Democracy in education: “what works” v “the best that has been thought and said”

There are three main ideas as to how educational skills and knowledge, or curriculum if you will, should be valued.  They can be loosely described as: core knowledge, “what works” (pragmatic instrumentalism) and “the best that has been thought and said”. No doubt there are others but these three seem to be the main ones.

This is partially a  response to Martin Robinson’s interesting blog; the tower-of-babel-where-ed-hirsch-gets-it-wrong,   In my view neo-traditionalist ideas based on Hirsch, Willingham and the core knowledge concept are not appropriate for a modern progressive society. So I’ve discounted core knowledge.

I agreed with Martin on twitter that I would mount a defence of pragmatic instrumentalism. Of course I am not unbiased and arrive at this BLOG with a pretty much fully formed opinion. So here it is.

The first idea,”what works”, places a value upon the purpose of the knowledge and skill being taught. The questions being; what does society need to do to progress and how do we teach it? Of course once this ideology gets into the hands of the politicians it can turn into the conveyor belt syndrome that sees education as little more than training for the workplace. In a previous BLOG, martin blames pragmatic instrumentalism for the loss of the joy of being human. I half agree.

In theory pragmatism should be engaged with an on-going dialectic. In practice politicians and “policy wonks” have been developing policy without any evidence. They have simply been pretending to measure and monitor without the least idea how to do it. Practitioners need to be able to hold them to account.

The second idea offers the view that there is a body of work that can be agreed democratically constituting “the best that has been thought and said”. The body of knowledge has to have the intrinsic property of enabling students to engage with the on-gong dialectic that constitutes “high level” societal conversation or else what is the point?.

In truth I think “best that has been thought and said” would inevitably end up somewhat similar to “what works” and pragmatic instrumentalism when the disagreements began; you would need some kind of theory or philosophy to democratically arrive at the canon.

There is also the proviso that there is  evidence that knowledge based canons actually do allow all to engage with the societal conversation. In reality I suspect it would result in the middle classes leveraging, the access to that conversation they bring with them when they engage with the education system.

What works

I’ve written about “what works” in previous BLOGS. It is largely associated with the pragmatism of John Dewey. The idea is that “structures” or “social constructs”, ideas theories, concepts etc etc, should be purposeful. And to some extent measurable.

The truth does not correspond to objective reality but should be judged based upon its utility. It is the dominant ideology in modern society and also that of progressive education. Maybe a surprise to some that progressivism is not the cuddly ideology of “tree huggers” and group thinkers  rather it is an ideology that focuses on action or praxis.

The underpinning idea is that praxis becomes transparent and democratic. Often attributed to Rousseau but also an idea commented on by a host of thinkers including but not limited to:  Bourdieu, Freire and Arendt (to name just a few).

The problem for pragmatic instrumentalism has been threefold :

1) There is no consensus on what education is or should be. As a consequence it is difficult to measure not least because politicians keep changing the goals of education and the instruments used to measure it.

2) Rather than being a progressive process of improving practice instrumentalism has been used by neo-liberal politicians to “beat up” and bully practitioners in all spheres of the public sector. In education a hierarchical system, aided and abetted by OFSTED, has re-enforced the bullying.

3) As quickly as it was dreamed up the idea, of pragmatic instrumentalism, was being attacked by influential epistemologists such as Carl Popper who rejected the inductivist ideas behind pragmatism in favour of empirical falsificationism. In other words empirical science cannot prove a theoretical proposition to be true but it can prove one to be false.

Popper’s concept is problematic for educational research because it’s a blunt instrument.; truth in one social context might be false in another. Generalisable theories of social practice are hard to find not least because theories do not float objectively above the social world but can in fact impact upon it, and change, the variables that the theory originally intended to study.

“The best that has been thought and said”

This is a concept derived from a quote by Mathew Arnold but has a less clear (to me anyway) place in philosophical thought. In his latest BLOG Martin rightly differentiates between Ed Hirsch’s deficit ideology and a more democratic, you could almost say, progressive model including the learner voice:

These conversations should be organised through the tradition of subjects and a pupil should be initiated into an understanding of a wide range of different voices through these subjects. The voices should be drawn from teachers current thinking as to what was and is the best that has been thought, said and done in their subjects and pupils should be inculcated in a way that allows them to absorb, argue, pass on and add to the best that has been thought said and done. There also needs to be a way that students can bring together these voices and bring in their own voices, conversationally, a space in which to make a sense of things. This will enable students to be truly culturally literate because this would be a curriculum that is not imposed by those in the Elysian fields.

The problem is that it’s not clear how that democratic process would work. Academia may well be caricatured as a bunch of “old farts” residing in their ivory towers but in actual fact it is full to the brim of individuals who quite ferociously defend their own ideas and subjects. Indeed  politicians also work to to defend their power bases as we have seen this week. My view is that it simply wouldn’t happen. Power very rarely cedes it’s own authority on the basis of fine notions such as “the best that has been thought and said”.


There is no easy answer. I think it unlikely that “the best that has been thought and said” will ever be truly democratic nor reflect the wider thinking that has contributed to Western intellectual life without an evidenced based ideology to be used as intellectual currency with politicians and policy wonks. It will too easily lapse into Hirsch’s idea and turn out to be somewhat similar to the common core in the states; undemocratic and offering a very narrow view of society re-enforcing traditional knowledge structures.

Whilst it has its flaws I still think that some kind of attempt to develop a measurable approach to improving praxis based on evidence informed reflection and research, grounded in practice, is the only realistic and viable approach to developing a democratic curriculum and pedagogical approaches.

The problem of governance and research existing in uncontested intellectual spaces is changing but power always attempts to re-assert itself. In this country we have seen the emergence of self interested lobby groups. They should at least have to justify themselves.

Nothing is perfect but an evidence informed critical look at curriculum by those who teach it is about as good as it’s going to get. Like others I am cynical about educational democracy bought and paid for by government funded quangos. I see little chance of any kind of canon being agreed external to governance without a credible vehicle, by which, practitioners and students can engage with the powerful. In this case evidence. That was Dewey’s original intention after all.


4 thoughts on “Democracy in education: “what works” v “the best that has been thought and said”

      1. No problem. Apologies if I over egged the pudding as it were. I was trying to link what you were saying to my point rather than attributing my point to you. Clumsy but not intentional – these things are written quickly.

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