David W. Hicks

Teaching for a Better World: Learning for sustainability

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The nature of ideology

All human knowledge is socially constructed, i.e. no area of human endeavour can ever be neutral or value-free since it is always underpinned by the values and beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, of its proponents. Such sets of beliefs or worldviews are examples of what sociologists call ideologies. Education itself can therefore never be 'neutral' or 'value free', whatever critics may say. Meighan & Harber, in A Sociology of Educating (2007) define ideology as:

a broad interlocked set of ideas and beliefs about the world held by a group of people that they demonstrate in both behaviour and conversation to various audiences. These systems of belief are usually seen as ‘the way things really are’ by the groups holding them, and they become the taken-for-granted ways of making sense of the world (Meighan & Harber, 2007: 212).

It is important therefore to understand the political ideologies which underpin recent and current western worldviews. In summarising (if oversimplifying) some of the key features of welfare state and neoliberal ideology (see below) I have particularly drawn on Heywood’s Political Ideologies (2007) and Goodwin’s Using Political Ideas (2007), both of which are vital background reading if you wish to understand debates about the nature of society and the purposes of education today. It is important, at this stage, to understand that ideologies are worldviews shared by large numbers of people. This is quite distinct from the idea that we are all different as individuals. Our individual attitudes and opinions reflect wider and deeper political worldviews which, in turn, have shaped much of education today.

NB. The word ‘political’ is often taken to refer to political parties but it is used here in its wider sense, i.e. issues relating to power and authority in society and how that authority is gained and used. Differing political ideologies are what lie behind different political parties, they embody the varying beliefs that people hold about society and how it should work.

Powerpoint presentation

This presentation introduces you to: i) the notion of ideology; ii) two competing political ideologies: neoliberalism and welfare state; iii) two educational ideologies which derive from the latter: learner-centred education and global citizenship; iv) the impact of these differing ideologies on teachers, students and schools [ppt].

Supporting notes

These notes explore some of the underlying beliefs of neoliberalism, the dominant ideology in the west today (along with aspects of neoconservatism) and the ways in which these ideologies have shaped educational policy and practice. It should be noted that the proponents of such views seldom use these terms but rather (as in all dominant ideologies) see their views as logical and common sense as this is ‘the way the world works’. Please note that these introductory materials necessarily involve a degree of oversimplification. They do, however, highlight some of the essential differences and key ideas [Notes7]. You will also find the sheet on 'Discussion skills in groups' [Notes8] useful here.

Here are six handouts, each of which will enable you to explore and debate some of the above notions relating to education and ideology in more depth.

Case study for discussion

Whilst ‘Teaching for a Better World’ takes a particular subject [pdf15] as its focus it nevertheless encapsulates some of the wider ideological struggles that occur in relation to the curriculum and debates about the purposes of education. List what your curriculum priorities would be in order to prepare students for a future very different from today. How does this compare with 'A sustainable future: four challenges...' ? [pdf16]

Radical education

Over the last century educational pioneers and innovators have often set up radical initiatives very different from what is taken to be the norm in mainstream education. This chapter looks at examples of radical ideology in action both within and outside the system [pdf9].

But what’s it really all about?

One of the best books setting out the underlying issues and debates in education is Kay Wood’s (2011) Education: The basics (Routledge). Key themes include: what it means to be an educated person; the competing purposes of education; winners and losers; education and the moral dimension; race, class and gender; personal development and societal transformation; who should control the curriculum; alternative views of education; education as a potential threat. The book is short, concise and readable, an excellent introduction to why education matters so much and why we all need to understand the ideological nature of the debates it engenders.

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