The battle for education

Education is underpinned by several philosophies, some of which are incompatible. As a result, there are many educational approaches, a myriad of theories and a bewildering number of perspectives. My students are currently grappling with this problem, as they seek to answer the essay question: 'who should define the curriculum?' To answer such a seemingly simply but deceptively complex question, they need to spend time exploring a number of philosophical positions, and two in particular. Here's my personal interpretation:

Socrates was an idealist, believing that reality is subjective, and that it is represented differently in each human mind. In the idealist perspective, reality is personally constructed by the individual, learning is also believed to be constructed, and all meaning is therefore negotiable. In Socratic discourse, no destination can be arrived at, nor can a definitive answer be found to any question, but other questions are generated and discussed. Social constructivist theory clearly derived from this set of tenets.

Alternatively, Aristotle, an acolyte of Socrates' student Plato, subscribed to the realist perspective, believing that reality is objective. From these ancient roots grew two separate and opposing philosophies on how education should be conducted. Aristolean realist theory became the basis for behaviourist beliefs that content was central to education, under the control of experts. Adherents of behaviourism also argued that observable and measurable behaviour was central to understanding learning, giving rise to standardised testing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Socratic idealist philosophy heavily influenced constructivist and humanist approaches to education, which privileged the learner at the centre of the process, and emphasised the importance of the student making meaning. Progressive educators see teachers as co-learners who work alongside their students, rather than experts who control content. A battle of words and ideals is raging about which is the most effective, and indeed, the most appropriate approach to adopt for the needs of today's society.

The chart above (my design), comes courtesy of Wingra School in Madison, Wisconsin is derived from the work of a number of educational theorists. It highlights several key counter views between the two positions, and is quite revealing. It shows where the battle lines have been drawn. Have a look at the list and see which one you subscribe to the most - are you a progressive or a traditionalist?

Photo by Stuart Pilbrow on Flickr

NB: I acknowledge that this is a binary, and that these positions represent extreme ends of a very wide spectrum of teacher beliefs, but hopefully it will provoke some useful dialogue.

Creative Commons License
The battle for education by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


PaulK said…
Re: the table - shouldn't 'Traditional education' is a preparation for work?
HI Steve,

It's a bit hard to classify one as traditionalist when you've tied both to Ancient Greeks. :)

Perhaps instead of the simplistic narrative of "new thing replaces old thing via rebellion" which is implied here, we should just look at these as two modes in a palette of options available to all educators. Each can be best in a certain context, depending on the thing to be learned and by whom. I do spend most of the my time in the second column, but there are occasions when nothing can beat your first column.

Steve Wheeler said…
Some people might argue that Paul. Some would say that traditional approaches derive from preparing children to work in an industrial society, instead of enabling them to develop skills and literacies that allow them to participate in a knowledge economy. I couldn't possibly comment... ;)
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comment Martin. I can appreciate your difficulty with this, and generally I also dislike binaries. Life is far more complex than a simply dichotomy. There is indeed a 'palette of options' open to all educators, and I instill this value within my own teaching students. However, in reality, when teachers become enculturated into their schools, they often take on the prevailing ethos of their leadership, and this is still predominantly a traditional one.

I took a punt with this one and decided to show the table that was created by colleagues to illustrate that the differences can be quite marked, and although this chart does not accurately depict reality, it never the less raises awareness of the two opposing perspectives, and contextualises them. I also attempted to show that there are roots/origins for these beliefs, some of which go right back to Socrates and Aristotle. Thanks mate.
Anonymous said…
I noticed that the table came from the National Association for Independent Schools, and although Wingra School has a commendable tuition fee support system, I think these progressive ideas lack a political context. It seems to me that the pressing issues in the UK (and quite possibly in the US where this table comes from) are the threats to compulsory public education posed by an ideology that disempowers and devalues teachers, uses constructed 'failure' as a tool for domination and displays a naive belief in the power of the 'market' to resolve problems.
I wonder where the battle lines are drawn in school education at this time. This article suggests that rather than closing the gaps between rich and poor students, free school and academy programmes do the opposite And meanwhile further education, that can often provide valuable second chances suffers further cuts.
Steve Wheeler said…
I think there are many battle lines Frances. Some are played out within the classroom, within various roles and actions, (see my follow up post), while others exist within the curriculum and assessment, and at a macro-level, they are played out on an ideological basis, between those political parties that seek control. There's your political context - and I suspect that in our own country, more liberal, humanistic approaches to education might be more overtly encouraged by a socialist government, whilst the current coalition would like to perpetuate traditional values in schools. Just my take :)
Keith Brennan said…
Hi Steve,

thanks as always for the thought provoking post.

I;d disagree with a lot of the characterisations of the table you reproduce. I'm guessing the table reflects aspects of the ongoing debate, and the narratives and coneptualisations of some of it;s participants, rather than your own take, whuch, from reading you, is probably a lot more nuanced.

The labelling of progressive versus traditionaist, for example, is problematic. The terms, and bases are loaded here. Progressives are relying on literature that's, what, nearing 70 in some cases. Early Piaget, Bruner, and some Papert is clocking the fifties. Whereas the traditionalists, in some cases, are relying on failry up t date evidence.

Traditionalists don;lt expect, suusally, passivity. Project and problem based learning are possible here, supported by forms of duirect insyruction. The idea that traditionaists want their students to sit absorbing knolwedge is, frankly, profoundly flawed. Direct Instriction, for example, explicitly focuses on both factual knolwedge and skills practice. And some Constructivist schools explicitly focus on varyng, sometimes quite stromng degrees of scaffolding, which focus on an expert teacher provioding guidance, feedback, or even direct instruction.

My feeling is the table, rather than illustrating the fault lines in the debate, illustrates a weakness in concpetualisisng and describing the debate. Itls simplkistic, limited, and, in parts, necessarily or unecessaitly incorrect. Necessarily because the breadth of the movements described escapes such a simplistic binary. Unecessarily becasue some claims are factually incorrect.

As I said, I don't suggest your conceptualisation is binary, or simplistic.

Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments here Kevin. I thought it was an interesting table to include to kick off some debate, and it has certainly achieved that aim. It's the combined work of several people, and as such is bound to be flawed, because there will be some inherent inconsistencies. Never the less, there are some interesting characterisations, and as I already mentioned in my blog post, quite a few of them resonate with my own experience.
Keith Brennan said…
Hi Steve.

It's a debate kindler.

I think I need to brush up on the relevant literature and post a reply to it...

Keith (not Kevin)
Frances Bell said…
I think that all of those take place within a political context. My point was that Wingra school is in a different context from public education which bears the major responsibility for educating 'today's society' unless we are talking about the elite, of course.
Sarah Collins said…
I really don't know how you got from realism to behaviouism. They are not linked in any way. Realism acknowledges that even though a reality may exist our ability to interpret that reality is dependent on the lense through which we look at it. Even the site you linked to states this 'Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality and that every new observation brings us closer to understanding reality'

Realism and Social constructivism are not incompatible and neither has any bearing on Skinners behaviouism. Skinner mearly looked at behaviour through the lense or opinion the external triggers motivate behaviour and it was this that formed the basis of traditional education.

Look at behaviour through the lense or opinion of internal motivation and you have the basis of progessive education.

You can be a soial constitivst and adhere to traditional education or as in my case be a realist and adhere to progrssive education. The diiference is merely the opinion or lense through which you look at the world and to get people to shift from traditional education you must shift their opinion or lense from the 'traditional' view point to the progressive view point.

What education 'model' you subsribe to is more a matter of mindset than ontology and making out that it is creates only more division In an already hotly contested debate.
Steve Wheeler said…
I admire your fervour Sarah, but I think we have to agree to differ. Just because you can't see any connections between realism and behaviourism doesn't mean they don't exist. There are connections everywhere for those who are open minded enough to look for them. I suspect you are looking through a different lens to mine, and that is as it should be, but regardless, any hotly contested debate is going to remain so, and surely more division between the camps is only going to make the debate even hotter. Long may it continue.
Diana Corsini said…
Maybe, as Keith Brennan noted, the Tradional Education list is a bit caricaturized and over-simplified, as if seen from the non-traditionalist prerspective (self-assumed as the right one). So there's a moral and intellectual judment made before one starts reading...
Diana (from Italy)

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