Rethinking Education: Substantiating an authentic and sustainable, post-traditional understanding of education — A philosophical foundational study

Steiner, Dirk Marcus
Begg, Andy
Gibbons, Andrew
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

CONTEXT | What should education in the 21st century look like? Which principles should postmodern education be based upon? The unfolding of the Age of Knowledge since the late 1990s has caused far-reaching transformations regarding the direction and emphasis of formal education and the way it is facilitated. On a different level, the educational discourse has also advanced in multifarious, knowledge-innovative directions. These developments have opened up a plurality of conceivable, futuristic ways of learning, particularly in the online-collaborative realm. In short, the meaning of knowledge and learning have been and continue to be redefined. Besides imparting crucial knowledge, education’s role in developing the human personality and enabling participation in societal life is becoming more complex and, at the same time, more important. This constitutes both a challenge and an opportunity for the sector and its practitioners.

PROBLEM | While the Digital Revolution has yielded a whole new economy, the Knowledge Economy, the effects, globalisation, merged with the new economy, and the technological capabilities of the ICT industry, have had on education systems, is ambiguous and arguably problematic. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’ and ‘professionalism’, a plethora of internal and external expectations are influencing public education systems to deliver. Policy changes have shifted the focus of public education in the direction of goals, such as the application of new learning technologies in the classroom, or the securing of superior scores in international benchmarking tests. As a consequence, instead of becoming broader, more versatile, and more pluralistic, curricula have become more linear and unitary, from early childhood education up to and including tertiary education. In short, public education systems have become increasingly streamlined. These developments, which have their origin in the late 1980s, have taken place on a global level, representing some implicit global education reform agenda. This late shift towards economy-driven educational policies has once again reinforced education’s position of being essentially understood as a ‘product’ as opposed to a ‘subjective process of development’. I, therefore, argue that amongst the hype about fast-paced information-technological innovation, education systems have essentially remained based on the authoritarian 19th century (factory model) paradigm.

RATIONALE | Such a materialistic model, which largely leaves the learning individual out of consideration, seems not appropriate if the intention is to allow young people to develop to the fullest of their potentials and ideally become self-actualised, independent, social, critical, and successful members of society. The initial assumption, that there is a need to resubstantiate education from the ground up in order to better relate to the realities of life and the capabilities of the human being in the 21st century, led me to the central question that drove this philosophical study, namely: How can education, and schooling in particular, remain relevant in the future? With the objective to bring about lasting change in the educational landscape, I framed the following guiding question: What would contemporary education have to look like and what principles should it be based upon in order to be a) authentic (in the sense being most meaningful to the learner and the teacher) and b) sustainable (in the sense of long-lasting learning experiences, and sustainable as a social institution as such)? In other words, with this study, I philosophically explore the challenges, contradictions, and possibilities for education in a 21st-century context.

RESEARCH DESIGN | The study was carried out as an inter-perspectival critical theoretical-philosophical exploration and theory construction—in short, a Socratic exploration. Believing that education cannot take place disconnected from society, culture, and the environment, a range of relevant, interacting perspectives have been included. This review started off in the historical past with an in-depth exploration and theorisation of the origins of the idea of public education and the course of development of formal education throughout subsequent centuries up until today. Further perspectives included epistemology, education-political philosophy, manifestations of current educational reality, global education reform trends, and current educational philosophy. Combined with the historical perspectives and the one on current educational realities, this constituted the methodology of a seven-fold thematic ‘triangulation’. This inter-perspectival approach led to an open-ended, critical-theoretical exploration and theorisation of the above fields to develop a contemporary understanding of and approach to education. The study emphasises Western education with reference to the researcher’s personal background in the German school system.

THEORISATIONS | The insights and theorisations from this critical-theoretical exploration of interrelated fields, to a great extent, complemented each other. On an ideational level, the insight regularly coincided with existent overarching UN policy aspirations. As concerns implementation, however, evidence points to significant contentual disparities between policy rhetoric (i.e. the ‘desired condition’) and educational reality. While changes implemented may have kept pace with technological advances and shifts in cultural and political trends, education systems have largely remained stagnant as concerns developments relating to developmental psychology, neuroscience, international benchmarking results, educational theory (paradigm), changes in perception of social reality, and the overall advancement of consciousness and thinking. In sum, the problematisation suggests that the current understanding of education and schooling is not in accordance with the necessities of contemporary reality, life, culture, and thinking.

IMPLICATIONS | The theorisations of this holistic review of education substantiate that justified, alternative ways of interpreting most aspects of public education, to those currently applied, exist. The problematisation particularly emphasises the detriments brought about by decades of neoliberal education policy and conservative reforms. The concerted theorisations can be seen as an alternative concept to the current approach to education and can be used to contextualise education accordingly. In order to meet contemporary needs to develop self-actualised world citizens of the 21st century, 21st century education should aim to develop the whole human being in its entirety and ‘to the fullest of its potentials’—as is worded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. Apart from an intellectual and physical education, this should also include social, relational, mental/emotional, ethical, spiritual, and cultural education, as well as aesthetic (artistic/creative) development ‘to the maximum of one’s abilities’ as well as a wide range of practical skills (including digital-technological literacy). To do so, indications suggest curricula need to be intrinsically learner-centred with topics being studied when developmentally appropriate. From an ethical-existentialistic, post-material perspective, a key approach, indicated for education in the 21st century, has been shown to be ‘learning experiences’. Key considerations for implementation are:

  1. Authenticity—in the sense of ‘real and meaningful learning experiences’, and
  2. Sustainability—in the sense of ‘intrinsic and enduringly formative learning experiences’. Similarly, performance evaluation should equally shift from a one-measure-fits-all notion to individualised and personalised ways of evaluating learning and development. Further evidence-based consequences have been concluded regarding teaching didactics/learning methodology, contents/curriculum indications, and school and classroom organisation.

ORIGINALITY | This theoretical treatise’s originality is first and foremost comprised of its unique philosophical method, an inter-perspectival and open-ended phenomenological approach to qualitative theoretical research. This combines both breadth of perspective and in-depth problematisation of the core issues in order to attain holistic and meaningful results. This approach is original to both philosophical research as well as the topic in particular.

Education philosophy , 21st-century education , Education paradigm , Critical theory of Bildung , Authentic , Postmodern , Post-traditional , Lasting learning experiences , Experiential learning , Constructivism , 21st-century curriculum , Lifelong learning , Progressive education , Right to education , Fullest development (UN) , Education policy , Education reform , Holistic perspective , Meaningful & sustainable ways of learning
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