Why we disagree: the purposes of education

//Why we disagree: the purposes of education

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Aristotle (possibly a fake quote)

We are fantastically bad at recognising that our beliefs are based not on evidence, logic and reason, but on self-interest, preference and emotion.

When confronted with ‘others’ who disagree with our most fervently held beliefs, we tend to make assumptions that they are ignorant. When our opponents prove they are sufficiently well-versed in the particular issue about which we disagree, we jump to conclusion that they must be stupid. If they then prove that their arguments are coherent enough to admit some possibility of intelligence we then assume that they are evil. What other possibility exists?

Education is as hotly contested and ideologically riven as any other field of human endeavour – probably more so than most. It is rare indeed to move beyond knee-jerk biases and embrace the possibility that another human being could, at the same time, disagree with us and not be some sort of child-hating monster.

I’d like to suggest that no one goes into education to make a fast buck or to bathe in warm glow of society’s esteem. We do it because we think it’s important. But what is education for? In my last post I suggested that for as long as we disagree on the purpose of education we will never agree on how to improve it. These are, broadly speaking, the most common beliefs about the purposes of education I have encountered:

Enrichment – the belief that education can and should address the ‘whole child’ and aim to make them flourish. This would include the belief that education should attempt to make children happier as well as better people, and might also embrace the idea that cultural transmission of the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ makes us better people but, equally, could take AE Housman’s view that, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

Economics – this belief takes the view that education is a tool of the state and as such exists to make its citizens more productive. This belief would include the view that children should be prepared for work and to become loyal and enthusiastic participants in the activities if the state. This is, perhaps, the rationale behind citizenship and ‘British values’, but at heart it’s a utilitarian model of education that places the needs of the many above the needs of the few.

Social justice – the belief that inequality should be eradicated and that children from lower social classes should be afforded the advantages enjoyed by those from higher social classes, and that all children have the capacity to rise to the top if disadvantage is specifically addressed and playing fields are level. But this belief could comfortably manifest itself in either Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Hirsch’s Common Core.

Each of these ideologies fractures into myriad splinters and sub groups. It’s possible to hold aspects of each of these beliefs whilst simultaneously denigrating others. We can, for instance, claim that it is more important to enrich certain aspects of  a child than others; that wisdom is more important than intelligence. We can earnestly applaud efforts to make children easier to govern whilst raising an outcry against the pragmatic ideal of fitting children to jobs. This maelstrom of conflicting ideas and ideologies swirls beneath the level of consciousness in the minds of most teachers; we do what we don because it’s right, goddam it! But everyone, even Michael Gove, believes that they are right. But can we all hold such opposing beliefs and all be right?

This is the illusion of asymmetric insight. We only have access to our own thoughts and we therefore suppose ourselves to be deeper thinkers than anyone else. Those who disagree are, by their opposition, living proof that others do not share our sophistication and nuance. If others agree, well then, they must be almost as clear-sighted as we. This asymmetry makes us fiercely tribal and viciously inflexible.

For the record, I stand by my belief that education should exist to make children cleverer; we can all become cleverer, no matter our starting point. In the name of social justice I believe that professional ethics should not stand in the way of a working class child’s success. I believe that socially disadvantaged students should have access the same education as that received in elite public schools. I believe that if word-poor children are to have a chance at exercising free choice in how they live their lives, they must be explicitly taught the language of academic success. In the name of enrichment, I believe we should provide students with as broad and deep a knowledge base as possible so they can think and broadly and deeply as possible; after all, we cannot think about that which we do not know. I believe that creativity depends on knowing ‘the rules’ and that we should provide access to the most powerful, conceptual knowledge that exists in the history of the subject disciplines we teach. I want children to have every advantage they can in order to allow them to choose to do whatever they want to do. But I don’t given a damn about preparing them for work as this is a small, narrow-minded endeavour. We might never be able to close the attainment gap between haves and have-nots but we should certainly strive mightily to shift the entire bell curve to the right.

These are my values. This is where I draw my line in the ever shifting sands of policy and fashion. And this is what drives me to write and speak as I do. If you can look me the eye and state with certainty that your values are better than mine, you’re a fool: everyone’s values have equal value.

If we want to improve education and heal the divisions that exist, we need to cut through all the pedagogical crap and start describing those values so precious to us that we would never, ever compromise them. Then, and only then, we might find some common ground.

Related posts

On compromise
This is what I think



  1. debaser June 25, 2014 at 7:43 pm - Reply

    The ideological divisions you identify are similar to the paradigms for English teaching identified in the Cox Report (DES 1989).

    Cox used categories such as ‘cultural analysis’, ‘literary heritage’, ‘personal growth’, ‘cross-curricular’ and ‘adult needs’ to identify the key ideological tensions within English teaching.

    The trouble is. of course, that as compelling as it might be, educational research will never lead to the kind of objective absolutes needed to go beyond this kind of ideological warfare. As a firm believer in the ‘literary heritage’, ‘cultural analysis’ and ‘cross-curricular’ paradigms, It’s very hard for me to prove objectively that my progressive ‘personal-growth’ obsessed colleagues might be wrong.

    Perhaps the best we can do, as you suggest, is to make our case as persuasively as possible and engage in rational, unemotional debate with those on the other side.

  2. SurrealAnarchy June 26, 2014 at 6:42 am - Reply

    When you say: “everyone’s values have equal value.” What do you mean?

    • David Didau June 26, 2014 at 9:09 am - Reply

      I mean that if I say what I value is better than what you value we will never get anywhere. More honest perhaps to say, “I don’t like what you value”?

  3. […] We are fantastically bad at recognising that our beliefs are based not on evidence, logic and reason, but on self-interest, preference and emotion…  […]

  4. teachingbattleground June 26, 2014 at 8:55 pm - Reply

    I think you should double-check that Aristotle quotation.

  5. […] We are fantastically bad at recognising that our beliefs are based not on evidence, logic and reason, but on self-interest, preference and emotion…  […]

  6. chemistrypoet June 28, 2014 at 1:28 am - Reply

    Nice blog. For the record, I agree with your ‘For the record’ paragraph. And as someone who frequently seeks to recruit people, I don’t want primary/secondary schools, or even Universities, trying to prepare those people for the world of work. You just make them as clever as you can and we’ll do what’s needed to make them effective in our context.

  7. ijstock June 29, 2014 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    We also tend to forget that children have many teachers in their lives. Their influences will vary, but it would be good to hope that every child encounters an inspirational one somewhere. But different people are inspired by different things, and therefore it is important that we embrace plurality in teaching – of style, personality and values. Children also need to learn to cope with and relate to a range of people and situations, which is why all the angst about optimising their experiences is too narrowly framed.

    This is also why I think that so much of the discussion is academic – there is actually room for (pretty much) all, so why do we bicker so much?

    I’m glad you mentioned low priority of work-readiness – that is a by-product, not an end in itself. I would argue the same for exam results, necessary though they are. Unfortunately, many of those who run and manage the system seem still to realise that.

  8. Chris Sparks July 8, 2014 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    I don’t want to see education improved, I want it to be changed.

  9. […] and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? Why we disagree: the purposes of education The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so […]

  10. TheOtherDrX July 17, 2014 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Surely the purpose of education (and educators) is to allow students to get to where they want to go, whether or not that destination fits with the ideals of the educator? If the student really wants to become a city banker, and the teacher thinks that education should be about enrichment, then we have a conflict. You are not going to make it in a cut-throat industry if your education was all about enrichment, but the student might be ‘happy’ (so to speak) about this. There are converse arguments of chasing grades at the expense of the joy of learning (enrichment), and at the expense of individuals who are at a disadvantage (social justice). My problem is the extent to which educators impart their view of what education should be used for onto the students, potentially at the expense of those students aspirations.
    So I hope we can all sort-of agree that:
    1) Education is always going to be somewhat unfair where some will always be able to buy their way to an advantage whether we like it or not (and if we don’t like it, what, as educators can we do to break the system? Not much…)
    2) We need a decent education for our future economy that opens career opportunities that our students are aiming for (whatever they are and whether or not we agree with these) and that our students need to be internationally competitive, or at least employable in some context,
    3) We shouldn’t go out of our way to make education unnecessarily unpleasant but equally it should fulfil point 2 (I don’t entirely subscribe to AE Housman’s view, as nice as it seems).
    4) If, as individuals, we spend a disproportionate amount of time ONLY banging-on about either 1, 2, or 3, we are probably doing a major disservice to proportion of our students.

    • David Didau July 17, 2014 at 1:34 pm - Reply

      Well, there you go: I disagree quite profoundly with the sentiment that education should in anyway be about getting children what they want. If they want to be bankers, that is entirely their business. Beyond offering them the full range of academic subjects and ensuring they do as well as possible, I’m not much interested in what they may want to make of their lives. It’s nonsense to believe that the only way to make it in a “cut-throat industry” is if your school experience is cut throat.

      That’s not to say that I’m right and you’re wrong (although clearly…etc. etc.) but it does illustrate that our disagreement is a matter of belief.

      • TheOtherDrX July 17, 2014 at 4:31 pm - Reply

        You disagree that “education should be in any way be about getting children what they want”? My comments were specifically about education being about giving students the opportunities to get them to WHERE they want to be irrespective of the views of the educator. As you say yourself “I want children to have every advantage they can in order to allow them to choose to do whatever they want to do” and “Beyond offering them the full range of academic subjects and ensuring they do as well as possible, I’m not much interested in what they may want to make of their lives” That’s pretty much my view. But spend more than half an hour reading blogs or on Twitter and you get such frustratingly polarised views on the purpose of education, from the Housmaneque/purely education for the joy of it, through to the utilitarian preparation for the world of work. Hence points 1-4 above. Specifically opening as many doors as possible to the next stage is a must, rather than preparing for work, although I stick by my comment that ‘our students need to be…at least employable in some contex” (with emphasis on last 6 words if you don’t mind).

        OK, rather than using cut-throat, maybe I should have used the word ‘elitist’, and I should have put ‘ALL ABOUT ENRICHMENT’ in shouty capitals. Probably a poor point, badly put 😉 Maybe I’ve been talking to too many medical doctors who have had a focussed, grade-chasing (and often private) education which wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but leading to a successful career, and who wouldn’t have it any other way.

        • David Didau July 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm - Reply

          I think this just adds to the accumulation of evidence that convinces me that there is no agreement on what education’s actually for. So, thanks.

  11. […] I believe. In case you’re wondering, I’ve been fairly unambiguous about what I believe here. But I’ve also been fairly consistent in the view that there’s more than one way to […]

  12. […] trouble is, as I’ve said before, people ‘involved in education’ don’t agree what eduction is for. We are often […]

  13. Di Baker (@coatgal) October 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm - Reply

    Had a chat, less eloquent, about something similiar the other day with someone who works in the NHS. We were discussing whether many public services suffer at their heart from an uncertainty as to what they are for. Often their remit has grown wider and more diverse since their conception, as governments have faced new concerns and challenges, and divvied them out as they saw fit. This has led to a loss of clarity of purpose, which in turn means that people are busy devising policy, spending money and making decisions with different, sometimes contradictory aims in mind. And when a new person in charge pops up, the core purposes change and so does everything else. It’s not conductive to long-term planning, efficient spending or anything else useful.

  14. Adam Jacob (@adampjacob) October 19, 2014 at 9:47 am - Reply

    Very interesting as always. What I like is that you make me think about my own beliefs more deliberately (as opposed to just believing them).

    However, I disagree with a couple of fundamental points:

    1) I do not accept that everyone involved in education has the best interests of society, or all children, or all schools as their motive. I think some are involved for their own selfish ends or to further a narrow interest group (maybe I am cynical and bitter though). This makes it very difficult to improve the system significantly. Eg I do not think that it is possible politically to remove the buying of advantage, even though I think that this would improve education hugely.

    2) I find it difficult to agree that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. I think that experience makes a person’s experience more valuable eg experience of teaching, of dealing with young people, of working in schools.

  15. Gerald Haigh (@geraldhaigh1) October 19, 2014 at 10:20 am - Reply

    The key paragraph, for me, sums up why I stayed in teaching for thirty years and still have a foothold in it now, fifty-five years after college. I’ll just add one thought about ‘preparation for work’, which is a major preoccupation of many in government and beyond. When i did some case studies for the government’s Education and Employers Task Force, I found schools where the focus on ’employability’ and particularly their extensive engagement with local and national employers, acted as a considerable boost to the morale, motivation for learning, and feelings of self-worth of the students. One boy, from a very deprived and crime-ridden area said, of his contact with a local law firm whose partners come in regularly to help him and others with literacy, ‘Usually round here if you meet someone in a suit it’s because you’re in trouble.’
    So I honestly believe that for many teachers and others, ’employability’ is not seen in the narrow sense that’s sometimes assumed. Rather it’s a vehicle for, means towards, however you like to put it, the purposes which you yourself set out here.

  16. […] David Didau outlines some of the debate here. […]

  17. […] or better prepares them for the world of work then you’re on dodgy ground. But that said, your beliefs about education may be fundamentally different to mine so it may be we will never […]

  18. […] written before about the battleground that is the purpose of education. The problem with trusting schools and teachers to do what’s right is that we don’t […]

  19. […] Just vilifying those who disagree with you is unlikely to elucidate anything. We need to understand why we disagree. If you believe education should be mainly concerned with exposing children’s unique and […]

  20. […] systems is that there tends not to be much agreement about what education is actually for. I’ve written about this issue before and have made clear my view, education should exist to make children cleverer. Clearly this in […]

  21. […] she argues – as I have done – that part of the problem is that we don’t agree what education is actually for. No […]

  22. Diane Townsend May 12, 2018 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    We should support very bright children and push them hard unfortunately comprehensive does not do this as it has to support such a range of children that perhaps need more help but all children should be given the chance to go to grammar if clever enough. My husband who was one of 5 in a fatherless home went to grammar school along with 3 of his brothers. They were very bright and deserved the chance. Why do these so called educated people try to deny others the chance that they no doubt had. I went to comprehensive left at 14 ran a successful business so everyone can do it if they have the will but everyone should be given the chance to show exactly what they an do and this should be by selection. Brighter children deserve the chance to go to grammar schools.

    • David Didau May 12, 2018 at 7:30 pm - Reply

      The data disagrees with your anecdote.
      The idea of selective schools is a face for everyone trying desperately to get a good standard of education in every school. The priority has to be making sure the system isn’t so bad middle class parents want to escape it, not creating more escape routes.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: