5 principles of education


I write a lot about teaching methods and research, yet I recently argued that educational progressivism is not actually a set of methods as much as it is a set of principles. I reject progressivism and so what are my alternative principles? I’ve had a go at drafting them. See what you think.

1. Civilisation is fragile and education sustains it

We live in a unique period of human history where large numbers of people are able to live relatively safe and healthy lives, free from a daily battle for survival. Yet civilisation is constantly under threat from climate change, extreme ideologies and war. Education is the means by which we sustain civilisation and so it is the highest possible calling. Without it, there would be no doctors, no lawyers and no written constitutions to hold despots in check.

2. Education is for all

For much of history, literacy has been the preserve of a priest class. No more. It is for everyone. People are not fundamentally different, they are fundamentally the same. So we should not assume that some people are destined for particular roles in society that don’t ‘need’ education. In fact…

3. Education is not utilitarian, it is emancipatory

I don’t teach children the fruits of our civilisation so that they can get a good job. That is a happy by-product. I teach so that they can stand on the shoulders of giants and see further than they otherwise would have seen.

4. Education is not natural or easy

It is not the natural state of people to be educated. We cannot expect education to just happen like the budding of a flower. It is always going to be like pushing water uphill. Yet once students start to gain facility, they gain confidence and motivation. At this point, education may become self-sustaining.

5. Our best guide to the future is the past

Nobody knows what the future will bring and anyone who claims such knowledge is a charlatan. We don’t know what challenges our civilisations will face so how can we prepare for them? Our best bet is to equip the next generation with that which has endured: The knowledge we have found to sustain our practical, emotional and intellectual needs in the past is our best guide to what will sustain them in the future.


30 thoughts on “5 principles of education

  1. Well chosen, and powerfully expressed.

    If I had to add anything it would be to address the neomania, or obsession with the new, that distorts so much thinking about education.

    That “to stand the test of time” is a truism makes it no less true.

    Tradition is often contrasted with empiricism. But tradition is a distillation of experience plus time. And time is a better laboratory than even the best designed RCT.

  2. Mitch says:

    100% agree with all of them. Particularly get tired of saying number 4 – natural curiosity in toddlers does not automatically lead to real learning and schools are definitely not trying to beat it out of them!

  3. Mike says:

    On the five points:

    1. I think we have to be a little careful here as teachers not to overestimate our roles, and the extent of our influence. Yes, education is essential to maintain a fragile civilisation, and by extension so are teachers. But so are plumbers. So are electricians. So are architects. It is very easy (and highly seductive) for teachers to imagine that they occupy a unique role in the structure of a civilised society.

    Is there any harm in this attitude, over and above a certain professional arrogance or snobbery vis-à-vis other professions? Yes there is, because an inflated idea of the importance of education means that it becomes very easy for the education snake-oil merchants (so many of whom Greg has so ably skewered on this blog) to shut down any criticism of their methods or funding by coming up with the disingenuous cry “So you’re prepared to sacrifice the future of our children? Of our whole society?!?” And this sort of sophistry is much harder to answer if one subscribes to the idea of education being the sole pillar on which civilisation rests.

    In short, a certain professional pride is fine, but a certain professional humility is also necessary for teachers.

    2. “For much of history, literacy has been the preserve of a priest class.” I think this is a little exaggerated. In many ancient societies literacy was rather more widespread than is commonly assumed. But to address the main point, people are fundamentally the same in most respects, but there will still be those who are more or less academically-inclined than others. A healthy belief that all minds are educable should be tempered with the awareness that after a due period, it will normally be possible to identify those who will be wasting their time continuing with formal academic education and will be both more engaged and of far greater use to their fellow citizens by obtaining some form of technical skill instead. I mention this because, when taken to a “logical” extreme, the attitude exemplified in your statement is used to justify mistaken policies like the one in NSW currently which results in thousands of kids attempting the HSC when it’s a complete waste of time for them (and their teachers).

    3. I agree with this but perhaps “emancipatory” is not the best term to use, as it has been widely associated with a quite different educational philosophy. Although I learned almost nothing else from the theory part of my DipEd, at least they presented to us what I still consider to be the four basic philosophies of education: humanistic, utilitarian, libertarian (the A.S. Neill/Ivan Illich crowd) and emancipatory. The latter was the social-engineering-as-the-basic-principle approach, which I don’t think you would advocate. Social mobility, for mine, is a useful by-product of education but not its fundamental purpose. That sort of attitude gets you into trouble right from the start.

    4 and 5 are superbly expressed – I couldn’t agree more!

    • Then we fundamentally disagree. The kind of education that I am talking about is the education that schools and universities were created to deliver. It is possible to pick this knowledge up incidentally, serendipitously or as an enthusiastic amateur pursuing your interests, but this is the exception rather than the rule and so it conflicts with principle 2.

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    • Michael Pye says:

      I think the narrow use of the word education is in fact one of Greg’s principles. Formal education should emphasis those aspects which do not naturally develop. Those other aspects of development are of course important and should be encouraged in education but they should not be our primary focus.

      Have I understood this correctly Greg?

  5. I think it is good to disagree as it is the only way we can move constructively forwards with any forms of knowledge or wisdom. I could not disagree more with all 5 of these and so I will enjoy the process of working through why that is for the rest of the day. Many thanks for sharing and provoking.

  6. Stan says:

    There is a huge utilitarian aspect to education. Why can’t it be this and emancipatory?
    Just because the utilitarian aspect gets too much attention doesn’t mean it is completely unimportant.

    • I agree. I said that the utilitarian aspects are a happy byproduct. They are there and they are necessary. Indeed, in point one I note the fact that education produces doctors and lawyers. My claim is that this is not the goal or, at least, not my goal. My goal is more to pass on the accumulated knowledge of civilisation because this enriches lives in its own right.

      • Stan says:

        Your wording confused me at least. Perhaps as a physics teacher it is easy to see that your goal will cover the utilitarian aspects that many students have as their goal. But why not say in your heading: Education is not only utilitarian, it is emancipatory?

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  10. “Education is the means by which we sustain civilisation and so it is the highest possible calling. Without it, there would be no doctors, no lawyers and no written constitutions to hold despots in check.” I couldn’t agree more with you. Education is the bases of our civilization. Yet the teachers and the whole education system is never a top priority with any government at any part of this world we live in today. Kind of a paradox!

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  13. G van Ginkel says:

    Many of these could equally be part of some form of educational ‘progressive’ stance. I fail to see how these are ‘alternative’ then.

    • Two is not progressive. The results of progressive educational ideas tend to leave education for those who have families with the ability to fill the gaps and provide the equipment progressive education requires at home. Those without these advantages do not do well with progressive ideas – indeed they tend to miss out on fundamental education e.g. being able to read.

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