How long is an education good for?

By Gordon Rugg

There has been a lot of debate over the centuries about the purpose of education. The fact that the debate is still active suggests that either the question is unanswerable, or that it needs to be rephrased.

One way of looking at the problem is graphically. If we represent a lifespan as a timeline, then what insights does that give us about the possible purpose, or purposes, of education?


That’s the topic of this article.

In this article, I’ve described some popular models of education, and taken each of them to its logical extreme, to make its implications more starkly outlined.

The “getting a job” model

One common argument is that education leads to employability – that, in essence, the purpose of education is to provide the qualifications that a student needs when applying for a job. I’m taking this to include the student needing to show factual knowledge from the course as a necessary part of the job interview.

If we take this view literally, then the education has achieved its purpose as soon as the student finds a job. Supposing that it takes a student a year to find a job after graduation, then the useful duration of the education, as opposed to the qualification, would be represented by the thin red rectangle between education and work in the diagram below. (I’ve shown all the other blocks in white, for clarity.)

getting a job

The “knowledge for doing a job” model

Another widespread view is that education provides students with the knowledge needed to perform a job. This is different from the “getting a job” model because many employers use qualifications as a way of assessing a candidate’s ability, with the actual work often being very different from anything on the student’s course. The “knowledge for doing the job” model is often used as an argument for training, rather than educating, students.

We’ve discussed this distinction in an earlier article:

One issue here is that knowledge within any field will change over time. This is particularly obvious in high-tech areas such as computing. There has been some interesting research into how long knowledge lasts within a particular field before becoming outdated. One widely used approach is to see how long it takes before half of the knowledge in a field is obsolete, for instance by looking at the contents of standard textbooks in successive years. This is referred to as the half-life of knowledge, by analogy with the concept of half-life in atomic physics.

The results are sobering. In psychology, for instance, the half-life of knowledge has been estimated at about five years. A common pattern is that some parts of a field stabilise and stay constant for decades or centuries (e.g. Euclidean geometry in mathematics) while other parts – usually the hottest topics – are unstable.

The diagram below shows a five year half-life as a chunk of a life line.

half lifev2

The “taster” model

Another view of education is that it provides students with an overview of what is available, whether in terms of academic subjects to specialise in, or types of employment, or both. So, for example, a student might discover a love of a subject that they had never previously heard of, as a result of being introduced to that subject during education.

Taking this model to its logical extreme, education helps the student decide which type of career they want to pursue. At the point where the student enters employment, the education has completed its job.


The “well-rounded citizen” model

This is a long-established model, of the citizen as a well-rounded individual who is able to make informed choices as a voter, and as a member of society. In this model, education is explicitly intended to be relevant to the whole of a student’s adult life.

well rounded citizen2

Discussion and conclusion

The diagrams above show the very different timescales of the different models. They also help make the point, via reduction to the absurd, that these models are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

They also raise another, bigger question. What evidence does each model require in order to function properly?

The “getting a job” model, for instance, requires that education choices should be based on a thorough set of evidence about types of employment available, and about what is required to enter each of those types. That’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, classifies jobs into 23 major groups, which it then breaks down into 840 detailed types.

When you look in detail at what each type of job involves, you realise that the entry requirements can be diametrically different, even within a single sector. A low-level computing job in one organisation might require specific programming skills so that the student can start doing useful work on their first day; in contrast, applicants for a creative or managerial-track job in a major software house will often be selected in terms of general ability and aptitude, rather than specific skills.

A “one size fits all” approach to what employers want simply doesn’t work; one size doesn’t fit all. It also ignores the issue of employers being only one group of stakeholders in society. There’s more to life than employment – there are also issues such as interpersonal relationships, and life skills, and citizenship, which are outside the remit of employment but which are essential for a society to function properly.

When you look at the evidence being used in popular debate about education, you soon realise that there are plenty of cherry-picked statistics, but there’s a noticeable absence of systematic data collection relating to the central assumptions of each model (for instance, just what are the requirements of the “well rounded citizen” model?)

These questions can be answered; we’ve blogged extensively about methods that can be used to tackle them systematically and efficiently. However, the methods that have so far been used are typically either applied unsystematically, or applied crudely – for instance, simply asking employers what skills they want candidates to have, and then treating those replies as gospel, rather than doing a more thorough analysis of what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. Again, we’ve blogged in detail about ways of doing this, in our articles on finding client requirements. The overview in our “one hundred articles published” post contains links to those articles:

There’s also a significant absence in the diagrams above. I’ve omitted any discussion of adult education. That’s an important issue, both from a social point of view, and in terms of the internal logic of the “getting a job” and the “knowledge for doing a job” models. Anyone proposing either of those models for school education should also have a proposal for how adult education would fit into the educational system.

This article isn’t intended to provide answers to the questions above. However, it should clarify some of the issues involved in those questions, and should identify some better ways of finding answers.


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in Gordon’s latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

Related articles:




3 thoughts on “How long is an education good for?

  1. As an educator I see this as an important point. More importantly, is the way in which we teach our students within state schools (0>16yrs) as this influences how each new generation access learning beyond ‘school.’ The UK governments have mainly focused on ‘getting the job’ approach within state education as the data can be used to indicate the education system performance. We show be teaching and encouraging students to see learning as a life long process (well rounded citizen) not just as a indicator of getting a job or accessing college when they leave school. To highlight this point I often here students say ‘what’s the point of learning this, I will never use it again when I leave school.’

  2. Pingback: How complex should models of education be? | hyde and rugg

  3. Pingback: The Knowledge Modelling Book | hyde and rugg

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