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Back to teacher development’s big questions: what is education for?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 August 2017

John White. 
The idea of a National Education Service (NES) is gaining speed. It’s described as “a scheme to join up the disparate elements of education, providing free lifelong learning from nurseries through schools to universities and adult education”. This blog is about a small but important part of what it might be.
As well as mastering the details of their craft, teachers have always needed some understanding of what it is and what its aims are. Trainee bricklayers need plenty of experience of specifics, too, but the purposes of laying bricks are reasonably obvious to all. Teaching is different.
From 1839 to about 1989 teacher training in England provided this wider picture. The religious vision that dominated the first half of this period gave way to a scientific one based on psychology and spelt out in Percy Nunn’s Education (1920), a best seller for 40 years.[1] Both visions were mainly inspirational in character – unlike Richard Peters’s remodelled philosophy of education of the 1960s. This was intended to give teachers critical tools to assess ideas on education and its values so as to work out their own autonomous positions.
Across the country, the new approach was less effective at pre-service level, where students finding their feet had other priorities than the ‘big questions’. It worked better in what is now called CPD with experienced teachers who were drawn to thinking philosophically about education. It also had a significant impact on national policy-making.
In the late 1980s this juddered to a near halt as serving teachers had for the first time to pay for advanced courses, and as the coming of the National Curriculum meant that schools no longer had carte blanche over their aims and curricula, so there was less incentive for teachers to think through what they were doing from fundamentals.
For the last 30 years philosophy of education has done its best not only to survive but to flourish. As one piece of the jigsaw that makes up a National Education Service, it could take the lead again in a national project of engaging teachers and policy-makers in critical reflection on the larger questions. It’s true you don’t need philosophy to be an outstanding parent, teacher or policy-maker. On the other hand, some in these fields are puzzled by what are basically philosophical questions. What is education for? Is its main task to help students to lead happy lives, or to equip them to make others’ lives better? Who are these others? How far should we encourage learners to think of themselves as world citizens rather than citizens of a particular country? What is it, in any case, to lead a happy life? Is happiness always worth pursuing? Is it ever worth pursuing? Whatever the good life, is it something bounded by the world we know through our senses, or is there a spiritual dimension beyond this?
These are only a few of the questions that may be unsettling them. They may wonder how far their job is to open up as many options for students as possible or how far, instead, they should be developing passions they have already. They may be concerned about whether there is too much emphasis in schools on theoretical knowledge and too little on practical. They may have doubts, without being able to pinpoint them, about talk about multiple intelligences or ‘powerful knowledge’ or ‘helping pupils to reach their potential’. They may wish they knew more about what the imagination is, or the human mind in general….
Teachers of philosophy of education know from experience that for people like this the painstaking sorting out of issues that the discipline engages in can often help them to see the job they are doing in clearer perspective and take on more demanding responsibilities – as well as being personally life-changing.
A new NES should create the conditions in which CPD work of this kind (as well as in other fields) can flourish. Building on a lighter-touch National Curriculum with far more room for schools to decide what they teach, this means no-cost courses throughout a teacher’s working life, plus sabbaticals and generous time-provision for part-time study.
[1] Berner, A. (2008) ‘Metaphysics in Educational Theory: educational philosophy and teacher training in England (1839-1944)’ University of Oxford D Phil thesis

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5 Responses to “Back to teacher development’s big questions: what is education for?”

  • 1
    Elizabeth Tindle wrote on 4 August 2017:

    In my opinion UK does a fine job of promulgating the training of teachers in Higher Education throughout the world via the ACademy of Higher Education Authority. Here in Australia University staff are following their lead. In my University we have QALT Queensland Academy of Learning and Teaching which is guided by the British model.

  • 2
    educationstate wrote on 5 August 2017:

    There is an even bigger question: whether what education is for should be decided by educators and/or someone else?
    Seems a little academic to wonder about aims if educators and/or others aren’t permitted to put their answers into practice.

  • 3
    John White wrote on 5 August 2017:

    Agreed, it’s also a big question. Educators have no more right than any other citizen of a democracy to decide where education should be heading. This is an argument for political control of the overall direction. But it is NOT an argument for ministerial control as now. We’ve all seen where that has led us since 1988. As my IOE colleague Michael Reiss and I have argued in An Aims-based Curriculum https://www.ucl-ioe-press.com/books/education-policy/an-aims-based-curriculum/ , we need some kind of independent Education Commission at arms-length from the government, tasked with designing aims suitable for a liberal democracy.
    Within this structure of overall aims, teachers should have the power to decide what ways of implementing the aims are best in the circumstances of their schools. Here they have an expertise (which they lack over the overall direction). This means among other things that they should have a good understanding of what the overall aims are – hence the need for more philosophical thinking to be injected into the system.
    On your second point, about all this being too academic: even as things are now, where teachers have too little power, I think a greater injection of philosophy would give critical tools to many in the profession who would like to challenge the status quo.

  • 4
    EdPhilosophy wrote on 6 August 2017:

    I agree, I think, about an independent commission, but I’d like to ask what you think constitutes expertise regarding the overall direction, which you say teachers lack. What kind of expertise is necessary? Perhaps I need to read the book!. Presumably they also lack political legitimacy (as you say, they have no more right to make such decisions than anyone else) but that’s a separate point.
    Couldn’t agree more about more philosophy providing critical tools for teachers. I have felt this very strongly during my time as a teacher. Teachers are exposed to so much dogma on so many issues, and school structures don’t always encourage questioning. I went from an academic science environment to teaching and experienced huge culture shock.
    That’s why this is happening: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/thinking-about-teaching-a-philosophy-conference-for-teachers-tickets-34565626720

  • 5
    John White wrote on 6 August 2017:

    Enjoy the Conference! It’s such a good idea, as you say. But there is now so very little of this kind of thing. It would be good to see something rolled out on a national scale – and free…
    Re expertise. I’ve said teachers have no expertise on the big issues. But this does not imply that there is expertise, somewhere, to be had. Plato in the Republic wrote about a class of moral experts, his Guardians, fitted by their expertise in ethical and political matters to run the state. But could there be such persons? Is the best form of government benevolent despotism by those who know the way ahead? But can one have knowledge of what is right or good? Or is this, as Hume thought, ultimately a matter of shared emotions?
    I’m inclined to the latter view. I would see the independent commission we both favour as committed to values taken as read in a liberal democracy – eg that everyone’s well-being is equally important, that people should be free to live as they best see fit as long as others are not harmed, etc. These are not things one can prove or even know to be true, but they and other such values are what we need to generate broad aims for school education.
    – As Michael Reiss and I elaborate in our book. Yes, do look at it, eg at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280840026_An_Aims-based_Curriculum_The_Significance_of_Human_Flourishing_for_Schools