Values and Community in the Life of Academies

I was lucky enough to be discussant in a very lively symposium at BERA Conference yesterday and thought I would post my response here for anyone who was unable to get to it. This isn’t exactly what I said: it was written up creatively from the notes I made as the papers were being given.

The symposium was:

‘It’s life Jim, but not as we know it’: values and community in the life of Academies


Chair: R Davies

Discussant: D Aldridge

1. Shaping the self: young people’s struggles within the(ir) Academy

Simon Edwards – Portsmouth University

You can access Simon’s paper here.

2. “Our Ways” – The insertion and development of sponsor approved attributes into the whole curriculum of Academies

Mark Deacon – Roehampton University

3. Academies and the rise of a new state-led paternalism

Richard Davies, Aberystwyth University

For the time being, you can read Richard’s paper here.

I’ll start by noting the exemplary research model we are offered here in the relationship between school leader, researcher and academic guide: I hadn’t realised that was the relationship between these papers. (I also noted that the relationship was triangulated around a pub. That is the kind of triangulation I want in all my research!)

Richard was clear early on in stating that despite appearances, the symposium doesn’t really address the Trojan Horse issue. I think there are some implications in the background here. I’ll elucidate my interpretation of the implications of what Richard said, and perhaps when he responds to questions he can point out if I have taken it too far.

I think the issues are around the inculcation of Fundamental British Values. We’ve noticed the shift in policy and guidance from simply not undermining British values, as we find in the Teachers’ Standards of 2011, through ‘encouragement’, to the more recent proposal to ‘actively promote’ them (or in Richard’s words, ‘nurture’ them). I think the problems here depend on how weak or strong a conception we have of what is British about our values. Often the lists of values we are offered do not seem distinctively British – they are things like ‘tolerance’ that really we might expect to be the values of any educated person. In this case, it does not seem useful or appropriate, really, to argue that they are ‘British’. Once we begin to list values that might look distinctively British, it doesn’t look at all clear that these values are necessary to being an educated person. According to Richard’s argument, it would appear than that although schools might structure their curriculum around such distinctively British values, they ought to stop short at ‘nurturing’ them.

I was once asked to review a book called ‘Early Academies: Making a Difference’, which purported to offer evidence (it was pretty thin) as to the success of the early ‘replacement’ academies, and identified ten features of successful academies. You can find them in Andrew Adonis’ introduction here. A lot of these features, it occurs to me – around ethos, leadership, commitment of staff – were different ways of saying, according to Richard’s definition, that they were ‘Strong Values Academies’ (SVAs). I remembered noting at the time, as Mark has done today, that a lot of the value foundations being offered here were contestable stories, and they were being treated as unproblematic. I was uncomfortable, as Mark is, about the prevalence of individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competition as values that were actively encouraged in these schools.

I also noted that the value stories were not particularly coherent. I know we can give all sorts of accounts of how Christianity has in fact led to the secular values of capitalism, but it’s actually pretty hard to encourage the values espoused by Jesus alongside competition or entrepreneurialism, at least in any sort of way that is ontologically coherent – although that certainly didn’t stop most of these school leaders. But I wonder about Richard’s criterion about coherence of narrative, and whether this really is essential to his definition of SVAs.

There is always an instrumentalisation in the way values that are discussed in a document like this. They always purport to recognise that there is more to being an educated person than just academic achievement, that it might also have something to do with the values you hold or the contribution you might make to community. But at the end of the day, whenever having strong values is commended to educational institutions, it is always on the instrumental grounds that this will lead to academic achievement. It’s sort of, “You’ve got to realise and promote in your school ethos that education isn’t all about improving grades and reducing your numbers of NEETS, it’s also about fostering certain values. And if you do foster these values, your grades will go up and your NEET numbers will go down. So you should.”

A lot of the accounts in the ‘Early Academies’ document stressed the importance of links with local communities (although it didn’t make its way into the ‘ten features’). But no evidence was really offered as to the effects or success of these links. Simon has offered us today a compelling story about how this narrative (value?) of individualism is harmful to academic achievement, harmful to communities and particularly harmful to disadvantaged young people in those communities.

Simon also demonstrates how there are virtuous elements to relationships with students which might be likened to friendship – to do with being on their side, being someone they can trust and strike up a rapport with. I have found myself as a PGCE tutor repeating the standby: ‘remember you’re not their friend’. I think often in our understandings of professional persona we have bought into that managerial, instrumentalist values story that Richard and Mark have argued is being perpetuated by a certain minority cultural elite. This links to the kind of managerial narratives about discipline that we have been hearing about in today’s news. It also reminds me of James Macallister’s paper in one of yesterday’s Philosophy SIG sessions, where he pointed to richer possible conceptions of discipline that link more closely to conceptions of what it is to be an educated person rather than this managerial performative picture that is currently being promoted. (You can read one of James’ papers on this here).

I hadn’t thought I would be able to shoehorn Heidegger into this discussion, but Mark gave me the opportunity. You mentioned the current lack of clear values statements on school websites, and that got me thinking about whether such a thing was necessary.

I am reminded of Heidegger’s well-known claim that no-one died for mere values. What he means by this is that ‘values’ have become a matter of subjective choice – you might hold certain values, or you might choose other ones. But you can see that this means that values are pretty much arbitrary, and they lose their binding force. Some people argue that Heidegger doesn’t say very much about ethics, but I find this compelling. Our shared ethics, for Heidegger, are part of the pre-reflective background that makes possible our understanding of life. They are tied to that ‘clearing’ in which we ‘dwell’, which maps out the paths and possibilities for a meaningful, ethical life, but doesn’t instruct us to go in a particular direction. What binds us here is characterised by being dark and obscure. It resists codification in explicit terms, but can be thought of as a tradition of dialogue that contains tensions and critical opportunities. It is a fertile soil that makes possible ethical emancipation, revision, and the recovery of old and neglected possibilities, all the while growing out of a shared heritage. Heidegger likens this to the eastern concept of The Tao, The Way, in which we all grow, develop and differ. There is a technological desire to master and instrumentalise value by making it explicit. But you can think of The Tao as a tree. Codifying values- bringing them out of ambiguity and into stark, technological light – cuts the branch from the tree. It will wither and die.

Having clear statements of values is an instrumental, managerial technique that schools have learned from business. Clear values bring about particular results in an institution. Perhaps schools should not make clear statements of value, but should attempt to induct children into that ongoing conversation in the tradition, in all its ambiguity and tension.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What is Education For?

I was originally employed at Brookes to work on the Secondary PGCE programme, but over the years my teaching timetable has moved somewhat and this is now the second year in which I haven’t had any direct teaching on the programme, although I do have some responsibility for it. I am very pleased, therefore, to have been invited to talk to the cohort at the end their first week on the subject of ‘What is Education For?’

My colleagues understand my work and will therefore be expecting a philosophical discussion of this question. But I’m keen to offer the students something that will be relevant to them in their first week on the course and that will hopefully provide a useful context for their reflection over the coming year. Thoughts on the following, therefore, are warmly welcomed: there is still time to fix this if readers don’t think I am going to achieve my aim.

I think my main concern about the discourse of education and schooling at present is the tendency to see the role of the teacher as a relatively unproblematic job of work. There is something that needs to be known, and teachers need to convey, transmit, or otherwise help their students to acquire that object. The task of teacher education programmes, according to this understanding, is to furnish student teachers with tried and tested methods for achieving that outcome, or to provide access to the best cutting edge research that introduces new processes or procedures into the classroom or evaluates entrenched ones. So we know what we need to do, let’s get on and find out ‘what works’ and do the best by our students.

There are a few problems with this standpoint, but the one I’m most concerned with is the assumption that we are all pretty much agreed on what it is we’re trying to do. The pressing educational debates of the moment tend not, in fact, to be debates about the most effective way to achieve a particular outcome (although they are often portrayed that way), so much as debates between competing understandings of what we are trying to achieve through the educational endeavour. I’m going to go on to give some examples, but I’ll just assert for now that the questions that are seeing a lot of media coverage at the moment – about whether we should set by ability, how we should manage behaviour, and what should go on the curriculum – are motivated only secondarily by disagreement about what the research is showing us, and primarily by some pretty deep-seated divisions about what education is for, which ultimately come down to differing perspectives about what constitutes worthwhile human activity, or about what kinds of things are desirable or ‘good’ for human existence. These are questions that have troubled philosophers for quite a long time, and have – throughout all of their development in the western world, at least since Plato – been considered not only in the abstract but also in close connection with their educational implications.

I’m not saying that all teachers need to be philosophers, but I would urge that it is right and proper that teacher education programmes leave plenty of space for dialogue around what is worthwhile and good in human life, and the educational implications of this. If we disagree fundamentally about what we are trying to achieve in the classroom, then no amount of scrutiny of the evidence is going to lead to any sort of resolution of these big educational debates.

This point of view has come in for a lot of stick. The ‘theoretical’ components of teacher education have often been characterised at best as a waste of time, or as subversive, and at worst as lacking in intellectual integrity. Our last Secretary of State for Education used the terms ‘enemies of promise’ and even ‘the blob’ to characterise those working in university departments of education on questions in sociology, say, or philosophy, where they ought to have been conducting randomised control trials into effective teaching methods.

I know from experience that the start of a teacher education course is a good time to talk about social justice, social mobility, the value of qualifications, and so on. I enjoy hearing the animated, vocational terms in which most students will express their decision to become a teacher. Many identify, in fact, with children who struggled at school, and want to provide opportunities to students from all kinds of backgrounds to make the best of their lives. Others will identify with that teacher who opened up some wider awareness for them, or kindled a lifelong passion for their chosen subject, and want to pass on that passion to the younger generation. Still others will identify education as a powerful force for social change, and will themselves be prepared to entertain the possibility that schooling might need to change in some fundamental respects if that end is to be achieved. (I know, I know, it’s a job, too. We’d none of us do it if we didn’t get paid, right?)

But I also know about the pressures and demands of what is normally a year-long induction into the teaching profession. Students embark on school placements. Timetables swiftly fill up. Somehow there isn’t time in the staff room for the kind of philosophical or political discussions students enjoyed in the refectory on campus. In this kind of context, it’s easy to accept that teaching is relatively unproblematic in its aims. The difficulty is doing it. It’s hard, there’s lots to learn in a short space of time, then there are evidence files that need to be kept up, and university assignments. When students return to university, there are a host of immediate problems that need to be resolved. Those of us who continue to insist on dialogue into the aims of purposes of this endeavour begin to look more like the enemies of promise we have been portrayed as, or worse, enemies of successful development toward the teaching standards.

So this is my plug for continued philosophical exploration into the aims and nature of education, teaching, and schooling. I don’t really think it is incompatible with developing in line with the standards, of course; I’m convinced that a teacher who is prepared to engage with other professionals around these big questions of the meaning and purpose of education is going to be a better teacher for it, and will certainly be better prepared to engage in discussion about what the evidence tells us about how best to teach.

I’ll start with curriculum. We can’t teach students everything. We must privilege some things and not others. The question about what it is worthwhile for us to teach in school is value-laden. What constitutes important knowledge (and let’s use that term loosely for now) is publicly contested and there is not widespread consensus.

If we decide that the aim of education is simply certification – i.e. we want to enable students to get good qualifications so that they can get good jobs – then the question of what we ought to teach is easy to settle. We teach what is on the exam specification. Certainly, having a job and the ability to support oneself and – if desired – a family is an important element of worthwhile human living. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else worthwhile without it. But it’s also easy to see that gaining or providing qualifications can’t be the only aim of education. There would be some interesting implications if it was: we would be justified, firstly, in teaching whatever was on the curriculum, and furthermore the content of the curriculum would be arbitrary. In fact, we expect qualifications to map to outcomes that are worthwhile for other reasons, which throws us back to the question of what kinds of educational outcomes are worthwhile.

We could make a wider argument based on the need for economic prosperity on a national scale. Certain understandings of the material world are useful to industry, and the capacity to engage rigorously in certain kinds of scientific enquiry is essential if we wish to make technological innovations and keep pace with our competitors on the global scene. It is sometimes claimed that it is relatively easy to establish what these understandings and capacities would be. This is the kind of argument that is often made for the importance to the curriculum of what are called the STEM subjects. One colleague in the philosophy department here at Brookes makes a similar argument and (surprisingly, you would think, since it indicts his own subject among others) would relegate the teaching of arts subjects to the spare spaces in education – a useful embellishment, but easily jettisoned in favour of the work of passing on the capacity to keep pace with scientific change. I don’t agree with this. I would point students to the work of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who makes a profoundly unsettling survey of those moments in human history where economic prosperity seems to entail maintaining significant inequalities in society in terms of wealth, quality of life or human dignity. In such cases, it is only our ability to identify with those who have become demeaned and downtrodden, and to see their call on society’s resources as equivalent to our own, that can hope to prevent us from sacrificing their needs in favour of great economic prosperity for the privileged few, and to resist justifying rhetorics that would urge the poor to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the nation as a whole. It is the practice and appreciation of the arts, Nussbaum argues, that fosters this kind of empathy in human societies.

Our last Secretary of State for Education liked to link education with social mobility. He pointed to his own story as a bright child from humble beginnings who, well-served by a good school, was able to achieve the dizzying heights of public office. The aim here is laudable: education ought to enable children to break out of inherited cycles of deprivation and achieve prosperity and comfort where their parents and ancestors did not. But another rhetoric sometimes becomes intermingled with the Coalition’s arguments on this, which is the language of merit due to academic ability.  The Prime Minister has justified setting by ability, even in primary schools, so that the ‘brightest’ children can work at the speed they need to go. This hearkens back at least to Plato. You might be familiar with Plato’s account of schooling in which the primary aim is to identify those children with the moral and intellectual capacity to rule the city, so that they can be separated off and given the rigorous training they need. So schooling enables educators to identify bronze, silver and gold children and direct them toward the social function that best fits them. What is often forgotten is that social mobility is key to Plato’s account. If social position was justifiably inherited, then we wouldn’t need education. Gold parents would give birth to gold offspring, and the social order would be maintained. Schooling is important because gold parents can give birth to bronze children, who need to be sent off to the fields where they are best suited. And vice versa, I suppose. The child’s function in society is innate, not inherited. The problem with all of this is that educators from all sorts of disciplines have questioned the construction of innate ability. Furthermore, unless all students have access to social mobility, it is hard to see how these kind of arguments don’t just collapse into the kind of three tiered sorting house system the UK had after the second world war, where only those who have been identified as brighter seem to get access to possibilities for social and economic transformation. Some social commentators are urging that this is precisely what is happening with the Coalition’s proliferation of school designations.

The sociologist Michael Young has made an argument for what he calls ‘powerful knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is not to be construed as a narrow list of facts, but rather the shared understanding of certain communities of enquiry that we recognise as academic disciplines. This knowledge would enable a form of social improvement that doesn’t depend on ability but rests on providing students with ‘epistemic access’ to resources with the power to make significant changes in their lives. He has a new book coming out that is intended to elaborate his position for students on ITE courses and I would urge you to read it. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how the argument develops.

It seems to me that there are all sorts of questions we could ask about epistemic access, not least exactly what we are to think of it as access to.

Whenever I suggest that this might mean epistemic access to the truth, I encounter raised eyebrows. What good is the truth? I want a job. I would argue that getting to the truth about things is a powerful force for social emancipation, but the denigration of the language of truth in education departments is, lamentably, one of our ‘blobbier’ traits. Still, I think this is the most fruitful way of thinking about what might be meant by epistemic access.

This could also mean epistemic access to qualification. The disciplines have their home in universities, and university qualifications lead to the sweetest jobs, so perhaps schools ought to mirror universities so that students have the best chance of going on to university and doing well there. I have argued above that this would be an impoverished way of looking at the aims of education, but I think it does sometimes get mixed up in the language of powerful knowledge, particularly as it has been taken up in places by Gove.

Another way of thinking about powerful knowledge would be to think of it as knowledge that is shared with those in power, and thus an instrumentally necessary acquisition for anyone who wishes to move amongst them. In a caricatured sense, we might think here of certain cultural goods: the ability to pick up a Shakespearean reference, to know good wine from bad, to understand a Latin phrase.

A colleague with whom I previously worked on the PGCE, Dr Robert Legg, has made an interesting study into how the latter kind of powerful knowledge became enshrined on English A Level music exam specifications. The predominance on music syllabuses of a narrow canon of classical composers had the outcome of favouring, in terms of A level success, students from a particular socio-economic background who would already be familiar with these composers. Their parents had handed on that cultural capital. Success in music examinations, and further life possibilities that such success might open up, look in a context like this to be a closed club populated by a particular socio-economic stratum of society. Now, what we do with this information depends on what our understanding of powerful knowledge should be.

We could try to get everyone into the club, as it were, by teaching that classical canon really hard, so that we could somehow overcome the advantage of those students who had the cultural capital. Or (and I think this is Legg’s suggestion) we could blow the club wide open by dropping its entrance requirements, and incorporating into the music specification sufficient popular and contemporary music that the advantage effectively disappears, and there is now equal access to the top grades regardless of social background. If our understanding of the aim here is to get students to university, then this is a no brainer: this will help students get the top grades regardless of cultural capital. But this rather assumes that the canon was only ever valuable because it was favoured by an educated elite. What if, on the other hand, there is such a thing as great art, and some artworks are worthy of more attention because of their timeless capacity to provoke human thought? Then it would seem that we do in fact have a duty to attempt to induct students of all backgrounds into the appreciation of such works, however difficult that might be.

Again we find ourselves thrown back into age old philosophical questions about what is worthwhile and desirable in human existence.

If I get time, I might also touch on the setting by ability debate. I might point out that the jury is really out, evidence-wise, except that setting can be shown perhaps to favour a small minority of more able students. One correlation that is pretty hard to deny where setting occurs, however, is that between the sets into which students tend to be put and certain socio-economic aspects of their background. All things being equal, poorer students tend to be in bottom sets. What would happen to our thinking on setting if, instead of relying on what ‘every parent knows’, we started with some sort of educational aim to promote social cohesion through the constitution of school classes?

I might also discuss the deep and troubling ethical questions that underpin differing approaches to ‘behaviour management’, but that is really for another post. It also looks like I will have to reserve discussion of the moral development of children, or the fostering of ‘Fundamental British values’, for another occasion. Perhaps if they ask me back…


Listen to Dr Legg’s comments here.


Thanks are due to Upkar Singh, Senior Lecturer in Maths at Newman University College, for the following studies on setting by ability and social inequality:

Boaler, J., Wiliam, D. & Brown, M. L. (2000) Students‟ experiences of ability grouping – disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 26, No.5, pp.631-648.

DfES (2005b) The Effects of Pupil Grouping: Literature Review (Research Report No.688). London: Her Majesty‟s Stationery Office (HMSO)

Sukhnandan, L. & Lee, B. (1998) Streaming, setting and grouping by ability: a review of literature Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Phonics is not a fix-all drug that will get all children reading

How can there be such high profile disagreement about an issue as extensively researched and important as the teaching of reading to young children? In July, a group of teachers and phonics consultants wrote to the Times Educational Supplement, defending the Year One phonics check – a test given to all five year olds to examine their ability to decode unfamiliar words. This was in a response to an earlier letter from teachers, academics and representatives of teaching unions who had called for its abolition.

The reason for this disagreement lies not so much in the difficulty or inaccessibility of the research but in some widespread assumptions about the kind of evidence that should inform teaching.

The department for education currently promotes a model of “rigorous” educational research that draws on the use of evidence to inform practice in other sectors, most notably medicine. But rather than helping to select the best possible educational methods, this search for evidence forces educational activity to follow the model of the medical “intervention”.

There are many critics of the department for education’s guidance on teaching phonics. None of them denies that some of the advice has a place in the early teaching of reading.

Teaching the regular “phonic” correspondence between letters or groups of letters and particular sounds, as well as the process of blending these sounds from left to right to form whole word units, has been acknowledged as part of good educational practice.

But viewed as one of a range of approaches to learning to read, phonics cannot be pinpointed as a discrete “intervention”, and therefore as the “best” reading intervention from a range of options.

Teachers go off script

An intervention has distinct properties which can be reproduced across contexts. It can be given to one group and withheld from another – the core principle of the “control” in the randomised control trial. It has a beginning and an end so that its effects can be measured. The obvious example is a course of a drug, which has a particular quantity, regularity, and chemical composition.

But the problem with transferring evidence-based practice to the educational context is that teachers do not teach through interventions. The interactions between teachers and pupils cannot be broken up into the kinds of discrete activities tested through a randomised control trial.

The only way an educational activity could be given to one group and withheld from another, have a beginning and an end so that its effects could be measured, and then be effectively reproduced, is if the activity could be restricted to a script or reduced to a resource (such as a book or a film). The teacher would have to stick heavily to the script in order for the intervention’s effects to be measured against those pupils who didn’t get taught that way.

But any teacher who has tried to follow a lesson plan knows that classroom interaction cannot be captured in scripted activity. A teacher’s duty to continually monitor the progress of students as they learn means they will be constantly be making decisions in the moment about how to re-phrase questions, encourage particular individuals in their learning, or make use of additional examples. They need to go off script.

Too many eggs in one basket

The government’s guidance on phonics is a case in point. It emphasises the introduction of the “first and fast” principle – that in the earliest stages, phonics is to be taught exclusively as the way children read. The introduction of other reading strategies, such as inferring the word from narrative context, or using other clues such as pictures, are determined to be counter-productive to the aim of developing phonic knowledge.

Schools are encouraged to select from a range of available commercial programmes, each of which adhere to core phonic principles set out by the department for education. The guidance implies these programmes will have most value if, like a course of antibiotics, they are seen through to completion without detrimental interaction with other programmes.

Building on this, the year one phonics check is designed – with its incorporation of nonsense-words and words out of meaningful context – to explicitly rule out the possibility that students are employing other strategies.

The result of this, as the first open letter claimed, is that the phonics check tests the application of the intervention rather than its intended result: literacy.

It is easy to see how interventions like these are attractive at a policy level – particularly for those who see widespread problems with poor literacy as an epidemic that governments should be able to cure. But the question remains whether evidence has supported the identification of the best method to teach reading, or whether the desire for an evidence-based solution has forced that solution to take on the character of an intervention.

I believe that teachers are rarely concerned with employing an intervention, far less the “best” one. They are more often concerned with judging how to go on with a particular student, or what to do with a particular student at a particular time.

This is not to say that a teacher’s practice and the learning of his or her students are not enriched through a career-long interaction with the educational research community, as found by a recent enquiry.

The department for education has a responsibility to ensure education research is directed to areas of pressing concern and that this research is made available to teachers. But, the result of identifying and endorsing particular interventions through policy, in the manner of the phonics check, is the homogenisation of teachers, students and their classroom situations.

This will come at the expense of teachers’ freedom to use their practical and professional wisdom to make informed decisions about the best ways to respond to the needs of individual students.

David Aldridge

Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University

This is a post I originally wrote for The Conversation. They allowed me to reproduce it and you can find the original here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

More on Phonics

@oldandrew replied to my earlier blogs on phonics here:

I posted a response on the site, which I have reproduced here.

Thanks Andrew. If you would kindly print these comments in your thread, I’m happy that this debate has probably run its course. I take each point in turn.

1. If you could claim with reference to evidence that there is some distinct method – you call it ‘SSP’ – that ‘consistently gets the same result’, then you would indeed trump the argument. But the point is that you are not warranted in claiming that it is SSP that ‘consistently gets the same result’, at least not if the intended result is the ability to read. The evidence could not possibly support such a claim given the complexity of the classroom contexts you are prescribing for.

You also waver between implying that SSP has bounded, distinct and exclusive properties (exactly along the analogy of the chemical composition of a drug) and that it is a blurrier group of mixed practices (as you claim in response 2). Your own position is inconsistent here. The more you interweave your insistence on phonics teaching with all sorts of other undeniably valuable teaching activities, the less likely it becomes that any of the ‘evidence’ you point to will support this nuanced collection of activities as a distinctive ‘method’. But that’s a good way to go: actually, it brings our two stances on what teachers should actually be doing in the classroom much closer. They should be making situated judgements, using what they know from research and other sources, about the best way to go forward with particular children in a particular context. But this problematises the phonics check, of course (see my original argument and my response to 2).

2. I restricted my comments largely to the phonics check, which by design (as the open letter originally argued) tests the method of synthetic phonics exclusively. The check is also methodologically broken, but I think the letter makes that argument just fine.

3. Here I think quoting out of context puts you in danger of misrepresenting my case. The point is that ‘learning styles’ is an easy target: no-one I know will seriously defend that fad. My case for the complex situated judgement of teachers rests rather on the infinite contingency of the classroom situation, taking in all sorts of factors and including the complex prior experience and awareness of each individual student. You don’t knock that down by knocking down learning styles. I believe you are aware of the nature of a ‘straw man’ argument.

4. We are, at least, agreed on this point. “The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively”. This will indeed deter teachers from acting in ways that do not promote (systematic synthetic) phonics knowledge. I think it is important to add: even if those ways of acting might themselves promote literacy.

5. I have argued that teachers engage with educational research; they can and should also conduct their own. I have also argued that they should do so with a sensitivity to the way that academic researchers normally communicate their findings: as a piece of a much bigger and varied endeavour that might shed some light on a particular issue of classroom practice, rather than as warrant for the wholesale imposition of some particular technique.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The phonics debate: a further modest philosophical contribution

@oldandrewuk has recently posted on his blog some further engagement with Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics and the recent letter calling for the abolition of the phonics check.

I notice that he has ignored my own defence of Davis’s argument on this blog. Old has therefore chosen to directly re-post his previous arguments rather than defend them against recent fresh criticism that has engaged directly with those arguments.

Nevertheless, in the little bit of further elaboration that Old does indulge in, I was able to pick up a significant error in his reasoning that I will detail here. It is significant, because his ‘knock-down’ rebuttal of Davis’s argument rests on it.

A few things to get out of the way first. Davis’s position is not as ‘extreme’ as painted by Old in that it does not claim that teaching practice cannot be informed by research. The argument is that research into a particular classroom situation, or across a group of situations, will not allow us to extract a method or cluster of prescribed activities or interactions that could produce the same results in other, even similar, contexts. This goes for all educational situations. Any method we might produce would fail to do justice to the complexity of the interactions that were going on in the situations studied, and in any other situations where teachers were striving to bring about similar results. This does not mean that we cannot learn from educational research, but that we do not do this by pulling out and imposing prescriptive methods which limit the opportunity for teachers to make situated judgements in their own classroom contexts. But this case has been well made in Davis’s book and to some extent in my last post.

Now for the big mistake. Old writes, in response to Davis’s case about the difficulty of identifying prescriptive teaching ‘methods’ on the analogy of a drug in clinical contexts (because of the complexity and interconnectedness of the educational situations we are researching):

“Of course, while the extreme nature of the claim should be highlighted, and it justifies the use of the word “denialist” to describe the argument, an extreme position could still be correct.”

Well, so far so good, actually. We might disagree about the appropriateness of the term ‘denialist’, and about the extremity of Davis’s position, if one engages with a great deal of material that is being produced by the educational research community, but the important point here is that we are all in agreement. Davis’s position could be correct.

Here comes Old’s knock-down (and it is a pretty important knock-down, since without it Davis’s position is acknowledged to be possibly correct):

“Unfortunately, this mistake is not made in isolation. It is part of a pamphlet which argues against the imposition of teaching methods, particularly the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. As I argued above, if teaching methods (or even just the methods of teaching reading) cannot be identified then they cannot be imposed, for there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them. Nor can the claim that teaching synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse” be squared with the picture painted of an invisible, undetectable method.”

My own bold highlighting identifies where Old has failed to engage with Davis’s argument as written. So we cannot identify teaching methods. Given. It does not follow from this that they cannot be imposed, for the simple reason that anyone labouring under the impression that teaching methods can be identified can still seek to impose them. This we know: there is any amount of literature out there in which the pedagogical ‘expert’ in one or other area fails to engage with the essential complexity of the situation they have researched and seeks to extract general principles or procedures that can then constitute a fail-safe approach to teaching in that area.

But the second part is even more important: “there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them”. We have said that teaching methods cannot be (successfully) identified. However, (spurious) methods can nevertheless be imposed, by those who are labouring under the misapprehension that methods can be identified.

There can of course be consequences for not implementing the methods, and this brings us back to the phonics check. Note how the method of synthetic phonics is supposed to bring about the result of literate children, but the phonics check does not test this. The phonics check (as I pointed out in my last post) tests the application of the method, i.e. whether or not children have been successfully taught to apply the principles of synthetic phonics. This is the classic outcome of the kind of educational reasoning that argues that catch-all educational methods that will work across all contexts can be extracted from the ‘evidence’ we have available. The methods are imposed through the introduction of checks that divorce the method (in this case, a specific form of phonics) from its intended result (literacy) and compel teachers to adhere to the methods rather than seek to bring about the intended result. The outcome of these kinds of educational policies will be to put pressure on teachers to slavishly adhere to a set of procedures prescribed by an authorised educational method rather than apply their situated judgement, their knowledge of educational research, and their knowledge of the complexity of a particular classroom situation, to bring about the desired educational result (in this case, children who can read).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

On ‘phonics denialists’

David Aldridge is Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education and Programme Lead for Professional Education at Oxford Brookes University.

Friday’s TES published a letter from a group of educationalists to Michael Gove calling for the abolishment of the Year 1 ‘phonics check’. Signatories included the general secretary of the UK Literacy Association, the chairman of the National Association for Primary Education, the general secretary of NASUWT, and the chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. In response to the letter, one well-known educational commentator (@oldandrewuk) tweeted “See some phonics denialists got a letter in the TES”. I’m not going to spend any time questioning the use of the markedly pejorative term ‘denialists’, and the attribution of a questionable ethical agenda that is usually implied by it. I’ve done my homework here and see that Andrew Old has used this term in relation to phonics for some time, been called out for it, and made his responses.

But the substance of the charge (implied in this tweet but offered explicitly elsewhere) is that a large number of academics and other educationalists in positions of significant esteem in relation to the teaching of literacy persist in objecting to the application of phonics, or refusing to assent to certain propositions about phonics, despite the overwhelming evidence stacked against them. This is a claim that needs to be questioned.

An initial observation one could make is that the letter objects to the mandate around the phonics ‘check’ and the specifics of its design rather than the teaching of phonics per se. This is important and I will come back to it later. A further observation would be that where the literature cited in the letter (here I mean the philosopher Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics) has a broader scope than the phonics check, what is objected to is in fact the exclusive employment of the methods of synthetic phonics (SP) rather than, again, phonics per se. In fact, Davis argues for what he calls an ‘analytical phonics’ that draws on some of the techniques associated with SP, such as teaching letter-sound correspondences and the practice of blending, but also employs other elements that have been claimed to be a distraction from SP, such as looking at context or reading for meaning. But here I might be in danger of wandering into a well-laid minefield. Andrew Old has forcefully argued his criticisms of ‘mixed methods’ teaching approaches, both in relation to phonics and in education more broadly. So I’ll save that for the time being too.

When pressed, Old sets out his specific criticism of Davis’s argument as follows:

‘His argument is that teaching methods don’t exist, therefore the evidence they work doesn’t count, therefore it’s wrong to impose them. The issue is that the premise is absurd and the conclusion contradictory’ (you can find this in his twitter feed)

I don’t think this is suitably sensitive to the argument Davis sets out. Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers. It’s the same mistake that’s being made in Ben Goldacre and others’ advocacy of employing the randomised control trial to inform policy and practice in educational contexts.

A drug, or a fertiliser, has a chemical composition that can be isolated and reproduced. When a doctor prescribes a drug, there will be all kinds of professional complexities and variations at play: the doctor’s bedside manner, their knowledge of the patient’s medical history, their attentiveness to the patient’s description of their symptoms, etc. But as far as gathering evidence for a clinical trial into the success of a drug is concerned, what matters is the drug, and when the patient gets better (or doesn’t), this will be attributable to whether the drug has (or has not) done its intended work. Now I’m not really suggesting that a doctor’s bedside manner and the like don’t have any bearing on patient recovery, I’m just interested in the drug-method correspondence. The point is that in the educational context, the ‘drug’ (method) cannot be separated from the rest of the teaching and learning situation as it can in the medical context. In any educational situation, teachers constantly make practical judgements about the best way to respond to the diverse range of individuals in their classroom and act in accordance with these judgements. In responding to any given question, or utterance, or assessment of a pupil’s current understanding, the teacher will draw on available resources pertaining to a student’s particular background, their prior learning, their specific motivations and whatever else they know about the student concerned and other contingent elements of the classroom situation. This will necessarily call for different actions in relation to different students, or with different classes, or on different days. Davis’s point is that there is nothing about a teacher’s response from one situation to the next that could be isolated in the manner of the chemical composition of a drug and to which a particular educational result could be attributed in a similar way.

This is not a criticism of education research in itself or its potential to inform practice. Davis in fact calls in his book for more research into the different ways in which early years practitioners go about teaching reading. And although Davis doesn’t say a great deal about it, his argument doesn’t require that we give up on the possibility of offering explanations in educational contexts, or even of generalising certain causal mechanisms. But it does entail that we cannot separate out an educational ‘method’ from a particular case or group of cases and roll it out with the expectation of similar results across the board. The only way the concept of ‘proving’ or ‘testing’ an educational ‘method’ could be made meaningful would be if that method could be separated out from other situated judgements that the teacher makes on a continual basis, and it follows from this that the only way the method could then be said to ‘work’ in its wholesale employment would be if teachers were then expressly required to stop making other sorts of judgements within the particular domain with which the method was concerned.

It is, of course, quite difficult to get teachers to stop making situated judgements about the particular needs of pupils in particular contexts that they know well, because teachers are intelligent professionals who are motivated toward the wellbeing and learning of their pupils. That is why so many of the more terrible educational policies of the past have not been nearly as deleterious to pupil learning as they might have been. Davis refers to the way that experienced professionals who are well versed in the nuances of teaching reading have already ‘sanitised’ the (at least implicitly) exclusivist policy on SP, and emphasised phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching early literacy. This is what teachers do all the time, of course. They don’t let educational policy get in the way of doing best by their students, and find all sorts of ways of promoting best practice within a prescriptive system.

Andrew Old has strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches to teaching reading. His standpoint here is not abundantly clear. On the one hand, he has charged advocates of ‘mixed methods’ with not actually adding anything of value to what is offered in synthetic phonics. On the other hand, he has claimed that ‘There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”’. Comprehension strategies are, however, ruled out as a distraction. It would be easy to get bogged down here in a discussion of which techniques or practices properly fall within the remit of synthetic phonics and which do not. Such a discussion would only have value, of course, if you were trying to isolate and prescribe a universal and exclusive ‘method’ for the teaching of reading.

To understand Old’s vitriolic condemnation of those who advocate phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching reading, one needs to see this within the context of his discussion of ‘mixed methods’ in education more generally. He writes that, ‘There is no good reason to assume children have different learning styles which require different methods’. It is hardly surprising that Old defends a one size fits all approach to teaching if he sees so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative. Although it has proved sticky in school teaching and learning policies, the idea of learning styles has rather lost currency in the educational research community. Although Old does not at this point employ the obvious straw man, one might imagine that much-discredited educational myths such as those propagated about visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners (a favoured, and easy, target of those who would discredit educational ‘theory’) are waiting to be deployed and ‘exposed’ to strengthen Old’s claim that once a method has been identified, if it does not work then what is required is not a creative alternative approach, but simply a larger ‘dose’ of method.

As we have seen, Davis does not rest his critique of one-size fits all methodological approaches to teaching on any reification of supposed ‘learning styles’, but on the claim that the situatedness and inter-connectedness of teaching practice means that we cannot isolate methods that we can then impose in other quarters. This claim applies to anything you might call ‘mixed methods’ as much as to any single method; it makes no difference whether the method is to be applied to a whole year group, say, or to a smaller subset of that year group. The mixed methods approach, in fact, labours under the same broken analogy we have already discussed. Even if you claim that different strains of a disease will need different drugs, or different crops will need different fertilisers to achieve the same results, there is still a method being likened to a drug or fertiliser here.

The coalition’s requirements on phonics may or may not be intended to be exclusive of other approaches, but if we are feeling hospitable we could imagine that the policy potentially leaves space for teachers to employ the approaches associated with synthetic phonics as part of a suite of ways of teaching children to read. However, there is no doubt that the phonics check (which is the specific target of the open letter) is explicitly designed to be exclusive of other approaches. Words and pseudo-words are deliberately presented outside of any context of meaning that a student might draw on to guide their decision about pronunciation. As is pertinently observed in the letter, if one wanted to check a student’s progress in learning to read, the obvious way to do this would be to listen to them reading a short meaningful passage. The purpose of designing a check specifically for synthetic phonics is to test the application of the method itself rather than the outcome it is claimed to promote. Teachers who wish their pupils to be successful in this test will be forced to concentrate with those pupils on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check. The result of the check will be to validate the success of phonics as a method of promoting literacy by removing from teachers any independence or agency in selecting the best approach to promote literacy among their own students.

Andrew Old is one of a number of vocal professionals who are currently calling for ‘evidence-based practice’ in teaching. However, the argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students. The result is rather to set teachers against the academic research community (who do not, for the most part, claim that their research should be employed to identify the ‘best’ teaching method and impose it across contexts; this is a claim more often advanced by policy makers) and against their own autonomy as professionals capable of making nuanced situated judgements. If I intended to deliberately undermine the status of teaching as a profession, these are the very two relationships that I would need to weaken.

The Open Letter is here:

Dr Andrew Davis is a research fellow in philosophy of education at Durham University and a member of the executive committee of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (@philofedgb). His short book that I refer to, ‘To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics’, is available open access here:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

This made my day…

The term ‘metaphysical’ has been unfashionable in the twentieth century (and for three centuries before, among empiricists). Heidegger too followed this fashion. But giving metaphysics prissy pseudonyms like ‘conceptual analysis’ or ‘thinking about being’ no more avoids it than calling the adulteration of goods ‘the sophistication of goods’ made dead flies in the currants a healthy addition.

Collier, Andrew (1999-04-22). Being and Worth (Critical Realism: Interventions) (p. 117). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What should we remember in schools?

David Aldridge is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University, where he leads the BA Programme in Education Studies.

In the mid-nineties the ‘Westhill Project’, which aimed to produce high quality materials for teachers of Religious Education, published a series of packs called ‘Life Themes in the Early Years’. Each contained a collection of A3 colour images, complete with teacher’s notes and suggested activities. An image in one of these packs troubled me, when I encountered it as a trainee RE teacher at the turn of this century. The painting is of a familiar enough scene, which could be taking place in any rural English village at about this time. A large group gathers in a town square, ringed by Victorian terraced houses, village shops, some sort of town hall or municipal building, and a generous number of unseasonably verdant trees. Attention is focused on the military memorial in the middle of the square, on which poppy wreaths are being laid by local dignitaries. Some children in a military band play pipes and drums, and more young people in cadet forces, girls’ brigades or other uniformed institutions stand to well-behaved attention in carefully ordered ranks. White haired veterans lean on walking sticks and display their service medals, and the most prominent lettering in the image are the words ‘Royal British Legion’ adorning standards that are solemnly held aloft. A stone cross decorates the memorial, and beyond the square the clock and spire of the village church stand over the scene. Poignantly, in the foreground of the image, a mother in her Sunday best holds her son’s hand. Both have approached close to the memorial and contemplate it intently, their faces turned away from us.

It was not so much the representation of the scene that troubled me, although there was certainly something a little off-key about it, especially in hindsight. For one thing, every figure in the painting was white. As I recall, the theme of the pack was ‘Celebrations’, and what was being offered here was a British or Christian alternative to the celebrations from ‘other’ religious or cultural groups depicted elsewhere in the pack. Such gauche simplified contrasts are commonplace in RE resources and may or may not be unavoidable, but in any case it is part of the skill set of the specialist RE teacher to engage their students in questioning or problematising these representations. What concerned me more was the fact that, unlike many of the other culturally specific celebrations represented in the pack, this event was one which the school as an institution endorsed, reproduced and participated in – and not just my placement school. All over the country, most schools of all kinds, whether state funded or independent, faith-based or otherwise, were actively engaging their students in the event of remembrance, observing the two minutes’ silence, and reminding students of what and why we remember through assemblies and themed curricular activities. What was approached in my classroom as a complex, ambiguous and even contestable practice was presented by the institution as an unquestioned duty. It was perceived to be the job of schools, or so it seemed, to ensure that the younger generation of Britons respected and perpetuated the tradition of remembrance.

Anyone who doubts that there is a significant public debate about the nature and significance of the events surrounding ‘Armistice Day’ should pick up a copy of Ted Harrison’s recently released book, Remembrance Today. In the book, Harrison argues that we should reconsider our practices surrounding November 11th and Remembrance Sunday. His argument brings to the surface the range of radically different meanings that can be attached to the event of remembrance itself, and discusses the different ways that the event has been constructed and construed since its inception shortly after the First World War. His greatest concern is that what began as an expression of grief, a reminder of the futility of all war and an incitement to world peace, is in danger either of being politically exploited for the justification of contemporary military campaigns, or of fostering a military pride that might encourage rather than admonish against further involvement in armed conflict.

Along the way, Harrison questions the idea that an unbroken ideological thread has run through the conflicts of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first, so that it might reasonably be argued that the principles for which the youth of the First World War gave their lives were the same values that our troops today are dying for. He argues for the widespread realisation in the Great War’s immediate aftermath that the conflict had in fact been largely unnecessary and inconclusive, and might at least in all of its futile mechanised horror serve as the ‘war to end all wars’. He points to the posturings of today’s politicians alongside those rows of World War II veterans, from which it might be inferred that to question the legitimacy of the contemporary conflicts into which soldiers are still being sent to kill and die might somehow devalue the sacrifices made by those countless other soldiers to date. Harrison carefully analyses recent changes in the rhetoric of heroes, and argues that to attribute heroism to any soldier’s death, regardless of its specific circumstances, even to the act of enlisting itself, risks emptying the concept of any critical meaning, especially dangerous in a contemporary situation where we are increasingly aware of moral depredations servicemen are capable of committing against their enemies – even their comrades in arms; this rhetoric, he argues, can be employed to encourage support for a conflict even when its legitimacy is questionable – whatever we might think of politicians, he explains, we do not want to let down ‘our heroes’.

Harrison describes the ambiguous literary dialogue we find in the war poets, even surrounding the symbolism of the poppy, in which the relationship between the nobility of sacrifice and the futility and horror of modern warfare are explored and unfolded, and shows how this tension is often flattened in appropriations of these literary sources for public remembrance, to be replaced by an unambiguous sentimentality. He explores how in the complex theological relationships often observed in rituals of remembrance, we find little of the radical pacifist message of the New Testament, and much more of other spiritual traditions that involve the sanctification of those who die in battle. He explores the complexity and range of the memories of the dwindling few who are able to recall those massive conflicts of the twentieth century, which are as likely to be of those enemies that they were forced to kill as the comrades they watched die. The contemporary rhetoric of remembrance emphasises the virtue of one who is willing to sacrifice his own life, but suppresses the concomitant fact that soldiers are also willing to perform acts which in any other circumstance are considered morally repugnant. It is impossible to survive a war, he argues, without feelings of guilt, and for survivors the significance of remembrance is as an act of atonement as well as of honouring the departed. Finally, Harrison inspects the militaristic trappings of remembrance ceremonies, and how remembering the sacrifice of ‘our own’ soldiers perpetuates the ‘us and them’ distinction so necessary to war propaganda, and neglects the civilian casualties on both sides which in most modern conflicts have far outnumbered those of soldiers. Most significantly, he draws attention to the surprisingly common recollection of career soldiers that it was in fact the pomp and emotional intensity of a remembrance ceremony that inspired them, as young boys, to pursue a military vocation.

The value of Harrison’s book does not depend on his winning the day on these issues. Although he presents a persuasive case for making a number of changes to the way we engage in the event of remembrance, similarly persuasive cases could be offered for making a host of different changes, or for leaving remembrance much the same, or for doing away with it altogether. The complex networks of significance that need to be unravelled mean that this is an issue that will not be decided quickly, or with reference to any simple or self-evident presuppositions. There, in fact, is the significance of Harrison’s book for educators. What his argument does is bring us out into the open space of public debate. Once we are in this space, we realise that, for all that we are rationally justified in holding our position on the meaning and importance of the event of remembrance, others are similarly rational in holding distinctly different positions. This realisation compels us to engage in that public debate, to listen to the reasons others are offering, and to attempt to offer justifications of our own position. Once we reach this position, we realise that our educational stance on the event of remembrance must also be brought into the open and exposed to scrutiny. Are we presenting in schools as unambiguous and uncomplicated an event whose significance is increasingly contested in the public sphere? Have we entertained the possibility that the interpretation of the event that we either explicitly or implicitly transmit through our institution’s involvement with remembrance has not been conclusively demonstrated to be the most appropriate, truthful, or valuable of the range of alternatives? If these questions remain unresolved in the public space, they cannot very well be settled in advance of our making decisions about the relationship between educational institutions and the broader public act of remembrance.

We don’t normally, as individuals, think of our relationship with historical events that we did not live through as one of remembrance. Those who are able to recollect the massive conflicts of the twentieth century are, with the passage of time, dwindling in numbers. Herein lies something of the curiously educational nature of a shared event of remembrance. Certain events in history have been deemed to be of such moral or national significance that it is not sufficient to study them as other past events are studied, through the lens of the academic practice of history. Rather, these events must be recalled or recollected even by those who did not live through them. This is only possible by cultivating a collective or social memory, through the institution of rituals and cultural practices which are passed on across generations. By this means, some sort of memory is engendered even though the events themselves were not experienced by every participant. It would seem, though, that collective memories are subject to all of the fallibilities and complications of individual ones: events can be misremembered, suppressed pathologically, even invented; some experiences – we know – are in fact better forgotten than constantly revisited.

There is no denying that we have a duty to learn from the past, and this is of course a moral duty that can be promoted in educational institutions without any controversy whatsoever. But this additional relation of ‘remembrance’ is one which educators would do well to explore further. What is recalled in the event of remembrance? What phenomenon occurs across the country during a two-minute silence? What is the collective nature of this event? What common thread unites the consciousness of the collected individuals that agree to remember simultaneously? What cultural memory connects the ex-serviceman who recalls the dying screams of a comrade in arms and a fourteen year old Muslim who has come to associate the elderly uniformed men who march in front of the Cenotaph on the TV with what she perceives as an unjust war perpetuated against members of the worldwide community of Muslims? What role, most importantly, does the educator have in encouraging or shaping these memories for the purposes of preparing young people for the future?

The event of remembrance is not the only contested public phenomenon to have had this uneasy relationship with educational institutions. Although the event is not necessarily theological in character (and many Christians are in fact uneasy with the way that Christianity has become implicated in these military rituals), there are some connections to be drawn with the place of religion in schools. The truth of the major world religions and their alternatives is a similarly open and contested question, where – in the absence of a definitive resolution – a number of contrasting positions are equally rationally justifiable. For this reason the place of a ‘broadly Christian’, compulsory act of daily worship in all state funded schools has for some time been much called into question. While it does not look like the legislation on this is likely to change any time soon, the reticence of Ofsted to criticise the numerous schools that do not uphold this requirement in anything but the loosest interpretation of Christian worship demonstrates how the tide of professional opinion on this has largely shifted, whatever the influence on government of the church lobbies. Similarly, it is for the most part acknowledged by those of all faiths and none that state funded schools have no right to implement a ‘confessional’ interpretation of the RE agreed syllabus, or one in which religious education is deemed to be a means of nurture into the beliefs of a particular faith community. Rather, it is now broadly agreed that a non-confessional approach to RE, in which children of all faiths and none are encouraged to engage with the alternative beliefs of a range of religious perspectives, can be edifying for all concerned. This is a transition in approach that largely happened in the later half of the twentieth century; although this has been hotly debated, the real controversy that remains over RE concerns only how important this subject area is in relation to the other demands of the curriculum. Finally, and perhaps most high profile at present, there is the ‘faith schools’ debate about whether state funded institutions should be allowed to endorse and advocate a particular religious perspective across the curriculum. On a related vein, in a recent ‘Impact’ publication on patriotism in schools produced by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, Professor Michael Hand of Birmingham University argues that it remains an open question whether nurturing patriotism in students is beneficial or harmful to them. In the absence of a public resolution of this question, the only justifiable educational approach to patriotism on the curriculum is, if you like, a ‘non-confessional’ one in which students are neither simply encouraged to be nor discouraged from being patriotic – rather they are taught about the issue in such a way that they are encouraged to form their own rational perspective on whether or not the emotion is valuable; the public debate is brought into the classroom.

Although remembrance is not then alone as a problematic issue, it is conspicuous in being the most significant potentially ‘confessional’ event not to have received such critical attention in schools. This is hardly surprising, once one considers the barriers to questioning the event of remembrance in the public sphere. The reaction to Ted Harrison’s book demonstrates how easy it is to be accused of dishonouring the memory of the long or recently departed, of unpatriotic or subversive intent, and of harming the worthwhile charitable endeavours of the Royal British Legion. But it is precisely this kind of widespread public outrage that makes it all the more important to present the nature and significance of the event of remembrance as a questionable and controversial topic in schools. It is important that those students who harbour private suspicions or doubts about the value or significance of the event of remembrance (and many do) feel that they have a legitimate public space in which to voice and explore these thoughts. If the significance of the event is presented as uncontested, or unquestionable, such students have no choice but to self-identify as subversive, counter-cultural, or as the ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ of what they perceive to be the predominant point of view. It is therefore unsurprising that although in 2010 the widely reported burning of poppies by Muslim protestors on Remembrance Sunday was universally demonised by the public press, it was nevertheless replicated in school playing fields across the country – what legitimate channel could these students see through which to voice their doubts about the cultural practice into which they were being inducted? The message must be conveyed to students that it is neither disrespectful nor unpatriotic to refuse to participate unquestioningly in any ceremony – particularly one which (and let us be realistic about the cultural reference points of many of our students at all stages of schooling) one has little understanding of beyond the simplified projections of the popular media.

I do not mean to suggest that there is not already excellent practice in schools through which students are encouraged to form their own opinions about the events of the world wars of the twentieth century and the moral justification of conflict more generally. I have already suggested that RE is a context where war and peace are confidently treated as controversial issues, and I have observed and am aware of excellent treatment of war poetry in English, where students are engaged in sophisticated and sensitive discussion about the complexities outlined above. History, of course, is a context where students are encouraged to engage without compromise with the truth and horror of past wars. However, there is less clarity in the curriculum and amongst education professionals about the event of remembrance itself. Much of what has been produced in terms of explicit guidance for schools has been published by the Royal British Legion, an organisation which (and this is not in any way to denigrate the importance of the work done by this charity) needs to maximise the emotional impact of its ‘brand’ to increase its revenue, and has sought the help of internationally recognised PR companies to do this. What are our professional duties as educators and institutions in relation to this event? Can the season of remembrance be brought into schools as a controversial issue, or must remembrance be treated only with dutiful reverence? Should it, in fact, have no part in school life whatever?

This article is a call for educators to think carefully about these questions. The time has come to carefully study the different ways that remembrance is represented and reproduced in schools, to map the complex networks of historical, theological and political significance in which it is situated by both educators and students, and to engage in ethical deliberation about how best to proceed. Without a rationally agreed public consensus on what is to be remembered, how, and why, the exhortation to remember should be treated with as much sensitivity and caution as the more obviously controversial “Let us Pray”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

What’s in a name?/ Subject Matter

I recently had occasion to re-visit the posts I wrote for Hodder Education, and thought I would post them here. The first one I did is already posted somewhere on this blog.

The originals can be found here and here.

What’s in a name?

The following link is to Professor Robert Jackson covering some similar ground to that touched on in my last post.

I promised to say more here about RE pedagogy, by which I meant our attempts to give an integrated and coherent account of what we consider to be the subject mater of RE, its aims and justification on the curriculum, and its proper methodology. I see these three areas as intricately linked, so that you can’t really divorce your account of what the subject matter of RE is from your understanding of how learning works in the subject, and so on. Also, your starting point here matters, so that if you think there is a pretty clear or given understanding of what RE is for, that will limit your options for considering what it is about and how it should be taught, and so on.

I will start with a consideration of what we call the subject in our schools. I know that this is something that is quite often discussed in departments, and in my work I come across all sorts of interesting nomenclature in addition to Religious Education: departments of Religious Studies, Religion and Philosophy, Theology and Philosophy, Religion and Ethics, in one school REPSHE, which is a bit of a mouthful, and so on. There are of course all sorts of “local” issues which influence how a department might want to “brand” itself within a particular school, but I think there are a range of common factors influencing decisions like these which are a good ‘way in’ to exploring the national identity crisis which RE is undergoing. One commentator, Mark Chater, in a challenging address he gave as part of this year’s “Celebrating RE” week (full text available here) argues that a name change at a national level is a vital part of ensuring our subject’s continued survival on the curriculum, but that this would be the final stage of an exhaustive re-examination of what we are seeking to achieve in our subject in the 21st century and how this might best be achieved.

Perhaps you have discussed renaming the subject in your school, or carried out a successful “rebranding”? I would certainly be interested to hear (@davealdridgere) how these discussions went. I imagine some of the following considerations might have been at issue:

There is something unsatisfactory about “Religious Education” as a name for a curriculum area
This is familiar territory, of course. We don’t say “Historical Education” or “Geographical Education”, for example. Firstly, the adjective “Religious” here suggests that our subject is religious in character rather than labelling religion or religions as its subject matter, in the way that other curriculum subjects do (so that “History” is, unambigously, concerned with history). What is Religious Education about? Not “education”, in any case. We seem to be labelling some sort of process or activity rather than an area of interest or even a discipline, and since this process is labelled “religious”, it is liable to make a lot of people uneasy, particularly if they actively avoid “religious” activities of other kinds in their daily life. (The fact that we have retained in law the withdrawal clause that accompanied a more confessional understanding of the subject does not help the situation, and the right of parents to remove their children from RE lessons needs to be abolished as soon as possible if we are ever to make a clear distinction from lingering, indoctrinatory understandings of RE). Secondly, we don’t feel the need to incorporate the educational content or value of other curriculum areas into what we call them, we simply accept this as given, so the “Education” part seems redundant.

Of course, we are all familiar with the history of the name RE – the move after the 1988 Education Reform Act away from “Religious Instruction” within a particular worldview to an approach that acknowledged the diversity of worldviews in England as a whole and in the classroom. Ironically, whereas the name change from RI to RE in its historical context expresses a recognition that the subject can no longer be approached as indoctrination into a particular faith, the survival of the adjective “Religious” means that it often continues to be perceived that way by parents, students and colleagues alike. Why not re-name the curriculum area to refer to a particular subject mater, such as “Religion” or “Religions”? This leads us nicely to the second consideration:

Religious Education is not just about religions
You can read this sentence in two different but equally significant ways: “Religious Education is not just about religions,” and “Religious Education is not just about religions.” I will deal with each in turn.

Firstly, there is the growing recognition of the need to acknowledge and teach non-religious perspectives as part of a broad and balanced religious education, as indicated in the recent (admittedly failed) attempts to introduce secular humanism as an optional world faith on GCSE specifications, and the incorporation of humanism as one of the suggested ‘other’ faiths on the non-statutory national framework for RE (see under “religions and beliefs” on p. 12 – you can get a copy of the framework here). Such developments acknowledge the valid claims of humanists to be taken seriously as a credible and infuential worldview on the global stage, as well as the reality that many of our students in the RE classroom will self-identify as atheist or humanist and deserve to have their own non-religious perspectives taken seriously. Ninian Smart, I believe, suggested that “Worldviews Analysis” might be a better name for the academic study of religions at university level, acknowledging the importance of non-theistic belief systems.

Perhaps, therefore, the subject might be better named after those aspects of life, the world, or reality that religions and alternative worldviews attempt to describe, account for or interpret (and differ over) such as “ultimate meaning”, or “ultimate questions” (one colleague of mine suggested “truth studies”!) I have argued in my academic work that the choice of “the ultimate” as the particular stratum of reality which our subject is concerned with might still be allowing religions too much scope to define the object of study (see my paper “What is Religious Education all about?” in Journal of Beliefs and Values 32:1 , 2011), but there is a further issue here, which is that acknowledging that religion or religions are not our exclusive – or even our primary – concern makes it more difficult for us to argue what is distinctive about our subject area, since other subject areas will have as at least part of their concern questions about how the world really is and how we should act in accordance with its nature. I feel that clarifying the subject matter of what we currently call Religious Education is the greatest challenge facing RE teachers at the present time, and may devote another post to this later in the month.

To the second interpretation: our two much-debated attainment targets draw attention to the fact that “learning about” does not exhaust what is intended in RE. We also aim to edify or develop our students as human beings, such that they also “learn from” the religions studied. So the “education” part of the name RE might be defended on the grounds that it expresses something of this edificatory or transformative aim, rather than the subject being understood simply as the injection of knowledge about religion or religions. Of course, the choice of the name RE predates the existence of the two-fold attainment targets, but – aside from this – is this really such a unique aspect of our subject? Surely other humanities subjects also retain their place on the curriculum because of their potential to edify students? There are good grounds for arguing that when Michael Grimmitt offered us the origins of the two attainment targets in his Religious Education and Human Development, he intended “learning about”and “learning from” to be a distinction that runs through education as a whole, rather than specifically religious education. I have touched on this in the article mentioned above. Certainly it is my view that there cannot be any kind of “learning about” in the humanities or even in any other learning endeavour without some individual application or “learning from”, so that this is a distinction that cannot be held to apply uniquely to RE.

Academic rigour
Renaming the department to emphasise that the focus of the subject is on questions that are valuable and relevant to all students regardless of their religious persuasion or worldview has, from my own experience, elicited tremendously positive responses from students of all faith persuasions, even where the content of the subject has remained unchanged – i.e. a predominantly “world religions” approach.

Another issue that has affected student perception of the subject has been its reputation, perhaps reinforced by the memories of many parents of their own religious education, as a bit of a “doss subject”, taught by a stressed old vicar who didn’t really want to be in the classroom, patronised his students, and couldn’t keep control. Some departments I know of have changed the name of the subject to emphasise that it is an academic discipline with a long and distinguished history, a challenging and transferable skill-set, and a route into very respectable courses in Higher Education such as Religious Studies, Theology, and the ever- more-popular Philosophy. For the most part, I applaud this move, and in my own experience I have found that it can be a great motivation to some students (especially boys) to tell them that only a certain kind of gifted thinker will excel in RE. However, I do have two important concerns about the desire to emphasise RE as an academically rigorous subject, which has become a more prevalent concern in recent debates about whether it should be included in the eBacc.

The first is that by arguing that RE is as rigorous as, say, History and Geography, we actually play into and reinforce current political rhetoric about a division between more or less academic types of subject. I don’t think that this is a game we should agree to play. Firstly, we should consider what is meant by rigour (and this is the term that is used, for example, in the eBacc consultation document). If the claim that some subjects are more rigorous than others is intended to mean that some subjects are more challenging or difficult for students than others, this exposes a terrible ignorance about the whole educational endeavour, in which it has long been recognised that the students in our classroom have widely differing levels of ability in particular subjects and require personalised provision. Every student, if they are to learn at all in any subject, needs to be introduced to its content in a way appropriate to their current level of understanding, and has the right to be stretched beyond that level. The claim that some subjects are per se more “rigorous” than others seems to be absolving teachers of the responsibility (in those less rigorous subjects) of challenging their more able students (and thus enabling them to learn or develop) or, equally terribly, of tailoring content in the “more” challenging subjects to the level of understanding of less able students. This would have the result of rendering certain kinds of subject more accessible to certain kinds of student, which would be a divisive and inequitable, and certainly anti-educational, outcome. Level of challenge is not an inherent property of any particular subject area – this is why I can enable my two-year old son to learn through whatever he is currently most interested in (at the moment it is Superheroes) by asking him questions that are intended to challenge his current level of understanding.

Challenge, then, is something complex that is negotiated by a skilled teacher in their dealings with each of their individual students. If “academic rigour” in Geography as opposed to, say, Music or Art, cannot mean “challenge”, what on earth could it mean? It is ultimately seen for what it is – an inherited historical prejudice that has often been reinforced by the individual school experience of those that hold it.

If we are going to make claims about academic rigour in RE, we should expect them to be tested. One head teacher consulted as part of the parliamentary eBacc study (I must admit I did not watch the video through again to remind myself which one it was, but you can watch it here) defends the academic value of GCSE “Religious Studies” on the grounds that it is nothing like RE at KS3. Needless to say, this Head is radically “off-message” in terms of looking after the continued status of the subject at KS3! Aside from this, though, it is clear that he or she is commending the level of challenge achieved by her teachers in their delivery of the subject at KS4, and I would agree that many RE teachers are able to challenge their students at KS4 in all sorts of creative and inspiring ways, and there are a whole ranges of interesting resources to support them in their endeavour. But in terms of what is required on exam board specifications, I would argue that the quality of answers required to achieve an A* in GCSE RS (at least until the changes that were made to all specs for first examination this summer), if we examine published assessment criteria, is in most cases not as sophisticated as the skills described in the level 8 or EP KS3 descriptors on the non-statutory national framework for RE. I am happy to be challenged on this, of course, but the point stands: if we are going to defend our GCSE on the grounds that it is as challenging in its top-level requirements as other subjects, we had best be very sure that it is…

The second caveat I have about the desire to align school-based RE with academic subjects in HE is that it might in fact be mendacious to do so. Despite the claims of many advocates of RE on the eBacc that it is a feeder subject for Religious Studies, Theology and Philosophy at university level, it is well known that many HE philosophy departments actively discourage applicants from taking courses called “Philosophy” at A level on the grounds that they bear little resemblance to the academic study of philosophy and are a poor indicator of potential at undergraduate level. This has often been true in my experience, although it may be changing as the undergraduate specialism of new RE teachers continues to shift away from RS towards Philosophy (although this in itself is not a particularly positive development), and newer A level courses continue to evolve away from the only nominally philosophical modules that were originally introduced by pioneering exam boards.

However, should we be trying to sell a compulsory curriculum area on the grounds that it is a feeder to university courses? It seems to me that this is fundamentally problematic, if for no other reason than that while students at KS4 and 5 begin to “drop” subjects that they do not require to continue on to their chosen HE courses, we still argue that it is vital for them to continue their studies in RE. It must be, then, that we are hoping to achieve something in compulsory school-based RE that is not aimed at or achieved in university-based RS. In fact, I would argue (although I don’t have the time today to pursue this) that one of the most serious impediments to a clear understanding of the developmental aims of school-based RE has been a confusion between this compulsory subject and the academic discipline of Religious Studies. It is my view that we should be defending compulsory RE at all levels in school not on the grounds of how “rigorous” or challenging it is (although it must always be so!), but on the grounds of the contribution it can make to students’ development as human beings. In fact, the “academic rigour” agenda may have moved some departments away from apparently “softer” whole school concerns about spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, and the holistic nurture of children, and we may have to move back in this direction in future.

Subject matter

In my last post, I will consider the topic I alluded to in the previous two, what might be considered the appropriate “subject matter” of RE, and some of the problems surrounding this — or, why we can’t really just get away with saying that Religious Education is about religions. We’ve come to the end of Ramadan, so let’s perhaps use that as a concrete classroom example to explore some of these issues. I make no apologies for the similarity of this post to a glossary; these are terms (some technical, some apparently not) which bear on the question, and merit careful examination.

Intentionality refers to that toward which an event, a consciousness or a thought is directed, or what it is about. This is a term with a well-established history in philosophy, but it doesn’t often make much of an impact on educational debates, although the phenomenographical work of Ference Marton makes a distinction between “direct” and “indirect objects of learning”, or that to which a student’s attention is immediately drawn (a particular historical event or person, say) and the particular skill or capacity we aim to develop by introducing it.

An interesting experiment could be conducted here. Try teaching your lesson without telling the students what it was about, and afterwards asking them to tell you what it was about. Imagine our lesson on Ramadan: there will be an interesting range of answers —a religious festival, the practice of fasting, an event in the life of the Prophet, a particular section of the textbook (yes, some students will say the lesson was “about” page 53 or chapter 4; recall those students who — pressed always to put a title to their homework – will write “Questions, page 53” at the top…) If you used ethnographical material or accounts of the actual practice of members of a faith community, some students might identify those experiences as the subject matter of the lesson. Others might go for something broader — “devotion to God”, maybe, or “identifying with the poor”. This is an interesting experiment to conduct, because I think it will show that questions about the subject matter of RE are not abstract philosophical discussions – the intentionality of each individual classroom event can be seen to be very complicated indeed.

Teachers are of course familiar with the idea of progression within a unit of work, that the concepts and content introduced in a lesson must develop appropriately from that explored in previous lessons, with the whole unit moving in a structured way toward some sort of eventual goal or assessment objective. Additionally, context will also influence what emerges as the subject matter of a particular lesson. Unless students have become accustomed to seeing your lessons as discrete units with no particular connection from one to the next, their attention will be drawn to particular aspects of what you put in front of them, and not others, in relation to whatever it was you put in front of them last lesson.

In terms of our lesson on Ramadan, that means that if this is explored in the context of a sequence of lessons on the five pillars of Islam, say, a very different picture of what the lesson is about will emerge compared with Ramadan addressed as part of a sequence on fasting in the major world religions. The former might draw students’ attention to the Islamic sense of obligation, say, or the way in which Ramadan as one of the five pillars draws Muslims’ attention to the equality of all human beings, whereas the latter might focus on the common spiritual significance of ascetic practices.

The important point here is in contrast to the claims made by some of the proponents of influential “pedagogies of religious education”, where it is argued that, regardless of context, each individual lesson might be created from the ground up in line with the principles of a particular pedagogy. Rather, it should be noted that as teachers inheriting or adopting a particular scheme of work, local syllabus, programme of study, framework or whatever, from the smallest three lesson unit to the picture created through a student’s whole experience of Key Stage 3, we inherit a number of decisions that have already been made, implicitly or explicitly, deliberately or unintentionally, about the subject matter of the individual lessons within that context.

Lesson content

We tend to speak quite interchangeably about the content of a particular lesson, or its subject matter, so that the content, subject matter, or object of study of this lesson is “Ramadan”, or “fasting”, or “devotion” or whatever. I am going to suggest that we don’t, that we actually introduce a distinction here that might prove useful: let’s use “object of study” or “lesson content” to refer to the religious event or concept to which we direct our students’ immediate attention , and let’s reserve subject matter in the sense intended by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s use of “die Sache”: what is at stake or at issue in the discussion evoked by this lesson. This leads us on to …

Dialogic conceptions of learning
In the literature of RE pedagogy, both Andrew Wright (associated with “Critical Religious Education”) and — to a lesser extent — Robert Jackson (of the “Interpretive” approach) draw on the language of the philosophical tradition of hermeneutics to develop dialogic models of RE learning, where (to oversimplify somewhat) learning is conceived as a conversation between a student and some (usually religious) object, person or text about some aspect of the world (so that, to use the distinction offered above, the object of study or lesson content is the object, person or text with which the student is in dialogue, and the subject matter is what the conversation is actually about).

Much of the academic disagreement between Wright and Jackson refers to what might qualify here as a dialogue partner, whether religions themselves could be thought of as the texts of RE (broadly favoured by Wright) or whether it should be the individual persons or texts from which our individual understandings of “religions” are constructed (Jackson’s view). This debate is there for you to follow up, and turns on all sorts of interesting distinctions that are well-rehearsed in the academic literature of Religious Studies, but it is largely a distraction from a question which gets less explicit coverage, which is the intentionality of that dialogue — what it is actually about.

To simplify again, there are broadly two candidates here:

The social reality of religions
On this view, we engage with individual, atomistic religious texts or accounts in our attempts to build a better picture of the religions themselves, understood as a social reality. Such a view would aim for a better understanding (through dialogue) of the beliefs and practices of religious believers both individually and in community, acknowledging that these beliefs and practices have a tangible impact on society (regardless of whether or not religions actually exist as discrete entities). Such a view accords closely with the practice of Religious Studies in universities, where the traditional consensus is that one remains agnostic about the intentionality (that word again!) of these religious beliefs. In other words, the question here is not whether the claims made by a particular religion about the way the world is are true, but whether we have the best account we can get of what motivates believers. This could be appealing to RE teachers as it negates controversy in the subject. Theists and atheists alike can be judged by the same success criteria — whether they have given the most accurate account of what religious people do, and what motivates them to do it — regardless of whether they believe those claims are true; this question would not be part of the classroom debate.

The reality to which religions refer
This account does not, incidentally, deny the social reality of religions, but also acknowledges that this social reality exists within a broader reality, about which religious worldviews make some pretty wide-reaching claims, and identifies those aspects of reality about which religions seek to speak (God is a fairly good example!) as the subject matter of the dialogue. Andrew Wright’s view, for example, is that the RE dialogue (in which both religious and non-religious worldviews participate) concerns the ultimate or transcendent aspect of reality. Such accounts are easily yoked to human development justifications of RE — all students have their own (implicit or explicit) accounts of reality at the level of ultimacy, and it is easy to see how engagement in critical dialogue with alternative views on this is edifying and important. However, the controversial question about whether religious and other descriptions of reality in its ultimacy or totality are true moves to the centre of this conception of the subject matter of RE. My own view, for what it is worth, is that the first of these options (what I called the “social reality” view) limits the range and scope of what might be usefully be discussed in RE, with the result that it is both less immediately engaging to students and harder to justify as a compulsory element of the school curriculum.

The fusion of horizons

This last term is included with some reservations about what I have said so far. The dialogic model of learning which Wright — in particular — develops, draws on the account of understanding offered by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book Truth and Method. Gadamer describes the understanding that occurs through such dialogue as a “fusion”. The term is incredibly rich and its relation to what is going on in RE merits an entire PhD thesis, but one important implication that bears on what I have said so far is that this is a fusion of the preoccupations or prejudices of both student and religious text, which necessarily cannot be prescribed in advance by a teacher — the “subject matter” of RE, then, is something that “emerges” in the classroom dialogue and cannot thus be prescribed or identified once and for all. This is why I am slightly nervous about identifying — for example — transcendent or ultimate reality as the subject matter of RE. This is certainly an account of the classroom dialogue which the history of the subject so far renders quite appealing, and is perhaps a good working starting point to get the debate going. I have already mentioned “context” above, and it is well worth noting that no dialogue exists without a pre-established context, a provisional understanding of the subject matter which helps us to get the discussion underway. But, unless we enter a dialogue with the expectation that our understanding of the subject matter might change, we do not come ready to learn from our partner. Thus, the context of a particular conversation enables the conversation to occur, but the possibility of real understanding means that the context in which the dialogue takes place can itself be transformed. That is why I would argue that if we want to maintain a convincing human development model of RE, we should resist attempts to specify definitively what the subject is about, however appealing it might be to separate the subject off from other claimants on limited curriculum time…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What I nearly wrote…

I was sorting my office out today and found the proposal for the PhD I was writing at SOAS before I switched quite drastically to Philosophy of Education.  I thought it might be interesting to see the way I nearly went!

Rethinking the Qur’an in textual dialogue:

A study of Qur’anic intertextuality and its implications for the Christian-Muslim Encounter

In my MA dissertation, “Rethinking the Christian-Muslim Encounter”, I investigated the implications of Mohammed Arkoun’s deconstructionist approach to Islam for Christian-Muslim dialogue.  I identified that Arkoun applies techniques derived from Derrida and other deconstructionist thinkers both to the concept of Muslim/muslim identity and also to the Qur’an;  it is particularly this application of postmodern thought to the Qur’an in dialogue that I would like to investigate further in doctoral research.

Taking leave of Arkoun, whose application of Derrida to the Qur’an is more explicitly historical, I would like to focus on the Qur’an in textual dialogue with Christianity, and specifically apply the literary concept of intertextuality to the process of “rethinking” the Qur’an and the Bible together.  Rather than the more global deconstructions and (re)constructions of the whole notion of revelation attempted by Arkoun, I would use as a starting point and a model for my approach some of the very recent work which has been undertaken to apply Derrida’s thought (I would hesitate to say method) to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, most notably that undertaken by Yvonne Sherwood et al in “Derrida’s Bible” (2004) and “Derrida and Religion:  New testaments” (2005).

These types of study are characterised by close reading of particular portions of scripture, sometimes holding them in relation to other texts to which they are not connected historically, by genre or by author’s intention, but with which (such is the path opened up by Derrida and his theoretical predecessors) they are nevertheless in dialogue. Such an approach therefore differs greatly from a traditionally comparative or historical approach to the study of religious texts.


By investigating such textual dialogues, I hope to draw some more detailed conclusions about the Qur’an itself – and by extension, Islam – in dialogue. I shall not necessarily restrict this dialogue to the dialogue with Christianity, but also to the relation of Islam to secular and political texts.

The limitations of this study should be acknowledged.  I would be writing as one of many outsiders who are trying in one way or another to relate to the Muslims around them, and the dialogue I would be thinking through would not be an interreligious, but an intertextual, discourse, although – of course – these texts need not be written texts.  But I see that Derrida’s thought is at the present moment being applied with some popularity to Christian scripture, in some places and with limited acceptance to Muslim scripture, but there is not much work which has successfully focused – despite the pressing need in the present climate – specifically on the Qur’an in intertextual dialogue. Arkoun points to the need for his work on the Qur’an to be continued in relation to other scripture, but he does not undertake this work himself.  Furthermore, although his work on understanding the Qur’an draws extensively on the traditions of deconstruction and semiotics, the concept of intertextuality is not one to which he gives a great deal of attention.  This is a literary tool which may prove to be of great use to those engaged in dialogue with Islam.

The study would begin with an exploration of the notion of intertextuality and an initial investigation of the radical possibilities it might open up for rethinking the Qur’an in dialogue, setting clear parameters for what will constitute an “intertextual” study of the Qur’an.  This would involve defining the limits or extent of which texts can be read in relation and what reading texts in relation might mean.  Intertextuality does not mean, as seems to be the prevailing thought in John C. Reeves, ed. “Bible and Qur’an: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality” (2003), the identification of scriptural influences from the Bible on the Qur’an and the “spotting” of deliberate allusions or shared material (this is all a part of conventional textual criticism) but rather the mutual transformation of texts when they are considered together – or, in this instance, in dialogue.  In many ways, this understanding of intertextuality might be more theologically productive, and is certainly more fruitful for the conduct of interreligious dialogue.

I would also undertake a survey of the uses that have already been made of this sort of intertextual study in Christian-Muslim dialogue to date, and identify further points of departure from here.  Loren Lybarger, for example, in “Gender and Prophetic Authority in the Qur’anic Story of Maryam:  A Literary Approach” (2000) claims to be making a distinctly intertextual approach, modelled on the work of Sternberg and Alter in relation to Biblical narrative:  “Consequently, questions of genesis and the historical ‘influence’ of Judaism and Christianity on the narrative are of relatively less importance – though, as will be seen, Jews and Christians, as rhetorical foils, are essential in forming the dramatic field of tension in the Maryam cycle.”[1]

I would then undertake some close readings of portions of the Qur’an in relation to Biblical texts which would perhaps not have been permitted ouside of the parameters of this study, drawing out their conclusions and implications.  Lybarger’s “gynocentric subtext”, for example, certainly opens a rich vein of further intertextual enquiry.

I should add that intertextuality must not be used as an opportunity to abandon traditional Christian or Islamic scholarship.  In this respect postmodern textual criticism is often misunderstood.  Derrida himself calls traditional criticism an “indispensible guardrail” and it must provide the background knowledge of any exploration into intertext.  Barthes’ “death of the author” did not mean the death of appropriate contextual or historical study, but rather the birth of a new critical form which is constantly nurtured and informed by that study.  To return to where I started, Arkoun would agree that the play of signs across texts which are only connected in the intertextual experience of a reader or readers must not be closed off from critical study by the presuppositions of traditional Qur’anic scholarship, even if that means (and it does) “rethinking” these presuppositions.  This study would therefore be grounded in an understanding of the importance of Muslim theology and traditional study of the Qur’an, but would not accept the hegemonising tendencies of such tradition.

D Aldridge February 07

[1] Footnote 3, p. 241

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment