I’ve migrated this blog…

…to zudensachen.wordpress.com and will no longer be posting here.  Eventually I will close this one down, thanks.

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More Academies Nonsense

So the latest proposal to mollify objectors to the forced academisation process (i.e. everybody) is that Local Education Authorities may now be allowed to set up their own academy chains. But don’t worry, only the ‘good’ Local Authorities.

Let’s wheel back to the white paper, shall we, in which it is argued that to solve the problem of under-performing geographical areas we need to break the ‘monopoly’ of the Local Education Authorities. What characterises a ‘good’ local authority in the white paper? One in which the national and widely geographically distributed academy chains, competing with each other to take over schools, have magically transformed the local educational terrain (subject to some nebulous power of ‘challenge’ held by parents and LEAs).

What, then, will become of the proposed LEA chains? I imagine they will end up compelled to take over those ‘under-performing’ schools that none of the national chains want to touch.

PS I am in the process of migrating this blog so please instead link to https://zudensachen.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/more-academies-nonsense/ and in future I will post at https://zudensachen.wordpress.com/

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Hermeneutics and Education

Bloomsbury have kindly allowed me to share a sample chapter of my newly released book via my institutional repository.  I include a summary of the chapter’s content below, and you can download the chapter and get full citation details here.

This chapter considers the implications of philosophical hermeneutics for the well-known ‘pedagogical triangle’ of teacher, student and subject matter. We find our way to what is specifically educational in the hermeneutic dialogue by considering examples of deficient or degenerate conversation. The close relationship between the ‘instructional’ (or pedagogical) triangle and the hermeneutic situation can then be emphasized, particularly once we acknowledge Heidegger’s requirement that the teacher must learn to ‘let learn’. All hermeneutic situations, it will be shown, are educational. How, then, moving beyond this global understanding, can hermeneutics inform those local situations that we wish to think of as specifically educational (i.e. schooling)? This leads us to consider the constellation of hermeneutic circles that constitute the event of classroom learning. An important distinction will be made between the ‘object of study’ and the ‘subject matter’. The subject matter – Gadamer’s ‘die Sache’ – ‘emerges’ in the event of learning, which implies a transformation of teacher, student and curriculum.

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Agree to Disagree? Let’s not

Recently a colleague offered in conversation that we should agree to disagree.  This led me to some observations about the role of agreement and disagreement in dialogue.  Some conversations involve a sort of perpetual agreement or mutual affirmation.  These are instances where we’re really just ‘shooting the breeze’, and there’s nothing much at issue between us.  We exchange the gnomes of accepted wisdom and nod.  Other exchanges are characterised pretty much by disagreement.  These are the situations where we talk at cross purposes, or talk past each other – we can’t even seem to get started on the way in which the matter at hand needs to be interrogated. 

In other dialogues there is more of an interplay of agreement and disagreement.  There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree – that is, we must agree in order to disagree.  We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things.  On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue.  If we no longer have an interestingly different perspective on the matter, the dialogue has run its course.  It might come to a satisfying conclusion, or we might drift on to other matters.

These kinds of dialogues are characterised by an openness of each interlocutor to the claims of the other.  Each risks being transformed by the other’s perspective on the truth of the matter.  In other words, each entertains the possibility of learning something from the other.  In these kinds of conversations, what would it mean to agree to disagree?  It is possible that we each might have exhausted our justifications for our differing perspectives. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this situation.  On one hand, it might mean a temporary cessation in dialogue. We pause, move on to other matters, but return to the dialogue once we have marshalled our arguments or had a chance to think more deeply about a particular question that has emerged.

Another way of looking at this is to think of our differing views as incommensurable perspectives.  In this case, agreeing to disagree marks the arrival at some sort of bedrock beyond which our dialogue cannot continue.  This has a finality: the conversation is over.  I agree with the hermeneutic thinker Hans-Georg Gadamer here.  There are no ‘undiscussable’ assumptions (1991: 40).  In Gadamer’s view, agreeing to disagree here ends the dialogue at precisely the point where what is really at issue is beginning to emerge.  The assumptions revealed at this point are often deeply held beliefs that are central to our identity.  Things become raw and exposed.  But this is precisely why dialogue must continue.  We do our interlocutor no favours by avoiding conversation because we have begun to talk about the very things that we care deeply about.  At this point, Gadamer argues, to suggest that we agree to disagree ‘excludes the other person in his positive function’ (ibid).  It is to assert that we are no longer prepared to be transformed by our interlocutor’s differing view on the truth, and that we are no longer therefore prepared to learn from their difference.  We should think very carefully about what might motivate a move to be the first interlocutor in a dialogue to offer, or even impose, the possibility of agreeing to disagree.

Gadamer, H-G (1991) Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, trans Wallace, R M, Yale University Press [original German publication 1931]

I originally posted this on Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog

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Philosophy for Children boosts children’s progress in literacy and maths

We in Athens are particularly pleased at the recent connections made between ‘philosophy for children’ and children’s success in literacy and maths. Today we spoke directly to the originator of P4C’s method of questioning, Socrates himself:

“Yes, well I’m pleased because I’ve always thought that my method of questioning could be of use to state policy makers and educators of the young, but I’ve never been able to demonstrate this convincingly. I’ve always been inclined to communicate the value in terms of useless things like discerning the good and working out how best to live one’s life. One education endowment fund project was able to demonstrate that my interventions boosted the development of wisdom by as much as two months, but I don’t think this was publicised very well.

I’m very proud that gains can be demonstrated in mathematics and writing as a result of doing philosophy. This is despite what you might have heard about my views on writing. It’s said that my view is that writing will implant forgetfulness in children’s souls, and that they will cease to exercise memory as a result of it, and that this can only offer a semblance of wisdom, or the conceit of wisdom. In fact, that people who can write will be a burden to their fellows. But this, as you know, was all reported by my student Plato, and as everyone knows, all of my former students are rogues. And you also know that I have always said that you can’t trust anyone who makes a living from philosophy, so don’t listen to him.”

One slave boy we interviewed said: “Yes, my teacher just asked me a couple of ‘Socratic’ questions, and I was amazed to discover I already knew all maths.”

Another former student of Socrates, Alcibiades, reported: “Everything I have become is down to Socrates and his philosophical teaching”.

When we asked Socrates about his future plans in light of this success, he informed us that he will be drinking hemlock tomorrow, as his questioning has made him an enemy of the state. He is to be executed on the charge of corrupting the young.

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Is it cruel to make children read in silence?

Ahead of a talk to be given at the Institute of Education, Tom Bennett, behaviour guru and figurehead of the ResearchEd movement, invited questions via twitter that he hoped he could address in his seminar. One tweeter asked “Is it cruel to make [children] read/ write/ think in silence?” Bennett’s response on twitter was a one word, “no”, accompanied by this picture of guffawing muppets.

picThe subject of this particular post is not twitter etiquette or one particular exchange, but rather the implication that it is acceptable to consider this question about cruelty to be out and out laughable.     Bennett’s response is representative of a widespread return, particularly amongst the ‘edublogger’ community, to ‘traditional’ approaches to education, in response to a perceived failure of a ‘progressive’ project in which a child’s autonomy is supposedly prized above all else. The story goes that allowing children to discover by themselves, without the hindrance of attempts by those wiser than them to transmit valuable and hard-won knowledge, or to discover their moral code free from external constraint or imposition, has bred a growing number of illiterate and morally reprehensible youths unable to improve their own social situation. The implication is, I suppose (although no argument was offered on this occasion) that it is not cruel to impose things on children that they do not want or enjoy when we know what is best for them, and that, for the educational good of our children, we should laugh away suggestions that it might in any cases be wrong.

I imagine one might also argue that silence is imposed on children by teachers, who have some wisdom in these matters, that this happens in school, which is a certain kind of institution that requires certain kinds of behaviour, and that it is conducive to better learning.   We certainly wouldn’t claim that it is never in any circumstance cruel to require a child to sit in silence.

Before we proceed, I will note that I am going to make a comparison with a disciplinary situation, but I am not assuming that the practice of requiring children to sit in silence in school would be necessarily a disciplinary practice. Pedagogical reasons can be offered for it. That said, let’s imagine a father, who in response to some real or imagined slight, requires a young child to sit without speaking for several hours, and maybe continues to extend the time period whenever the child makes a noise – up to, say 48 hours? The father might say that he is the parent, who knows best, that this is his home and his rules, and that this discipline is for his child’s long term good.

This father is not simply mistaken somewhere in his reasoning. He is cruel. In other circumstances the line might not be so easily drawn, but the fact that the father’s stated reasons seem at least at first glance to be of a similar kind to those that might be offered by teachers shows us that claims linking silence in class to cruelty cannot simply be dismissed as ridiculous. We are moving here into realms of subtlety and nuance, to questions about appropriate context, and ultimately to the discernment of appropriate justifications for our actions.

Imagine that our hypothetical father has observed the practice of putting a child in ‘timeout’ to think for a while about her actions. This is commonly accompanied by a requirement to sit in silence. But this practice does not in all possible applications escape charges of cruelty. Consider, for example, if a parent finds that he put his child in timeout to reflect on a crime she didn’t actually commit. Most parents are going to feel pretty bad about that. It’s also fairly clear that a young child can only be expected to reflect in silence for a few minutes. Any longer than that is unlikely to have the desired effect, and risks the charge of cruelty. One would also imagine that this practice would simply be harmful for a child who was unlikely to understand what she had done wrong. Some other approach to moral formation would be necessary.

So there are perhaps three considerations relevant to determining whether a certain way of treating a child is cruel. The first might be proportionality. In the case of ‘timeout’, for example, five minutes is appropriate, say, and three hours is too long. Then there is the justification for using this approach over another. Do we have a good reason for doing this rather than some alternative? Finally, there must be some confidence that the approach we have taken will bring about the result we want. If we require children to sit in silence for too long, with no good reason, and without any confidence that this will bring about any substantial good for them, then we could rightly be accused of being cruel, because children tend to like to wriggle about and make noise.

I’m not arguing that teachers are always being cruel when they require children to sit in silence, but I am calling for teachers and influential educators to think about the subtleties of context and justification. It is certainly conceivable that teachers sometimes require children to work in silence for a disproportionate amount of time, without having really considered other ways of going about a similar learning task, and without any strong reason to believe that the silence is necessary or useful in bringing about a particular desired educational outcome. And it is far from cut and dried that there might not at least in a small number of these situations be some cruelty involved.

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How ought war to be remembered in schools?

In November I published this short book in the Philosophy of Education Society’s ‘Impact’ Series (Impact21)

You can watch a video of the launch event here:


It was picked up by The Guardian here:

I also wrote an accompanying piece for The Conversation…

…as well as an invited piece for Wiley’s War Studies blog here:

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Van Manen – an example of anecdote as phenomenology

As I make my morning coffee, I look out of the kitchen window. I see a hummingbird land on the feeder and I smile. And yet, I do not pay much attention. I am kind of sunken in thought as I stare out of the window. I know I have to do a bunch of jobs today but cannot bring myself to focus on them either. I wonder what my kids were doing last night. The morning seems to be slipping by and I have the vague feeling that I should be accomplishing more with regards to the things that matter. “A penny for your thoughts,” I hear my wife say. She has torn me away from my dreamy staring out of the window. “What were you thinking?” she asks. (I don’t usually like questions like that. I don’t even honestly know what to say about my state of mind.) “Oh, nothing really,” I respond. But my wife keeps pressing, “You looked so intent!” “Well, I was admiring the orchids in the kitchen window sill,” I respond. “It is amazing how they keep blooming week after week.” My wife, the gardener, seems pleased with my explanation, though I can see from her face that she expected something else.

van Manen, Max (2014-03-31). Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing (Developing Qualitative Inquiry) (Kindle Locations 863-871). Left Coast Press. Kindle Edition.

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Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain Oxford Branch Events

Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (Oxford branch) – joint seminar programme with the Religion, Philosophy and Education, OUDE:

All seminars start at 5pm and end at 6:30 (OUDE, 15 Norham Gardens).

7 October

The Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford

Reflections on his time as the Church of England’s lead bishop on education


20 October

Professor Gemma Moss, Institute of Education, University of London

Progression, knowledge and assessment in the curriculum: Who’s interested in the sociology of knowledge now?
(Public Seminar)


18 November

Prof Christopher Winch, King’s College, London

How Do We Know that Someone Knows How?


25 November

Dr Daniel Moulin, University of Navarra, Spain

On the nature of antitheism: an exploratory study of anti-Christian prejudice in English secondary schools


2 December

Dr Emma Williams, Philosopher in residence, Rugby School

Thinking beyond the straits of reason


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Call for Papers – Philosophy of Education Society Annual Conference

PESGB@50 anniversary conference call (link to pdf flyer)
Thursday 26 March to Sunday 29 March 2015
New College, Oxford

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