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.

Decarbonise and Decolonise – An Elitist Campaign from UCU & SOS

Writing for Don’t Divide Us, Alex Standish considers the ways in which a seemingly well-intentioned campaign by Students Organising for Sustainability and the University and College Union is actually elitist, anti-democratic and, if successful, likely to make lives worse for many who are already disadvantaged.

The first question to ask is why are a group of students and the largest lecturers union in the UK seeking to use their campaign to ‘transform how and what we learn’ in schools and universities rather than raising awareness about these political issues? Their approach implies that there is something wrong with our current curriculum, even though students already learn about climate change and Britain’s colonial past in school subjects. Secondly, why would they put forward such as campaign without discussing the potential for indoctrination (tying learning to political outcomes) which will undoubtedly compromise the educational mission of schools and universities?

Read on at Don’t Divide Us.

The Curriculum Journal reviews What Should Schools Teach?

The second edition of What Schools Should Teach: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth (UCL Press 2021), edited by Education Forum members Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish, has been given a glowing review in the journal of the British Educational Research Association (BERA)…

“…One of the book’s strengths is that it responds to and rejects these demands using the argument that the justification for such curriculum knowledge is epistemic, not political. Ideologies and beliefs are created in political and socio-cultural conditions. In contrast, disciplinary knowledge is created within the process of its epistemic structuration. It is at the point where the knowledge is applied to the material world that it is open to ideological appropriation. However, that appropriation is not because of the power generated from its epistemic character but by the politics of knowledge use.”

The full review is available on the BERA site.

What Schools Should Teach: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth is available in paperback, hardback and PDF versions from UCL Press.

Areo reviews “What Should School Teach?”

Educator David J. Ferrero assesses the second edition of What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth, edited by Education Forum members Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish…

What Should Schools Teach? is a profoundly countercultural book. It is nonetheless a book by and for professional educators whose contributors bring epistemological sophistication, extensive pedagogical content knowledge and a strong grasp of their disciplines’ intellectual and institutional histories to the question posed by the book’s audacious title.

…[It] restores much needed sanity to debates about schooling’s purpose. It makes an excellent primer for aspiring teachers, will be of interest to parents and other interested laypersons, and should be mandatory reading for educational policymakers throughout the Anglophone world.

Read the full review on Areo.

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.

Book launch: What Should Schools Teach?

What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth – edited by Education Forum members Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish as part of UCL Press’s Knowledge and the Curriculum book series – is now available in an expanded second addition.

In a special webinar to celebrate its publication, contributors Cosette Crisan, Michael Reiss, Christine Counsel, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Simon Toyne outlined the thinking behind their chapters, and UCL Professor of Curriulum Zongyi Deng responded with his thoughts on the book’s contribution to current educational discourse.

The video of the discussion can be seen on the UCL website.

What Should Schools Teach?: Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth. (A Review)

Some quotes from Ian Mitchell’s review of the expanded second edition of What Should Schools Teach? (UCL Press, 2021), which was edited by Education Forum members Alka Seghal Cuthbert and Alex Standish.

‘…Seghal Cuthbert and Standish, aided by their team of subject experts, inject a healthy blend of cerebral intellect, classroom experience, and plain common sense into the curriculum debate. The well-researched content makes the contributors worthy of attention, with more than enough expertise to warrant moments of candour. There is no getting away, for instance, from the title’s implied meaning: what schools should be doing is not necessarily what they are doing.’

‘…if freed from the shackles of instrumental policies, teachers could even find themselves united by a simplicity of purpose, namely a moral, aesthetic and epistemological model of teaching and learning…’

‘If there is a common thread within the subject chapters, it is the need to understand and appreciate each discipline’s inherent value. Academic subjects are at best conservative (with a small ‘c’) in that they must conserve their discipline’s intrinsic value. It is a point made explicitly by Physics specialist, Gareth Sturdy (although it is echoed implicitly elsewhere): ‘we need to find, or re-find, what is truly unique about what we do, not only within the discipline but within the whole school, and have a robust faith in its intrinsic worth’.

Read the full review on the Secondary Ideas blog.