Finally, students need to be encouraged to be open to new learning. As Carol Dweck’s work has shown us, teaching a Growth Mindset provides students with a perspective that increases motivation and success. Or as Kosta and Kallick’s work on Habits of Mind  has demonstrated,  there is great worth in guiding students to approach learning with curiosity,  wonder, and flexibility.

By Anita Sherwin-Hamer, M.Ed

learnography_leadership_anitahamerAnita has more than 40 years of experience in education serving the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario, the Ministry of Education, and the Durham Catholic District School Board. She leads CSC’s resource evaluations with integrity and commitment.





Costa, A.L., and Kallick, B. (2009). Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum, Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Davies, Anne (2007). Making Classroom Assessment Work. Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing

Dweck, Carol (2014). Carol Dweck, “Developing a Growth Mindset”


Senge, Peter (2000). Schools That Learn. New York: Doubleday

The Ontario Curriculum

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