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IOE at 120: how philosophy of education addressed ideas and values at the heart of the debate – 1962-1972

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 July 2022

A 'child-centred' primary classroom from the 1960s

Progressive educational ideas and practice were highly influential : ‘child-centred’ primary classroom in the 1960s

This blog is the seventh in a series of 12 exploring each decade in IOE’s history in the context of the education and society of the times. Find out more about our 120th anniversary celebrations on our website, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn to keep up with everything that’s happening. 

Judith Suissa.

John Dewey argued that philosophy could be understood as “the general theory of education”, and philosophy has always played a central role in teaching and research at IOE. Indeed, IOE is regarded as one of the leading centres for Philosophy of Education in the world.

The decade from 1962-1971 is often regarded as the heyday of British philosophy of education, when what came to be known as ‘the London school’ was crystalised at IOE. This was a period when teacher training courses included lectures and seminars in the ‘foundation disciplines’ ofeducation: psychology, sociology, history and philosophy. Louis Arnaud Reid became the first Professor of the Philosophy of Education at the University of London, Institute of Education (as it was then known) in 1947.

The period was a tumultuous and expansive time in the wider world of education and teacher training, with the raising of the leaving age to 16, comprehensivisation of secondary schools and, to meet these new needs, the introduction of the B.Ed. and other degree courses. The status of teacher training grew, and IOE’s work was overhauled considerably, with much expanded roles for advanced studies and research. IOE’s Director, Lionel Elvin, was a member of the Robbins Committee, whose 1963 report led to the doubling of higher education places over 10 years.

The 1960s were a time of student protest and radical thinking in universities, so it is not surprising that philosophers of education at IOE were concerned with the wider social and political contexts of education.

Richard Peters succeeded Reid as Professor in 1962 and set out to establish analytical philosophy of education as an academic discipline akin to other sub-branches of philosophy such as philosophy of science or philosophy of religion. He was influenced by the contemporary philosophical movement associated with philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle, who held that many apparently philosophical problems are actually rooted in linguistic misunderstandings. They focused on how ordinary speakers of a language use ideas and concepts.

The group of philosophers working at IOE with Peters produced a body of work on educational concepts such as learning, teaching, knowledge, indoctrination and creativity, as well as on concepts associated with the broader social and political context of education, such as punishment, socialisation, and democracy. Many of these works, like Peters’s Ethics and Education, became classics in the field.

But this work did not reflect a preoccupation with abstract philosophical concepts. Philosophers of education in this period were addressing ideas and values that were at the heart of contemporary debates in educational policy and practice. For example, progressive or ‘child-centred’ educational ideas and practice were highly influential, especially in primary education. The 1967 review of primary education in England, known as The Plowden Report, had endorsed many of these ideas, advocating greater curricular freedom for teachers and pupils, emphasising the value of play in children’s learning, and rejecting traditional forms of discipline and punishment in schools.

Philosophical work from this era, such as Peters’s Perspectives on Plowden (1969), his 1967 book The Role of the Head, and R.F. Dearden’s The Philosophy of Primary Education (1968) offered critical philosophical reflection on arguments about the aims of education, the curriculum, and school governance that were being put forward by policy makers and practitioners. In such writings, work in moral philosophy, epistemology and political philosophy was brought to bear on practical educational questions. For example, Paul Hirst (co-founder of the London School with Peters) later developed an influential thesis about the distinct “forms of knowledge” that should underpin curriculum planning. He also questioned the role of religious education in state schools and the value of the collective act of worship in his 1965 paper on the nature of religious knowledge, moral knowledge, and belief.

The Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB) was founded by Richard Peters and Paul Hirst in 1965. The PESGB held an annual conference, published a journal – The Proceedings of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (now The Journal of Philosophy of Education) and held weekly meetings at IOE, which are still a regular feature of IOE’s Centre for Philosophy of Education, providing a forum for philosophical discussion on a range of educational issues.

The relationship between philosophy and teacher education has undergone profound changes in the decades since 1971, both as a result of internal developments within the discipline and as part of the broader political changes to the landscape of higher education and teacher training. However, while the analytic project has come under criticism over the years, the central philosophical questions, as articulated by Peters – “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” – surely play a role in all of our work as teachers and researchers.

The abiding relevance of philosophical work in moral and political philosophy, epistemology and philosophy of language to central questions of educational policy and practice is evident in the numbers of students who continue to pursue academic studies in philosophy of education. With a flourishing MA programme, dozens of PhD students, and a lively research community, IOE continues to be an important centre for work in Philosophy of Education.

Photograph: UCL Institute of Education Archives, PL/10/1/35. Image licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. If you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found material on this page for which you have not given permission, please contact us at ioeblog@ucl.ac.uk



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