Towards a better pedagogy – Why philosophy can do more for teachers than data

A philosophically-informed pedagogy may prove more beneficial for teachers than data-driven initiatives unsuited to the complexities of educational practice, argues Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in the Education Forum’s regular column for Teach Secondary…

“…Experimental research can falsify hypotheses and raise questions for further investigation. It is designed to empirically test theoretical claims. It does not ‘provide theory’. In fact, a recent study suggests that there’s little connection between teachers poring over research data and helping students learn more effectively – though many corporate entities have been doing rather well from the modern trend towards data-fetishisation in education.

When it comes to teaching, helping pupils learn and acquiring understanding of formal knowledge, teachers would do better by turning to philosophy, rather than data or narrowly focused research studies…”

Read the full article on Teachwire.

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.

The importance of impartiality – Why social activism and schools shouldn’t mix

The value of educational impartiality is being imperilled by the determination of some practitioners to produce student activists, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in Teach Secondary magazine…

…The notion of ‘impartiality’ is often conflated with demonstrating a lack of passion or ethical commitment. Contrary to received wisdom, though, being an impartial educational institution actually requires high levels of both passion and ethical commitment – only to truth and its attendant virtues, rather than nebulous ‘social justice’ causes.

We’re currently witnessing the emergence of a disturbing trend, whereby some educators and LAs appear keen to accept – or even promote – the idea that schools ought to be incubators of socially responsible activism.

The focus might be racism, trans rights, environmentalism or even a combination of all three. In any case, it’s a tendency that’s both wrong- headed and deeply pernicious, since it undermines the very idea of education being a public and liberal good, underpinned by the practising of political impartiality…

Read the full article on Teachwire.

If the unions won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

Education unions consistently fail to protect their members from intimidation, argues Education Forum member Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in CapX…

Last year, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary entitled The School That Tried to End Racism, in which pupils were segregated by skin colour to ‘do the race work’ required of them by so-called ‘race experts’. It won a Bafta, rather than the public condemnation it deserved.

The lack of public or official criticism served as a green light for educator-activists already working within schools to up the ante and push for an actively anti-racist agenda. Being non-racist, the traditional default position, was no longer an option because it denied positions of structural power into which we are, allegedly, all born. To impose a belief without interrogation isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, and it should have no place in our schools and universities. Yet the attack on Kathleen Stock by the University and College Union for her views on transgender issues is the latest reminder of how organisations that are supposed to represent educators consistently fail to protect their members.

Read the full article on CapX.

“The education system needs teachers who can demonstrate authority”

Between modern aversions to notions of ‘authority’ and the policing of public discourse, is it any surprise that teachers are finding it harder to be authoritative, asks Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in the Education Forum’s latest column for Teach Secondary magazine

If there’s one place in society where we’d want adults to be authority figures, you’d think it would be schools. Yet today, it seems that there’s an ambivalence, or even hostility to the idea of teachers acting in an authoritative manner, such that the job of educating is being made harder than ever.

Take two recent examples. Firstly, that of the teacher at Batley Grammar School who was deserted by his head, colleagues and union representatives when some parents and members of local Muslim groups – not all of whom even had children at the school – expressed offence at his showing of a cartoon depicting Mohammed in a RE lesson about tolerance and freedom of thought.

In the face of protests at the school gates, the head suspended the teacher (and later his two colleagues) before issuing an apology to those protesting. An investigation is ongoing while the teacher and his family remain in hiding.

The second example is that of Pimlico Academy, where students held protests over the school’s policies regarding its uniform, curriculum and flying of the national flag. The head, Daniel Smith, subsequently resigned, not long after NEU members at the school passed a vote of no confidence in him.

At first glance, both cases concerned a teacher or leader who had seemingly shown insufficient sensitivity to feelings centred around race or religion. Yet wherever you stand on the specifics involved, there are deeper issues at play here that don’t relate to racism or religious discrimination, but which serve to give both incidents, and others like them, their incendiary character. Those issues involve long-standing problems with teachers’ authority, and related failings of solidarity…

Read the full article on TeachWire.

Anti-racist dogma shouldn’t replace real curriculum thinking

A perfect storm of competing pressures threatens to shortcut critical thinking about curriculum, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in Schools Week…

For some, Ofsted’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum for all students has represented a welcome change from filling in content to fit schemas of generic skills. For many, and especially for leaders tasked with previously unimaginable levels of monitoring, predicting and recording, it has been understandably bewildering.

Amid this upheaval in school expectations and practices, schools have now been tasked with a new social justice mission, and the effect is especially pronounced in subjects like English literature, whose purpose and content are too broad and, as a result, hotly debated.

English teachers are increasingly expected to use their reading lists to promote active anti-racism. That pressure finds its source in a political outlook that shifts the terms of the debate from its usual dichotomy – wavering between the poles of understanding/expression and rule-bound linguistics/literary techniques – to put its entire focus on representation.

But, while the rhetoric is persuasive, the concept of representation has a long and contested history. At its worst, the idea is used to portray readers as blank slates rather than imaginatively active participants. It is used to justify control over what they are given access to, and how…

Read the whole article on Schools Week.

Think Before We Leap – Schools and Anti-Racist Policies

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert argues that schools should pause, think and discuss before implementing new anti-racist policies

No doubt since the events of last summer, schools, or at least some heads and senior leadership teams, have felt a new urgency to show that their school is, in the words of one London school’s freshly penned anti-racist policy, a ‘consciously anti-racist school’. Our current state of public discourse does not really encourage us to think before we leap into some plan of action that we believe to be a no brainer – who could be against such a thing unless they were either racist themselves, or so tradition-bound that they are on the point of total social irrelevance? The crucial point for schools, or any educational institution, is that prior to endorsing and implementing an anti-racist policy, there should be the widest, most open discussion among all adults concerned, with the aim of creating the widest possible consensus. This means people need to hear the range of views and understandings available, and not only the one that currently dominates our media landscape. The point is not that the existence of racism, or need for anti-racism, has to be proven. No teacher I know is denying the existence of inequalities or personal prejudice. But today more than ever, meanings of political terms such as ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ are contestable. Yet in some schools, these and other neologisms are being endorsed as incontrovertible facts. Teachers are being asked to accept a particular belief system as if it were the only way of understanding what both racism and anti-racism means.

To assume a consensus where none exists makes it hard for individual teachers who may disagree with some of the beliefs or assumptions involved to raise questions. Or if they have the courage to have that meeting, or send that email where they raise their doubts, they are met with a curt acknowledgement followed by stony silence. Objections are seen as private interpersonal disagreements rather than symptomatic of profoundly differing political values and therefore requiring public scrutiny. In times of socio-political stability, and a strong consensual culture, schools may have less need to pay such careful attention to political values, or to make the effort to provide conditions of good faith discussion. But today’s political and cultural contexts are very different, and such a consensus cannot be assumed.

We definitely do need to think more deeply, and be prepared to question everything – the existence or prevalence of ‘woke mobs’ as well as ‘white privilege’. We need to do this as citizens in general, and even more so as teachers or those working in educational institutions. And if the monitoring, predicting and recording that are a feature of contemporary school life leave staff with little time or energy, then maybe it’s those tasks that need to be trimmed or pruned to make room for proper discussions about questions that cut to the heart of what education should be, what it is, and where it might be heading.

What, for example, are we to make of an anti-racist policy that contains the now ubiquitous phrase ‘respect for diversity’ yet, a few sentences along, declares that it ‘is committed to identifying and removing discriminatory practices and any form of racism or racist behaviour’? Clearly there are limits to the kind of diversity the school is prepared to respect. This is fine, and I am not arguing for racism to be respected. But even apart from the fact that there is more than one intellectually respectable definition of racism, ‘identifying and removing’ does not sit well with the older aim of education which is to argue with, and persuade, and only in the last resort, discipline. It’s worth remembering Wittgenstein’s words, ‘At the end of reasons comes persuasion’.

A school’s policy on something which is important and affects the institutional norms in which teacher’s daily work in undertaken should have a semblance of logical consistency. Yet the following contradictory key policy statements at one school indicate this is not necessarily the case. Consider the following statements from one school’s policy:

            ‘To develop pupils’ self-confidence and independence so that they are well equipped to play an active role in society’

           ‘…if the behaviour is treated in isolation without taking into consideration the issues and effects of racism, this can be described as institutional racism.’

The first aim does have a large consensus – that’s why it seems obvious to the point of being a platitude.  The second aim effectively negates the principle of independence, certainly in relation to independence of thought. It is effectively saying that the only contextual features permissible when judging a particular act are those of ‘the issues and effects of racism’. Furthermore, it implies that to do otherwise – consider other non-race related circumstances of the pupil/s involved – would be evidence of institutional racism. Such a view does not have a similar level of consensus. This anti-racist policy, intentionally or not, limits the space for teachers to exercise their own professional judgment.

A similar prohibition of individual judgment is extended to pupils themselves when the policy states:

            ‘Pupils should never just be a ‘bystander’; a witness who sees or knows about racist behaviour to someone else and does nothing, supports the behaviour’

And this instruction is facilitated by providing ‘confidence boxes’ for anonymous reporting. The effect is to encourage conformity to an external rule rather than helping pupils to develop their own independent thought and judgement. Virtuous dispositions including independence of thinking, compassion, tolerance and perseverance are not things best taught propositionally; they need to be encouraged by adults who exemplify them in their words and acts. If curiosity, imagination, independent thought and judgment remain rhetorical, while the practical norms emphasise delegation of thought and judgement to external rule derived from self-appointed race or diversity experts, then the result is likely to engender conformism rather than education. Schools need rules, but which rules and to what ends are things that need the fullest, deepest thinking and discussion among those who are called upon to enforce them.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator, researcher, writer and member of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum. She is co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth and a founding signatory of the Don’t Divide Us campaign.

English Literature doesn’t need to literally represent race or social experience – it needs to capture pupils’ imaginations

As calls to decolonise the curriculum grow louder, we should consider what might be lost from the study of English literature if we do, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert in the Education Forum’s regular column for Teach Secondary magazine…

Illustration of people

The literature we choose for our curriculums doesn’t need to literally represent people in terms of skin colour or social experience, but it does need to be good enough that it can capture pupils’ imaginations, so that their capacity for vicarious experience – and vicarious relationships with characters – is extended and deepened.

Picture a class of 8- and 9-year-old Bengali boys and girls from inner London, enthralled while reading about the exploits of a white-skinned, red-haired orphaned tearaway called Pippi Longstocking who lives in a Swedish rural idyll.

Read the whole article on TeachWire

“Let’s have a better post-COVID conversation about edtech”

In the Education Forum’s column for Teach Secondary magazine, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert calls for a return to educational basics, and a more nuanced critique of optimistic dreams concerning our gleaming, edtech-powered future.

In education, those who do the actual hard work of education, as opposed to the host of ancillary work that enables and supports it, are the teachers and pupils. Technology can certainly bring useful things to education, but there’s nothing intrinsically educational about technology itself per se.

As a young person in the aforementioned video points out, the same technology can be used to play games, pursue hobbies and conduct everyday communications, as well as for educational purposes. It follows, then, that for any technology to be of actual use in the classroom, the ‘education’ side of the equation has to be firmly in place first, so that the technology’s use is distinctively educational.

And here’s the rub – few people among the ranks of politicians, policy makers and academics (and sadly, many teachers) possess a strong enough conception of what education is and what it needs to flourish.

Read the whole article on Teachwire