Is education an academic discipline?

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.

  1. Education became more progressive in the 1970s.
  2. Educational attainment depends on family background.
  3. Working memory is limited to around seven items.
  4. 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.


10 Comments on Is education an academic discipline?

  1. Karl Bentley // 19 July 2014 at 23:10 // Reply

    My argument is that historically we have approached this from the wrong direction and that far from education not being a discipline, Education should be viewed as ‘the’ Discipline and that all other things are sub disciplines of it. One does not initially approach Education via History or Mathematics for example, rather you gain all Historical and Mathematical knowledge via Education without a separation of process and product. Indeed it would be hard to find any research methodologies or any terms, proof, criticality etc indeed any academic discourse in any discipline that is not educative and is thus part of an Education discipline. I suspect that the reluctance to see Education as a such a core discipline is because it is complex and integrative of so many other disciplines. But then so are others and there’s no call to diminish their position as disciplines.
    Disciplinary boundaries are fabricated to enhance understanding and that is fine, but at the core of all understanding is the discipline of Education.

    • Michael Fordham // 19 July 2014 at 23:47 // Reply

      I see and understand the point you are making: it is quite obvious that one learns the different disciplines (mathematics, history, chemistry etc.) through a process of education.

      I think, however, that you are spectacularly missing the point, and making a fairly basic error in terms of research methodology, which is that you are failing to grasp this notion of an ‘object of study’.

      Let’s take some comparisons to begin.

      (1) The planet Neptune has always revolved around our sun. An astronomer takes this phenomenon (Neptune orbiting the sun) and researches it, with the aim of producing knowledge about this phenomenon.

      (2) Humans have produced music for thousands of years. A musicologist takes this phenomenon (music making) and researches it, with the aim of producing knowledge about this phenomenon.

      (3) Humans have educated each other for thousands of years. An educationalist takes this phenomenon (education) and researches it, with the aim of producing knowledge about this phenomenon.

      In all of these cases, there is a phenomenon in existence (Neptune, music, education) and we set out to study it using the disciplinary tools that we have available.

      Now if you go back to your argument, you will notice that you are equating the phenomenon itself (i.e. education) with the research tradition used to study that phenomenon (i.e. educational research).

      Education is a bit of a special case because the phenomenon by which we learn the disciplines is the very thing we then use the disciplines to study. There is, nonetheless, a clear conceptual difference between ‘learning history’ and ‘using history to study learning’.

      I can see where your error is coming from here (it’s this failure to distinguish between ‘learning psychology’ and ‘using psychology to study learning’) but it is an error and a pretty important one in terms of the theoretical basis of research.

      I think a lot of these issues are dealt with quite well by Patrick Baert in ‘Philosophy of the Social Sciences’. He likes pragmatism, so you’ll probably like the book too.

      • Karl Bentley // 20 July 2014 at 00:49 //

        I will have to disagree with your reasoning.
        In “learning psychology” and “using psychology to study learning” isn’t the core activity and outcome one of Education no matter what methodology or forms of research are involved?
        You can’t do psychology without learning about psychology ie Education of psychology.
        You can’t use psychology to understand education without Education I.e. Developing understanding being part of that process.
        So are you not, in focussing upon “an object of study” missing that it is the ‘study’ of that “phenomenon” that is the key part? The object exists yet it is the study and only that ie Education that makes it into something which can then be further differentiated via grouping objects, methodologies and vocabulary into ‘disciplines’?
        The very fact that we can take Education as an abstraction of itself and label it a a ‘phenomenon’ could be used as they key reason why Education is the core discipline, as it is that act of abstraction, that we call Education, which enables us to understand and communicate understanding of all other phenomenons.
        That is how I see it…

  2. Dylan Wiliam // 20 July 2014 at 01:18 // Reply

    In her (troubling) history of education research, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann suggests that the history of educational research can be characterized as a search for disciplinary foundations. For those who don’t have time to read the book, she clearly, in my view, establishes that educational research is a field that draws on different disciplines—originally mostly psychology, but then sociology and anthropology, and now almost anything—to make sense of educational phenomena.

    Lagemann, E. C. (2000). An elusive science: the troubling history of education research. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

  3. Karl Bentley // 20 July 2014 at 02:12 // Reply

    And Sherifat Onatade seems to agree,

  4. I have masters in Education and yes, it is a proper Discipline. Why are you stuck with the philosophy,sociology,history etc etc of Education? These are foundation aspects. We study these in our first year in bachelors stage. Education gets more and more complex when we deal in pedogogy and learning strategies. These have very little to do with other disciplines. There are several research topics which can be dealt only using educational tools and techniques.

  5. I suspect a number of subjects would fail to be accounted as disciplines given your methodology. Geography, Zoology, Economics and Architecture spring to mind as possible candidates. Ultimately what is the significance? Many subjects studied and researched in universities are integrative of other disciplines, does that diminish them or make them less important?

  6. To Michael Fordham: you say: “Humans have educated each other for thousands of years. An educationalist takes this phenomenon (education) and researches it, with the aim of producing knowledge about this phenomenon.” Sorry, I do not remember seing a singl e papaer on mathematics education that goes to the past for more than five years. I can talk only about mathematics education, but fromwhat I see, maths education lost historic memory. This is why why it is not an academic discipline.

  7. I agree that education can be an object of study in many other disciplines (what you call a field of study, as in the history of education, the social science of education etc) and, with I agree with Dylan, that the discipline proper of education (like any discipline) is dependent on many other tributary disciplines (psychology, for example). But I disagree with your argument that education is not a discipline, in principle.

    The criteria you select for what constitutes a discipline strike me as somewhat arbitrary. The OED is less precise, defining “discipline” only as “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in HE”. Of your three criteria for what constitutes a discipline (the methods, what constitutes ‘proof’, what constitutes ‘knowledge’) seems to come straight from Kuhn’s view of paradigms, which comes with its own tradition of “silly socio-psychobabble” – see my post at But most telling, are there not frequent paradigm-shifts *within* disciplines – e.g. the rise of social and economic history wishing History?

    I suggest that the OED’s “branch of knowledge” is more often given its integrity by something else – a common sense of purpose. What methods best suit that purpose are a secondary question. For “education as a discipline” (the province of what I call “educationalists”), that purpose is to support practitioners by the creation of theories of how best to teach.

    So much for education-as-a-displine existing “in principle”. In practice, I think that our discipline of education is generally immature and ineffective, and education departments are often populated by developmental psychologists and sociologists, who are (as you say) studying education as a field and not a discipline. This is why the 1998 Tooley Report showed that only 10% of research papers were about (the how-to of) teaching and learning. I don’t think much has changed. And this is why a doctrine has arisen among teachers (and indeed government) that all that matters is the on-the-job, tacit knowledge of everyday teachers, and the scribblers can be left in their ivory towers to amuse themselves.

    But time and time again, I come across the same logical form of argument in education: because we do something badly, there is no point in trying to do it well. Because we *don’t* study education-as-a-discipline, therefore we *can’t* study education-as-a-discipline. This tendency is exacerbated by the tendency of some to make a fetish of empirical evidence, which only bears on what we currently do. The (false) conclusion is that there is no point in trying to improve those things that it is most important to improve. The fact that our education theory is so weak does not mean that that strong theory (and technology, with which theory is inextricably linked) would not be extraordinarily useful, and would get us out of the very deep hole into which our education service seems to have dug itself. As a form of argument, it is a form of giving up.

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