In part four, Professor Biesta and the chicken, I argued that the distinction between aims and purposes that had been made by Gert Biesta and John Dewey was without foundation. In this fifth part of my series on the purpose of education, I explain why the argument over aims and purposes is connected with the view that education is an intrinsic good, why this is the same as saying that education has no purpose at all, and why this view is mistaken.
In part four of my series on educational purpose, I consider Professor Biesta’s distinction between aims and purposes by asking myself why the chicken crossed the road.
In part one of this series, I considered why the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation into the purpose of education has the potential to address some really important problems in our current education theory. I also recounted the question that I put to Professor Biesta and Daisy Christodoulou at the opening panel Q&A. In parts two and three, I explained why I think that the theoretical grounds on which much current education theory is based is fundamentally flawed. Which allows me to return in this part to consider Professor Biesta’s reply to my original challenge.
Part three of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, discusses Thomas Kuhn and the relativism espoused by many modern educationalists
Parts two and three of my series are looking into why educationalists commonly use “logical positivism” as a “generalized term of abuse”, thereby justifying their widespread hostility to “evidence based practice” and demonstrating a sort of fuzzy relativism based on untestable, private intuition. After discussing what is often seen as the coup de grace for positivism, the work of Thomas Kuhn, I return to the central issue, which is the measurability of our educational objectives, with reference to the question I put at the end of part one to Professor Gert Biesta.
Part two of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, examines logical positivism
Before I address Professor Biesta’s reply to the question I posed at the end of part one, I am going to spend two instalments discussing logical positivism. Even though this requires a bit of a philosophical dive, I think it is justified because without understanding the fundamental argument about logical positivism, the more concrete disagreements about educational purpose will be difficult to untangle. The elephant represents the fact that all the other, non-elephantine occupants of the room are divided between two almost completely incompatible ways of thinking about truth and logic—they follow incommensurable paradigms, in the approved, post-modernist jargon—and without understanding that important fact, it will not be possible to understand why so many people seem to be talking past each other, almost as if speaking different languages.
The Commons Education Select Committee held an interesting conference last Tuesday as part of its investigation into the purpose of education. I believe that the issues that were raised are vitally important for the future of education. The popular consensus among teachers and educationalists is that the purpose of education is either a platitude or a mystery but that, either way, it is not something that teachers should worry about too much. I believe that this assumption is profoundly damaging to our attempts to improve education—but that it is based on a consensus so deeply engrained that addressing the problem is no simple matter. As is the way with all conferences, people have their say, drink their coffee, head for the door, and leave a pile of unsorted opinions and unresolved disagreements all over the carpet. Sorting through this detritus will take some time but, as I have been criticised for writing at excessive length in the past, I will split my reflections into about ten reasonably manageable instalments, aiming to publish two or three a week. This is the first.
Why progress on edtech is dependent on a better understanding of educational purpose
If my last post was a light-hearted love story, this one is more of an attempt to write a Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But I hope that the reader will be compensated by finding the argument to be original. I make the case that the recommendations of the recent Commission on Assessment without Levels are fundamentally mistaken.
It is a response I submitted to the current House of Commons Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education. When announced, this enquiry was dismissed by Andrew Old as a waste of time: the purpose of education, said Andrew, was simply to make people cleverer. While I know where Andrew is coming from (who needs another waffle-fest with a lot of high-faluting rhetoric?) and agree with Andrew most of the time, I disagree with him that this is a pointless enquiry, if the question is understood in the way that I will suggest.
As my previous posts have argued (especially How technology will revolutionize education), technology is not about generic kit, but about the systematic means by which we pursue our ends. If no-one can be sure what our ends (or purposes) are, then any technological approach to education is doomed to fail. If we are not taking a technological approach to the business of teaching itself, then what hope is there in applying digital technology to education productively? Judging by the success we have had so far, the answer has to be “not a lot”.
My contention in this piece is therefore that the development of systematic pedagogy will never be achieved until (a) we know how to describe our educational objectives more clearly and consistently, and (b) until we understand the role of digital technology, both in supporting the description of educational objectives and in implementing the pedagogies required to attain those objectives.
This article first appeared in Terry Freedman’s Digital Education (formerly Computers in Classrooms). In it I analyse the Secretary of State’s excellent speech on edtech at BETT 2016, comparing the views she expressed with those of the ETAG report, and analysing what this might mean for the relationship between government Ministers and edtech. And I observe, along the way, that the course of true love never did run smooth.