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Good Education in an Age of Measurement: On the Need to Reconnect with the Question of Purpose in Education

  • Maynooth University Ireland & University of Edinburgh


In this paper I argue that there is a need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education, particularly in the light of a recent tendency to focus discussions about education almost exclusively on the measurement and comparison of educational outcomes. I first discuss why the question of purpose should always have a place in our educational discussion. I then explore some reasons why this question seems to have disappeared from the educational agenda. The central part of the paper is a proposal for addressing the question of purpose in education—the question as to what constitutes good education—in a systematic manner. I argue that the question of purpose is a composite question and that in deliberating about the purpose of education we should make a distinction between three functions of education to which I refer as qualification, socialisation and subjectification. In the final section of the paper I provide examples of how this proposal can help in asking more precise questions about the purpose and direction of educational processes and practices.
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© Gert Biesta
The Stirling Institute of Education
University of Stirling, UK
Introduction: Valuing what we measure or measuring what we value?
The past 20 years have seen a remarkable rise in interest in the measurement of
education or, in the lingo of the educational measurement culture, the measurement of
educational „outcomes. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of this
phenomenon can be found in international comparative studies such as the Trends in
International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Progress in International
Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and OECDs Programme for International Student
Assessment (PISA). These studies, which result in league tables that are assumed to
indicate who is better and who is best, are intended to provide information about how
national education systems perform compared to those of other countries and are thus
generally competitive in their outlook. Findings are utilised by national governments
to inform educational policy, often under the banner of „raising standards.‟
League tables are also produced at national level with the aim of providing
information about the relative performance of individual schools or school districts.
Such league tables have a complicated rationale, combining accountability and choice
elements with a social justice argument which says that everyone should have access
to education of the same quality. At the same time, the data used for producing such
league tables are used to identify so-called „failing schools‟ and, in some cases,
„failing teachers‟ within schools. The irony of these arguments is that accountability is
often limited to choice from a set menu and thus lacks a real democratic dimension
(see Biesta 2004a), that the elasticity of school choice is generally very limited, and
also that equality of opportunity hardly ever translates into equality of outcomes
because of the role of structural factors that are beyond the control of schools and
teachers, thus also undermining part of the „blame and shame‟ culture of school
failure (see Tomlinson 1997; Nicolaidou & Ainscow 2005; Hess 2006; Granger 2008).
Interest in the measurement of educational outcomes has not been restricted to the
construction of league tables. The measurement of outcomes and their correlation
with educational „input‟ is also central to research which aims to provide an evidence-
base for educational practice (see Biesta 2007a). Proponents of the idea that education
should be transformed into an evidence-based profession argue that it is only through
the conduct of large-scale experimental studies the randomised controlled field trial
being the „gold standard‟ – and careful measurement of the correlation between input
and output, that education will be able to witness “the kind of progressive, systematic
improvement over time that has characterized successful parts of our economy and
society throughout the twentieth century, in fields such as medicine, agriculture,
transportation and technology” (Slavin 2002, p.16). In the USA the reauthorization in
2001 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act („No Child Left Behind‟) has
resulted in a situation where federal research funding is only available for research
which utilises this particular methodology in order to generate scientific knowledge
about „what works.‟
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An important precursor of many of these developments can be found in research on
school effectiveness, which played an influential role in discussions about educational
change and improvement from the early 1980s onwards (see Townsend 2001; Luyten
et al. 2005). While the research initially focused on overall school and administrative
variables, later work increasingly paid attention to the dynamics of teaching and
learning in order to identify the variables that matter in making schooling more
effective. With it came a shift towards a more narrow view of relevant outcomes and
outputs (see, e.g., Rutter & Maugham 2002; Gray 2004). In recent years the
movement as a whole seems to have become more interested in the wider question of
school improvement rather than just issues concerning effectiveness (see, e.g.,
Townsend 2007). Notwithstanding this, the school effectiveness and improvement
movement has played an important role in the idea that educational outcomes can and
should be measured.
The rise of the measurement culture in education has had a profound impact on
educational practice, from the highest levels of educational policy at national and
supra-national level down to the practices of local schools and teachers. To some
extent this impact has been beneficial as it has allowed for discussions to be based on
factual data rather than just assumptions or opinions about what might be the case.
The problem is, however, that the abundance of information about educational
outcomes has given the impression that decisions about the direction of educational
policy and the shape and form of educational practice can be based solely upon
factual information. Despite the fact that this is what increasingly is happening in
discussions about education in the wake of international comparisons, league tables,
accountability, evidence-based education and effective schooling, there are two
(obvious) problems with this way of thinking.
The first is that whilst it is always advisable to use factual information when making
decisions about what ought to be done, what ought to be done can never be logically
derived from what is. This problem, which in the philosophical literature is known as
the is-ought problem and was first identified by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
in A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-1740), means that when we are engaged in
decision making about the direction of education we are always and necessarily
engaged in value judgements judgements about what is educationally desirable.
This implies that if we wish to say something about the direction of education we
always need to complements factual information with views about what is desirable.
We need, in other words, to evaluate the data and for this, as has been known for a
long time in the field of educational evaluation, we need to engage with values (see,
e.g, House & Howe 1999; Henry 2002; Schwandt & Dahler-Larsen 2006). The
second problem, which is related to the first and in a sense is its methodological
equivalent, is the problem of the validity of our measurements. More than just the
question of the technical validity of our measurements i.e., whether we are
measuring what we intend to measure the problem here lies with what I suggest to
call the normative validity of our measurements. This it the question whether we are
indeed measuring what we value, or whether we are just measuring what we can
easily measure and thus end up valuing what we (can) measure.
The need to engage explicitly with values in our decisions about the direction of
education is easily overlooked, particularly in those cases in which the concepts that
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are used already appear to express values. An example of this can be found in
discussions about educational effectiveness. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to
make a case for education that is not effective which gives the idea of educational
effectiveness a prima facie plausibility effectiveness is actually a value. This
seems to suggest that an argument for effective schooling or teacher effectiveness is
exactly doing what I am suggesting we should do. The problem is, however, that
effectiveness is an instrumental value, a value which says something about the quality
of processes and, more specifically, about their ability to bring about certain outcomes
in a secure way. But whether the outcomes themselves are desirable is an entirely
different matter a matter for which we need value-based judgements that are not
informed by instrumental values but by what we might best call ultimate values:
values about the aims and purposes of education. This is why effective education is
not enough and a case can even be made that sometimes educational strategies that
are not effective, for example because they provide opportunities for students to
explore their own ways of thinking, doing and being, can be more desirable than those
that effectively proceed towards a pre-specified end. Instead of simply making a case
for effective education, we always need to ask „Effective for what?‟ – and given that
what might be effective for one particular situation or one group of students but not
necessarily in another situation or for other groups of students, we also always need to
ask „Effective for whom?‟ (see Bogotch, Mirón & Biesta 2007).
In order to bring issues of value and purpose back into our discussions about
education, particularly in situations in which measurement figures prominently, we
need to re-engage with the question as to what constitutes good education, and it is to
this that I wish to contribute in this paper. I will do this in two steps. In the next
section I explore why we seem to have lost sight of questions about values, purpose
and the goodness of education. I suggest that at least part of the explanation for this
has to do with what I will refer to as the „learnification‟ of education: the
transformation of an educational vocabulary into a language of learning. After this I
will present my contribution to the discussion about what constitutes good education.
I will not do this by specifying what the aim or aims of education should be, but by
suggesting a conceptual framework based on a distinction between the qualification,
socialisation and subjectification function of education, which might help us in asking
better and more precise questions about the aims and ends of education. I illustrate the
framework with a brief discussion of two examples: citizenship education and
mathematics education. This is not to suggest that the framework is only relevant in
relation to particular curricular questions. My contention is that a more precise focus
on what constitutes good education is crucial for the way we approach all dimensions
of education, and particularly for those aspects where we engage most explicitly with
questions of values, such as in the fields of assessment, educational evaluation, and in
relation to questions about accountability.
The ‘Learnification’ of Education
The background of this paper lies in the remarkable absence in many contemporary
discussions about education of explicit attention for what is educationally desirable.
There is much discussion about educational processes and their improvement but very
little about what such processes are supposed to bring about. There is very little
explicit discussion, in other words, about what constitutes good education (see
Fischman, DiBara & Gardner 2006; on good educational research see Hostetler 2005;
on responsible assessment see Siegel 2004). Why might this be so?
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On the one hand the question of educational purpose might be seen as too difficult to
resolve or even as fundamentally irresolvable. This is particularly the case when ideas
about the purpose(s) of education are seen as being entirely dependent upon personal
which often means: subjective values and beliefs about which no rational
discussion is possible. This often lies behind a dichotomous depiction of views about
the aims of education in terms of conservatism versus progressivism or traditional
versus liberal. One question is whether such value positions are indeed entirely
subjective and thus beyond rational discussion. But even if it may be difficult to reach
a resolution, it could be argued that, at least in democratic societies, there ought to be
an ongoing discussion about the aims and ends of (public) education how hard such
a discussion might be. (For an interesting account of an attempt by the Scottish
Parliament to have such a discussion see Pirrie & Lowden 2004; see also Allen 2003.)
What is more likely, though, is that the absence of explicit attention for the aims and
ends of education is the effect of often implicit reliance on a particular „common
sense‟ view of what education is for. We have to bear in mind, however, that what
appears as „common sense‟ often serves the interests of some groups (much) better
than those of others. The prime example of a common sense view about the purpose
of education is the idea that what matters most is academic achievement in a small
number of curricular domains, particularly language, science and mathematics and it
this common sense view which has given so much credibility to studies such as
TIMMS, PIRLS and PISA. (This common sense view is mainly constructed, therefore,
in terms of what I will refer to below as the qualification function of education.)
Whether academic knowledge is indeed of more value than, for example, vocational
skills, all depends on the access such knowledge gives to particular positions in
society and this, as sociological analysis has abundantly shown, is exactly how the
reproduction of social inequality through education works. It is, therefore, first of all
in the interest of those who benefit from the status quo to keep things as they are and
not open up a discussion about what education might be. What makes the situation
even more complicated is that those in disadvantaged positions often tend to support
the status quo in the (often mistaken) expectation that they will eventually also
acquire the benefits currently available to those in more privileged positions (a
phenomenon which, elsewhere, I have characterised as „middle class anxiety‟; see
Biesta 2004a). An example of this can be found in the UK government‟s target which
says that eventually 50% of the population should go to higher education. Whereas
this seems to be an attractive and emancipatory ambition, it is often forgotten that
once this target will be reached, the current positional advantage of having a higher
degree will have dramatically changed and other mechanisms of „distinction‟ – such
as the difference between a degree from a „good‟ or a „not-so-good‟ university as
expressed in university league tables will have taken over to reproduce existing
inequalities in different ways (see also Ross 1991; Rancière 1991)
The reasons for the relative absence of attention to questions about educational
purpose are, however, not merely „external.‟ I wish to argue that they also have to do
with transformations within the field of education itself and that they are closely
connected to a shift in the vocabulary that is being used to talk about educational
processes and practices. As I have argued elsewhere in more detail (see Biesta 2004b;
2006a), the past two decades have witnessed a remarkable rise of the concept of
„learning‟ with a subsequent decline of the concept of „education‟ (for more empirical
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support for this thesis see Haugsbakk & Nordkvelle 2007). This rise of what I have
called the „new language of learning‟ is manifest, for example, in the redefinition of
teaching as the facilitation of learning and of education as the provision of learning
opportunities or learning experiences; it can be seen in the use of the word „learner‟
instead of „student‟ or „pupil‟; it is manifest in the transformation of adult education
into adult learning, and in the replacement of „permanent education‟ by „lifelong
learning.‟ „Learning‟ has also become a favourite concept in policy documents, such
as, in the UK, The Learning Age (DfEE 1998) and Learning to Succeed (DfEE 1999).
The following extract is a perfect example of the „new language of learning.‟
Placing learners and learning at the centre of education and training
methods and processes is by no means a new idea, but in practice, the
established framing of pedagogic practices in most formal contexts has
privileged teaching rather than learning. (...) In a high-technology
knowledge society, this kind of teaching-learning loses efficacy: learners
must become proactive and more autonomous, prepared to renew their
knowledge continuously and to respond constructively to changing
constellations of problems and contexts. The teacher's role becomes one
of accompaniment, facilitation, mentoring, support and guidance in the
service of learners' own efforts to access, use and ultimately create
knowledge. (Commission of the European Communities 1998, p.9,
quoted in Field 2000, p.136)
Despite the omnipresence of the concept of learning in current educational discourse,
it is important to see that the new language of learning is not the outcome of one
particular process or the expression of a single underlying agenda. It rather is the
result of a combination of different, partly even contradictory trends and
developments. These include (1) the rise of new theories of learning that have put
emphasis on the active role of students in the construction of knowledge and
understanding and the more facilitating role of teachers in this; (2) the postmodern
critique of the idea that educational processes can be controlled by teachers and ought
to be controlled by them; (3) the so-called „silent explosion‟ of learning (Field 2000)
as evidenced in the huge rise of informal learning throughout people‟s lives; and (4)
the erosion of the welfare state which has shifted the responsibility for (lifelong)
learning from „provider‟ to „consumer‟, turning education from a right into a duty (for
more detail see Biesta 2004b; 2006a; see also Biesta 2006b).
The rise of the new language of learning can be seen as the expression of a more
general trend to which I now wish to refer with a deliberately ugly term as the
„learnification‟ of education: the transformation of everything there is to say about
education in terms of learning and learners. A focus on learning and learners is, of
course, not all bad or problematic. To see that learning is not determined by input but
depends on the activities of students although not a new insight can help to rethink
what teachers could do best to support their students‟ learning. There are even
emancipatory possibilities in the new language of learning to the extent to which it
can empower individuals to take control of their own educational agendas. Yet there
are also several problems connected with the rise of the new language of learning
and we shouldn‟t underestimate the ways in which language structures possible ways
of thinking, doing and reasoning to the detriment of other ways of thinking, doing and
reasoning. In the context of this paper I wish to highlight two problematic aspects of
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the new language of learning. One is that „learning‟ is basically an individualistic
concept. It refers to what people, as individuals do even if it is couched in such
notions as collaborative or cooperative learning. This stands in stark contrast to the
concept of „education‟ which always implies a relationship: someone educating
someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of what the
purpose of his or her activities is. The second problem is that „learning‟ is basically a
process term. It denotes processes and activities but is open if not empty with
regard to content and direction.
This helps to explain why the rise of the new language of learning has made it more
difficult to ask questions about content, purpose and direction of education. It is
important, in this context, to note that the rise of the new language of learning is part
of a wider process of the „learnification‟ of education, a process which is increasingly
having an impact on educational policy and practice itself. We can see this, for
example, in the increased emphasis in education on personal qualities and capacities
such as in the Scottish national curriculum framework „A Curriculum for Excellence‟
which specifies the aims of education in terms of enabling the development of four
„capacities‟, that of the successful learner, the confident individual, the responsible
citizen and the effective contributor (see Scottish Executive 2004) a trend which
verges on turning education into a form of therapy that is more concerned with the
emotional well-being of pupils and student than with their emancipation (see
Ecclestone and Hayes 2008; see also Biesta in press[a]). What is disappearing from
the horizon in this process is a recognition that it also matters what pupils and
students learn and what they learn it for that it matters, for example, what kind of
citizens they are supposed to become and what kind of democracy this is supposed to
bring about (see Biesta in press[b]) and that, for this reason, education can and in a
certain sense even ought to be difficult and challenging rather than that it is just
(depicted as) a smooth process which aims to meet the supposed „needs‟ of the learner
(see Biesta 2004b; see also Biesta 2001).
How, then, can we bring questions of purpose and direction back onto the educational
agenda? To this question I turn next.
What is Education For?
My aim in this paper is not to specify what the purpose or purposes of education
should be. I have rather set myself the more modest task of outlining the parameters
of what I think should frame discussions about the aims and ends of education,
acknowledging that there is already a wide range of different views available and also
acknowledging that in democratic societies there should be an ongoing discussion
about the purposes of education both with regard to state-funded and privately-
funded education. One way to develop a framework for discussions about the aims
and ends of education is to start from the actual functions educational systems
perform. I wish to suggest that education generally performs three different (but
related; see below) functions, to which I will refer to as the qualification, socialisation
and subjectification function of education.
A major function of education of schools and other educational institutions lies in
the qualification of children, young people and adults. It lies in providing them with
the knowledge, skills and understanding and often also with the dispositions and
forms of judgement that allow them to „do something‟ a „doing‟ which can range
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from the very specific (such as in the case of training for a particular job or profession,
or training for a particular skill or technique) to the much more general (such as in the
case of the introduction to modern culture or Western civilisation, the teaching of life
skills, etcetera). The qualification function is without doubt one of the major functions
of organised education and is an important rationale for having state-funded education
in the first place. This is particularly, but not exclusively, connected to economic
arguments, i.e., to the role education plays in the preparation of the workforce and,
through this, in the contribution education makes to economic development and
growth. That this is an important rationale can be seen in ongoing discussions
between governments and employers and employers organisations about the apparent
failure of education to provide adequate preparation for work something which, in
the UK, is often referred to as the „skills gap‟. The qualification function is, however,
not restricted to preparation for the world of work. Providing students with knowledge
and skills is also important for other aspects of their functioning. Here we can think,
for example, of political literacy the knowledge and skills needed for citizenship
or cultural literacy more generally the knowledge and skills considered to be
necessary to function in society more generally. (Whether it is possible to specify this
is, of course, another matter and a contentious one; see, e.g., Hirsch 1988; Apple
Here, however, we move into a second major function of education to which I will
refer as the socialisation function. The socialisation function has to do with the many
ways in which, through education, we become members of and part of particular
social, cultural and political „orders‟. There can be no doubt that this is one of the
actual „effects‟ of education, since education is never neutral but always represents
something and does so in particular ways. Sometimes socialisation is actively pursued
by educational institutions, for example with regard to the transmission of particular
norms and values, in relation to the continuation of particular cultural or religious
traditions, or for the purpose professional socialisation. But even if socialisation is not
the explicit aim of educational programmes and practices, it will still function in this
way as, for example, has been shown by research on the hidden curriculum. Through
its socialising function education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and
being and, through this, plays an important role in the continuation of culture and
tradition both with regard to its desirable and its undesirable aspects.
Education does, however, not only contribute to qualification and socialisation but
also impacts on what we might refer to as processes of individuation or, as I prefer to
call it, processes of subjectification of becoming a subject. The subjectification
function might perhaps best be understood as the opposite of the socialization function.
It is precisely not about the insertion of „newcomers‟ into existing orders, but about
ways of being that hint at independence from such orders; ways of being in which the
individual is not simply a „specimen‟ of a more encompassing order. Whether all
education actually contributes to subjectification is debatable. Some would argue that
this is not necessarily the case and that the actual influence of education can be
confined to qualification and socialisation. Others would argue that education always
also impacts on the individual and in this way it always also has an individuating
„effect‟. What matters more however, and here we need to shift the discussion from
questions about the actual functions of education to questions about the aims, ends
and purposes of education, is the „quality‟ of subjectification, i.e., the kind of
subjectivity or kinds of subjectivities that are made possible as a result of
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particular educational arrangements and configurations. It is in relation to this that
some would argue and have argued (see, e.g., in the analytical tradition Peters 1966;
1976; Dearden, Hirst & Peters 1972; and, for a recent contribution, Winch 2005; and
in the critical tradition Mollenhauer 1964; Freire 1970; Giroux 1981) that any
education worthy of its name should always contribute to processes of subjectification
that allow those educated to become more autonomous and independent in their
thinking and acting.
The main contribution I wish to make with this paper is to suggest that when we
engage in discussions about what constitutes good education we should acknowledge
that this is a „composite‟ question, i.e., that in order to answer this question we need to
acknowledge the different functions of education and the different potential purposes
of education. An answer to the question what constitutes good education should
therefore always specify its views about qualification, socialisation and
subjectification even in the unlikely case that one would wish to argue that only one
of them matters. To say that the question of what constitutes good education is a
composite question, is not to suggest that the three dimensions of education can and
should be seen as entirely separate. The contrary is the case. When we engage in
qualification, we always also impact on socialisation and on subjectification.
Similarly, when we engage in socialisation, we always do so in relation to particular
content and hence link up with the qualification function and will have an impact
on subjectification. And when we engage in education that puts subjectification first,
we will usually still do so in relation to particular curricular content and this will
always also have a socialising effect. The three functions of education can therefore
best be represented in the form of a Venn-diagram, i.e., as three overlapping areas,
and the more interesting and important questions are actually about the intersections
between the areas rather than the individual areas per se.
Where we do need to separate the three dimensions of education is in terms of our
rationales for education, i.e., our answers to the question what constitutes good
education. Here it is important to be explicit about how our answer relates to
qualification, socialisation and/or subjectification. The most important point is that we
are aware of these dimensions, of the fact that they require different rationales, and
also of the fact that while synergy is possible, there is also potential for conflict
between the three dimensions, particularly, so I wish to suggest, between the
qualification and socialisation dimension on the one hand and the subjectification
dimension on the other.
One issue which I can not discuss in any detail has to do with the question to what
extent and in what way it is actually possible to make a distinction between
socialisation and subjectification. Our answer to this question depends on whether we
believe that it is possible to occupy a position which is „beyond‟ tradition. Whereas
postmodern critics have argued that such a position is no longer possible and that we
should therefore concede that education for (rational) autonomy is just one more form
of (modern, Western) socialisation, I have argued that it is precisely with the help of
postmodern theory and philosophy that we can still make a distinction between
socialisation and subjectification, albeit that this is no longer based upon a notion of
rationality or autonomy, but connected to the idea of a kind of „uniqueness‟ which
comes to light in responsible responsiveness to alterity and difference (see Biesta
2006; 2007b; in press[c]).
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Two examples: Citizenship Education and Mathematics Education
In order to make my proposals a bit more concrete, I will briefly show what using the
framework outlined above implies for our discussions about the aims and ends of
education. I will do this in relation to two curricular areas: citizenship education and
mathematics education.
To begin with the first: there is a strong tendency in the literature to confine (the
rationale) for citizenship education to qualification, that is, to providing children and
young people with the knowledge, skills and dispositions known in the literature as
the citizenship dimensions (see Kerr 2005) that are considered to be essential for
their citizenship. The focus of citizenship education in this view is that of the
development of political literacy although within this idea we can find a spectrum
from a focus on knowledge about the rights and duties of citizens and the workings of
the political system on the one end towards, on the other end of the spectrum, a more
fully-blown form of critical political literacy which emphasises the ability to critically
analyse the dynamics of political processes and practices. Quite often the rationale for
an exclusive focus on qualification in citizenship education stems from a fear for
explicit political socialisation: a fear, that is, for being seen to advocate indoctrination
of a particular set of political values and convictions often expressed in the idea that
citizenship education should stay away from party politics. Notwithstanding this,
many programmes for citizenship education are actually based upon views about what
constitutes a good citizen. The approach to education for citizenship in Scotland, for
example (see Biesta in press[b]), clearly states that children and young people should
be enabled to become responsible citizens and thus represents a clear view about the
kind of knowledge, skills and dispositions students should acquire, but also about the
kind of citizen they should become. The rationale for education for citizenship in
Scotland thus clearly contains a socialisation dimension. Scotland is not the only
example of an approach to citizenship education which has clear views about the kind
of citizen it aspires to bring about; many programmes for citizenship education are
actually based upon pre-defined views of what a good which often means: an
obedient and well-behaved citizen looks like (see Biesta & Lawy 2006; Lawy &
Biesta 2006). The question, however, is not only whether citizenship education should
confine itself to the transmission of citizenship dimensions and thus stay within the
domain of qualification, or should also focus on bringing about a particular kind of
citizen. There is also the question whether citizenship education can and should
contribute to what we might refer to as political subjectification, i.e., to the promotion
of a kind of citizenship that is not merely about the reproduction of a predefined
template but takes political agency seriously. Citizenship education that is interested
in this approach moves its rationale clearly into the direction of the subjectification
dimension of education. What this example makes clear, therefore, is that there are
different answers to the question as to what good citizenship education is and what it
should aim for, depending on whether we focus on qualification, socialisation or
subjectification. As mentioned before, the idea is not that we need to choose between
the three. Political knowledge and understanding (qualification) can be an important
element for the development of political ways of being and doing (subjectification),
just as a strong focus on socialisation into a particular citizenship order can actually
lead to resistance which, in itself, can be taken as a sign of subjectification.
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While it may seem rather easy to connect a subject like citizenship education with the
three purposes of education, this may appear to be more difficult when we focus on a
much more traditional subject; a subject, moreover, which clearly is about the
acquisition of knowledge, skills and understanding. But even when we look at a
subject like mathematics, it is possible and in my view actually quite important to
think through the rationale for mathematics education in the same way as I have done
with regard to education for citizenship. It is clear that there is a strong focus within
mathematics education on qualification: on providing students with mathematical
knowledge and skills and, most importantly, mathematical understanding in order to
become proficient in mathematics. There is, however, an important socialisation
dimension to this as well. After all, to include mathematics on the curriculum and to
give it a prominent place in testing and definitions of educational success, already
conveys a particular message about the importance of mathematics and thus can be
seen as socialisation into a world in which mathematics carries importance.
Socialisation into such a world can also be an explicit aim of mathematics education
and teachers may well want to convince their students that engagement with
mathematics is indeed important. We can take this argument one step further. The
idea that mathematics education is about the transfer of a particular body of
knowledge and skills is based upon a particular epistemology. If, instead of seeing
mathematics as a body of knowledge and skills we understand it as a social practice
a practice with a particular history and with a particular social „present‟ – we can even
begin to develop a rationale for mathematics education which gives a central place to
socialisation, seeing it as an engagement with the social practice of „mathematising‟
rather than as the acquisition of a body of knowledge and skills (for such a rationale
see Biesta 2005). This, however, does not exhaust the possible rationales for
mathematics education, since we can also ask what kind of opportunities a field like
mathematics might offer our students for subjectification, that is, for becoming a
particular kind of person, e.g., a person who, through the power or mathematical
reasoning is able to gain a more autonomous or considered position towards tradition
and common sense. Or we might explore the moral possibilities of mathematics e.g.,
by treating division in relation to sharing or to questions about fairness and justice
and, through this, use the potential of mathematics to contribute to subjectification.
Concluding Remarks
In this paper I have tried to make a case for the need to reconnect with the question of
purpose in education. I have shown that we now live in age in which discussions
about education are dominated by measurement and comparisons of educational
outcomes and that these measurements as such seem to direct much of educational
policy and, through this, also much of educational practice. The danger here is that we
end up valuing what is measured, rather than that we engage in measurement of what
we value. It is the latter, however, that should ultimately inform our decisions about
the direction of education, which is why I have argued that we should give
prominence to the question as to what constitutes good education, rather than just
paying attention to effective education. I have tried to indicate why questions about
the aims and ends of education seem to have disappeared from our horizon, and have
connected this specifically with the rise of the language of learning and the wider
„learnification‟ of education. I have not tried to answer the question as to what
constitutes good education, not in the least because I am ware of the plurality of
visions about this and am also convinced about the importance to keep the discussion
about this going, rather than to close it down prematurely. My contribution in this
For Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability
paper has consisted in emphasising that the question of good education is a composite
question. This means that in our discussions about the purpose of education we need
to distinguish between the ways in which education can contribute to qualification, to
socialisation and to subjectification. I have now wanted to suggest that it is always
easy to do so, and even less that, once we have articulated our views about what we
think education is for, that it is easy to measure all aspects. But if we are not explicit
about our views about the aims and ends of education if we do not tackle the
questions as to what constitutes good education head on we run the risk that
statistics and league tables will make these decisions for us. We therefore need to
keep the question of purpose the question of what constitutes good education
central in our educational discussions and wider endeavours. This is as important for
the everyday practice of schooling, as it is for those instances where we engage more
explicitly with the assessment of our own educational practices and our students‟
achievements such as in the case of student assessment, in the case of the evaluation
of programmes and practices, and when we as educators are called to account for our
actions and decisions. In all cases a concern for good education rather than a concern
for effective education or for learning as such, that is without any specification of the
learning „of what‟ and „for what‟, should be central to our considerations.
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... Elle tend à institutionnaliser des catégories cognitives et normatives, qui consacrent une rationalisation instrumentale de l'éducation, alors que dans le quotidien des pratiques, les questions des moyens ne peuvent jamais être totalement dissociées des fins, à rebours de ce que voudrait le discours gestionnaire. La pratique éducative n'est pas réductible à une rationalisation instrumentale, car une dimension axiologique est toujours inextricablement logée dans les gestes professionnels les plus anodins et quotidiens de l'action éducative (Biesta, 2009). ...
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Inspired by the new public management, the Results-Based Management (RBM) policy has profoundly changed the governance of the Quebec school system by strengthening the power of the Ministry over school boards and their schools. Combining the study of parliamentary debates, the exploitation of available statistics and the analysis of a hundred or so in-depth interviews with teachers, administrators and school managers, this book proposes a multi-level analysis of the trajectory and implementation of this policy in four school boards. What visions do school actors have of this policy? What organisational, institutional and professional changes does it produce in the schools? With what mediation and instrumentation? Is this policy legitimate and effective? The analysis shows that RBM strengthens the power of school boards and principals because it allows for more consistent management of pedagogy and monitoring of teachers' practices. Its effectiveness remains questionable and its legitimacy weak among teachers, because the managerial and quantified logic of RBM questions their conceptions of education and erodes their professional autonomy. Inspirée de la nouvelle gestion publique, la politique de Gestion axée sur les résultats (GAR) a changé profondément la gouvernance du système scolaire québécois en renforçant le pouvoir du ministère sur les commissions scolaires (CS) et leurs écoles. Combinant l'étude des débats parlementaires, l'exploitation des statistiques disponibles et l'analyse d'une centaine d'entretiens approfondis auprès d'enseignants, administrateurs et cadres scolaires, ce livre propose une analyse multiniveau de la trajectoire et de la mise en oeuvre de cette politique dans quatre CS. Quelles visions les acteurs scolaires ont-ils de cette politique ? Quels changements organisationnels, institutionnels, professionnels produit-elle dans les CS et les écoles? Avec quelles médiations et instrumentation ? Cette politique est-elle légitime et efficace ? L'analyse montre que la GAR renforce le pouvoir des CS et des directions car elle permet une gestion plus suivie de la pédagogie et une surveillance des pratiques des enseignants. Son efficacité reste discutable et sa légitimité faible parmi les enseignants, car la logique managériale et quantifiée de la GAR interroge leurs conceptions de l'éducation et grignote leur autonomie professionnelle.
... An unintended consequence of prioritising cognitive learning in this way is that pupils become ever more sedentary because of the emphasis given to the one-way transfer of knowledge and, relatedly, time spent at the desk (Dale et al., 2011;Midtsundstad et al., 2010). At the same time, the other purposes of education become neglected (Biesta, 2009). This has led to a resurgence of interest in debating the nature of core educational goals in contemporary society. ...
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This paper explores teachers' educational values and how they shape their judgements about physically active learning (PAL). Twenty one teachers from four primary schools in Norway participated in focus groups. By conceptualising PAL as a didaktikk approach, the findings indicated that teachers engaged with PAL in a way that reflected their professional identity and previous experiences with the curriculum. Teachers valued PAL as a way of getting to know pupils in educational situations that were different from those when sedentary. These insights illustrate how PAL, as a didaktikk approach to teaching, can shift teachers' perceptions of pupils' knowledge, learning, and identity formation in ways that reflect the wider purposes of education. The paper gives support to a classroom discourse that moves beyond the traditional, sedentary one-way transfer of knowledge towards a more collaborative effort for pupils' development.
... The past few decades have witnessed an increase in normalising forces that has been evident in school policies in post-industrial countries (Tomlinson, 2012). Normalising practices are increasingly ingrained in the global, educational reform movement, which is characterised by educational standardization, teaching for predetermined results, test-based accountability policies and increased governmental control of schools (Biesta, 2007(Biesta, , 2009(Biesta, , 2013Sahlberg, 2011). Following Tomlinson (2012), the increase in normalising forces on children is induced by a political context, which from the 1980s onward has placed educational change and reform under economic imperatives and competitive market ideologies. ...
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CONTEXT The study investigates the concept of parent pedagogicalisation, with the aim to explore, as well as articulate, its analytical content. The notion of parent pedagogicalisation involves normalising forces governing parents to take responsibility for children’s educational achievement, especially targeting the child who differs from the norm and whose achievement is at risk. Set against the background of current global educational tendencies aiming at standardisation and marketisation, understandings of ‘normal’ become increasingly narrower, excluding an increasing number of children. The narrowing perceptions of what is considered ‘normal’ induce a fear of exclusion from educational opportunities and subsequent, future citizenship. In this climate, parents are ascribed a significant role in the child’s education. Within this context, and especially in cases involving children considered ‘outside of normalcy’, pedagogicalisation of the parent entails educating parents about how to support their child’s educational achievement.METHODS Through empirical exploration of parents’ narratives, this study investigates the content of the concept of parent pedagogicalisation with the purpose to provide a theoretical lens that may support the identification of pedagogicalizing forces and possible implications for parents and children. The data consists of parents’ narratives on their experiences with educational follow-up after their child’s cochlear implantation. This empirical sample has been strategically chosen, consisting of a specific group of parents, who, in an educational context, are expected to be exposed to pedagogicalisation. The data contains 27 written narrative responses to an online, qualitative questionnaire with open-ended questions, and 14 follow-up interviews. FINDINGS Data analysis identified three key dimensions central to the content of the concept of parent pedagogicalisation, 1) Parents’ perceived need for knowledge, 2) An instrumental perspective on supporting the child’s learning, and 3) No respite. KEY MESSAGE Our proposition is that these dimensions make up the conceptual construct of parent pedagogicalisation. The three interwoven dimensions demonstrate a complexity and width that indicate implications for the parents and children involved. Potential implications are discussed in relation to a) Parents caught in the nexus between empowerment and disempowerment, and b) The pedagogicalisation of parents - a counterproductive paradox. The significance of parental involvement for children’s educational achievement notwithstanding, the analysis shows that parent pedagogicalisation and its inherent normalising practices may be detrimental to the parents and children involved, acting oppressive and exclusionary. Awareness of the mechanisms involved in parent pedagogicalisation may contribute to the identification and reduction of the associated exclusionary forces, thus encouraging a more inclusionary discourse.
... The 'new and highly collaborative ways' referred to are the adjusted PISA instruments for measuring learning in LMICs developed in PISA-D. The strategy embodies what Biesta (2008) calls the 'normative validity' of measurements -that is privileging what can be measured rather than what we value, which obscures the complex relations that underpin the education system (Unterhalter 2017). In other words, a common standard agreed between countries on what counts as 'minimum proficiency level' is still missing. ...
This paper identifies and analyses the legitimation strategies used by the OECD as it expanded its role in global educational governance. Whilst the literature recognises the mainly discursive sources of legitimacy which the OECD derives from its testing regime, especially PISA, what remains unexplored is how exactly it has created the legitimacy to monitor SDG 4 – an arena where it has not been previously involved. Drawing on Suchman’s framework for analysing organisational legitimacy, we identify six strategies. We show how these: were used to promote the OECD’s pragmatic, moral, and cognitive legitimacy; progressed over time from low-key passive conformity to active manipulation; and, operated on both an episodic and a continual basis.
... Simply put, all forms of teaching and learning (including curricula) need to serve the knowledge economy and its knowledge workers. Thirdly, it reinforces Bourdieu's (1984) and more recently Biesta's (2009) suggestion on the cultural production/reproductive value of education, in how the elites use the different forms of capital (social/economic/cultural) and their habitus through education to reinforce and institutionalise their privilege and structural advantages in society. Thus, the emergence of the #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellebonschCollective, Black Student Movement and other student formations in 2015-2016 was indicative of the crisis of the neoliberal university and its inability to deliver on the promised "democratic dividends" of post-apartheid South Africa. ...
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The public university in the global South continues to be trapped in an existential slumber, struggling to self-define/self-diagnose its purposes, rationales, goals and agenda(s). Despite the emergence of the #FeesMustfall, #RhodesMustFall, and more recently the #Asinamali student protests, South African higher education continues to adopt neoliberal and colonial conceptions of institutional reforms, seen through the emergence and enactment of performance management instruments, demographic understandings of transformation, incoherent/illogical policy prescriptions, and the use of technology as pedagogic replacement. In this article, I attempt to do two things. Firstly, I critique the South African higher education policy and legislative framework as largely inadequate and neoliberal in nature and designed to reinforce market-orientated logics and discourses. Secondly, and in thinking beyond the neoliberal university, I propose what an inclusive curriculum could look like through a decolonial lens. I end the article with some parting thoughts on the future of the neoliberal university in South Africa, and the potential implications for what I see as the emergence of decolonial and transformative curricula.
... Hávaerar raddir á síðustu árum kalla eftir innihaldsríkum samraeðum um tilgang og inntak menntunar, frekar en umraeðu um maelingar sem gjarnan stýra því samtali sem á sér stað um menntamál (sjá t.d. Biesta, 2009). Varað hefur verið við afleiðingum þess að leyfa árangursdrifnum viðmiðum, sprottnum af rótum nýfrjálshyggju, að ráða för (sjá t.d. ...
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English version: Conflict and colliding points of view: Teachers’ and school leader’s vision of the development and future possibilities of upper secondary education. It is undisputable that the COVID-19 pandemic seriously affected schools all over the world. When teaching and learning was moved online overnight in Icelandic upper secondary schools due to the pandemic, it posed significant challenges for teachers and school leaders. Teachers were required to instantly adapt their teaching practices and course plans to a digital environment and convert immediately to a situation that has be called emergency remote teaching (ERT). School leaders constantly needed to rethink the operation of the schools and teachers to adapt to an ever-changing reality. This condition lasted with certain variations for almost a whole year. The unusual situation offers a unique opportunity to investigate the effects of a sudden crisis as well as the ideas of educational staff concerning possible learning from the situation. The aim of the paper is to investigate teachers’ and school leaders’ vision of the development of the upper secondary school and its future possibilities, from the vantage point provided by the first year of the pandemic. The research is based on data from a comprehensive study entitled Upper secondary education and COVID-19: Crisis, challenges and adaptability. Twelve teachers and six school leaders from three upper secondary schools were interviewed towards the end of the first year of the pandemic. One of the schools is in a rural area, the others are two different schools in the metropolitan area. Purposive sampling was used to select schools and interviewees to cover various situations and experiences. Gender balance was considered, as well as working experience and subjects taught. Teachers who had either struggled with adapting their teaching to the ERT or who had found it relatively easy to do were interviewed. The school directors of each school were interviewed and another school leader, selected randomly from the middle management layer of each school. Since the results presented no discernible difference between genders or school subjects all interviewees are addressed as masculine to guard anonymity. The interviews lasted from 90–130 minutes. They were transcribed verbatim and coded to look for recurrent themes, three of which are discussed in the article: the first related to distance teaching and social needs of both teachers and students, the second to the development of teaching approaches and technology and the third one to the possibility of a more flexible upper secondary school. The results show an interesting conflict between different views of the interviewees. They emphasize their concern for the students and discuss how the pandemic has made ideas of the social value of the upper secondary school more salient. Participants have gained a new vision of the role of the upper secondary school which may build more upon social values, fellowship and student activity. These values go against the current trend of neo-liberalism in education. Simultaneously, they envisage a more open and flexible school where IT is used to modify teaching strategies and assessment practices to accommodate different needs of students. However, they also point out the challenges of increased flexibility. The authors of this article emphasize the importance of discerning between work and private life and that the merits of flexibility should not impede teacher autonomy. It is, therefore, important that teachers participate actively in future discussion about the development of upper secondary education. The results are an important contribution to the ongoing discourse on the development of upper secondary education where teachers’ points of view need to be pre-eminent. The findings demonstrate the experience of different stakeholders who were negotiating a transitional process in their profession. Icelandic version of the abstract: Ekki fer á milli mála að COVID-19 faraldurinn hafði mikil áhrif á skólastarf víðsvegar um heiminn. Á Íslandi fór starfsemi framhaldsskóla að mestu fram með fjarfundabúnaði í heilt ár og starfsfólk og nemendur sinntu verkefnum sínum að heiman. Markmið greinarinnar er að varpa ljósi á sýn kennara og stjórnenda þriggja framhaldsskóla á þróun framhaldsskólans og framtíðarmöguleika með hliðsjón af þeirri reynslu sem kreppuástand heimsfaraldurs hefur veitt til þessa. Greinin byggir á viðtölum við tólf kennara og sex stjórnendur þriggja ólíkra skóla sem tekin voru ári eftir að framhaldsskólahúsnæði á Íslandi var lokað. Skólarnir og viðmælendur voru valdir með tilgangsúrtaki. Niðurstöðurnar sýna áhugaverða togstreitu og andstæð sjónarmið viðmælenda. Þátttakendur lögðu áherslu á umhyggju fyrir nemendum og að farsóttin hefði skerpt á hugmyndum um félagslegt gildi framhaldsskólans. Einnig bentu þeir á tækniframfarir í kennslu sinni og sáu fyrir sér opnara og sveigjanlegra skólastarf til að koma til móts við þarfir ólíkra nemenda og kennara. Jafnframt fjölluðu þeir um margvíslegar áskoranir í því samhengi. Niðurstöður greinarinnar eru mikilvægt innlegg í áframhaldandi umræðu um þróun framhaldsskólans. Þær sýna reynslu kennara og skólastjórnenda sem staddir voru í óvæntu breytingaferli og hugmyndir þeirra um þróun og framtíðarmöguleika skólastigsins. Höfundar leggja áherslu á að raddir skólafólks verði sterkar í samræðum um mótun framhaldsskóla framtíðarinnar.
... For example, dealing with diversity entails motivating every student to reach their own zone of proximal development and is depended J o u r n a l P r e -p r o o f on teachers' perceptions on, among other things, growth (Dweck, 2006;Tomlinson, 2014;Vygotsky, 1978). For this reason, it may be that the measurement is heavily steered toward the measurable parts of diversity (Biesta, 2009). Although ILSAs do not always provide a clear measure of those deeper affect levels or details regarding students' educational histories, these elements that are harder to grasp seem to be easily neglected in both the conceptualization and operationalization of equity through ILSA data. ...
The discourse of educational equity has captured public imagination and become an entrenched policy value. In the attendant struggle to improve educational equity, governments draw inspiration from analyses based on data from highly standardized, international large-scale assessments. As these analyses are used as a lever for policy formulation, it is important to understand how this concept of equity is appropriated. Lacking a synthesis of how equity is conceptualized and operationalized in this body of research, the current paper seeks to fill that gap by presenting a systematic review. Our analysis incorporates an identification of operational patterns and an exploration regarding the linguistic elements for defining equity. We chart the theoretical and methodological diversity among interpretations of equity, as clustered into five major research approaches. In light of these results, benefits and limitations of the concept's complexity are discussed and implications for research are forwarded.
... Westheimer and Kahne [20] labelled this ideal the "personally responsible" citizen and argued that this conception is too narrow and often too ideologically conservative, in that the underlying approach to solving social problems is for individuals to discharge their citizenship duties (e.g., to vote). Similarly, Biesta [35,39,40], in a series of influential articles on the purpose of education, critiqued many of these citizenship education initiatives on the basis that they only address two of the three purposes of education. The three domains of purpose in education, according to Biesta are: qualification, socialization, and subjectification. ...
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A recurring motif in recent scholarship in the computing ethics and society studies (CESS) subfield within computing have been the calls for a wider recognition of the social and political nature of computing work. These calls have highlighted the limitations of an ethics-only approach to covering social and political topics such as bias, fairness, equality, and justice within computing curricula. However, given the technically focused background of most computing educators, it is not necessarily clear how political topics should best be addressed in computing courses. This paper proposes that one helpful way to do so is via the well-established pedagogy of citizenship education, and as such it endeavors to introduce the discourse of citizenship education to an audience of computing educators. In particular, the change within citizenship education away from its early focus on personal responsibility and duty to its current twin focus on engendering civic participation in one’s community along with catalyzing critical attitudes to the realities of today’s social, political, and technical worlds, is especially relevant to computing educators in light of computing’s new-found interest in the political education of its students. Related work in digital literacy education is also discussed.
This book celebrates twenty years of the International Congress for School Effecti- ness and Improvement. According to Judith Chapman’s report in the first issue of the Australian Network News (1989, p. 1): The initiative for ICES was taken by Dale Mann, former Chairperson (1976–85) of the Department of Educational Administration, Teachers’College, Columbia University, who served as the first Chairperson (1984–85) for the National Council for Effective Schools in the United States . . . [who] felt it timely to bring policy-makers, researchers and planners together. By mid-1987 eight countries, the USA, England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, Sweden, Canada and South Africa had shown sufficient interest for an international congress to be conducted in late 1987 or early 1988. “The planning group at Columbia was int- ested in a Congress in two parts: (1) a conference on school effectiveness open to all with an interest and with papers presented in the normal fashion for such events, and (2) a decision-making meeting at which the organization would be formally cons- tuted and decisions made. ” (Chapman, 1989, p. 1) In January 1988, the first Congress was held at the University of London. Policy makers, practitioners and scholars from 14 countries, including the initial 8, together with Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands and Norway, attended the Congress and adopted the name “International Congress for School Effectiveness.
In this article, Frederick Hess discusses public opinion trends related to educational issues from the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 through 2006. Using data from three separate public opinion polls, Hess analyzes the general public's and parents' opinions on several issues, including the proper use of large-scale assessments, the appropriateness of punitive action for failing schools, the place of school choice, and the responsibility for closing achievement gaps across groups. Among many important findings, the author determines that NCLB has had little effect on the public's general opinion of public schools; that there is little public support for the sanctioning of struggling schools; and that while the public feels that schools should not be blamed for existing achievement gaps, schools should be responsible for closing them. He concludes with a discussion of implications for policymakers and practitioners.