So what should be the aims of education? I'll consider this more fully in a future post, but for now I want to think about how we might start to develop a discussion about the embeddedness of education in wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental issues. When I work with the master students one of the first things I ask them to consider are some of the issues which are currently emerging as major processes of which society needs to take account (I discuss the factors I've highlighted in the image to the right in more detail in a short video). The issues raised are not necessarily new, but they have developed a greater degree of urgency in the past decade or so, some even in the past few years. The questions I ask the students to consider are shown in the image, and centre on whether these issues are the concern of education.
Part of the discussion tends to gravitate towards how such issues should be included in education - if it is accepted that they are important and worthy of discussion. The development of knowledge is a key aspect of any good education, but we need to think about which knowledge and how that knowledge is put to work. E D Hirsch, who offers the philosophical backbone of many of those advocating a return to a 'knowledge' curriculum makes the case for why knowledge is so important.
'To be truly literate, citizens must be able to grasp the meaning of any piece of writing addressed to the general reader. All citizens should be able, for instance, to read newspapers of substance..'
E D Hirsch (1987: 12)
I can't see that anyone would find this statement controversial. But, surely there is a very strong case that as we move forward, if anyone is to make sense of the average newspaper then the issues listed above, and others like them, are central to their readership? This is where I think we have a problem in education if we base the curriculum solely on the notion of including 'the best of what has been written and said'. This might be useful if culture (in its widest sense) was a generally very slow moving or static concept. But it isn't. Culture shifts and changes - it is a process not a 'thing'. If education is only about looking backwards rather than looking forwards we will always be in a reactive space rather than a proactive one. I would argue that inclusion of issues such as those above is central to a meaningful curriculum as there needs to be a fusion of established knowledge, intertwined with new ideas. And I don't see this as a linear process. We shouldn't develop an educational system which exposes students only to the 'greats' of our culture with the thinking around new insights coming later - say at university for example. The new, the uncomfortable, needs to be fused with the established from the word go, to be brought into tension and fusion together. This suggests that debate, discussion and application of what is learned is also very important. The issues I've outlined shouldn't be represented as knowledge to be transferred but ideas to be debated, critiqued and reflected upon. To offer knowledge as so much information which needs to be memorised without substantial opportunity to apply, to link to other, perhaps seemingly disconnected ideas, leads to a severe case of 'dumbing down'. Only through understanding and discussing the emerging knowledge and understanding gained can the individual become the critical newspaper reader in Hirsch's statement. Knowledge in a curriculum is necessary but not sufficient.
It is in seeing education as a complex, dynamic process, embedded and intertwined with a rapidly changing series of contexts that we can help children become the critical newspaper readers of tomorrow, and hopefully beyond to engaged and critical citizens. This is also why the role of teachers is so crucial. Biesta (2015) argues that the role of the teacher should be to help students make sense of a world beyond which they are aware so as to move away form the dangers of an 'egological' education. He argues that this can best be done when seeing the student as a subject in the process, not the object. This means that the teacher needs to be sensitive to issues, ideas and insights which are important both within and beyond their own subjects, but which are also helpful in expanding any student's worldview in critical and useful ways. This suggests a varied and flexible approach which has an underlying focus on fusing 'core knowledge' with new, developed through a variety of opportunities. Education is part of a wider series of processes which already impact on children and will do so increasingly as they grow up. Is education flexible enough to change as the world changes around it?