How is philosophy of education useful to education?

Professor Nesta Devine, Auckland University of Technology

Philosophy of education is sometimes assumed to be a rather abstract discipline that is somehow removed from the ‘real’ practice of education – but this has not been my experience. I began my educational career as a practicing teacher, and in that capacity I used ideas from the philosophy of education for practical purposes long before I became a more formal student of philosophy of education. In this post, I want to share how the philosophy of education has inescapable relevance to the practices and problems of everyday teaching. Philosophy’s ideas and rigorous ways of thinking allow us to gain rich insights into our past and current educational practices and to envision better and better ways forward.

A quick overview of philosophy of education

Philosophy of education arguably started with Plato in Ancient Greece. His book The Republic is nothing if not an example of the philosophy of education, outlining how education can be used to develop a benign, educated, ethical, proficient ruling elite. However, as an acknowledged academic discipline, the philosophy of education is very recent, developing only in the late 20th century (mostly from the work of R.S Peters – e.g. here, here, and here – and Paul Hirst – see here and here).

The different facets of philosophy are mirrored in the philosophy of education: epistemology, ontology, ethics, logic, rhetoric, aesthetics. However, philosophy of education is not simply an off-shoot of philosophy. There is no subdivision of conventional philosophy which concerns itself with education per se. However, education is at the core of philosophy because the relationships and responsibilities of people to each other and to the non-human universe are essential to philosophy and also comprise the subject matter of philosophy of education.

Philosophy of education is always practice-oriented. Its focus is on the ways in which people and practices collide – the point of education in the ‘real world’. (It seems to me not accidental that our only University of Technology employs perhaps the largest team of philosophers of education in New Zealand.) This does not imply that practical orientations make philosophical questions easy or simple! Rather, the practice-focus shared by educational philosophers leads to an exploration of the wonderful complexity of the world.

Philosophy of education is not a discipline that appeals to those who think things are just fine as they are. If we are to make education something more than the replication of existing power relations (which is how Marx’s view is usually represented), we must have a purpose which incorporates a kind of utopian or ‘evangelical’ vision – NOT a vision of perpetual ‘improvement’ but a vision of perpetual challenge to existing assumptions, perhaps in the form of emancipation or supporting social justice and delegitimating unjust practices. The core business of philosophy of education is to interrogate the accepted way of doing things, particularly in the educational sphere. As Foucault (1990) puts it:

“In what does [philosophical activity] consist, if not in the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?”

Ways of ‘doing’ philosophy of education

There seem to be four main ways of ‘doing’ philosophy of education.

1.       Gleaning ‘crumbs of enlightenment’

The first approach is to read a given philosopher intently for the gems they might drop concerning the best way to educate children or students. The problem with this approach is that a number of very good thinkers are completely hopeless when it comes to practical education! Rousseau, for instance, handed his children into an orphanage rather than teach them himself. Marx neglected his wife and children to the point of death. To list all the philosophers who are perfectly useless about education would provoke strangled cries of outrage from readers. So let’s just leave that as a possibility: read Hegel, or Plato, or Levinas for their crumbs of wisdom concerning education.

2.       Reading for specifics

The second and perhaps more productive way of proceeding is to read the philosophers for their ideas on specific aspects that are relevant to education: Derrida on knowledge, Deleuze on ontology, Foucault on power. Then the philosopher of education has to do the work to make the connections between these ideas and the everyday practice of education.

3.       Considering the structure of research

The third, and perhaps even more important, approach is to look at the very structure of philosophers’ own research. Foucault makes this structure very obvious: as he writes, he patiently explains his practice of academic research as genealogy or archaeology. Likewise, Derrida explains deconstruction, and Spinoza exposes his use of logic in every paragraph. So the practicing philosopher of education can learn these methodological systems and then adopt them to consider whatever part of the education system or its context that they want to explore.

4.       Interrogating the practices of ‘business as usual’

The fourth way of practicing philosophy of education is to interrogate the practices of business-as-usual. We usually start, as Foucault advises us to, with a problem of the present. Seeing a problem in what is commonly taken for granted is not the easiest thing to do; this task in itself is worthy of a philosopher’s attention. Generally, in a context we are familiar with, we just don’t see the little contradictions, the inconsistencies, the fallacies, the false arguments. Hard data can be useful in exposing the gap between espoused purposes and actual results. But detecting the little fallacious steps in arguments – seeing through the sprinkling of ‘in order to’s and ‘therefores’ to ask if there really is any logical development in an argument or position – takes some doing.

A practical example

Let me illustrate this theme of questioning ‘business as usual’ with a little story. Education managers love technology; they think it makes the job of the teacher more efficient, or is more likely to engage the student. When I was about 5 or 6, the educational technology of choice was the strap. For some reason, this implement was imbued with the strange capacity to impart knowledge. I was strapped, as a 6-year-old, for not being able to tell the time, for not knowing my multiplication tables, and for being late to school. No one, to my knowledge, ever examined how the strap was going to teach me these things, or tested how effective it was. They did not test me to find out if I had learned from it, so overwhelming was the confidence in the power of this ‘teaching machine’. However, I can report on its level of achievement now, from a very long distance: I still can’t tell time reliably, I do not ‘know’ my 7 and 8 times tables, and I am often late.

The strap was not abandoned because of its inefficiency (although it should have been), but because a different notion of ethical behaviour with regard to children ruled it inadmissible. Many teachers gave it up with reluctance, and I am sure there are parents and possibly teachers who would like to see the return of this amazing teaching tool. This change in education practice illustrates the contribution of philosophy of education: Interrogating ‘business as usual’, examining the alignment of practices and philosophies (or ethics) and considering better ways forward.

It is easy to laugh about the technology of the past – ducking stools, chastity belts, the strap – but we seldom apply the same critical view to the technologies of the present. What are the contemporary ‘teaching machines’? The flexible learning environment comes immediately to mind, but there are others …

Looking ahead

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are particularly fortunate that we have influences that naturally cause us to re-think ‘business as usual’ education. The fundamentally different ethos of Māori and Pacific thinking call the education traditions of Aotearoa New Zealand into question in unique ways. Māori scholars like Georgina Stewart and Carl Mika and Pacific scholars like Jeanne Teisina, Lorraine Pau’uvale, and Jacoba Matapo address the weaknesses in our education system. Their philosophical eye is founded on their own philosophical traditions yet sharpened by their knowledge of the European canon.

I firmly believe that philosophy of education has its uses. Rigorous logical thinking and ‘other’ ways of thinking cause us to challenge established practices and values in education, and hence clear the way for newer developments. Practices that need challenging today include:

  • political imperatives, like policies founded on Human Capital Theory or Public Choice Theory;
  • practices that currently dominate classroom management;
  • approaches to curriculum design;
  • assessment regimes, which are often imbued with unstated discrimination relating to ethnicity, gender, and/or class;
  • and the unthinking mantras of fashions and fads in education.

Philosophers of education are never likely to lack for material.

Nesta.jpgNesta Devine taught History and English in Auckland high schools, then initial teacher education for secondary school teachers at the University of Waikato. She now teaches in the School of Education at Auckland University of Technology. Her research interests centre on educational philosophy and policy, particularly on political economy and cross cultural collaboration. Much of her work involves supervising her wonderful doctoral students and post-docs, who take her into diverse worlds. Nesta is an associate editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory, co-editor (with Dr Leon Benade) of the New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work and a member of the editorial board of the Bhutan Journal of Research and Development.



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