Reorienting the philosophy and practice of education using harmony and dissonance

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Discussing with a teacher friend the subject of my thesis, she asked a question that I hear often: “What does this have to do with education?” As a recent alumnus of teacher education, and a witness of just how little aspiring teachers are encouraged to engage with theory, I could sympathise with her view. Nevertheless, her question exposes a curious separation of the historically close discourses of education theory and education practice, and this is none more evident than in Scotland, where I am based. In Scotland, it is necessary to attend an accredited university course to allow for registration with the General Teaching Council – registration is mandatory for anyone wishing to teach in a primary or secondary school in Scotland and recommended for anyone who looks to teach in a post-16 Further Education college. Rather ironically, Higher Education (universities) present a different case entirely as, besides a PhD, there are no further requirements that a lecturer or tutor need to have had any formal training or experience in teaching. Graduate students who teach – especially those outside of Schools of Education - are very often flung in at the deep end. It is not possible to be a teacher in Scotland without a degree of practical training, but the converse of this situation is not necessarily true – it is possible to pass the PGDE with little or no explicit theoretical training. Philosophers and practitioners seemingly find themselves at either side of an ever-widening divide. This is far removed, temporally and philosophically, from Comenius’ theoretical-practical system as set out in the Great Didactic (1910), or the harmonious interplay of theory and practice as advocated by Herbart (1806). Winch suggests in his 2012 paper “For philosophy of education in teacher education” that cracks in the relationship between philosophy of education and education practice began appearing after RS Peters’ Ethics and Education (1966) provoked the reaction that one could teach with little or no theoretical understanding. Ethics and Education represents a seminal work in modern, British philosophy of education, and Peters tell us in his introduction that it was intended to be accessible to both teachers and philosophers. Already, as implicit in his intention to commune the two audiences of his work, he had observed a separation between them, and his words perhaps proved more incendiary than he had hoped. Yet, if Peters had already observed a separation enough to attempt to bring them together in one publication, the gap must have become obvious earlier than this. I suggest it was the implementation of the 1870 Forster Act which legislated for some of the accountability measures still in place today; notably school inspections which, by their nature, give primacy to the value of practice. Here, a gap was beginning to be established. A crescendo of professionalism started here and shows no signs of diminishing. Certainly, in Scotland teachers are expected to continue with professional development long after they have completed their teaching degree, and there is a push to make it a profession which requires a master’s degree. And with professionalism comes measurement and accountability (Maaschelein and Simons, 2012). Nowadays, a teacher is as likely to look to the empirical studies of psychology and neurology than to make the colossal leap to philosophy of education. Explicit calls are sometimes made for educators to “reject educational approaches that lack…methodologically sound empirical evidence” (Kirschner & Merrienboer, 2013). My suspicion is that this is because these are rooted in the measurable, whereas philosophy can only every be rooted in speculation. With such attitudes, the restoration of a harmonious balance seems distant. However, it is not impossible. The method of using dissonance to reach this balance seems like a paradox. Yet, in music the tension created by dissonant tones is a function of harmony; the composer uses it skilfully to jolt the listener from complacent passivity, returning them to consonance with a renewed perspective of the familiar. A fitting analogy for what, in my view, philosophy of education can offer to reunite practitioners with theory (and vice versa). Just as the composer creates a sound unpleasant to the ear, so too must philosophers not shy away from creating discomfort. This could be achieved by forcing a confrontation with those aggregate characteristics we assign to the overall concept of (formal) education which largely go unchallenged; for example, why curricula prioritise some subjects over others, why we subject young people to numerous assessments, or what, beyond a recognised certification, makes a teacher? I suggest that the beginnings of a disruptive discourse are deliberately unsettling and provocative in order to inspire passively complacent practitioners, or even philosophers who have grown stagnant, into further critical engagement; either to investigate further or to construct an articulate rebuttal. Outright, but justified, disagreement still demands thoughtful reflection on what is being proposed. It is a question of call and response: difficult dissonant discussions could be the philosophers’ call across the divide, and any response a step towards a perfect cadence of the harmonious reunion of philosophy of education and education practice.
Period18 Aug 2021
Event titleThe Role of Philosophy of Education in Teacher Training and Teaching Practice: International Conference on Teacher Quality
Event typeConference
LocationManila, PhilippinesShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational