Educational Research and Economic Accountability - The Role of the Philosophy of Education

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In this paper, I seek to explore the potential role of the philosophy of education in current and future educational research. I argue that despite an apparent shrinking interest in the philosophy of education, the educational sub-discpline bears the potential for providing not only a critical perspective on the issue of marketization in education, but, in fact, is a contender for filling the role that international ranking institutions have taken on from outwith the discipline: the role of defining education outside of national contexts to make it a broadly applicable concept. To that end, I will critically analyse the current international hegemony of economically-driven comparison in education by analysing PISA documents and sketch out the reflective gap that this externalisation of educational reflection produces. To further underline the theoretical contribution I aim to make, I provide a novel case study of the Schottish Curriculum for Excellence and its concrete dependeny on a neo-liberal market-logic to illustrate the direct and practical impact of the increasing marketization of education. In the past decades, PISA and other supranational institutions that focus on comparing and ranking have become an increasingly defining factor in the way we think about education. They promote a notion of education as a means of adaptation to, forfeiting any transformative potential of educaitonal practice in society. Their agenda affects the academic discourse as much as practice, curriculum, and policy-making. Furthermore, quantitative comparisons both on a macro and micro level, are key agents in the soft- governance of educational reform (Steiner-Khamsi 2012). In consequence, PISA and the like superimpose the agenda and system-logics of neo-liberal market economy on education, introducing an increasing “one-sided orientation to fixed, final, and predefined standards” (Reich 2016, 1004) as well as an encompassing “competition fetish” (Naidoo 2017). The quest at the heart of this prevalent quantitative-comparative hegemony in education, I argue, can in itself be understood as a reaction to the increase of experienced contingency in the politically, socio-culturally, and environmentally turbulent times of today. The underlying argumentative patterns is not an exclusively modern phenomena. Exerting increasing control through the “strict limitation to the observation of facts and the calculation of probabilities” has been highlighted by Horkheimer and Adorno (2007/1947, 34) as a key narrative of post-enlightenment thinking. On that view, “the world becomes chaos, and synthesis salvation” (Horkheimer&Adorno, 2007/1947, 3). If we take a Critical Theory perspective to analyse the current marketization of education, on the dialectic flipside to the supposed controllability of contingency in education – especially regarding its 'outcomes' –, this increasing marketization of education is accompanied by a decline of agency within the educational discourse: Educational research, following Biesta and Säfström (2011, 545), “too easily becomes reduced to the application of ideas coming from elsewhere.” While to define ‘what matters’ in and for education abstractly, outside of the specific context of particular systems of national education, is a legitimate undertaking, the external forces that have taken on this task demands critical consideration. Particularly critique-worthy is how in this process of externalisation, educational practice and theory have been absorbed by the system of economically-driven accountability “promoting ways of controlling and shaping national, institutional and individual behaviour through the use of comparative information on performance.” (Ozga 2012, 167) The result of these “regimes of accountability” (Ozga 2012, 167) becomes directly observable for example in the case of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, which was explicitly framed as a constitutive part within the broader quest “to create a country in which everyone can flourish through sustainable economic growth” (Scottish Government 2008, 3).MethodIn this paper, I will critically discuss the specific philosophical underpinnings of educational concepts informed by supranational economy-driven quantitative research currently dominating the landscape of educational research. Furthermore, I will explore for the role philosophy of education in providing an educational, instead of an economically-informed, theory of education informing practice in the current era of risk with an educational, rather than an economic interest at heart. To that end, I will first deconstruct the ideological underpinnings of the prevalent positioning of PISA by analysing PISA documents regarding how they define education and its aims. Based on that document analysis I will discuss how these underpinnings shape – often unquestioned – our understanding of the aims and means of education. Such underpinnings are a prevailing focus on competition and ranking, the increasing market- and future-orientation of formal and informal education, and the concomitant primacy of measurable skills marking a “return to ‘positivistic’ knowledge” as the foundation of the discipline of education (Biesta&Säfström 2011, 545). Underlining my theoretical argument, I will offer a critical case study of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence based on a discourse analytic study of relevant government publications.Expected OutcomesThe Curriculum for Excellence, as I aim to demonstrate in this paper, in its commitment to conceptualising education as an “investment” (ibid., 2007) in unlocking the nations “human capital” (ibid., 2007) has subjected itself to becoming accountable in terms of economic standards. It mirrors the definition of education perpetuated by PISA. Contrasting this approach, instead of measuring “what works” (Biesta 2007), I argue, we need to develop an understanding of education that is not dependent on the moods of the economic market. Rather than measurability, what is currently lacking in educational research is the awareness of the fact “that what counts as ‘effective’ crucially depends on judgements about what is educationally desirable” (Biesta 2007, 57). I argue that the philosophy of education provides the internal focus allowing us to work towards an “’atemporal’ understanding of education” (Biesta&Säfström 2011, 541) contrasting the recent externalised educational reflection. Thinking of the aims of education from an education, rather than an economic perspective potentially opens a fresh space for educational reflection within paradigms assessing notions of a ‘good life’, or ‘success’ outside of ideas of economic prosperity, fostering a democratic and equal society. To sketch out such a potential alternative I will contrast PISA's conception of education as a means of 'adaptation to' with alternative educational concepts of adaptation developed by Dewey and Vygotsky that involve a dialectic notion of 'adaptation to and adaptation of'. These alternative educational concepts of adaptation allow us to reconceptualise education outside of economic growth, in the broader context of societal progress and transformation.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sep 2019
EventEuropean Conference on Education Research (ECER) 2019 - Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
Duration: 3 Sep 20196 Sep 2019


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Education Research (ECER) 2019
Internet address


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