7 April 2010

Does Education Need Theories?

Not sure how I came across Big Ideas, through Twitter probably, but it led to a challenging discussion on education in a London pub.

The tempting title Does Education Need Theories? was introduced by Paul Standish, a professor at the Institute of Education, where he heads up the philosophy section of the Department of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies. The challenge started there with references to people called Piaget, Marx, Nietzsche, Lyotard and another Marx. I had heard of some of them but this did little to help my understanding of the arguments.

However, there were enough words that I could manage and the main themes emerged clearly. These (broadly) concerned encouraging students to take an open approach to learning (all subjects, all methods and lots of questioning).

The topic was then opened for debate and I made quite a few contributions without, I hope, embarrassing myself too much over my relative lack of knowledge of education theory and practice.

The format was a little less conversational than I expected (I am more used to the KM meetings run by LIKE etc.) and we essentially had a question and answer session with the speaker (not facilitator) responding to all the comments made. This relative formality was reflected in the layout of the room too as we sat in neat rows facing the speaker at the front.

The talk succeeded in making me think plenty of new thoughts, which is why I go to this sort of thing, and I noted a few of them.
  • We have moved, worryingly, to teaching to the test and this has worsened to students learning to the test and avoiding anything that does not directly improve their marks.
  • Politics interferes in education against the best research evidence. The example I gave here was of the comprehensive Cambridge Primary Review which was immediately dismissed by the government without even reading it.
  • Why do we teach mathematics beyond the basic arithmetic that people need for normal living? In contrast, we do not teach grammar any more yet everybody reads and writes.
  • The computer is the hidden teacher that we all have. We learn to adapt to what the computers want us to do rather than behaving naturally.
It was a lively debate and I would have stayed on for the more informal part of the evening had not another date in Richmond dragged me away. The evening did enough to get me back for another Big Ideas event even though I left this one with the niggling worry that we had not even addressed the main question about the purpose of education.

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