Who needs Pädagogik? A reflection on whether we do

The Luxembourg conversation was an interesting one. Posing the question from a continental European perspective, we were asked whether we needed an Education discipline, one focused on the academic study of education as a cultural and historical phenomenon but a discipline nonetheless committed to the improvement of educational practices. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, this discipline might be named Pädagogik. In those countries, the general feeling in the room was that Pädagogik was becoming ‘marginalised’; new, more ‘psychological’ or ‘sociological’ perspectives were coming to dominate and a more instrumental subject was emerging that might be named, in some contexts, ‘learning sciences’.

I use quotation marks around psychology and sociology as there seem to be a widespread understanding in the room of both as positivist and scientistic: either behaviouralist experimentalism or political arithmetic. More critical views of both psychology and sociology were not apparent and psychology, in particular, was often used as the whipping boy. Philosophy, albeit of different colours, dominated the discussion. Key references throughout the two days were Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 – 1841), whose Allgemeine Pädagogik was probably the most cited text, and Kant, Hegel, Hume and Leibniz. Allgemeine Pädagogik is still being studied in European university courses and not only those intended for student teachers. Herbart, whether he was loved or loathed, was one of the  centres of the debate.

I was the only UK academic in the discussion and I tried to show how pedagogy has existed as an academic interest in England, despite Brian Simon’s book chapter that famously asserted otherwise. I discussed the work of the English teacher educators at the University of London Institute of Education in the 1960s and ’70s who studied key educational concepts but were simultaneously interested in improving educational practices. I referred particularly to the work of James Britton and Harold Rosen whose work was deeply informed by contemporary and classical philosophy, new Vygotskian psychology, literary theory and emerging fields such as sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication. Their work was with pupils and teachers in schools and committed to improving school as a context for pupils’ and teachers’ learning. Both Britton and Rosen not only raised educational questions and defined educational arguments, they also sought to address those questions and materialise those arguments in ways that were not only comprehensible to teachers but presented in such a way that teachers could take the ideas forward themselves, developing the theory as well as their practice. I tried to argue that this sort of work, exemplified by Britton, Rosen and their colleagues, instantiated pedagogy or Pädagogik as a discipline in the way my European colleagues were elaborating as an ideal.

I am not sure whether I convinced many in the seminar but was impressed by the thoughtful articulation of a new perspective on pedagogy as an integration of theoretical and empirical interests by Johannes Bellman from the University of Münster. Unusually, I found myself wanting more account taken of the American contributions to pedagogy, of the critical variety, whether influenced by Freire, Gramsci, Marx, Butler, Warner, Fanon, Giroux, Shor and so on. An ‘international’ conversation would have looked west a little and drawn its resources from wider cultural and intellectual resources. And I would also like to have seen further exploration of how an academic discipline, practised in universities and colleges by all these Professor Drs, might make a positive difference to educational practice without just expecting teachers to listen to or read what we say or write.

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