Educational goals Educational Research

Futures of the Field of Education

This post is a piece of mine about the futures of the university field of education.  It focuses on the question:  What kind of roles do educational researchers play in school and society?  I wrote this essay as the summary chapter for a book edited by Geoff Whitty and John Furlong, Knowledge and the Study of Education: An International Exploration.  Here’s a link to a pdf of the chapter.

First, I give a brief overview of what the book’s authors say both about the national variations in education knowledge production and also about three core tensions that run through the field as a whole, looking at the changes in these tensions over time.  Second, I introduce a fourth tension that infuses the field, the disagreement about what social goals education should serve.  I argue that these four tensions are a necessary and healthy component of schooling and the research about schooling.  As a result, any efforts to resolve the tensions one way or the other would be detrimental to the broader role that schooling needs to play.  Unfortunately, however, such a narrowing of the vision of education is very much in process in the current policy climate, spread by a global educational reform movement (lovingly referred to as GERM), which relentlessly seeks to remake education into an efficient machine for the production of human capital.  I also discuss an alternative vision of education and educational knowledge, which is not driven by educational policymakers but instead by individual education consumers.  From this perspective, education is all about providing social access and preserving social advantage.  I close by exploring the implications of this analysis for the future of educational research. 

Hope you find this interesting.

Whitty-Book-Cover

Futures of the Field of Education

David F. Labaree

            This book is an ambitious effort to characterize at a global level the current condition of the field of educational research.  I don’t know of anything quite like it in the literature.  The idea is to examine the mix of variation and convergence in educational research practices through a series of national case studies, while at the same time attempting to explore central tensions that are endemic in the field.  In this final chapter, my assigned task is to synthesize the analyses from the first 11 chapters and then use this synthesis to project the futures facing educational researchers.  Good luck with that.

            So let me begin with a brief caveat lector.  Trying to develop a succinct summary of this book is either a fool’s errand (impossible on the face of it), or, if possible, then well beyond my limited abilities.  And even trying to do this would be grossly unfair to the empirical and analytical richness of the wide array of contributions to the book.  In addition, I’m a historical sociologist not a futurist, so trying to spell out the futures of the field is something I would not even attempt. 

            What I decided to do instead is something less ambitious but possibly more useful – to write a reflective essay spelling out some of the thoughts that these 11 chapters provoked in me as a reader.  As I tell my students, the best research is a provocation.  It compels you to think about familiar issues in fresh ways; and that is certainly the effect that this book has had on me.

            My plan, therefore, is to do the following.  First, I give a brief overview of what the book’s authors say both about the national variations in education knowledge production and also about three core tensions that run through the field as a whole, looking at the changes in these tensions over time.  Second, I introduce a fourth tension that infuses the field, the disagreement about what social goals education should serve.  I argue that these four tensions are a necessary and healthy component of schooling and the research about schooling.  As a result, any efforts to resolve the tensions one way or the other would be detrimental to the broader role that schooling needs to play.  Unfortunately, however, such a narrowing of the vision of education is very much in process in the current policy climate, spread by a global educational reform movement (lovingly referred to as GERM), which relentlessly seeks to remake education into an efficient machine for the production of human capital.  I also discuss an alternative vision of education and educational knowledge, which is not driven by educational policymakers but instead by individual education consumers.  From this perspective, education is all about providing social access and preserving social advantage.  I close by exploring the implications of this analysis for the future of educational research. 

            The authors show that the global field of educational research is a complex mix of nationally distinctive forms of knowledge and sites of knowledge production.  Each national case study shows some knowledge characteristics that are peculiar that context, such as the tradition of Bildung in Germany and of pedagogical science in Latvia.  In addition, there is wide variation in the organizational setting for educational research, varying from the radically specialized institutions in France to the more standardized setting of the university in the US and China.

            Cutting across these national differences, however, are broad patterns of commonality.  In trying to understand these common elements, I find it useful to frame them as chronic tensions that run through the field at a global level.  The tensions are omnipresent, but the relative emphasis within the tensions varies from country to country.  The authors focus on three tensions in particular.  One is the tension between the normative and the objective.  On the one hand, education is a value-laden enterprise focused on shaping the young, fusing them with the norms and values we want them to embody as adults.  On the other hand, education is a machine for providing knowledge and skill that are needed by society.  Educational research, therefore, needs to balance elucidating educational goals and engineering an efficient machinery for skilling.

            A second tension is between knowledge that is embedded in the context of educational practice and knowledge that is abstracted from this context.  The issue here is whether teachers produce and own their own knowledge of practice or whether this knowledge is generated in the different zone of practice known as educational research and then transferred to the teacher.  The question this raises is how we should balance practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge, school-based knowledge and university-based knowledge.

            A third tension is between two different ways of organizing educational knowledge.  One approach sees the field of education as consisting of a multiplicity of individual university-based knowledge disciplines (sociology, psychology, economics, philosophy, history), each of which is bounded by and imbued with the spirit of that discipline.  From this perspective, the field is multidisciplinary in nature.  The other approach is to see educational knowledge as a discipline of its own or as an interdisciplinary arena for exploring the institutional setting of the school.

            The authors show how the emphasis in these tensions varies across national settings, a variation that accounts for much of the richness of the analysis in the national case studies and the conceptual chapters.  But they also point to patterns of historical change in these tensions that are global in character.  One is that, in nearly all settings, educational knowledge production began in some form of normal school, a secondary institution focused on training teachers.  But over time, the locus of knowledge production shifted from the normal school to the university, sometimes as a shift between institutions and sometimes as an evolutionary process by which the former turned into the latter.  Another related change across different contexts was the shift from educational knowledge that was embedded in the practice of teaching to knowledge that was produced in the more distant setting of the university.  In recent years, however, the authors show these two change processes in a number of national settings seem to be moving in reverse.  Especially in the UK but also in the US and elsewhere, there is a movement to move teacher preparation and educational knowledge production out of universities and closer to the site of pedagogical practice in schools.

            I label these common characteristics of education as tensions because I see these tensions as fundamental to the educational enterprise.  These are not conflicts that need to be resolved one way or the other but intrinsic complexities that animate the field of education and give it much of its vitality.  No social institution is free of such fundamental tensions.  In fact, the effectiveness of an institution is measured not by its ability to eliminate these tensions but its ability to manage them.  If you look at any healthy school, college, department, or institute of education in the world, you are likely to find these three tensions playing themselves out in daily practice.  You will find the normative vs. the objective, theory vs. practice, and multidisciplinarity vs. disciplinarity.  These conflicts pop up in every effort to develop programs, evaluate candidates for hiring and promotion, admit students, and assess what constitutes good research.

            In fact – and here comes the futures part of my story – one of the biggest problems facing the field of educational knowledge production today, I suggest, is the growing global pressure to resolve these tensions.  Doing so, I argue, will diminish both the scope and the social benefits of education as an enterprise.

            But before developing this point, I would first like to introduce a fourth unresolvable tension that infuses education and educational research.  This one focuses on purpose.  A key part of the complexity, contradiction, and apparent inefficiency of education is that we cannot agree what goals we want it to accomplish.  Let me point to three social goals in particular.  One is nation building.  The primary reason that modern societies developed universal systems of public schooling was to support the emergence of the nation state.  Schooling was the mechanism for turning subjects into citizens.  This is the role that schooling played in the long nineteenth century:  forming the imaginary community of the state, providing citizens with the skills and values they need in order function in the new polity, and supplying a common experiential basis for considering fellow citizens as peers. 

            A second goal for schooling is economic development.  This vision emerged later historically, after the state was secured and the national economy was developed.  The issue from this perspective is less the need to transmit the values required for social solidarity than the need to provide useful skills that will meet the workforce demands of a growing economy.  Thus schools become engines for the production of human capital, whose primary mission is to increase the gross domestic product, increase wealth and the standard of living, and enhance national power. 

            A third goal for schooling is status attainment.  This vision of schooling has always been hovering in the background as a rationale for why individuals might want to pursue education for their own personal gain.  By the mid twentieth century it became explicit and central to the understanding of schooling:  If you want a good job, get a good education.  In modern societies, individuals gain social positions through their jobs, and schooling is the mechanism for allocating people to specific jobs in the occupational hierarchy based on academic achievement and attainment.  School is the way societies help outsiders gain social access, and it’s also the way societies help insiders preserve social advantage.

            Consider the tensions that persist in the interaction among these competing goals.  The first is political, the second economic, and the third individual.  The first two see education as a public good, which benefits everyone in society and not just the individual received the education.  We all benefit from having competent fellow citizens and economically productive workers, so we have an incentive to educate other people’s children.  The third sees education as a private good.  Gaining more education than you have gives me an advantage in the competition for better jobs.  As a result, I don’t want an egalitarian system of schooling but prefer one that is highly stratified, one that creates winners and losers. 

            In the twenty-first century, we have seen the educational policy discourse converge on a single overarching goal for education.  From the global education reform movement, its policy apparatus in OECD, and its policy police in the PISA testing program, we have seen one goal trump the others.  Nowadays, the uniform message is human capital uber alles.  The convergence of purpose is strong, consistent, and pithy; so my colleague Gay Hoagland refers to this policy discourse as an incestogram. 

            The rush toward consensus has created the push for a radical form of social utilitarianism, which threatens to rationalize both schooling and the production of educational knowledge around improving economic productivity, raising PISA scores, and eradicating a rich array of national differences in educational form and function.  This includes what at first looks like a shift in one of the core tensions within education, from the normative to the objective, as education is pressured to focus on the efficient production of job relevant skills.  But in fact this change is best understood as a shift from one set of values to another, from character and citizenship to economic utility. 

            At the same time, the human capital push fosters a shift in another core tension in the field, by tightening the link between theory and practice.  Increasingly practice in schools is under pressure from a rationalized and decontextualized form of knowledge production produced by universities, which seeks to impose uniformity on the earlier relative autonomy of teachers and schools and to tighten the coupling of educational systems.  Rather than creating closer mutual connections between theory and practice or shifting the locus of control to the arena of practice, this change increases the power of epistemic knowledge from the center over the ecologies of schooling on the periphery.  Far from being liberated by the stronger role that knowledge production plays in the educational system, university knowledge producers find themselves bullied and bribed to confine their efforts to the development of applied knowledge for an economistic educational vision.  Practical application trumps basic research and randomized control trials become the gold standard.

            Lost in the rush toward the one best goal for schooling is the rich and historically productive national traditions of educational knowledge production that are spelled out in this book.  Also lost is the longtime vision of schooling as nation building, citizen formation, character development, and liberal learning.

            At the same time that the policy establishment has converged on human capital production as the prime goal for schooling, educational consumers have been focusing more intensely on education as the key way to get ahead and stay ahead in the race for social position.  Like the economistic goal, the consumerist goal is frankly utilitarian.  But unlike the former, the latter views schooling as an intensely private good.  The consumer’s aim is not to pursue a broad social dividend from schooling but instead to seek personal gain.  For some this means going to school to gain access to the social opportunities that evaded their parents; and for others it means using school to preserve social advantages that their parents already have. 

            One result of this approach for schools is to sharply exacerbate the stratification of a system in which everyone wants to be above average.  Another is to increase competition in schools, where winning becomes more important than learning.  Yet another is to increase the pressure on schools to emphasize form over content.  The aim for the student is to accumulate grades, credits, and degrees rather than to pursue learning.  As a consequence, education not only becomes a private good but also an exchange value, whose primary worth is as a kind of currency for buying access to a good job and a good life.  The OECD approach serves to narrow the learning outcomes of schooling and educational knowledge production to whatever is in service to economic development.  But the consumer approach is even more radical, since it undermines the role of schooling as an institution for learning.

            What does growing consumerism mean for educational knowledge producers?  In many ways it leaves them simply irrelevant.  The economic development goal is the expression of educational policymakers and school reformers, who then provide strong incentives for educational researchers to harness themselves to the economistic bandwagon to help engineer the desired outcome.  Consumerism, however, is not a matter of public policy but of individual ambition.  Consumers are seeking not to change the system but to improve or reinforce their own social status.  Their impact on the system – promoting stratification and competition at all levels – is not the result of a social movement with explicit demands but the result of a series of individual choices in the educational market place, reinforced at the ballot box as consumers vote to keep the system expanding to meet their demand.  Economism needs educational researchers as social engineers who are imbued with the what-works spirit, but consumerism doesn’t need them at all.  It operates through market mechanisms rather than policy mobilization and social engineering, so research knowledge is largely irrelevant to it. 

            Where, then, does this leave us in thinking about the possible futures of educational research as a field of practice?  The good news is that the growth of the economistic approach to education provides a lot of funding for educational researchers who are willing take the bribe for performing service in creating a more efficient system for producing human capital.  The bad news is that this structure of incentives extracts the heart from educational research just as economism does from educational practice. 

            One answer to this problem is for educational researchers to push back against the trend toward social engineering, which focuses on determining what works for economic development.  Instead they can embrace basic research in education, which directs attention to the broader aims of schooling, reminds people of the rich history of the institution, and plays up the value of particular national traditions of research that offer alternatives to OECD World.  They can work to develop university-school partnerships that offer mutual enlightenment in place of colonial rule.  And they can provide students, teachers, parents, and policymakers with alternative visions of what schooling has been and can still be. 

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