Exploring the four philosophies of education

Stephen Tierney, former CEO of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust, discusses the four philosophies of education in this extract from his new book

Imagine that Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate change activist, organised one of her Friday ‘strikes’ in your school’s locality. Half the pupils went to listen to her speak and march for climate change; half stayed in school and attended their normal Friday afternoon lessons.

Which of your pupils would you feel more proud of? Which would you consider to have really taken to heart the central message of the education you are providing? Would you admonish those pupils who went on the march, or those who attended their normal lessons? Or would you do nothing, in essence accepting or condoning the personal choice of each?

When speaking to groups of school leaders, I often use this question to help them expose and explore what they believe the purpose of education to be. Or, more precisely, which of the various philosophies of education they think should be given priority.


Read our Q&A with the author below this extract


Dylan Wiliam (2013) identifies four philosophies that underpin the purpose of education. I would summarise the aim of each of these as:

  1. To develop the potential of the child (personal empowerment)
    A balance is needed between the acquisition of skills and knowledge, both of which need to be applied. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire reminds us that “a person learns to swim in the water, not in a library”, hence his focus on praxis (thought and action). Underpinning this is the desire to “allow young people to take greater control of their own lives” (Wiliam, 2013).
  2. To pass on “the best which has been thought and said” (cultural transmission)
    The focus is almost exclusively on knowledge acquisition and the development of the intellect. E.D. Hirsch Jr (1988) develops a key element with his work on cultural literacy – an anthropological view of education involving “the transmission to children of the specific information shared by the adults of the group”. This is developed using Michael Young’s idea of “powerful knowledge” (2014), which is more appropriate when considering specialised knowledge.
  3. To prepare young people for life and work (preparation for work)
    The focus is on problem-solving and real-world experiences. As more educated workers are more productive, there is a correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity.
  4. To build communities and overcome social disadvantage (preparation for citizenship)
    This focuses on the school’s context and seeks to support the development of social capital within families and the local community. Key to its success is ensuring young people are sufficiently well informed about substantive and current issues to make decisions and take action in support of the democratic process.

Personal empowerment, the ability to take greater control of your life, is covered extensively in the work and writings of Freire (1921-97). He believed the main purpose of education was to give people greater control of their own lives, developing them to their full potential.

Defining his own telos for education as “No longer part of the mass, but one of the people”, Freire believed education must enable people to make a deliberate, informed decision to participate in the political, social and cultural transformation of their community, region or country.

Freire viewed education from a broader perspective of people’s emerging understanding of their history as individuals and as mankind: a people who have been, who are and who will be; a culture that has been, that is and that will be. He believed in the potential for people to influence and impact upon the world and their place within it. Life is not a preordained destiny. We can set our own direction.

He believed in the potential for people to influence and impact upon the world and their place within it. Life is not a preordained destiny. We can set our own direction

In viewing how people face various challenges, he notes they “are not limited to a single reaction pattern. They organise themselves, choose the best response, test themselves, act, and change in the very act of responding. They do all this consciously, as one uses a tool to deal with a problem”. This is the empowerment Freire sought to engender.

Fundamental to this is the belief that people and the world in which they live are intrinsically linked, as opposed to the world and people existing as separate, discrete entities. In creating and re-creating the world and their relationship with it, “[people] add to it something of their own making… by creating culture”.

Freire sees a dynamic reality that is open to influence and change. Authentic learning is applied, not solely theoretical; education is praxis. This is an important aspect of working with disadvantaged communities. Their often-limited experience of controlling their own lives can be disempowering. Telling them they can influence the direction of their lives is not as powerful as their directly experiencing it.

Although personal empowerment is of significant importance, Freire’s work with illiterate people doesn’t transfer directly into the subject-based curriculum. As a secondary science teacher, I knew there was a body of scientific knowledge and disciplinary way of working that students had to know, understand and be able to apply. It wasn’t always, or often, associated with individual problems, experiences or the social context in which they lived.

There is, however, an importance and beauty in understanding the structures and behaviour of our natural and physical world. This knowledge forms part of an examination system. Success in examinations provides passports to further study, employment and enhanced life opportunities. This substantive and disciplinary knowledge is one aspect of the philosophy of education termed cultural transmission.

Success in examinations provides passports to further study, employment and enhanced life opportunities

Cultural transmission is often encapsulated in the phrase “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. This is from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 essay Culture and Anarchy. His essay was written at a time of significant social upheaval: the Industrial Revolution in Britain had led to substantial and permanent changes to where people lived and how they earned their living. Arnold viewed culture as a way of addressing this increasingly fractured society, in order to create greater social cohesion and unity.

The dangers of failing to do this were becoming all too apparent. The increasing demands of the working class for political representation led to the Hyde Park Railings Affair in 1866. This was an example of the “anarchy” in the title of Arnold’s paper.

Before Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy essay, culture had generally been associated with an individual’s knowledge of various subjects – for example, Greek and Latin – or their appreciation of the arts. But Arnold’s view was clear: culture was not associated with a body of knowledge linked to high culture and possessed by individuals primarily within the socially elite, thus setting them apart. Arnold’s original work is often misinterpreted.

He redefined culture from a purely personal to a societal perspective. Individuals within society were required to use their knowledge to leave the world a “better and happier place”. Culture must have a strong dimension of social justice and lead to greater equality. This was to be achieved using knowledge, in “fresh and free thought”, to challenge the status quo as part of an ongoing process of evaluation.

Rooted in Arnold’s view that “the best which has been thought and said” is not a particular work or set of works but is instead a process of critique, Martin Robinson (2018) proposes that a good curriculum invites pupils into a conversation with the “extended community of minds that stretches back into the past and will stretch beyond us into the future”. Rather than referring to a “knowledge-rich” curriculum, Robinson sees a rich curriculum as one that “tells stories that enable us to see more clearly, more thoughtfully and more wisely from a wide range of perspectives”.

One particular aspect of cultural transmission is cultural literacy (Hirsch, 1988), the means by which a nation’s citizens may communicate effectively with each other. Cultural literacy is built on a shared knowledge and understanding of key vocabulary, ideas and events that form part of a nation’s ongoing language. This brings clearly into focus ‘whose’ culture should take precedence within education. The imposition of the cultural norms and perception of history of a more powerful group on those who are less powerful or oppressed embeds injustice within a system.

Alongside cultural literacy is the increasingly important impact of disciplines, represented as subjects, on a school’s curriculum.


Q&A with the author

What prompted the need for your book, Educating with Purpose: The Heart of What Matters?

The past decade has seen some real advances with respect to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of pedagogy. This more evidence-informed approach has been of significant benefit but the deeper question of ‘why’ also needs to be addressed. Purpose – why we educate – is the precursor and associate of school effectiveness and improvement but can receive too little attention.

What are some of the common mistakes school leaders make about the purpose of education?

This will tend to vary. Some may not feel knowledgeable enough to engage in the debate; others might be focused on the business of the day-to-day demands. It is worth school leaders considering an annual meeting, with their trustees, directors or governors, totally focused on the purpose of their organisation (why it exists) to ensure maximum clarity when considering development plans, priorities and strategy for the year ahead.

Is now the most challenging or most exciting time to be a school leader?

I think with the pandemic it is possibly the most challenging time for school leaders. It’s unlikely any wanted to lead a school focused on hand washing, social distancing and staggered starts, ends, breaks and lunches. However, this ‘great pause’ for our generation will, in time, also allow us to re-think and re-purpose our schools. It is likely that our mindsets and priorities will change during this period. It is then we will move into exciting times.


About the author

Stephen Tierney chairs the Headteachers’ Roundtable Group, primarily focusing on the changes required to the current accountability system. He regularly speaks at events about leadership and people development, as well as schools’ core business of teaching, assessment and learning. He is a course tutor on the National College of Education’s Northern Lights Senior Leadership Masters programme.

Until 2020, he was CEO of the Blessed Edward Bamber Catholic Multi Academy Trust, a trust in Blackpool which he was instrumental in forming, including Christ the King and St Cuthbert’s Catholic Academies and St Mary’s Catholic Academy. Working in Blackpool he was rooted in the practicalities of leaders’ daily lives. A blogger, Stephen writes on a range of topical educational issues.

Educating with Purpose – The Heart of What Matters is now available to purchase.

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