Education Concepts and Theories Research Paper

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1. Classical And Christian Traditions

The Latin verb educare can be translated as ‘to pull up,’ and it is in this sense that it is understood to mean ‘to educate’: a person is pulled upwards. As both a concept and a play on words, ‘education’ entails a difference in height, and a process by which this difference is overcome. In Western literature, the concept of the ‘teacher’ and ‘educationalist’ has been associated with asymmetry ever since Homer’s Iliad, and the direction of this asymmetric relationship cannot be reversed at any point in the educational process (Homer 1987, Book 9, p. 430ff.). ‘Teachers’ are appointed to train ‘pupils,’ who in turn are to learn what the teacher knows and represents. Education is subject to the person of the teacher, who is equipped with limited authority, the purpose of which is to make him or herself superfluous upon successful completion of the educational process.

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With regard to the terminology, a distinction is to be made between educatio and eruditio. The first area is that of moral education—in the wider sense a training of the body and the senses—whereas the second area is concerned with scholarly education and instruction. The two areas are often understood as opposites, as was the case in ancient Sparta, and later in the theory of Rousseau. The fundamental friction between the two has remained to this day, and educational discourses typically lend weight to one side or the other. This was also the case in Graeco-Roman times. A key question was how positive education should or must be. The question was answered by means of two consequential concepts, relating to rhetoric and public teaching on the one hand, and self-education on the other. Sophist teachers, who—as portrayed in the dialogs of Plato—publicly announced truths and virtues, were juxtaposed with Socratic dialogs, in which Socrates guided his untutored interlocutors to formulate answers to the problems he posed. Finding the solution to the problem required the ‘pupil’ to engage in independent thought with the maieutic (or Socratic) assistance of the ‘teacher’; the teacher does not present a positive truth in a didactic manner.

The fundamental question of whether virtues can be taught is posed by Socrates in Plato’s dialog Meno. The question is not answered, however, at least not in the expected sense. The first historical negation of the ‘teacher’ (of virtues; Plato 1999, 96a–c) is accompanied by a rejection of the teaching of virtues in favour of ‘divine providence’ (Plato 1999, 100a). This links education with Plato’s theory of the soul (1999). Education is not simply rhetoric because—according to Socrates—truth cannot be taught in public. Knowledge is innate in the soul, rather than learned from experience. It is the teacher’s task to encourage pupils to think for themselves, thus becoming aware of these timeless ideas. In other words, pupils need to be goaded into conscious reflection.

The relationship to psychology is of fundamental importance to the theory of education and the demands made of it. Without the concept of the soul, education cannot be considered to have lasting ‘inner’ effects. Yet Platonic theory rejects the notion that the soul can be easily affected by education. Education is not merely the imitation of nature. Its two main areas, morality and knowledge, require pedagogical efforts going beyond imitation. The means of education, i.e., dialog, admonition, models, or guidance towards new insights, are not given simply on the basis of nature. At the same time, pedagogical efforts are limited. Education imparts knowledge and skills, but it cannot reach all of mankind. The Socratic wariness of ‘teachers’ who independently and publicly pronounced truths remained intact on into Christian times.

2. Modern Aspects Of Educational Theory

With the Renaissance it became possible to forge a conceptual link between human dignity and education, i.e., to keep education free from doctrines of humiliation. In this sense, education (eruditio) became humanistic, but without the canon of classical teaching being lost. However, the adoption of Platonism in the Italian Renaissance, particularly in Florence (Hankins 1991), allowed the theory of ‘inner’ education—related to innate ideas, rather than doctrines or text books—to be strengthened. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, new Platonic theories of education determined cultural life, i.e., literature, art, music, and key aspects of philosophy. Education was the aim and the expression of lasting ideas which, in turn, were intended to be understood in a manner which was independent of certain Christian doctrines. In England, in particular, the independence of education and the consequent fight against orthodoxy in the seventeenth century amounted to a political force in which new Platonism and the natural sciences were allies.

In this respect, a distinction is to be made regarding the education of children. Since the Reformation, education has concentrated on the minds and souls of children. This was strengthened by post-medieval catechisms which stipulated the form of learning, and emphasised the necessity of education beyond the parish and the church (Bast 1997). It was envisaged that the establishment of elementary school education in the eighteenth century would supplement education at home, without too much weight being attached to knowledge during lessons. The focus on Christian morals was of fundamental importance. These were supposed to become spiritualised, i.e., more closely related to the Augustinian ‘inner teacher.’ Moreover, the pietistic conception of the child resulted in the pedagogical dissemination of the Christian (particularly New Testament) view of the child as a paragon. Only adults whose inner being could once more become that of a child were close to Christian mercy. With pietism, education became a missionary power with the goal of bringing forth ‘new people’ and subsequently a ‘new world’ of belief.

In contrast to esthetic education, which determined the concept of ‘the educated’ and made it independent of teachers, the education of children has typically been seen from the perspective of educational methods. With the introduction of printing, instructional theories on the education of children could be disseminated for the first time. Thus, expectations were established, examples of which can be found in Christian pedagogy as early as the seventeenth century (e.g., Mitternacht 1666). Education was reduced to a methodological basis. In the eighteenth century, sensualistic psychology strengthened the trend for education to be understood as a target-oriented effect. The Platonic concept of ‘innate ideas’ became less influential, and was replaced by theories of learning. These stated that the inner world is established by processes of learning, and that learning can be guided by education. Hence, education, and subsequently morals, would make the person what he is, and what he becomes (D’Holbach 1770 1994, p. 346ff.).

The aspect of the inner being was further developed by Rousseau (1969), who combined earlier notions about the ‘nature’ of children (Mercier 1961) with Buffon’s theory of human development. Basically, Rousseau proposed a solution to the problem of mercy that was widely discussed in French educational circles during the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. His approach was that if the Augustinian theory of initial sin can be rejected, and if children can be assumed to develop on the basis of their natural goodness, education can be understood to be a new form of mercy. It cannot be taken as given; it occurs together with the development of nature, subject to the proviso that nature is protected against abuse by society. Rousseau therefore refers to education negative, in which virtues and reason are not imparted in a positive manner. The Socratic nature of Emile also becomes apparent in that the teacher (governor) is an omniscient authority. In contrast to the teacher in Meno, however, Rousseau acts as if he were simply allowing matters to take their course. The key concept for childhood—‘laisser meurir l’enfance dans les enfants’ (Rousseau 1969, IV p. 324)—has Augustinian features, but the ‘inner master’ is not intended to, and should not, be a representation of the outer one.

Rousseau also embraces a certain version of the two-world theory: in childhood, nature is this life, and society the next world. The only difference is that the roles are played in reverse order, and do not follow the same sequence as in the case of Augustine. It is envisaged that a good education will engender a good society, conditional on the ability to keep the existing society out of education. At the same time, natural education is supposed to abstain from influencing the child’s future (Rousseau 1969, IV, p. 301ff.). It would be ‘barbaric’ if it were geared towards the citizen (le citoyen) rather than the man (l’homme). One can speak of the education of men if nature is intact, and one can thus develop in accordance with one’s own potential. In other words, Rousseau embraces the theory of development. Education is not only concerned with the mind or learning, but with the whole of nature and its development. This presupposes that childhood is a world of its own (Rousseau 1969, IV, p. 319). This doctrine is far-reaching, and has constantly attracted new followers who understand learning as genetic and relate it to the autonomous child ‘developing’ from within (Oelkers 2000).

3. Educational Phenomena And Pedagogical Theories

There is a high degree of historical continuity in educational theories. Theories of childhood are just as dependent on the history of the concept as theories of education are. This holds even if they relate to societies which are in stark contrast to that of the eighteenth century, or to new media which neither Rousseau nor Locke could have foreseen. Hence, educational theories are not randomly constructed; they refer back to historical principles which are flexible enough to be applied to various situations and environments. At least, this is the case if very general statements or theories stipulating what can and cannot be deemed a valid educational phenomenon are discussed and accepted.

General theories of education are those which do not refer to certain environments, such as Plato’s Athens, to certain doctrines, such as Augustine’s Christianity, or to certain practices, such as catechism lessons. It is possible to generalise education by referring to doctrines of the soul, concepts of society, nature, progress or universal morals. It is almost always the case that theories mix these elements, frequently by shifting the relations between them and utilizing their immanent dualisms. The ‘mind’ of a child can be seen as the result of ‘natural development’; such ‘natural development’ can oppose ‘society’; ‘morals’ and ‘nature’ can be seen as either complementary or opposing forces; education can serve to impart society’s morals or to oppose them, etc.

Educational theories only become specific when they do more than simply develop dualisms. They must at least differentiate between inner and outer, between process and product, between children and adults, between intention and effect and between objective and experience. These elements must be capable of being linked together, and cannot be understood as opposing forces if a positive theory of education is to be created. Such a theory is normative, rather than merely descriptive. It is geared towards practice and aimed at bringing about improvement. This demands the definition and justification of the pedagogical intent, as well as the prediction of outcomes. The demands placed on education can only be limited if the theory can differentiate between inner and outer. Objectives do not immediately constitute effects; educational processes are controlled by means of target-oriented rhetoric and experience, without the two ever being identical.

When the above is applied to the sphere of anthropology, the following statement can be made: children are not adults. Moreover, they do not simply become adults in accordance with the intentions of their educators—they also gather their own experience, independent of educational targets. In a literal sense, children are not the ‘product’ of education, primarily because each educational outcome can be changed by subsequent experiences. A pedagogical intent is necessary, but it is not the only causal factor. Education is a permanent and hazardous attempt to adapt to each new child. The subjects or themes of educational theory emerge in response to educational phenomena which may be of a moral, esthetic, or pragmatic nature. This is conditional on the identification of a certain need or deficit which requires pedagogical processing.

In contrast to the classical theories, modern educational theories are unlimited. They extend beyond the interpersonal relations of ‘masters’ and ‘pupils,’ and may relate to the ‘world’ or ‘society’; they allow for a generalisation of the child as well as for abstract objectives such as ‘emancipation’; they are no longer bound by religious theories. Accordingly, educational phenomena are general. In other words, they determine both the object and the responsibilities of education. The term ‘education’ may relate to literature and the arts, philosophy and all areas of knowledge, as well as all kinds of beliefs, but it may also relate to morality and mores, societal development or the general betterment of mankind. To this end, there are several competing theories allowing for very little standardisation.

In view of the interrelations between the theories, however, educational theories should not simply be equated with the names of their authors. The classification of theories according to names, or schools and directions associated with these names, is the most frequent lexical form of organisation. Definitions of this kind are not only obscure, they fail to produce real classifications, because the grouping principle barely allows any exclusions to be made. Ultimately, everything that can be related to the abstract relationship between humankind and the world can be described as ‘humanistic,’ ‘dialogical,’ ‘progressive’ or ‘critical’—or indeed the opposite.

However, one can only speak in terms of ‘educational theories’ if primary criteria are used, allowing for differentiation and suggesting definitions. It is not sufficient merely to confirm the doctrines of certain pedagogical authors. However, part of the reflection on education is determined by this very desire for approval with respect to historical parameters perceived as archetypes. In this sense, educational theories should—and can—educate in their own right. They focus reflection on and perception of educational phenomena to the area of validity of doctrines.

When reflecting on the topic of ‘education,’ however, one is forced to consider the following unavoidable problems: observation of children reveals not only a ‘natural development,’ but a complex world of perceptions that must constantly link the inner and outer aspects without being able to rely on stages or supports. Accordingly, the concept of ‘education’ cannot contain the dualism of ‘development’ or ‘impression.’ Both concepts are helpful in the politicisation of education: ‘development’ is understood in the sense of siding with children, whereas ‘impression’ is understood as a means of strengthening educational authority. However, this alone does not constitute an educational theory. A distinction must be made between educational theory and the public rhetoric about education. A theory of education cannot merely confirm general aims by reference to preconceived doctrines, nor can it rely on ‘education’ being seen merely as a moral suggestion.

4. Educational Theories

Against this backdrop of theoretical tradition, at least five types of educational theories can be distinguished. This differentiation is made on the basis of the theories’ underlying approach, which may be related to theory systems or general models of reflection as widely varying as philosophy, psychology, social theory, or anthropology. They can be grouped into idealistic, pragmatic, cultural, individualistic, and political approaches to educational theory, at the very least. These are not different aspects of one approach, but different ways of reflecting on the general theme of education. The methods used vary, and include analytical, empirical and historical approaches. The main topic of ‘education’ is outlined in terms of a normative core which, as far as is possible, is justified by hard facts. The theory itself is a construct which in some cases tends more towards educatio, and in other cases leans more towards eruditio.

Idealistic theories of education are based on moral aims or principles, which can be justified in an ideal or ‘transcendental’ manner. The two most influential approaches in the history of the theory are those of Plato (1999) and Kant. In the first approach, education serves to organize the state in accordance with the philosophical ideas of goodness and justice. The second approach is characterized by a form of education that centers on personal morality in accordance with the categorical imperative of action. Individual liberty is limited by law, and action is guided by strict virtues. The idea of the general good justifies the ideal state; practical reason justifies moral action. Consequently, educational theory has its normative core in the notions of goodness and morality, both of which are to be transmitted to children and citizens.

Pragmatic theories of education emphasise the paramount importance and hazardous nature of one’s own actions. Since Darwin, these have been justified by an evolutionary-theoretical approach, in the sense that education is understood to be a continuous readjustment to changing worlds of experience. Against this background, Dewey (1985) sees education as ‘a process of the continuous reconstruction of experience.’ There is no morality that is formulated outside or independent of experience; the general public and democracy represent the regulative bodies for moral exchange. Similarly, Mead (1970) does not see education as an isolated chain of events between the inner and outer aspects. According to Mead, the ‘organized self’ (1970, p. 162) learns and gathers experience within the framework of its group, i.e., subject to the proviso of continual exchange processes (1970, p. 265). Education ‘is’ nothing else.

Cultural theories regard education as Bildung or initiation (Peters 1965), and are justified in a ‘transcendental’ manner. The process of initiation opens regulated ways of learning to culture and society. Those who intend to assess education must become involved with it. The educated man woman is a normative ideal that develops within the process of education, i.e., does not exist independent of it. This is conditional on the historical existence of culture, i.e., the major fields of knowledge and ability into which the student is initiated. The individual personality develops in the process of this initiation. According to Bruner (1996), education itself can also be perceived as a ‘culture’ which, by means of specific institutions, ensures that education is provided for successive generations, with constant or increasing levels of performance. Schools and universities and, in a broader sense, the educational media are institutions for the continual transfer of knowledge and learning which can also be described in terms of general systems theory (Luhmann and Schorr 1988).

Individualistic theories of education, such as that advanced by Herbart (1808), focus on morals, understood to be a characteristic or potential of the personality. ‘Morals’ are based on practical ideas with the intention of determining moral education. Since Herbart, it has been possible to draw up a concept of morals on the basis of esthetic judgments, i.e., as an immediate and involuntary assessment of the excellence or impropriety of an occurrence or an action. This judgement is not simply subject to the law, it occurs spontaneously. The concept of spontaneity means that individualistic theories are in stark contrast to all theories which expect education to be a fixed inner result. Since Kierkegaard (1980), there have been different attempts to lessen the friction between the ethical and the esthetic, but the conflict between duty and affection in education has never really been resolved. The conflict recurs regularly: today’s constructivist educational theories stress the spontaneous creation of one’s own world, while moral theories refer to the ‘inner’ results of education, which are not supposed to change spontaneously.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, political theories of education are primarily geared towards democracy. The totalitarian theories of the twentieth century have largely disappeared. It is no coincidence that a new reception of the eighteenth century civic society emerged after 1989, and that Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) has become the focus of international pedagogical discussion. In contrast to Dewey, new approaches to a political theory of education include expanding its scope to involve the deliberative public (Gutmann 1999), and specifying its tasks and subjects to involve civic virtues (Callan 1997). The fundamental friction has survived: on the one hand, political democracy educates by means of its problems and procedures; on the other hand, education is intended to promote democracy. Citizens must be equipped with the capacity to participate actively in public life. Yet even the best school is not an embryonic society, anticipating on a small scale what later occurs on a much larger scale. The object of the theory is determined and non-determined at one and the same time.

5. Educational Criticism

Educational theories are simultaneously positive and critical. They draw attention to deficits which are to be made up or avoided in the future. This calls for a critical approach to present and past education. The underlying objective is for the future to be better than the past, and this would seem to be feasible if and inasmuch as education can be improved. Criticism of education per se is different. This sort of criticism rejects the claims that a theory of education is able to group, describe, and control an object or a range of subjects pertaining to ‘education.’ The normative alignment of most of the educational theories is seen as an illusion, their expectations of effectiveness are related to technological deficits in educational practice, and the identification of the ‘child’ as the object of education is subject to criticism on both the moral and psychological levels.

Education as an illusion was the subject of the psychoanalytical criticism of the 1920s in particular (e.g., Bernfeld 1925). According to this critical approach, the theory of education reflects ideals and thus expectations which can be understood as reflections of the subconscious, i.e., which refer back to the authors of the theory. Their illusory nature of this discourse means that it does not need to take note of educational realities. The critique of education advanced within the framework of general systems theory refers to the fact that the education system does not have access to any technology which might guarantee its objectives, it is referred to as a fragile form of communication which needs to be self-directing. Similarly, constructivist approaches to educational criticism underline the autonomy and self-organization of learning which cannot be incorporated by educational theories in which adults decide and act vicariously for their children. Furthermore, these kinds of theories tend to regard children, or learners in general, as the objects of education, i.e., to impose a certain course of action on them irrespective of their approval.

This was the very problem with Kant’s ethics which, for good reason, stipulated that persons should not be treated as objects. However, Kant could not eliminate compulsion from education. The problem is insoluble as long as the school of thought is determined by dualisms such as compulsion or liberty. The general criticism of education uses the dualisms rather than avoiding them. For example, ‘inner’ is played off against ‘outer,’ ‘self-organization’ is confronted with ‘outside determination,’ and the discrepancies between the aims and the realities of education are exposed. Educational theory, in contrast, requires relations which allow for graduation, and which can be related to ongoing experiences in changing situations. The objects of the theory are those who act, i.e., those who can grant more or less liberty, use more or less compulsion, realize better or worse objectives, adapt precisely or less precisely to realities, relate to a child’s personality in a more or less appropriate manner, etc.

It is necessary for a happy medium to be found in each case. Educational theory must be adjusted to a temporal and social succession of situations which are in constant flux. In this respect, educational theory represents a continual learning experience which needs to be able to correct its aims and intentions. Most of the educational theories mentioned above are not geared towards self-correction, primarily because their basic premises are not supposed—or allowed—to be modified. Their expectations are geared towards public rhetoric; education is supposed to achieve general targets, and is not understood as an experiment that may succeed or fail, but can only succeed if its approach can be corrected in response to experience. This experimental understanding of education has been embraced in the theory of Dewey (1985), in particular. However, it had only a very inconsistent effect on his own efforts to formulate an educational theory.

This is no coincidence. On the one hand, ‘education’ is a normative expectation which precludes modifications; on the other hand, it is a fragile practice which adjusts expectations, bringing them into line with possibilities. Educational theories should take account of this differentiation and process both levels. Expectations regarding education can be understood and rationalized in a manner which distances itself from public rhetoric (Siegel 1988); the practice of education can be formulated in terms of contractual theory (Gauthier 1990) or action theory; reflection on pedagogical matters can respond to uncertainties about the paradoxes of the educational field and pick out unavoidable dilemmas as its central theme. In this way, ‘education’ will no longer be an object, but a series of subjects and themes geared towards public understanding, with no more than disciplined reflection at their disposal. In contrast to the popular reform pedagogy, educational theories are no longer perceived as guarantees for success. This also applies to the attempts to infer the nature of ‘education’ from general models of philosophy, psychology or other disciplines. In view of the high level of competitiveness between the general theories, their mere existence is no guarantee for their application in practice.

The normative type of pedagogical tradition still determines the field of reflection to a considerable extent. It suggests generalizations and tends to preclude practical or empirical differences. The concept of ‘education’ survives in public rhetoric, as do its suggestive powers and standards of argumentation. This explains why it can be so easily called into question and is constantly coming under fire. In this respect, education is nothing more than the belief in it. In fact, educational expectations are renewed irrespective of periodic or even chronic crises, meaning that better theories do not simply replace poorer ones. Progress does not occur in the form of a general increase in knowledge; the theories exist in a complex field of public expectations, tough competition, unrelenting demand, and high moral conformity.

The theoretical dynamics created between science, philosophy, and practice cannot be understood without this field of expectations. On the one hand, they are subject to very long-term historical assumptions; on the other hand, responses are expected on a short-term basis, because ‘education’ is a priority in the public perception, calling for immediate explanation and action. Because societal expectations are so high, educational theory has neither the time nor the distance to subject itself to self-assessment. It does not simply react to a scientific problem, it reacts to public demand. As such, it is and remains attractive, but at the same time creates its own particular difficulties.


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