Critical realism in education – part two: the turn to realism in educational theory

In the first part of this blog I argued that neo-traditionalism cannot offer a view of knowledge because it is based upon epistemological assumptions.In order to circumvent this problem neo-traditionalism has adopted a concept, “the best that has been thought and said”, that is fraught with problems.

The blog aims to show that a form of relativist progressivism also struggles to account for knowledge, from a completely different perspective, and describe how educational researchers are re-introducing ontology back into educational thinking.

In other words it’s a bit of a romp around social theory in 1600 words or so. The big words are not my fault nor are the big ideas. We are all on a big rock floating through space – allegedly.

The confusion of progressivism

Progressivism has become somewhat the whipping “person” of education Traditionalists have developed a discourse based on “trendy teaching methods”. As a consequence progressivism has become an easy target blamed for the ills of modern education. Tim Taylor describes it as such :

….a beguiling narrative because it allows us to blame the educators of the past for our current ills and gives us the chance to wipe the slate clean and start again. Much of our beloved secretary of state’s (Michael Gove) pronouncements have used this argument allowing him to justify his neo-liberal reforms as the sweeping away of the evils of trendy teaching that have infected our schools since the 1960s.

The problem probably stems from the post modernist turn in the 1960’s and the radical constructivism that followed:

Discovery learning is the form of progressive education that is perhaps most widespread today. Its basic idea is that people can only learn things and understand them when they discover them for themselves. Whereas John Dewey backed his progressive pedagogy with philosophical ideas about what truth is and what happens when we think, discovery learning relies for its justification on psychological theories about learning (“radical constructivism”) and about the maturation of children’s mental faculties (“developmental appropriateness”).

Critics have argued that progressivism was imbued with relativistic assumptions privileging the agent and not the structure:

…….’radical constructivism’, a theory of knowing that is resonating worldwide with the reformist desires of science and mathematics educators. In recent years, von Glasersfeld’s cogent arguments concerning the ‘constructed’ nature of our knowing and its relativist status have been endorsed and subject to critical analysis. In writing this paper, our intention was to portray the central themes of von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism and to consider their implications for teaching and learning activities.

Possibly to extricate their man from the clutches of the assault on progressivism Vygotskyian scholars have also linked progressivism to the developmental psychology of Herbert Spencer and Piaget. Another popular narrative is that Rousseau is to blame. My own view of progressivism is that the best way to understand it is from the perspective of  American pragmatism. In particular Dewey and his interaction with the work of Vygotsky, and Piaget; as well as the subsequent development of social constructivism. Regardless progressivism has always been an epistemic movement concerned with knowing rather than the nature of knowledge.

Both neo-traditionalism and progressivism suffer the same problem from the opposite standpoint. One privileges knowledge but cannot account for it and the other privileges the knower and regards knowledge as somewhat irrelevant. The neo-traditionalist has the “best that has been thought and said” whilst one progressive view is that knowledge resides on computer systems and therefore why bother with it?

The turn to social realism in education

More recently scholars have been developing a realist form of constructionism. That is to say a constructionism underpinned by critical and social realism rather than the social constructivism of Glaserfeld.

To do this he (Bhaskar) turns to his natural scientific ontology to argue that social reality is a stratified open system. It is stratified because social structures are held to be emergent properties that exist in interaction with agents who are conditioned but not determined by structures.

Archer elaborates on the emergent properties of knowledge structures:

Archer (1995) complements this with the argument that culture is an emergent property too. On her rendering of critical realism we have: the interplay of structural emergent properties (SEP) such as capitalism; cultural emergent properties (CEPs) such as religion; and agents, which Archer talks of in terms of people’s emergent properties (PEPs), meaning the groups within which people exercise agency, such as religious groups, political groups or trades’ union groups. Given that the outcome of this interaction is contingent and given that structural and cultural emergent properties can interact in contingent ways, the social system has to be an open system characterized by change at the level of observable events. The role of theory in social science therefore is to interpret empirical phenomenon in terms of how observed events are the contingent outcomes of the interaction of unobservable processes.

Interpreting feedback and pedagogical Knowledge from a critically realist perspective

For the purpose of this blog I have distilled the work of Archer into five basic points that could be used with social constructionism:

  1. Pedagogic knowledge is socially real and is enacted within a stratified open system
  2. Pedagogic Knowledge is the interaction between structure and agent
  3. Pedagogic knowledge has emergent properties based on social and cultural structures as well as individual agents working within social groups
  4. Empirical research can only evidence changes at the observable level
  5. Empirical research has to interact with theory in order to explain the unobservable processes that create those observable changes

If we take those five points and look at how a knowledge construct such as feedback might work; that is to say how feedback is transmitted from teacher to student as opposed to the content transmitted we can perhaps have a view of critical realism in praxis.

Critical realism and the knowledge structure of feedback

In the everyday we all know what feedback is, we have all given and received feedback in some form or other. Equally we all know that feedback does not exist as a wholly positive structure with reliable causal effects. The difference between everyday feedback and that given by a teaching professional is surely that feedback should be delivered with some expertise., Presumably that means someone somewhere has a body of knowledge that ensures that the feedback given reliably improves performance.

Social institutions are complex and multi-variant (1). Let us assume that  there is a body of knowledge, somewhere or other, that equates to good feedback and offers a reliable structure for practitioners to work with (2); there is still the issue of how it translates into practice.

Feedback and praxis

Feedback, in practice, could exist in a number of forms that can be studied empirically such as institutional documents. A feedback document could reside on the school or colleges intranet. That does not, of course, mean that anyone has read it. In fact it is quite possible that the person who wrote the original document has left the organisation and there is no one in the organisation who is actually aware of its existence. Or it could be that there are some who are aware of it and some who know aspects of it.

More than likely feedback would exist as part of a marking scheme that determines the frequency that it is to be enacted as opposed to any clear definition of the essential nature of feedback and the circumstances that it is purposeful. That could result in feedback being conceptualised by middle managers as simply a tool to evidence classroom practice for OFSTED.

Already we can now see the circumstances, in which, individual agents within different identifiable social groups are interacting with the knowledge structure in different ways (3). A third social group classroom practitioners, who have to implement the construct, may see it completely different. Environmental factors, such as time, might mean that classroom practitioners see feedback as just an exercise in cutting and pasting. Different social groups are starting to differentiate their conceptual representation of the feedback structure.

Feedback could also have cultural properties. It may become the vehicle by which someone wants promotion. Or the tool a manager uses to oust a perceived incompetent teacher. Or even the mechanism by which a senior leader accrues status by posting the new “innovative” feedback schema on a blog.The uptake of the structural concept may differ entirely simply by the cultural interplay of the individuals involved It’s also quite possible that feedback undergoes a constant evolution in practice as practitioners understand how to use the concept and adapt it according to environmental factors. In fact practitioners may introduce innovative practice related to feedback that would not have happened if it was not there.

Empirical researchers can collect data; analyse institutional documents and interview practitioners (4) but what is required is a theoretical position related to how feedback exists as a knowledge proposition in praxis so that different studies and methods can enrich the theory and answer different questions (5) otherwise each bit of the jigsaw puzzle floats free from the other.


Arguably education has been dominated by epistemology. As a consequence it cannot give an explanation of knowledge. Critical realism offers one solution to studying knowledge and its effects in educational practice, that is to say, knowledge as a “thing in itself” exists socially “real” and can be studied using the ontological approaches of the natural sciences.

One option is to underpin constructionist ideas with a socially realist ontology underpinned by a progressive idelogy that considers the democratic purpose of education from a critical perspective . There are no doubt others as well. Education has some brilliant thinkers. It has the ideas and the scientific approach to make progress. There is a whole sociology of education that is explaining knowledge and knowers. The problem is; no one seems to be listening. It’s ironic that education has been dominated by two epistemic perspectives; neither of which can give an account of knowledge. An education system that cannot account for knowledge, and worse, does not even try is like  a widget factory that does not know what a widget is.


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