In this January 2022 episode of the ‘Meet The Education Researcher’ podcast, Neil Selwyn spoke with Gert Biesta (University of Edinburgh) about his recent interest in the work of Klaus Prange, the need to come up with better questions (rather than answers), the prominence of ‘empty concepts’ in education, and his advice for early career academics starting out in education research. (nb. this text has been lightly edited for clarity)
[Neil] You have been quoted as saying that you never want to talk about John Dewey again. So, who have you been reading recently that you do want to talk about? And what are their key ideas that might be useful to educationalists?
[Gert] I think the author I’m most excited about is a German scholar called Klaus Prange. He died a couple of years ago, but he was very active. And he has been pursuing a really interesting idea. The concerns he has are also the concerns that I’ve been working on – i.e. that education is always approached from the outside. The kinds of disciplines that have thoughts about education have been psychology of education, sociology of education, philosophy of education, and so on. Which is fine … but for me there is always the question of what is in the middle? What is this ‘education’ itself? And I think that that is a much more difficult and interesting question than often assumed.
The other thing that education suffers from is all the policies, the agendas, and all the things that people want education to do. And again you can say, ‘but wait a minute – what about education itself?’. And rather than to stay on the level of theory or values, what Prange has done is to consider that maybe there is something in the very form of education, that gives education its own integrity. And I find that a brilliant idea to begin thinking with – because it gives an opening against everything else that constantly comes to education.
And then Prange does something very simple by asking ‘what is the most basic gesture in all education?’ And he says that it is pointing. You point something out to someone, you could say. In that one move of pointing you point away from people, but you also could be saying to someone, ‘Hey, you there! Maybe it’s a good idea to pay attention to this or that’. And I find that a very refreshing way to step back into this whole discussion, because it allows us to speak about the integrity of education without getting into all kinds of value positions. So this excites me for all kinds of reasons. I think education suffers too much from all the attempts that others make to tell education what it should do, what it should produce, or how it should think. So to think (i) from the inside out and (ii) to begin with the form of education, is really important.
[Neil] … and so was Prange writing about education as an educationalist? Or was he writing as a philosopher?
[Gert] He was a German professor of education. I think he was really located in the German tradition where education is an academic discipline in its own right. And he, in a sense, gave us a whole new defense of the idea that education has its own intellectual integrity … and that has big political implications as well.
[Neil] Well, I was going to ask you about this. ‘Integrity’ is not a word you often hear used in conjunction with education, but how might we mobilize this idea of ‘integrity’? How can we actually use these kinds of ideas to rethink what education is?
[Gert] I used [the idea of ‘integrity’] recently in a highly political discussion in the Netherlands, where there is constitutional freedom of education. So, any group of people in the country who want to have their own school can get government funding for it. That’s in the Constitution, and it has been around for 100 years. The issue is that over these 100 years – and it started out with religious groups wanting to have their own schools – the idea of ‘freedom of education’ has constantly been interpreted as meaning that everyone has the right to their own normative, value-based, agenda.
And the problem, then, is that education becomes almost a matter of indoctrination into one particular mindset. So, now that this has been in the constitution for a century, a lot of people are asking ‘should we still have it?’. And the suggestion I made was to suggest that rather than to talk about the freedom to do your own education, we also need to talk about the freedom for education itself. And I use Prange here to say that there is something in education where if the basic gesture is to point out something to someone, rather than to say ‘I’m going to control what you should think’, then this whole question of the freedom of the human being suddenly becomes central. And I think this is an interesting way to move beyond attempts to simply say that ‘freedom of education’ means that we all can do what we want. So, the idea that education has its own integrity helps to push back in some way against that.
[Neil] … and the idea that we can do what we want is very fashionable these days! Now, this idea of ‘pointing things out’ leads onto another thing that you’re well known for – i.e. the argument that we should be asking questions rather than providing answers. This is a very interesting approach to being an education professor! So, which questions have you come up with recently about education that particularly satisfy you … and what do you think makes them decent questions? How can we go about formulating better questions about education?
[Gert] I generally think that there’s far too much work that simply tries to give either the same answer to existing questions, or a new answer. But in most cases people simply accept the question. This is not bad, but I think that exciting and important intellectual work can be found in the act of bringing in different questions. So here is one question that I’ve been working on which is a nice one. Quite often when considering the relationship between school and society, it is asked ‘what kind of school does society need?’ But I came across someone who just turned that question around and said, ‘what kind of society does the school actually need in order to be a school?’ So, I find that it can be very productive just to turn the question around, and suddenly you see all kinds of new things. So you begin to see that society also has a responsibility for the school, rather than just to say ‘we have a problem and the role of the school is to solve it”.
I don’t make these up myself, but I am always looking for good questions. Another one, that I think is quite brilliant, is from a German scholar who asks, ‘Does education actually make a difference?’. And that is, of course, a very important question because we constantly think that it does. But then he complicates the question, when he says: we have nature (we are living biological growing organisms); we have nurture (all the stuff in the environment); andthen we have education. So, then he asks: what would be the percentage we put on each of these three? And then his answer is that nature and nurture together are always 100%, although we can disagree about what the relative contribution is.
The first time I read that I just couldn’t understand it, because it looked like that this was an education professor who was throwing education away. But then he says, education is actually related to a different question – not how people grow, develop and learn, but the question of what each of us will do with that growth, development and learning. So he argues that the question of education actually cuts through nature and nurture. I find that very provocative and really important – showing us that as educators we are actually not part of this whole discussion about how nature and nurture leads to development. But instead we appeal to the person of all of our students and say “Where are you in all this?”.
I also get excited – but that’s just me – about beautiful work on the idea of ‘givenness’ which is actually a question that is very difficult to carefully think about: what does it mean for things to be given to us? I think that, at a basic level, there is a very strong constructivist intuition in education that we all have to make sense of things and come to our own understandings. But a very new and important question is to figure out whether it all starts there, or whether actually it starts with the things that are given to us. So, I’m always on the lookout for questions like these that put some pressure on the intuitions that seem to be accepted within education. So, yes, that is good work.
[Neil] But it seems that you’re working in an area – i.e. education – where the dominant mindset is that there are problems that need to be solved and that education is often the answer. How can we flip that mindset amongst education researchers and educationists who are always looking for education to be the answer?
[Gert] First of all, by taking pride in our profession and not thinking that we are just the mechanics at the end of the chain. So it has to do with where we position ourselves in relation to that. And we need to keep asking these questions that look very odd because they are counter intuitive, but if you pursue them then they begin to show something.
[Neil] … and they remind you not to always look to be rushing in with an answer – which is a good thing for an education professor to bear in mind. Now, a few years ago you famously debunked the obsession in educational discussions around ‘learning’ and you described it as an ‘empty concept’. Could you explain what you meant by ‘empty concept’? And what other emerging ‘empty concepts’ are you currently seeing taking hold in education?
[Gert] Yes, I think ‘learning’ is indeed quite empty. So, there is one definition of learning that I think is absolutely right. That is the definition of ‘learning’ as any sort of sustained or durable change in an organism – or maybe even in an intelligent machine – that is not the result of maturation, but of interaction with an environment. Now, what if you say that learning is change? I think what is quite empty about that definition is that change can happen all kinds of directions. So, if we just say that the point of education is to make students learn, then you don’t even need education for that – you can just put them in the factory, or you can put them into mines, and they will learn tremendous things. That reminds me of the joke that says that it’s a real scandal that teenagers in the UK are not able to stitch together Nike shoes, whereas kids in Bangladesh can do that … so what’s wrong with the learning in the UK?
So I think that ‘learning’ is quite empty as an educational concept, and it therefore worries me when people say, ‘Oh, it’s all about learning’. We should say, no – the point of education is about learning in a particular direction, or in a particular way, or for a particular purpose. And then, even more so, you can say there that education is about the work we do as educators in relation to that. So, the concept of ‘learning’ itself is quite empty – it needs a lot of extra thinking and ideas to become meaningful. But actually in education I think that the focus needs to be on things like educators and curricula.
So, that’s a quick explanation why I think the concept is empty. Just to make that point, I make the joke – but all jokes are also serious – that ‘I stopped learning about five years ago, and life is still going fine’. It’s interesting to see how people respond. Is it possible to even think that you cannot learn? And in a sense I think that it is possible. But people generally think, ‘Oh, we are learning all the time’ … but maybe we’re doing something else, and that word ‘learning’ is actually misleading.
And what are other empty concepts? … I think there’s quite a lot. One thing that irritates me is people who talk about teaching as an ‘intervention’ – that is not precise enough. I really don’t like talking about ‘learning outcomes’ – that just doesn’t make sense. I also include ‘direct instruction’ on the list – I think that’s also a fashion and it’s a very imprecise notion. And then, to be honest, in education there’s an awful lot of talk about ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. But as soon as you begin to look carefully at what ‘knowledge’ is, that word itself is very unhelpful. So it’s remarkable with many of the words that are constantly being used in education – even if you take just a moment to think about them, you have to ask ‘what is that really about?’ We are not looking to be giving our students knowledge. At least we want our students to become knowledgeable … but that’s very different from the idea that ‘We need to give students knowledge’. Well, nowadays you hear people say, ‘students just need to be able to remember it, and make sure that there is no cognitive overload, and then they can reproduce it’. Well, that sounds pretty pointless to me, and I think we should use our time in a different way.
[Neil] But on the flip side, are there rich or ‘full’ concepts in comparison to empty concepts that we should be promoting education as a kind of counterpoint to these trends? You’ve mentioned ‘integrity’ – that sounds like a useful concept.
[Gert] Yes. I think what it means to be ‘knowledgeable’ is a much more interesting way then just to talk about having knowledge. What it means to be ‘skillful’ allows you to bring the conversation back to what does it actually mean if a person claims that they have skills? And there you can say, well, that’s not just the ability to perform but also to be aware of what you’re doing – it’s being able to judge when you should do something, and when you shouldn’t do it. So, the concept of being ‘skillful’ already gets you into something that’s much richer, and occasionally of much more interest. And I also think that ‘teaching’ is a really special and important concept that we need to keep opening up and need to take seriously. Of course, it always begins with words, but then you need to go beyond that and say, ‘Have we got better words?’. ‘Do we understand what we’re actually talking about?’
[Neil] Yes, absolutely. Now, finally I want to ask a much more prosaic question … but I think it’s quite important. You’ve moved around a lot in your career. You’ve worked in different countries, different Schools of Education. What advice would you have for early career researchers just beginning to work in a School of Education. They’re really peculiar places to work in. So what advice have you got?
[Gert] I think they are peculiar in many ways. I’ve worked in different countries, and also realize that academic cultures are very different in different countries. And it can be very helpful if you have the luxury to work in a different country for a while just to get a sense of this difference, because it’s very implicit. And then you can also begin to see some of the strengths and weaknesses of the place that you’re in. So it’s important to keep a sense of perspective, and not to think that higher education is the same all over the world. I have to say, while I meet a lot of colleagues who complain about British higher education, I still think it’s a pretty good place to be. Because I don’t see a strong tendency for people to want to tell other people what to do. And I’ve worked in systems where it is the default that the person higher up in the hierarchy has the right to tell you what you should do. And I think that kills good intellectual work. In that sense, I’m quite happy with where I am.
There’s a nice old phrase that says, ‘Take care of the quality, and the quantity will take care of itself’. And I love that, because it’s so easy to be drawn in the other direction, and just think that it’s the quantity that matters. And again, these ‘research assessment’ systems in the UK are quite good because they don’t ask for quantity. But there are countries that give you cash for every paper you publish, and I think that’s so stupid. I think it’s really important to find your own intellectual agenda, and try not to lose your soul in pursuing that. So, what I always try to do in all the structures and organizations is always to say: ‘But why are we here? What’s the intellectual point?’. And I think that that helps us to keep each other awake as academics.
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