Dennis Hayes, professor of education at Derby University and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education recently wrote the following Facebook post:

Seven Theses on Education

1. Education is solely concerned with knowledge and understanding (not about character building or happiness)
2. Education is not training (i.e. not about skills or ‘learning objectives’)
3. Education is an end in itself and not a means to another end (such as ‘social justice’)
4. Education is universal (for all) (you can’t teach if you think some children can only learn in certain ways or can only reach a certain (low)level)
5. Education is content-based not process-based (too much pedagogy in England today)
6. Education is based on philosophy and teachers’ experience (not ‘evidence’)
7. Educators are few (given 1-6 above and we need to grow them)

This is an interesting list and one I mostly find myself agreeing with. I written several times about my view of the purpose of education (making kids cleverer) and several items here are clearly in alignment. Here are my brief thoughts on each item.

1. Education is solely concerned with knowledge and understanding 

I don’t really see that there’s much of a distinction between knowledge and understanding – as Willingham says, understanding is just knowledge in disguise. But I do absolutely concur that although character building or happiness might be desirable by products of education, they should never be its main aim.

2. Education is not training 

Training and education are seen as synonymous in some dictionary definitions so we need to define our terms here. I think education may include training, but it is certainly more than this. Training feels narrow whereas education feels broad. Training feels directed towards a single, clear goal whereas education is more haphazard and ad hoc. I’ve nothing particular against skills; skills are just another form of knowledge.

3. Education is an end in itself and not a means to another end 

I think this is – or should be – true. I’m not against social justice but if that’s all education is for then it’s easy to lose sight of learning for its own sake. I really like A E Housman’s line: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use” but I’m not sure this is entirely true. For instance, I’m not sure that knowledge of GCSE mark schemes is necessarily precious.

4. Education is universal 

Definitely. It’s certain that different people have different preferences and personalities and that this can make teaching a real challenge, but what makes teaching possible is that we’re all so similar. Certainly, the way we learn seems remarkably similar and, regardless of what we think we prefer, we all tend to learn the same content in the same way. If you need to know what something looks like you need to see it. If you’re learning what something sounds like, you need to hear it. If you’re learning to play the piano, you need to touch the keys. When we decide that some people can’t learn like others we damn then with low expectations. If we give some children a less challenging curriculum because we think they’re capable of less, they’ll prove us right. This kind of differentiation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

5. Education is content-based not process-based 

What we teach trumps how we teach. While it might be true to say that in some cases it makes sense to match certain content to certain pedagogical approaches, content should always be the driver of education. I argued here why what we teach matters, but to sum up, my reasons are cognitive (thinking requires knowledge) social (some knowledge is more culturally rich) and economic (there’s always an opportunity cost).

6. Education is based on philosophy and teachers’ experience (not ‘evidence’)

I have some real problems with this one, not least because some philosophies require evidence. My philosophy is that teachers’ experience is prone to very predictable bias and that we end up doing what we do either out of habit, or in some misguided belief that what we do works. ‘Works’ is a tricky concept because everything could be argued to ‘work’ in some respect, but evidence can provide a guide to help us avoid repeating mistakes or heading off in a direction likely to be inefficient. I’m not against the kind of practical wisdom that some teachers build up over the years but I’d suggest that an understanding of cognitive science and an awareness of education research can only help us become wiser.

7. Educators are few and we need to grow them

Too many teachers have been ‘trained’ to think in ways contrary to Hayes’ suggestions. Even if you disagree with him (and me) then being more knowledgable about these ideas can only be a good thing. If we need to ‘grow’ such teachers then teacher training (or teacher education) and professional development will need some radical overhauls. What else would be required to get the kind of teachers are to deliver Hayes’s views on education?