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. Historically, the term ‘ideology’ has often been used to describe a set of beliefs with which one disagrees, whether political, economic or philosophical. Here, however, I use a broader and more helpful definition of ideology as meaning different competing belief systems, as defined by Meighan & Harber in A Sociology of Educating (2007).

Ideology is defined 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).

Education itself can therefore never be ‘neutral’ or ‘value free’, whatever critics may say. It is also important to understand the political ideologies which underpin recent and current western worldviews as well as different views of education. In summarising (if oversimplifying) some of the key features of welfare state, neoliberal and green ideologies (see below) I have particularly drawn on Heywood’s Political Ideologies (2014) and Goodwin’s Using Political Ideas (2014), 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 crucial 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 ideologies/worldviews which we have socially and culturally imbibed from birth onwards. These deeply affect how we see the world and how we ‘make sense’ of society, including education.

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) three competing political ideologies: welfare state, neoliberal and green; iii) and how these each lead to quite different views of what education should be about; iv) the impact of these differing educational ideologies on teachers, students and schools [ppt].

Supporting notes

These notes explore some of the key beliefs underpinning welfare state ideology (1945-1980s in the UK), neoliberal ideology (the dominant ideology in the west today), and green ideology (stressing environmental and human well-being), 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 the term ideology to refer to their values and beliefs but rather see their views as logical and common sense, this is ‘the way the world work best’. Please note these introductory materials necessarily involve a degree of oversimplification. They do, however, highlight some of the essential differences and key ideas [IdeolNotes]. You will also find the sheet on ‘Discussion skills in groups’ [DiscussNotes] 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].

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