Disciplines and the aims of an education

I am currently reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. The following brief passage summarises, in a nutshell, the role that academic disciplines have to play in education.

A practice ‘is never just a set of technical skills, even when directed towards some unified purpose and even if the exercise of those skills can on occasion be valued or enjoyed for their own sake. What is distinctive in a practice is in part the way in which conceptions of the relevant goods and ends which the technical skills serve – and every practice does require the exercise of technical skills – are transformed and enriched by these extensions of human powers and by that regard for its own internal goods which are partially definitive of each particular practice or type of practice (After Virtue, p.225).’


The problem with ‘outcome-based education’ is that it defines a practice (such as physics, history or playing chess) as a set of technical skills that one needs to achieve to be successful. A glance at most mark-schemes for history will define the use of propositional, factual knowledge in the sense that pupils can use propositional knowledge to ‘deploy’ or ‘support’ particular points.

Now all of this is perfectly fine: MacIntyre tells us that technical skills are a necessary condition of any practice. They are not, however, sufficient. A practice, instead, has to be directed towards some common end (or telos, in Aristotle’s terms). There has to be some sense of a gold standard – some notion of ‘excellence’ – towards which new initiates to a practice (such as physics, or history, or playing chess) can be directed.

MacIntyre suggests, on this line, that

‘To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice, particularly those whose achievements extended the reach of the practice to its present point. It is thus the achievement and a fortiori the authority, of a tradition which I can confront and from which I have to learn… (After Virtue, p.226).’

It is those who have already excelled in a particular practice from whom pupils have to learn. In some sense this is why classroom teachers need to be subject specialists; a non-specialist might be able to train pupils in particular technical skills, but cannot provide pupils with a sense of the ‘gold standard’ towards which pupils should direct themselves.

This is also why, at some point, teachers need to begin introducing pupils to works of scholarship written by the very best people in that particular practice. I am currently learning to play the violin, and I am not very good at it, but I listen to experts play and recognise the standard towards which I need to direct myself. In the case of history, this means that teachers should, increasingly, introduce pupils to appropriate works of scholarship that represent the gold standard towards which they should be directed.

11 Comments on Disciplines and the aims of an education

  1. Really interesting, and close to my heart. If you don’t cringe away from the reference straight away, I believe that a Costa/Claxton habits of mind approach to education is essentially one of Aristotelian VIrtue Ethics (on a good day). As a very wise teacher in my school shared with me, one of the hardest elements of Aristotle’s schema to realise is the aspect of “role model”, particularly for the brightest students. How confident are we that there are enough subject experts going into teaching to “light fires” through the example of scholarship?

    • Michael Fordham // 22 December 2013 at 22:53 // Reply

      Thanks for commenting and glad you found it interesting! I find the Costa / Claxton argument unconvincing, primarily because they do not give sufficient emphasis to the disciplinary domains in which knowledge is learnt. I wrote about this in my previous post )https://clioetcetera.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/knowledge-skills-and-the-ignored-dichotomy/) – I would place things like ‘Habits of Mind’ in the bottom-right quadrant, whereas I want to base curriculum, pedagogy and assessment on the top-left quadrant. This is not to say that I do not think that the 16 habits are not worthwhile characteristics (though they need definition) but rather these are not the primary organising principle around which I would wish to form a curriculum, not least because they do not point towards any powerful form of knowledge (I’m following Young in ‘Bringing Knowledge Back In’ here). Hope that makes my view clear!

      • I would be interested in what you thought of IB (both the Diploma and the Middle Years Programme). As a model of education very focused towards a learner profile / dispositions, it seems to produce, in my experience, students who are extremely knowledgable, but with the critical faculty to question what they are taught and to take responsibility for their own learning. I know that I spent years with “knowledge” focused teachers in English (for example), telling me what Poem X and Novel Y meant, and when I reached university I was freed by superior academics who encouraged a rigorously analytic but independent approach to literature. Perhaps bad examples?

    • Michael Fordham // 22 December 2013 at 22:56 // Reply

      Oh, and just to follow up the second (more important!) point – I can speak only for history, but we see a lot of teachers now writing articles for Teaching History on using scholarship in the classroom. My involvement (through training and mentoring) is with the Cambridge partnership and on our PGCE course we place a great deal of emphasis on how scholarship can be used with pupils across the ability range. Much work still to do, but I think the trend here is in the right direction.

    • Michael Fordham // 23 December 2013 at 12:41 // Reply

      For some reason it won’t let me reply to the comment below!

      I’m not particularly familiar with the IB but I have had a glance through the MYP. I think the general statements it makes are perhaps appropriate at the level of what a curriculum in its entirety is supposed to do – it’s quite vague, but then I think things inevitable become more vague as they move towards the generic. Nevertheless, the IB is still based on a model that puts subject disciplines at the heart of the curriculum, which is something I support contra, for example, the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum.

      I think your second point is a classic problem faced in talking about knowledge in education – that is, if one talks about the importance of knowledge (and associated concepts such as expertise, authority and tradition) then people instantly think that you’re some throwback to the 1950s. I think in the example you give, your teacher at school was not giving you *enough* knowledge – I’m not an expert in English Literature, but I would imagine that it is quite right that a teacher should teach the different ways in which a text has been interpreted. In history there has been a curriculum requirement to do this since 1991 – we don’t just teach one interpretation of the past, but multiple interpretations; we teach children what they need to know to understand how and why the past has been interpreted in different ways. This is all knowledge. I want to see pupils gaining knowledge not just of the substance of the past (i.e. what happened) but knowledge of how that past has been interpreted and how these interpretations have changed over time. That, for me, is a knowledge-rich curriculum.

  2. John Taylor // 22 December 2013 at 23:21 // Reply

    This raises a number of extremely interesting issues. I am sympathetic to the direction of the argument but I am not sure about whether the Aristotelian conceptual framework is either necessary or sufficient….

    1. The idea of a practice is understood teleologically, as something entered into for the sake of some end, and the evaluation of the quality of the practice is made with respect to that end. But there are different different notions of goodness, and the assessment of quality is not always teleological. There is a sense of ‘goodness’ which means, roughly, fulfilling the characteristic goal of the activity (e.g. a ‘good talking to’). But there is also a sense of goodness which is defined with respect to interests or desires. When I say ‘good dog’ to my dog, I am not making a point about the extent to which he has conformed to the ideal of doginess – I simply mean that he has done what I wanted him to. I am not sure that there is such a thing as the telos of a dog. A problem, then, for MacIntyre, is that we cannot infer that talk about qualities (or even, excellence) commits us to a teleological understanding of goodness.
    2. If we do grant a teleological conception of goodness, there will be difficulties associated with the idea of a telos in the case of complex practices, such as academic disciplines. For example: what is physics for? I am not sure that there is a single, informative answer to such a question.
    3. There are some skills, the assessment of which is possible only by someone who has themselves mastered the skill / Only skilled dancers get to judge dancers, on Strictly Come Dancing, for example. But there are also skills which can be assessed by non-experts; I do not have to be a builder to be able to tell the difference between a master-builder and a bungling one. So I think the argument cannot be a fully general one, but must depend on some extra premises about the nature of the practice.
    4. MacIntyre’s argument that entering a practice is possible only if there is an existing tradition of practice seems to imply that there must be an infinite regress of practitioners, unless, that is, he allows that one can begin a practice without ‘entering’ it…but I may have missed part of the argument here…

    • Michael Fordham // 23 December 2013 at 11:48 // Reply

      Thanks John – always good to get an expert eye on things like this! I think I’d offer the following responses:

      (1) This is a bit outside my comfort zone, but I think Aristotle’s defunct biological metaphysics would suggest that a dog does have a telos, in the same way that an acorn has the telos of becoming an oak, and, in that ‘goods’ (flourishing, success, or however else you wish to translate) related to ends, for Aristotle a dog can be good in the teleological sense. Clearly MacIntyre, in After Virtue, does not think a dog can be good as goods are related to practices and, as I understand it, one needs to be aware of the practice in which one is engaged. However, I think that he later modifies his argument to reintroduce a biological dimension in Dependent Rational Animals which I haven’t read – I might get round to it at some point!

      (2) I think this account does allow for complexity within practices – indeed, MacIntyre explicitly states that disagreement about the telos of a practice can be part of that practice – I think he uses the term ‘continuities of complexity’. I would suggest that most academic practices can have their telos characterised in terms of knowledge (i.e. a collective enterprise to produce propositions both true and justified) – in history, for example, the telos of the discipline might be understood as a ‘true account of the human past’ – though I think MacIntyre’s model is sufficiently powerful to incorporate even disagreements about that.

      (3) I was discussing this just last week over lunch! I think there is an important distinction to be drawn between ‘appreciation’ and ‘assessment’ – I can appreciate a building (perhaps I mean here in the aesthetic sense) but I cannot assess it unless I operate with a notion of excellence that requires that I understand what excellence in that practice looks like. When I accompanied an ill pupil to hospital, I had great appreciation for the doctors who treated her in that I could see they were bringing about some desirable end, but I would not think that i could assess those doctors without the knowledge and understanding of why what they were doing was working.

      (4) Even less sure on this one – by an infinite regress are you referring to a kind of ‘first cause’ problem – i.e. someone must have entered into the practice without the practice previously existing, a contradiction? I think handling practices as traditions helps with this and the evolutionary metaphor is particularly powerful – just as it would be wrong to look for the ‘first’ human in an evolutionary sense, so too it would be wrong to look for the ‘first’ historian, as the practice of the discipline has evolved over time.

      Just a few thoughts – thanks for keeping me on my toes! The Internet at its best.

  3. Another thought-provoking blog, Michael. I’m always trying to find new ways to introduce my ‘pupils to works of scholarship written by the very best people in’ History, but am very aware that this is an area I could improve on. I know that if I can get my students into the habit of doing this or make it a more consistent part of my lesson practice then clearly the standard of their discourse will improve hugely. Have you blogged about the methods or techniques you use to encourage students to read beyond the standard textbook or know of anyone else who has written something? I’m going to trawl through the Teaching History back catalogue but any pointers would be much appreciated.

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