This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.
Part Two – How ‘what works’ obscures questions of values and the need for judgement.
Biesta would like us to consider the role of theory throughout the process of planning and carrying out research. He argues that, rather than take a confessional approach in adopting a stance or taking sides in a quantitative or qualitative culture war we should take a pragmatic (indeed Pragmatic) look at the purposes of any theory or approach we intend to use. Instead of seeing theory as representing truth we should see it as a tool, with uses and origins that we should also be aware of and investigate.
Crucially this means understanding the ‘question’ that the theory was an answer to, and much earlier use of theory in the process of conceptualising the phenomena under investigation. It also means moving beyond the objective and relative dichotomy and resisting the colonisation of professional action by a scientific world view. Biesta forcefully argues that in seeking to understand, and emancipate as well as explain, we can also make a claim to be thinking and acting rationally. In open systems our understanding of, and the evidence we have gathered about what has happened in, the past is a valuable source of information in helping us understand our current position, and to formulate plans and react to the implications of our acts in the present.
For the profession the pragmatic approach means recognising that a focus on ‘what works’ means little whilst we leave unexamined the aims of education. It means that we need to be much more thorough in our consideration of the purposes of education than a focus on they body of knowledge that is to be transferred will allow. It means also being aware of the ethical and social costs of the mechanisms that we use to make education more systematic. In highlighting three overarching purposes of education, credentialisation, socialisation and subjectification Biesta opens up a rich and exciting arena in which we can explore what schools are for, and enables us to address the question of what we lose when some purposes are squeezed at the expense of others or, using the striking metaphor of pasteurisation, when we try too hard to make schools work like closed loop laboratories.
What emerges from this consideration is the importance of the relationship between democracy and education. This awareness arises out of the observation that education is an activity constituted by its purposes, because children learn about society, their place within it, how knowledge is generated and how it should be applied, from the way we teach as much as what we teach.
This allows us a much more nuanced and much richer role for education as part of the life of the community than is allowed in a Hirsch-ian model of education as acquisition of enough knowledge to take part in democratic discourse later in life. It also enables us to show how implied purposes are concealed in discourse about effective pedagogy, where ‘outcomes’ are treated as neutral and given rather than embodying underlying purposes of education.