A Brief History of Education. Part 1: Educational Thought

November 17, 2006

Many of the greatest figures of English and world culture, after all, were subjected to precisely the kind of rigid educational disciplines that so offend contemporary educationists. Conversely, we have hardly lived through a new Renaissance of creative endeavour since the elevation of creativity to its pedestal in British education; on the contrary, our culture is atrophying beneath the weight of the second- and third-rate. The idea that education is all about releasing what is already within the child has a long history, as will be discussed later. But education relies on input. The very word `education’ is commonly misconstrued to come from the third conjugation Latin verb `educo’, meaning `to lead out’. But it doesn’t. It comes instead from an entirely different first conjugation verb: `educo’ meaning `to educate’ or `to put in’. An elementary knowledge of Latin verb stems informs one of this fact. But then teaching Latin verb stems hardly complies with the contemporary prohibition against `useless’ facts.

Phillips (1996)

One way of looking at education is as a battle of ideas. I have already discussed the aims of education, here I discuss the means, and the differing viewpoints that shape contemporary education. Sometimes this is seen as a conflict between traditionalists and progressives. I prefer to see it as a conflict between those who wish education to be rigorous and structured and those who wish it to be undemanding and ill-defined.

The following is intended as a guide to the educational ideas that are shaping our current climate. As a result I have left out many major thinkers (for instance Arnold) and ideas that no longer seem to have influence.

The Classical Inheritance. Two ideas that are still influential from can be traced back to Plato (and by extension Socrates). The first of these is the concept of a Socratic Dialogue: a discussion led by a “wise man” who leads the enlightenment of another (less wise) individual through a process of questioning. The second idea (from The Republic) is the idea of human race composed of men of gold, silver and bronze – different classes of human beings deserving of a different type of upbringing and a different role in society. This idea was mentioned explicitly in the 1944 Education Act, but is also implicit in many current ideas, particularly those that seek to separate academic and vocational education.

Rousseau and Human Nature. From the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau we have the idea that human beings are by nature good and corrupted by society. The implication of this (explored by Rousseau himself in Emile) is that education seeks not to conform students to society but to liberate them. Teachers are no longer experts in instructing children with their knowledge, but guides who manipulate a child with the aim of creating a self-governing individual.

Child Centred Learning. This is a recurring theme of “progressive” thought in education, clearly owing much to Rousseau but also to Dewey, and to Neill’s Summerhill School. In essence the child is to direct their own education, teachers are reduced to being facilitators. This approach has often been discredited by the fact it doesn’t work at all with ordinary kids. An excellent case study can be found in Gretton et al (1976). However wherever there exist teachers who do not wish to, or cannot, teach then the ideas reappear.

Discovery Learning. The idea that students should discover knowledge for themselves is often associated with Bruner, a psychologist, who in challenging earlier psychological theories (eg. those of Piaget), emphasised developing understanding and exploring general principles. However, Bruner never imagined the extremes to which discovery would be seen as a substitute for teaching or for rigorous learning,. For instance he acknowledged that “computational practice may be a necessary step toward understanding conceptual ideas in mathematics” a far cry from the advocates of “the New Maths” who declared that even in the case of students who had failed to learn basic mathematical methods “further efforts towards mastering computational skills are counter productive” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, quoted in Sykes (1995)). The classic example of discovery learning taken too far is the replacement of phonetic teaching of literacy with the “real books approach” in which children were meant to discover how to read by looking at books.

Affective Learning. A fashionable idea in America now being forced on us here, suggesting that how students feel about learning and about themselves is at least as important as what they learn. Perhaps the key text in this is Holt (1969) who argued that students felt afraid while in school, largely due to a fear of failure. The legacy of this can be seen in the often expressed belief that self-esteem is key to many educational problems, usually in direct contradiction to the evidence gathered by psychologists (Emler (2001)) and also in a belief in “cooperative learning” – (group work).

Learning Styles. Originally this simply concerned the fact that students learn through Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic means (VAK) and the fairly sensible suggestion that teachers should attempt to use all three. However at some point this suggestion has become conflated with Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences – a description of different intellectual capacities. Gardner explicitly stated that his intelligences were not learning styles (Gardner 1983). Somehow it has nevertheless become the accepted wisdom that each intelligence is also a learning style. Kinaesthetic learning (learning by doing) has been conflated with “bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence” (the intelligence manifested in bodily actions like dancing) while other intelligences have been turned from the ability to master a domain, to a way of learning material from any domain, leaving Gardner all but despairing at the misuse of his ideas in his most recent book on the topic (Gardner (1999)).

Assessment For Learning. AFL or Formative Assessment is the subject of an ever-growing series of pamphlets and books. The first pamphlet on the topic, Black et al (1998) was little more than an argument for more research into teaching methods (with the inevitable suggestion that more resources and less formal assessment will be necessary in order to achieve full benefits from such research). However, more recent material (Black et al, (2003)) includes far more details of Formative Assessment and how it works. Teachers should assess what pupils know and use it to decide what to teach. Questioning and feedback should be used extensively, pupils should be familiar with assessment criteria and targets should be given priority over grades. Some writers and educational commentators (for example, Lee (2006)) have attempted to use AFL (with its suggestions of peer assessment and self assessment) as a Trojan horse for group work and child centred learning.

School Improvement. Roughly speaking School Improvement, and its predecessor School Effectiveness, is the radical idea that schools should be trying to become better and possibly even be good. In theory this means lots of innovation and a culture of improvement (Harris (2002)). In practice it means a tiny number of schools improving and most schools doing what they’ve always done but with some new paperwork and maybe even a few extra meetings. There is some controversy (see Mortimore et al (1997)) as to whether improvement is possible if the students in the school are poor, but generally it is felt that it is in theory possible to improve schools.

My own view is that those methods that seek to improve the amount of knowledge learnt and the effectiveness of teaching and schools (such as Assessment for Learning, School Improvement and even Socratic Dialogue) make a positive contribution to education although at times they merely state the obvious. Those ideas that emphasise students’ understanding and emotions (Child Centred Learning, Discovery Learning, Affective Learning) amount to little more than the idea that students need not be taught in order to learn.

Two excellent polemics about these methods, one British, one American, are Phillips (1998) and Sykes (1996). More could be said about the way that ideas are turned and corrupted. Learning styles (and multiple intelligences) moved from being helpful observations to being entirely unhelpful suggestions of teaching practice. Assessment for Learning appears to be undergoing a similar transition. Teaching appears to be an environment where bad ideas will always reappear with new guises.


Black, Paul and William, Dylan, Inside the Black Box, nferNelson, 1998
Black, Paul; Harrison, Christine; Lee, Clare; Marshal, Bethan Marshall and William, Dylan, Assessment for learning, Putting it into Practice, Open University Press, 2003
Emler , Nicholas , Self-Esteem: The Costs and Causes of Low Self-worth, YPS, 2001
Bruner, Jerome, The Process of Education, Harvard University Press, 1960
Dewey, J. Democracy and Education. An introduction to the Philosophy of Education, (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press, 1916
Gardner, Howard, Frames of Mind, Fontana Press, 1983
Gardner, Howard, Intelligence Reframed, Basic books, 1999
Gretton, John and Jackson, Mark, William Tyndale, Collapse of a School – or a System?, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1976
Harris, Alma, School Improvement: What’s in it for Schools?, Routledgefalmer, 2002
Holt, John, How Children Fail, Penguin, 1969
Lee, Clare, Language for Learning mathematics, Assessment for Learning in Practice, Open University Press, 2006
Mortimore, Peter and Whitty, Geoff, Can School Improvement overcome the Effects of Disadvantage?, Institute of Education, 1997
Neill, Alexander, Summerhill School, Saint Martin’s Press, 1996
Phillips, Melanie, All Must Have Prizes, Time Warner, 1998
Plato, The Republic.,
Rousseau, Emile.
Sykes, Charles J., Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add, Saint Martin’s Press, 1996



  1. You missed out the 20th/21st century philosophy of education, “Smoke and Mirrors”, wherein content and actual achievement are unimportant compared with looking as though pupils, departments, HTs, schools, LEAs, ministers and political parties are constantly improving.

  2. I could have used a crib sheet like this when I trained – I never could get straight which method/philososphy was which. Fortunately I no longer need to know but it was interesting to read it now!

  3. “My own view is that those methods that seek to improve the amount of learning and the effectiveness of teaching and schools (such as Assessment for Learning, School Improvement and even Socratic Dialogue) make a positive contribution…”

    I would point out that all methods seek to do this, so by your own criteria as currently expressed you cannot make a distinction. Or are there methods out there that wilfully attempt to get rid of learning altogether, knowing full well they are doing so? You remind me of an argument from Meno: “And do you think that those who believe that bad things benefit them know that they are bad?”

    So, those methods that seek to improve the amount of learning and the ‘effectiveness’ of teaching and schools are good. And that’s all of them.

    “…make a positive contribution to education although at times they merely state the obvious.”

    We must consider that some theories state the obvious because we have been brought up believing them, because they are part of the educational culture we experienced, or that we have accepted later on.

    The debate regarding how to teach rages on. In fact, we do not know what teaching and learning precisely are, apart from that they can be done differently. To further cause problems, in today’s educational thinking any learning is OK however it’s done and must be catered for (this is an annoying idea, I accept, but I wonder whether you would not be ready to not teach certain pupils because their learning does not meet some criteria you have of what is ‘correct learning’), yet teaching must be done one way. Or, that is, every possible way, for everybody.

    It does not seem to me that we even, then, know what teaching and learning are. In fact, I know this, because I find it an interesting topic to read about. Your argument appears to be based on the adoption of a certain culture (which has already made idea obvious to you, as I have argued above) and an a priori commitment to what is ‘effective’ or not – which I feel has been adequately questioned.

    To come back to the Socratic method, then – what is the best way of teaching? If all methods aim for education, then we surely cannot choose on the basis of which ones seek to improve learning. Can you propose a better way of making a choice?

  4. “One way of looking at education is as a battle of ideas”

    Well yes, sure. However, these ideas are simply giving a theoretical backing to what is essentially a tactical exchange between student and teacher.

    This tactical exchange is of course mediated by the curriculum and educational policy in an attempt to give legitimacy to the teacher’s capacity to teach and the student’s capacity to learn. It is because both are eroded away that such ‘ideas’ are seen to ‘battle’, and in fact the extent of control of education by ‘the experts’ (read: the government), whilst providing solutions in the sense of confidence, is nonetheless responsible. Staring at the cleavage between ‘how to teach’ in the practical and theoretical senses amounts to constituting the removal of the power to teach from actual teaching.

  5. […] is intelligent and eloquent and knowledgeable (I’ve bookmarked his brief history of British education since WWII), but his blog entries pall after a while: it’s all rather negative – there are no […]

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