I got in trouble last week for suggesting that education was not an academic discipline, and I can see why. For many years, university education departments have been Cinderella organisations in comparison to purportedly loftier spires, and any discussions which raise questions about the status of research in education are therefore sensitive. In stating that I do not see education as a discipline, I do not seek to make any claims about the rigour of research in the field of education or the academic quality of the people who do that research (I am one of them, after all). Rather, I want to establish greater clarity as to what we are doing when we are researching education.
For my argument to be robust, I need to make a distinction between a ‘discipline’ and a ‘field’. I would define a research field as a group of people involved in the study of something. The field of educational research, therefore, involves the study of education as a phenomenon. Education exists, it happens, and we want to make sense of it.
A discipline, I would argue, is more specific than a field. A discipline does involve the study of something (biology is the study of living things, for example) but a discipline is also defined by (a) the methods it uses to study that thing, (b) the way it defines terms such as ‘proof’, ‘evidence’ and ‘argument’ and (c) a tradition of criticism as to whether certain claims count as knowledge. Importantly, this means that the same object of study can be researched in different disciplines: a classical linguist, for example, studies Aristotle’s Politics in a very different way from a historian or a philosopher.
These distinctions can be seen very clearly between disciplines. Take, for example, the concept of ‘proof’. For a mathematician, proof rests upon ideas such as necessity and tautology; for a chemist, proof requires a process of empirical observation and statistical induction; for a historian, proof rests on the interrogation of testimony. A chemist would not seek to prove something by finding out what someone said about it a hundred years ago any more than a historian would seek to explain the causes of the French Revolution by recreating it in a controlled experiment. In these ways, there are clear distinctions in terms of how different disciplines set out in the pursuit of truth and knowledge.
So is ‘education’ a discipline or a field? My argument is that it is a field. Using my criteria above, for us to see education as a discipline, we would need to identify a set of methods, concepts and traditions of what counts as knowledge which are peculiar to it, and I do not think that these exist. Instead, the field of education has a long and rich history of using different disciplines in order to study education. The principal ones are psychology, sociology, philosophy and history.
Consider the following topical claims made about education.
- Education became more progressive in the 1970s.
- Educational attainment depends on family background.
- Working memory is limited to around seven items.
- The primary aim of education is to create good citizens.
Each of these statements can be analysed, their meaning and truth teased out and their implications considered, but to do that we need a set of tools, and the tools we need are different in each case.
The first claim requires a historical assessment. History, as a discipline, seeks to make sense of the human past. A claim such as ‘education became more progressive in the 1970s’ is a historical claim. The only way in which we can establish the truth of this claim is to use the tools of the historian. This means looking at the archival record and drawing on the available source material.
Sociology, like history, is another well-established discipline. It seeks to understand the nature of human society and the relationship between individual humans and the structures of that society. As a discipline, it has a set of techniques it uses to answer those questions, and is broad in the range of quantitative and qualitative tools it has available. To analyse the claim that ‘educational attainment depends on family background’ we might, for example, conduct a series of case studies, or conduct an analysis of the correlation between free-school-meal status and GCSE attainment.
Psychology is the study of the human mind. Learning – particularly in a cognitive sense – is an important object of study for psychologists. The tools of cognitive psychology often involve creating experimental situations (Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is very good at summarising these for the non-specialist) though social psychologists might make use of more natural settings, sharing some ground here with sociology.
Philosophy – as a discipline – concerns itself with the nature of reality (metaphysics) and knowledge of that reality (epistemology), and in some ways this makes it a meta discipline. We could, for example, have a philosophical discussion about different notions of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ in the disciplines of history, sociology and psychology. Philosophy also encompasses ethics which I would broadly define as the study of whether and how one ought to act. Questions about the aims of education – for example – can be addressed using the tools of philosophy. One might deploy a Kantian deontological argument, or an Aristotelian teleological argument or a Utilitarian argument to address whether or not the aim of an education should be to produce good citizens.
These are the four disciplines which address most of the major educational questions. Some educational questions do of course call for an interdisciplinary approach: we might, for example, offer historical and sociological perspectives on the role of social class in pupil attainment, or we might gain insights into the strengths and weaknesses of ‘assessment for learning’ by deploying the tools of psychology and sociology. In some cases other disciplines also play a role in studying education: educational economics, for example, is a small but important field. Interdisciplinary work is, however, logically prior to and predicated on the existence of disciplines. We cannot do interdisciplinary work unless we know what the different disciplines can and cannot do.
Now why does any of this matter? I would argue that these distinctions are important because the disciplinary approach we adopt determines the nature of the conclusions we are able to reach. History, for example, is very well placed as a discipline for determining what happened in the past, but is famously poor at making predictions about the future. An argument advanced about how education ought to be based on how it used to be is likely to be weak. Psychology, in contrast, is much better placed to make predictions about how people will act in the future. In studying education as a phenomenon, we need to use the tools that are fit for purpose.
So this is about the quality of the debate. Disciplinary boundaries matter because certain disciplines allow us to reach some conclusions, but not others. Clarity as to the disciplinary nature of the claims we make – with their corresponding notions such as ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ – can help us to express our arguments more fluently, and can enable us to have richer discussions about the fascinating and intricate thing we seek to study: education.