Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A very old bun fight. Education philosophy and current debates in New Zealand education.

If you have been following education news in New Zealand lately, then you know that debate is in the air. Perhaps you have seen the PPTA’s article called Curriculum wars: coming to Aotearoa? Or maybe you have read Elizabeth Rata's article The basic flaw in our education system. You may also have read the report from (newcomer?) Briar Lipson and the work she was involved in with the New Zealand Initiative Think Tank.

You may even have been part of the discussions on Twitter. However, before the debates get too heated, I wanted to take a moment to point out the redundancy of this supposed 'curriculum war'. You might be saying whoah! Redundancy? That’s a bold claim! Well actually...

Any ideas when the quote above was written? Or who wrote it? It seems to capture the current debates about knowledge vs skills vs competencies vs other-edu-jargon quite well don’t you think? The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) might suggest that students should learn things that will be useful in life, things that will give them jobs so that students are able to contribute to a stable economy. The United Nations might argue that a focus on virtue and character of the soul is critical if we are to maintain world peace in the face of climate change, radical inequality and the ever-increasing impact of automation. I would hazard a guess that Elizabeth Rata would be more interested in developing intellect than virtue. I suspect that Jane Gilbert possibly would have a different argument altogether. Where do you think Francis Valentine might fall? Or what about Michael Absolum and John Hattie? What about Aristotle? After all, he is the author of this quote. The very same Aristotle from 384 BC. It seems the progressives vs traditionalist bun fight stretches back a very, very long time.

With so many opinions in the air, it is easy for debates to become polarising (especially when they are made out to be 'wars'). The cognitive dissonance sets in and before you know it, nobody is learning anything because we are too busy defending our position. And at the end of the day, the heart of the matter remains unaddressed - the fact that we cannot seem to agree what should be learnt at school.

To understand why we are plagued with this never-ending debate, one needs to understand the three philosophical purposes of education, socialisation, qualification and subjectification. (See a more detailed infographic here, or my post, Education's great wicked problem for more in-depth explanations about these).

While most of us can find some agreement with each of the three purposes of education, philosophically these ideas are “fundamentally irresolvable” (Biesta, 2009; Egan, 2001). This means that our entire education system is built on conflicting ideas that are constantly in the midst of a tug of war. This means that debates about the success of the education system are incapable of reaching a consensus, as different parties inevitably prioritise different purposes of education (Kieran Egan does a marvellous job of explaining these ideological conflicts).

Despite these conflicting ideas underpinning most, if not all debates about educational success, they are rarely acknowledged, and so the bun fight has continued for literally centuries. You will possibly recognise these debates in your context too, play (socialisation) vs literacy and numeracy (qualification, or exams (qualification) vs inquiry-based learning (subjectification), etc.

So if the debate about what we should be teaching our students is old and philosophically unresolvable, then what is the point of debating this at all?!

I don't have a whole lot of answers to offer you. Instead, I will conclude with a few questions that I would like to see debated...
  • How useful is it to publish articles titled curriculum wars in these debates about the future of our schools? Does calling it a war (rather than a debate or discussion) polarise, and thereby fuel the bun fight?
  • What does helpful debate and discussion look like (as compared to unhelpful, polarising debate)?
  • How can one school or one teacher serve our super diverse communities when each of us cuts the socialisation/subjectification/qualification pie so differently?
  • Should socialisation, subjectification and qualification all be the responsibility of school? And if yes/no, what should we do about it?
  • How different might our debates in education be if we were all more explicit about which purpose we align ourselves with?
  • If we developed an alternate purpose for education, what would it be?
  • What if the 'educational experience' was completely redesigned, from the bottom up? What if we changed the time, the place, the content, the funding, the ratios, the jobs, everything? And where would one even begin?
  • Would our schools and classrooms be any different if all teachers and school leaders had a richer understanding of philosophy? 

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