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Educational Research and policy: epistemological perspectives


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'What works'
Systematic reviews (web resources)
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Large scale population studies
Case study
Stories and narratives
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Philosophical enquiry
Re-imagining educational research


Philosophical enquiry

By James C Conroy, Robert A. Davis and Penny Enslin University of Glasgow

[Note: the full version of the paper which is summarised and referred to here will be published as a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education and subsequently as a book edited by David Bridges, Paul Smeyers and Richard Smith and published by Blackwell in 2008]

In the best formulated and executed policy, philosophy can play a key role in the shaping of educational policy. Yet in the most egregious examples of poor policy formation, we still encounter the deployment of abstract and conceptual thought, but in such instances it is too often inadequately formulated or open to inspection.

Questions of confidence are most manifest in collective enterprises such as education where societies invest confidence in a range of accounts of what would constitute the flourishing of students - accounts that are rooted in a range of philosophical and cultural antecedents. A range of reports and the educational policies they were designed to energise have been shaped in recent decades by a combination of confidence in the future and our capacities to realise certain kinds of goods. The 1944 Harvard Report, the 1949 Scottish Report on Secondary Education and the highly influential Plowden Report (1967) are important examples of initiatives shaped by confidence in the future. All three of these reports illustrate a robust interplay between the philosophical and normative on the one hand and the empirical on the other. There was rather more confidence in the philosophical in the period covered by these reports than might be seen to be the case in the early twenty-first century, when we are encouraged to think that numbers hold the key to solving socio-educational problems and challenges. Despite the emergence of much scepticism about the efficacy of policy formulation grounded in such confidence (as is to be found in these reports) in the future and its displacement by putative ‘evidence led' policies, confidence remains central to the relationship between philosophers of education and colleagues working in other areas of educational scholarship.

Philosophy is that activity of the mind that can assist with understanding the nature of judgments. There is no self-evidently valid practice; all practice needs to be subjected to ongoing scrutiny, even as it works itself out. Judgement is not something anterior to policy but is integral to the ongoing enterprise that is discovery, decision and instantiation. We wish to avoid suggesting that conceptualisation and clarification (the work of the philosopher) are followed in a quasi-independent way by the implementation of structures, practices and so on (the work of policy makers and practitioners). It is naïve to assume that first comes conceptualisation, then implementation. We resist a model of philosophy's relationship to policy which assumes that policy might develop its recommendations after some preliminary conceptual clarification, or statement of values, and nothing else. Just as inferential reasoning is operative throughout a research or policy-making process (whether admitted as such or not), so philosophical analysis more widely conceived ought to be in permanent ongoing dialogue with the policy-making enterprise.

A widespread view of the role of philosophy sees its primary task as defining terms and resolving confusion. While appearing to accord philosophical reason an important role in relation to policy and practice, such an approach tends to drive a wedge between this primary task and the ongoing deliberative process of policy making. The seemingly high status role given to philosophical argument in this account in fact reproduces a division between the activity of the philosopher and the decisions of the policy community. In such circumstances philosophy fails to deliver on its potential to accompany the process of policy making and confidence in its value is thereby diminished.

The philosophical method proposed here instead is not to be construed as a simple alternative to foundationalism, where the various stages of a policy project might invite philosophical scrutiny of, for example, the structural sequence of methodology, ethical implications and conclusions. There is no doubt that this can improve our confidence in the involvement of philosophy and offer a step beyond foundationalism, but it is not sufficient to sustain confidence in the efficacy of philosophy as a whole, which risks being reduced to an auditing role in the sequence, authenticating the credentials of the project to which it is allied. If philosophical reasoning is to enjoy a substantial measure of confidence it must be seen to be an integral part of the total process of policy development, critique and instantiation.

Earlier we observed that the political endeavours in a liberal polity are, or attempt to be, constitutive in the search for human flourishing. More prosaically this effort to realise such higher order goods often embodies the presumption that public policy initiatives are a response to particular cultural or political issues around perceived social or educational challenges. Hence the rise in the number of teenage pregnancies in Scotland has resulted in several government policy initiatives designed to reduce this trend because the phenomenon of increased numbers of teenage pregnancies is associated with a variety of social ills including poverty, reduced economic opportunity and future delinquency. On a foundationalist model, the likely contribution of philosophy to any policy response of this kind will be limited to some general normative claims as to what constitutes a good life, specifically for young people. But such generalised reflections risk a degree of attenuation likely to reduce the confidence of the policy community in the traction of such philosophical reflection on the deliberative process.

In extreme forms, empirical research that is not conceptually informed reveals a lack of what might be termed ‘curiosity'. A possible example of this can be seen in the emergence of citizenship as an influential concept in recent education policy. Britain , in common with other liberal democratic polities, has experienced what is popularly perceived to be a collapse of certain kinds of civic and democratic participation. This has induced a sense of social emergency out of which a set of systemic and pedagogical prescriptions has emerged for swift implementation in schools. The leap from recognition to practice has seen an elision of the one into the other without a measured consideration as to what might count as citizenship in a mobile late industrial polity. It is here that philosophy may make a substantive contribution which is not reducible to the category of preliminary engagement but is rather a requirement that certain kinds of thinking accompany the processes of deliberation in the move from identification of an issue to prescription for its solution. Philosophical thinking in educational policy formation may well begin with the task of exposition and clarification but should not remain there. Instead, philosophy may be seen to provide the bridge between initiation and completion precisely because it can recover and elucidate the connections through exploration, exposition, analysis and development. We can identify five interrelated stages where philosophical thinking plays a constitutive role in good policy formation and its concomitant practices.

Recognition —In the case of citizenship certain kinds of empirical data may suggest a decline or collapse in civic participation. It might be, and often has been, assumed that this heralds a dangerous loosening of attachments to the institutions of democratic society. At this stage and fairly immediately the philosopher might wish to ask, ‘what is meant by participation?' She might also ask: ‘what is the connection between attachment and participation?'

Diagnosis — The present predilection in policy-making for eliding the distinction between apprehending the situation as it ‘presents itself' and an analysis of a causal track can occlude our capacity to speculate and offer alternative perspectives, and indeed alternative causal explanations. Too often this slippage results in a rush to judgement about the salient features of the social issue or educational problem under scrutiny.

Prognosis — Once again, the temptation to offer peremptory prescriptions may leave us bereft of the capacity to project a range of possible outcomes which match the complexity of the social or educational question under consideration. Plato's Socratic dialogues offer a possible model for a style of philosophic prognosis. Socrates' interlocutors are held back from judgment by the careful consideration of a number of possible outcomes and by systematic interrogation of likely consequences. Prescription— This is the stage where policies are formulated and where it might be assumed that the philosopher disengages from the process leaving the judgments to professionals. It is precisely at this stage that a philosophical disposition may come into its own. First, it may appear in the form of an ethical engagement the effect of which is to subject intended prescriptions to an interrogation which receives its authority from an acquaintance with, and understanding of, a community's ethical traditions and its vision of a ‘good society'. Secondly, the philosopher may assist in addressing some epistemological questions which emerge out of possible prescriptions. For example, the perception that contemporary education has failed in the context of a knowledge economy to deliver into the workplace young women and men who are fitted to the complex socio-engagements of a late industrial society. Here the deliberative engagements of philosophy may be helpful in disentangling some important epistemological questions.

Social Practices — It is often assumed that when social practices (including pedagogical ones) are instigated they assume the status of theory-free action and that whatever claims the philosophic disposition might have had it is no longer relevant. Here, it is assumed, we are only concerned with ‘what works'. However, social practices can themselves be recuperated into naturalised modes of behaviour that disguise their origins as culturally laden interventions. This blunts the edges and disguises the character of our more radical insights and engagements. Consequently, the social practices themselves are not an end or solution to a state of affairs recognised and diagnosed but a stage in an iterative process of ongoing re-cognition and insight.



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