Education: A Very Short Introduction 2nd Edition
Few people know very much about why schools exist as they do today; the intellectual traditions that have shaped education seem to be invisible to most observers. This is a strange gap in the knowledge of the public. With physics, most informed laypeople could write a coherent sentence or two about Einstein and Newton. For biology, a page might be forthcoming on Darwin. Even for economics most could probably say something sensible about Keynes and Marx. But for education, most, I think, would struggle to offer anything at all about Dewey or Piaget. It is perhaps this gap in awareness and understanding about what education is and how it has developed that has contributed to the dearth of creativity about how to improve it.
Maybe this gap in knowledge says something about the way we view education in the West. It’s telling, for example, that when the American philosopher John Dewey—arguably the greatest thinker about education in modern times—visited China in 1928 to collect an honorary degree from the National University at Peking, its rector hailed him as ‘the second Confucius’. There could be no greater praise for Dewey.
But, rued the editorial writer of Time magazine at the time, ‘Not one American in ten thousand has ever heard of John Dewey’. Indeed, it’s probably much the same today (and, no, he’s not the Dewey who invented the library cataloguing system). Many Westerners seem to feel that compulsory attendance at school for ten years tells them all they need (or want) to know about education.
This isn’t just a short introduction, it’s a very short introduction and as such it’s going to be prone to oversimplification, and omissions. How should I avoid these, I wondered, as I sat down to write. It was an especially tough question, given the breadth of education as a subject. I realized that I couldn’t cover everything—at least not in a way that would avoid oversimplification. So, I’ve sacrificed comprehensiveness for discussion, and I’ve focused on ideas rather than facts.
Having made a decision about focus, and having a picture in my mind of Very Short Introduction readers as intelligent, well-informed people who may not have any special background in the subject about which they are reading, I’ve decided to try to tell a story, or a series of stories, about the ways that ideas about education have become shaped. Often the stories are intertwined, so there isn’t a simple, clean narrative about, for example, progressive education: the story of its development is infused with the growth of psychology, of testing, of the findings of research about its consequences.
I have taken the same approach in this second edition. The new edition updates the text with discussion of significant recent developments such as the intensifying shift from locally managed schools to academies in some countries, the repeated false starts in the move to inclusivity and social mobility, and the widening gap in the quality of state and private provision.
My views about education are refracted through my own trials and tribulations in schools. When I failed my 11-plus examination my parents in their wisdom sent me to a cheap (in every sense of the word) private school, which was like a modern Dotheboys Hall.
Here, in one lesson, I was caned twenty-three times (this was in 1966) by the English teacher, nicknamed ‘Bonzo’, whose cane was called, after the ice cream popular at the time, ‘Mr Whippy’. Bonzo would always add the rider, ‘Makes you scream, not ice cream’, notionally for comic effect, after calling a pupil for Mr Whippy’s attention. When the school mercifully went bankrupt, I was sent to the local secondary modern school and then when I had proved myself by passing enough exams I was allowed to go to the grammar school and then university.
After university, I worked as a primary school teacher, an educational psychologist, and an academic in five universities. I have visited in my professional career 200 or 300 schools, worked for five local authorities, and I was a parent governor at the state comprehensive school attended by my own children. I was the termly taxi service for my daughters as they attended their universities. I can honestly say, to quote Joni Mitchell, that I’ve looked at schools ‘from both sides now’, and in this book I include my personal views where this seems appropriate.
I’d like to thank both of my grown-up daughters for their help with the book—Kate, for helping with the diagrams, and Emily, who is a teacher in a comprehensive school, for her insightful comments on a draft. And my little daughter, Maya, at primary school, for reminding me about the phenomenal job that teachers do. I am enormously grateful also to the anonymous UK and American readers of the book, who made invaluable comments, were hugely supportive, and encouraged me to write something with more of my own opinions in it. Thanks to everyone who has written to me or has written a review about the first edition. No one has warned me to offer fewer of my own opinions, so I haven’t. Thanks to my colleagues at the University of Birmingham School of Education for their advice and ideas, though any errors of fact or judgement are entirely down to me.
List of illustrations
Oil and water: the formal and the progressive
The traditions unfold: ideas into practice
Big ideas from the 20th century
Analysts and theorists: what did they ever do for us?
References and further reading
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|January 24, 2022|
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