Yesterday was a bright, balmy autumn day. I spent it at Thinking about teaching: a philosophy conference for teachers at the University of Birmingham. Around 50 attendees, and the content Tweeted on #EdPhilBrum. And I met in person no fewer than five people I’ve previously met only on Twitter @PATSTONE55, @ded6ajd, @sputniksteve, @DSGhataura and @Rosalindphys. In this post, a (very) brief summary of the presentations (missed the last one by Joris Vleighe) and my personal impressions.
Geert Biesta: Teachers, teaching and the beautiful risk of education
The language we use to describe education is important. English doesn’t have words to accurately denote what Biesta considers to be key purposes of education, but German does:
- Ausbildung (‘qualification’) – cultivation, knowledge & skills
- Bildung (‘socialisation’) – developing identity in relation to tradition
- Erziehung (‘subjectivisation’) – grown-up engagement with the world.
These facets are distinct but overlap; focussing on purposes individually can result in:
- obsession with qualifications
- strong socialisation – conformity
- freedom as license.
Education has an interruptive quality that allows the integration of its purposes. The risk of teaching is that the purposes might not be achieved because the student is an active subject, not a ‘pure object’.
Judith Suissa : ‘Seeing like a state?’ Anarchism, philosophy of education and the political imagination
Anarchist tools allow us to question fundamental assumptions about the State, often not questioned by those who do question particular State policies. State education per se is rarely questioned, for example.
Anarchism is often accused of utopianism, but utopianism has different meanings and can serve to ‘relativise the present’.
Andrew Davis: The very idea of an ‘evidence based’ teaching method. Educational research and the practitioner
One model of ‘evidence based’ teaching is summarised as ‘it works’. But what is the ‘it’? Even a simple approach like ‘sitting in rows’ can involve many variables. ‘It works’ bypasses the need for professional judgement and overlooks distinction between instrumental and relational understanding (Skemp). Children should have relational cognitive maps; new knowledge needs a place.
Regulative rules apply to activities whose existence is independent of the rules e.g. driving on the left-hand side of the road.
Constituitive rules are rules on which the activity depends for its existence e.g the rules of chess. Many educational functions involved constitutive rules and collective intentions.
Joe Wolff: Fake news and twisted values: political philosophy in the age of social media
Fake news and twisted values can emerge for different reasons.
- innocent mistakes: out of context citations, misattributed authorship, different criteria in use e.g. life expectancy
- propaganda: Trojan Horse speeches, manipulation of information
- peer reviewed literature: errors, replication crisis Difficulties with access and readability
writing for philosophers
Philosophy isn’t my field, but lately I’ve been dabbling in it increasingly often. The main obstacle to accessibility hasn’t been the concepts, but the terminology. I’ve ploughed through a dense argument stopping sometimes several times a sentence to find out what the words refer to, only to discover eventually I’ve been reading about a familiar concept called something else in another domain, but explained in ways that address philosophers’ queries and objections. I now call these texts writing for philosophers. An example is Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. Struggled with the words only to realise I’d already read Antonio Damasio explaining similar ideas but writing for biologists.
Like @PATSTONE55 I was expecting this conference to consist of presentations for philosophers and that I’d struggle to keep up. But it wasn’t and we didn’t. Instead there were very accessible presentations for teachers. And themes that, as Pat also found, were very familiar, or at least had been familiar some decades ago. It felt like a rather glitchy time warp flipping between the 1970s and the present. In the present context, the themes felt distinctly subversive. Three key themes emerged for me.
context is everything
Everything is related; education is a multi-purpose process, underpinned by political assumptions, it’s relational, and evaluating evidence isn’t straightforward. The disjointed educational policy ‘ideas’ that have dominated the education landscape for several decades are usually a failure waiting to happen. They waste huge amounts of time and money, have contributed to teacher shortages and have caused needless problems for students. In systems theory they’d be catchily termed sub-systems optimisation at the expense of systems optimization, often shortened to suboptimization. Urie Bronfenbrenner wasn’t mentioned yesterday, but he addressed the issue of the social ecology in the 70s in his ecological systems theory of child development.
implicit assumptions are difficult to detect
It’s easy to focus on one purpose of education and ignore others, easy to assume the status quo can’t be questioned, easy to what’s there and difficult to spot what’s missing, and all too easy to forget what things look like from a child’s perspective.
We all make implicit assumptions, but because they are implicit and assumptions, it’s fiendishly difficult for us to make our own assumptions explicit. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is enough, sometimes a colleague from another discipline can help, but sometimes we need a radical, unorthodox perspective like anarchism.
space and time are essential for reflection
Most people can learn facts (I use the term loosely) pretty quickly, but putting the facts in context might require developing or changing a schema and you can’t do that while you’re busy learning other facts. It’s no accident that thinkers from Aristotle to Darwin did their best thinking whilst walking. Neurons need downtime to make and strengthen connections. There’s a limit to how much time children (or adults) can spend actively ‘learning’. Too much time can be counterproductive.
Yesterday’s conference offered a superb space for reflection. Thought-provoking and challenging ideas, motivated and open-minded participants, an excellent venue and some of the best conference food ever – the gluten-free/vegetarian/vegan platters were amazing. Thanks to the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain for organising it. Couldn’t have been more timely.