Teaching needs philosophy more than research

Education Forum member Alka Sehgal Cuthbert argues that philosophy rather than research offers more hope for better teaching…

In 1996 Tony Blair made education the centre of his Ruskin speech, ‘An Age of Achievement’ he said, ‘is within our grasp – but it depends on an Ethic of Education.’ We never did find out what that ‘ethic of education’ was, but we did become very familiar with a plethora of new strategies to measure achievement, the most ubiquitous of which was probably the idea of Assessment for Learning popularised by Dylan Williams. Introduced as a way to help teachers who found themselves in an unfamiliar landscape of increasing number and types of targets, AfL was typical of a managerial approach to education where process threatened to drive content off stage.

Thirteen years on, the then Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Education attempted to re-introduce the importance of knowledge and curriculum – the content of education. In his 2009 speech to the Royal Society of Arts, he spoke of education as having ‘an emancipatory, liberating value’ and the reforms to the 2013 National Curriculum aimed to provide a knowledge-based curriculum. Gove’s attempts were unsuccessful among a profession highly sceptical of the Conservative-led coalition government. However, the academic case for knowledge, in the UK made primarily by Michael Young in his Bringing Knowledge Back In (2008), found more success both within official circles and the profession. The term curriculum proliferated – and being a knowledge-rich school was something approved of by Ofsted.

While local education authorities held CPD sessions on planning and sequencing curriculums, and teachers were encouraged to create lovely-looking knowledge organisers, what was happening to the poor sister of knowledge, that is pedagogy? Pedagogy, commonly understood as the practice of teaching, was left in the hands of the government-funded Education Endowment Foundation. The EEF, established in 2010, has a remit to provide the best evidence-based studies for teachers to improve their practice. The aim was, unsurprisingly, worded in the language of social mobility – to improve outcomes in the most socio-economically deprived areas. Boldly claiming that it will ‘identity and fill gaps in evidence, uncover unknown needs, and identify what works and why’ on its website, the EEF seems oblivious to one fundamental truth about education. That is while data derived from experimental research is able to falsify hypotheses and raise questions for further investigation, no data set could ever provide reasons that are meaningful for any humanistic version of education and teaching.

I am highly critical of evidence-based education because education, as opposed to qualification, is at its most successful when it defies, rather than follows, evidence. Above all, and actually more important than producing technically proficient essays or answers that garner good grades, education is about the experience of thinking as an act of self-reflexivity. This encourages pupils to take view on aspects of the world which is different to the one with which they are familiar through everyday experience. This can be unsettling, it introduces new possibilities and patterns across ideas and beliefs that previously seemed settled. To be clear, we are talking ideas about the world here, not personally held political beliefs or values, which takes us to a different discussion, for another time perhaps.

Philosophers of education have argued that education is fundamentally a relationship between humans rather than a matter of technical expertise. More specifically, the pedagogic relationship is not a one-directional act of instruction – input-practice-output. It involves highly complex skills of presenting conceptual content to pupils who are not adept at this kind of thinking. Teachers need a high level of freedom with which to make fine-grained judgments about continually shifting levels of their pupils’ interests and understanding. Rather than the latest evidence-backed method they would be better off with a wide repertoire of strategies, informed by philosophical and epistemological knowledge.

Depth and breadth in the fundamental disciplines of education, of which philosophy is one of the most significant, is far more important than evidence-based education. Evidence-based teaching approaches and scripts tend to direct teachers’ attention to preformulated empirical outcomes. A humanities-based teacher education is more likely to help teachers in their proper role of ensuring pupils are engaging intellectually with what they are trying to teach them rather than monitoring each pupil output. As any English teacher knows, it is quite possible to write an essay perfect in form but banal in content. Thinking isn’t an empirical phenomenon – we can work out good proxies to get a sense of how much pupils have understood, and questions to test how secure their understanding is, but proxies will only be good in the extent to which they address the specific circumstances of a particular group of pupils. Sometimes deeper thinking can result in empirical outcomes that suggest a pupil is stagnating or going backwards in terms of their performance in a subject. We don’t need to be worried about this as long as we are able to ascertain the cause and work out the best way of helping them through what could be a necessary moment of difficulty. The pressures of performativity in teachers’ work hinders the scope for such judgments.

Individual professional judgement is a far better method for achieving this than generic forms of assessment that have an evidence-based seal of approval for efficacy. I am not arguing against any particular teaching strategy, phonics, handwriting practice or learning times tables by rote. I am arguing that we demand, and provide the conditions for, our teachers to educate liberally – that is for a freedom of thought rather than technical perfectionism or any other instrumental goal. Grade levels may not be what government officials or business representatives say they would like, and they may not look good in PISA comparisons, but if our collective experience of lockdown has taught us anything about education it is that it is above all a human-centred rather than a technical endeavour. Philosophy has a few centuries-worth of accumulated experience of considering such questions, and it could well be a better source for improving education than any number of random controlled experiments that ill-suit inquiry into something as intellectually, ethically and aesthetically complex as education and pedagogy.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is Education Advisor and Coordinator at Don’t Divide Us, and co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? – Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth, 2nd Ed. (UCL Press); follow her at @ASCphiled


  • David Backhurst – ‘Teaching and Learning: Epistemic, Metaphysical and Ethical Dimensions – Introduction’, in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, 2020, vol. 54 (2).
  • Andrea Kern – ‘Human Life, Rationality and Education’ in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, 2020, vol. 54 (2).
  • Sebastian Rödl – ‘Teaching, Freedom and the Human Individual’ in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, 2020, vol. 54 (2).
  • Paul Standish – ‘Data Return -The Sense of the Given in Educational Research’ in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, 2001, vol. 35 (3).
  • Dylan Williams – Embedded Formative Assessment, 2011.