Education studies is a relatively new discipline which concerns itself with the important question of how people develop and learn throughout their lives [Bartlett and Burton 2007:4]. In 2004, Davies and Hogarth [2004:425] observed that education studies was becoming an academic discipline in its own right. Its newness emanates from the generational shift in attitudes towards education and the access we now have to ongoing educational opportunities. Davies and Hogarth [2004:430] also note that:
“according to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA, 2001), education studies is: concerned with understanding how people develop and learn throughout their lives. It facilitates the study of the nature of knowledge, and a critical engagement with a variety of perspectives, and ways of knowing and understanding, drawn from a range of appropriate disciplines. [These programmes] all involve the intellectually rigorous study of educational processes, systems and approaches and the cultural, societal, political and historical contexts within which they are embedded.”
Traditionally, individuals who were able to pursue post-secondary formal education pursued a single track targeting one career which lasted their entire lifetime: it was a ‘job for life’ age. For this reason, the educational enterprise was often a narrower process, focusing upon specific skills pertaining to the chosen career. If the individual’s post-secondary education employment involved a trade, any requisite further education pertained expressly to that trade via apprenticeships, for example. In the global and digital age in which we now live, the educational process is more eclectic and inter-disciplinary, and concerned not only with content and skills, but even with the foundations of knowledge. As such, a discipline such as education studies is not only viable, but increasingly valued.
Education studies turns the spotlight more critically upon the nature of effective learning and how to better harness an inter-disciplinary approach to life-long learning. It acknowledges that disciplines of study and boundaries of knowledge are artificial and that significant overlaps within knowledge fields exist. Exploiting these overlapping fields will empower learners and make us more effective in whatever career we pursue. Since education studies is inter-disciplinary in nature, there are a number of key discrete disciplines associated with it and each makes an important contribution. According to Bartlett and Burton [2007:5], the major disciplines of knowledge intimately connected with education studies include philosophy, sociology, psychology and history, since education studies focuses upon the nature of learning and these social science disciplines all address the human condition in a variety of ways.
While the four aforementioned academic disciplines bring invaluable contributions to education studies, sociology is the most significant of the four on a number of grounds. First, with the critical influence of globalisation in the UK and everywhere else, comparative education is vital for each nation and locality to be adept at utilising the plethora of global influences and opportunities available, as well as guarding pre-emptively against any possible hazards and threats. While a historical consciousness is essential to understanding the onset of globalism, it is the realm of sociology that allows the true comparative features of educational difference to be understood and the selection of curriculum and pedagogy that is culturally appropriate for specific countries and communities to be determined [Bartlett and Burton 2007:8].
While philosophy is an important social science discipline for exploring the foundations of knowledge, and is a mandatory subject in some European nations’ secondary schools curriculum – (for example, it is compulsory at schools and colleges in France) – it arguably has greater resonance for students pursuing a more conceptual tertiary level education, whereas sociology has more straightforward ‘real world’ applications for the average person. Sociology enables learners to be more aware of the cultural frame or context of knowledge, permitting learners to acquire skills in cultural empathy as well as a healthy dose of criticism about their own cultural heritage and current perspectives. Seeing as knowledge in the postmodern setting is known to be constructed and reflective of particular sociological and historical traditions, education is now not merely a process of passing on factual information from one generation to the next, but a process of cultural reproduction, particularly across the spectrum of the humanities. What was previously regarded as fixed, determinative and static, such as knowledge of social institutions, is now seen to be relative to the cultural frame of its construction and application.
This characteristic of knowledge is more perceptible when we study a post-colonial society, such as 21st century African nations. Eskell-Blokland [2005:105] observes that the African oral tradition used to be an indicator of primitiveness and therefore its substance was dismissed. Now, the oral traditions of many African countries have been prioritised in social discourse, demonstrating the shifting sociological perspectives that education studies can elucidate. The same argument can be made for the oral Celtic cultures of the British Isles. (Some, however, might see such cultural relativism and ‘politically correct’ diversity in curricula as having a definite political agenda.) As Bartlett and Burton note, “education studies is an emerging field, resistant and critical in its approach to the field of education, grappling with many concepts simultaneously, and deals with multiple rather than singular explanations of phenomenon.” [2007:4]. This multiplicity of explanation of any given topic, and of education in particular, is more tenable due to the convergence of technology opening diverse and previously inscrutable knowledge to the public domain. Since knowledge emanates from many historical, geo-political and cultural contexts, a more holistic and inclusive approach to subject analysis is expected in education and other discipline areas.
Knowledge is at once more atomistic – meaning that there has been an explosion of detailed knowledge moving in many tangential pathways simultaneously in recent years – and a discipline such as sociology, which draws upon history, politics, economics and psychology to name but a few, is a useful assistant for education studies, as it seeks to bring synthesis to complex understandings of the modern world [see Ward 2004:2]. Indeed, there are arguably no more important intellectual skills now than analysis and synthesis, as society perpetually not only breaks down and dissects knowledge and information, but also seeks ways to give it shape, meaning and power through applying it to particular contexts. This process requires synthesis skills and education studies is fundamentally interested in bringing coherence and clarity to subject matter at hand.
A comparison of different sociological paradigms which pertain to education give tremendous clarity concerning the panoramic value of education. This is so, whether in a formal setting or a more abstract notion of learning. The functionalist paradigm asserts that education enables individuals to function within pre-designated societal niches, and as such, this view is essentially conservative, designed to reinforce the status quo and perpetuate cultural traditions from one generation to the next. When this framework underpins the purpose of education, it values the conviction that real education is about transmitting, and reinforcing the current societal values, so they are nurtured by the next generation. It assumes education is about custodianship of the current educational practice and values. In this light, education provides social stability. The value of education studies is that it makes this paradigm and value base explicit in the minds of learners, so they perceive how the attitudes and beliefs about learning are constructed.
Alternatively a Marxist perspective focuses upon the inherent political purpose of education to secure hegemonic institutional control [Bartlett and Burton 2007:8]. Yet another significant sociological theory is conflict theory, which when applied to education, can illuminate the educational process in a way that functionalism cannot. In this paradigm, education is a conflicted enterprise, maintaining hegemonic power bases by rewarding the privileged and excluding those with poorer means. Education arguably drives in the wedge between the social classes and between rich and poor countries, perpetuating rather than reforming social arrangements nationally and globally. Alternatively, the social theory that places conflict as the central mechanism can cast education as a leverage mechanism to deeply confront existing societal values which are deemed to perpetuate social injustice. In this view, education is always fundamentally revolutionary, as it constantly takes a resistant posture and critiques the prevailing world view.
With all this said, briefly outlining the different ways in which sociology applies to education and thereby aids education studies, the interplay of these sociological applications to the educational enterprise provide an excellent mechanism for penetrating analysis and evaluation of a wide range of educational enterprises and practices. Any prospective career which demands the employee to examine the status quo with a critical mindset aimed at reform and improvement would benefit from education studies when applied in the above manner. Such desired change could be with respect to the ethical responsibilities a company faces in doing business, or developing their sense of corporate social responsibility to match current industry standards. The support of education studies would permit the learner to be more adept at evaluating current policies and practices in a given company and the value of its interactions with the communities it may serve.
A further, and popular, sociological perspective with many applications is known as symbolic interactionism. In this case, the meaning humans attach to objects, practices and events is examined, and traditions are understood as expressions of commitment to certain sets of values. The interplay between the importance of agency (symbolic interactionism) and structures (functionalism, conflict theory, Marxism) makes policy formation in educational settings a far more conscious and deliberate process [Bartlett and Burton 2007:18].
Sharp et al [2006:6] support attributing diverse purposes to education when the above sociological paradigms are applied. He mentions that such views promote cultural vitality, economic prosperity and employment, social progress and equality, democratic principles and individual success. To demonstrate these ideas in a more concrete manner, Moore [2004:148] notes that sociological perspectives begin with the premise that curriculum in schools is socially produced and historically situated.
Bartlett  addresses salient issues currently addressed in education studies programmes. These consist of globalisation, differentiation, early childhood, special needs, citizenship and education, lifelong learning, post compulsory education, higher education, management and professionalism in teaching, and education and economic development. It is clear from surveying this list that education studies singles out some grand narratives in 21st century society which prospective educators, and indeed all future employees, should know in order to facilitate their place as influential figures in their respective fields and places of work. Globalisation encompasses the duty educators have in any teaching discipline to place the teaching within a global context and thereby teach comparatively and empathetically with respect to outside cultures and events. Bartlett and Burton [2003:243] address the internationalisation of education as one consequence of globalisation. In their minds, the globalisation of culture has a negative impact upon education and I suspect education studies in this light would alert prospective teachers to the challenges globalism may pose for retaining a sense of individualised and localised flavor in curriculum, teaching methodologies and styles of assessment. The phenomenon known as the ‘McDonaldisation’ of society, referring to the standardisation of production including educational outcomes, may lead to a void of human instrumentality in the pedagogical process [Bartlett and Burton 2003:243]. On the positive side of the ledger, globalisation has prompted education to devote more energy to a consideration of cultural identity and citizenship education [Bartlett and Burton 2003:245]. The global impetus that has given rise to polarities which must be confronted. These include “rationality against emotion, materialism against spirituality, selfishness against altruism, atomism against solidarity” [Bartlett and Burton 2003:245].
In this respect, Williams [2009:2] reminds us that “much schooling worldwide relies on models of teaching seeing the student as an empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. Arguments for ‘active’ learning rarely consider the psychological insights which support them.” Contrary to this allegedly outmoded pedagogical philosophy is the view that “children like everybody, says the review, ‘tend to interpret the world in line with their own explanations as to why things happen’” [Williams 2009:2]. This newer premise about education is at the heart of education studies, which would demonstrate to prospective teachers that they must prepare to display multiple roles to assist students in the modern process of learning. Teachers can not only be the classical instructor, but also the negotiator, facilitator, moderator, co-learner and co-assessor. Such a shift in pedagogical posture is an expression of the value of modern concepts of learning. Collaboration, teamwork and asking questions are features of learners’ disposition which are now desirable. Whether this is ‘a good thing’ or an unfortunate development which is creating a population with less basic knowledge and literacy and numeracy skills that in the past, is a moot point and is hotly debated.
According to Ward [2004:1], education studies moves the prospective teacher beyond the status of technician, namely someone who can impart the craft and content of their specific discipline of study effectively, to someone who has a depth of understanding concerning the nature and purpose of education. The beneficiary of education studies knows ways to impart such knowledge to better effect change through education [Ward 2004:1-2]. Moreover, the eclectic and inter-disciplinary nature of education studies gives the student of teaching a more comprehensive training in the existential situation learners find themselves in, so that teacher strategies can be more authentically planned than would otherwise be the case.
Moreover, the political context of educational reform is a component of educational studies, so that the prospective teacher gains a sense of how the contemporary political agenda shapes the educational process. The mainstreaming of SEN children in British schools, known as the policy of inclusiveness, is New Labour’s agenda for children with special needs [Ward 2004:4]. Such a stance, as distinct from promoting special schools for children, implies that teacher training has a significant component of SEN training. The discipline of sociology affords the education studies student the capacity to identify the unique cultural differences students present with, whether SEN or students from ethnic minority groupings; however, some might dispute the fact that such cultural differences exist to quite the degree some argue. Sociology also affords teachers the empathy to appropriate the experiences of non mainstream students to enrich the educational enterprise. Additionally, the epistemological basis of curriculum content and direction is incorporated within education studies [Ward 2004:4]. Instead of focusing upon subject specific content mastery, an epistemological approach ensures students reflect on the values base of the knowledge and how that knowledge is constructed across a diversity of subjects, whether in fields of mathematics, science, the humanities or the arts.
Davies et al [2002:9] mention the ethical components of education in terms of instructing students to be more astute about the process of rationality, ethical dimensions of learning, discerning the difference between knowledge and understanding, and truth against falsity. He calls these elements epistemic in nature and they are not necessarily addressed by conventional subject specific studies [Davies et al 2002:9]. The role of sociology is relevant again in assisting this process. While an historical comparison between what is taught on specific topics and what is believed factually is instructive, a sociological framework affords cross-cultural comparisons of various subject matters allowing students to see that knowledge is often tentative, provisional and culturally limited. An excellent example of the profound benefit of sociology in application to education studies is the potential for training teachers to become less ethnocentric in their knowledge base and attitudes, as they are exposed to cultural practices beyond their own. Approaches to teaching British history for example can be illuminated when a sociological perspective is engaged. Cultural trends which prompt revisionist interpretations can be supplemented by ways other nations viewed specific events or personalities in British history. However, many would argue that one function of education is to instill a sense of national identity in students, as it accepted and promoted in most countries (e.g. France), and the tendency for certain commentators to constantly disparage and promote shame at British history without reminding students of the fact that the British are responsible for much good in the world (e.g. banning slavery , inventing much technology and spreading the rule of law, democracy and human rights around the world) may actually be creating the racism and social conflict which such teaching supposedly aims to eradicate.
In essence, such processes, as listed above, help student teachers through sociological perspectives become reflexive thinkers. Studying a theme such as British patriotism through examining national anthems can be augmented by a comparative study of the anthems of other nations with their own distinctive cultural, political and historical traditions. Such a task enables student teachers to foresee the benefit in a sociological approach to teaching and the value in placing subject content within a global context.
Kaseem et al [2006:45 ] itemises the contributions to education in the past 40 years from the discipline of psychology, but even in so doing, many of these same enrichments, emanate from sociological thought, as much as the field of psychology
McDougall et al (2006) make a valuable contribution to education studies in their critique of Ward’s call for education studies to be closely allied with teacher training. While the foregoing discussion advocates that teacher training will be greatly strengthened and enhanced to the extent that it benefits from the perspectives of education studies and a sociological application in particular, McDougall and others are critical of Ward’s advocacy for education studies to play an intimate role in teacher training, for fear that the subject will be absorbed into educational teaching and no longer be a discipline in its own right [McDougall et al 2006:159]. These writers note that Ward portrays “a national picture in England whereby the great majority, if not all, of education studies undergraduate courses appear to be taught alongside, or within (through shared modules) teacher training programmes. But from a sociological position, these are two increasingly conflicting arenas – the study of education and the training of teachers” [McDougall et al 2006:159]. The three modern examples of education the writers examine as samples include “published standards of teacher training in England, employer discourses and the Tomlinson Report …(regarding vocational education reform) and the new adult literacy curriculum” [McDougall et al 2006:159].
McDougall et al [2006: 160] are illuminating when they compare the “subject benchmarks produced by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for education studies (QAA, 2000) (which) focus explicitly on critical thinking and familiarity with a range of academic discourses, …(with) the standards established for trainee teachers, very much on a ‘delivery’ model.” The comparison demonstrates the trend in departure from teachers learning to become effective critical thinkers, to teachers learning to deliver predetermined subject content in predetermined manner in order to meet predetermined uniform standards. The ramification is that a state of wariness concerning educational regulations is a healthy state of being, and that education studies, if its integrity as a distinct discipline of study is to be maintained, will continue allow students to inculcate intellectually liberating habits of mind and praxis. Moreover, education studies has a serious function, according to McDougall et al [2006:161] to counter the call of hollow, target-driven educational rhetoric that gets embedded in standards and benchmark documents such as the work of the “Department for Education and Skills (DFES) and the TDA (previously the Teacher Training Agency) the Tomlinson Report on vocational education in England, the subsequent DFES White Paper on the reform of education for 14–19-year-olds in England and the redrafted literacy framework for teaching adults in England” [McDougall et al 2006:161].
The Qualifying to teach document “defines and delimits, it prescribes and prohibits” [McDougall et al 2006:164] the teacher trainee, while the spirit of education studies implores individuals to think more freely, laterally and boldly. In this respect, critical discourse analysis is viewed as an effective mechanism for deconstructed bureaucratically conformist documents which presume to set the standards, direction and tone of education in modern Britain.
Standards discourse, as McDougall et al critically determine it, are placed alongside accountability discourse, as well as performativity and surveillance discourse [McDougall et al 2006:166]. In each of these entrenched ideological pillars of the educational process, these writers feel education studies has a valuable role of scrutiny. They conclude with the assertion that “education studies as deconstruction has the potential to contest dominant discourses and to underpin learning, research and theory building… (in the process) deconstruct(ing) the discourses of pedagogical standards, of vocationalism and of curricular framing” [McDougall et al 2006:171-2].
Davies and Hogarth [2004:431] note that the early core content of education studies was considered to “include the psychological, sociological and philosophical aspects of education and learning, as well as some information on certain significant individual educationalists.”
Levinson et al [2006:596] reminds us of the sociological nature of education, and the diverse sociological approaches to education. Indeed, “politics, economics, culture, and individual identity are less neatly arranged in the post-modern world of multiplicities” Levinson et al [2006:596]. With this conglomeration of disciplines in mind, the benefit of education studies is more apposite.
In all, while education studies has established itself as a discrete discipline with integrity, but it remains controversial as to whether it will be brought back into the fold of teacher education, or service the academic development of students more broadly at college or university level. Certainly, the social science known as sociology contributes in a major fashion to the discipline of education studies, and arguably to a greater extent than history or philosophy, even though these disciplines remain helpful in shaping an educational consciousness and making students more epistemologically aware.
In the 21st century, reducing ethnocentrism in both oneself, one’s future students, or in one’s alternate profession, is a timely aim, since we confront on a daily basis both the global and the local. The educational studies enterprise subjects an array of educational related subjects to close scrutiny and enables students to think critically about issues such as globalisation, literacy, special needs education, knowledge foundations, and the interdisciplinary nature of learning. The pressures brought by economic rationalist political agendas pressurise education to assume a shape of pragmatism, rather than open-ended enquiry: statistics and targets and league tables seem to the main objective for many individuals and institutions, instead of ‘education’ in any pure, ‘thinking’ way. Nevertheless, it is hoped that education studies will continue to foster curiosity and the tools of learning, perhaps countering some of the alternate impulses to value education purely in terms of the functional and financial outcomes it may yield. Process remains equally important as product in the eyes of education studies, and the development of learning skills can endure longer than the acquisition of content, though knowledge acquisition is an essential part of education too. However, given that content is so much more accessible in the digital age, the emphasis upon skill acquisition and the epistemological basis of learning are arguably better ways to engage students in a learning process.
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