This summary has been prepared for Primary Teacher Journal Club participants who may not have time to read the full text prior to the discussion, or, having read the full text, want to revisit the ideas briefly before participating. The summary is not meant to replace the article itself. Any deviations from the meaning of the original author’s text are unintended, arising from the need to be succinct.

Biesta asserts that recent positioning of the teacher as the most important ‘factor’ in education is problematic, because it follows that in order to increase the performance of students, we must ensure this ‘factor’ works as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, this ‘factor’ is an educational professional who should (ideally) have scope for judgement and discretion.

Biesta argues that teacher judgement is essential, and that current ‘learnification’ language and discourses around learning impact on the theory and practice of education in negative ways.

He suggests we refocus the discussion on to the normative question of “good” education. ‘Learnification’ frames the purpose of education as students learning, but this is insufficient and potentially misleading. The purpose of education is that students learn something for a reason from someone; education involves content, purpose and relationships. Of these three elements, the purpose of education is the most fundamental one

for the simple reason that if we do not know what it is we are seeking to achieve with our educational arrangements and endeavours, we cannot make any decisions about the content that is most appropriate and the kind of relationships that are most conducive.

The purpose of education, Biesta suggests, is multidimensional, functioning in three domains: 

  • qualification: “the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, skills and dispositions.”
  • socialisation: the representation and initiation of children in cultural, professional, political, and religious traditions and ways of being, for example in the ways that education reproduces [or challenges] existing social structures, divisions and inequalities
  • subjectification: “the way in which children and young people come to exist as subjects of initiative and responsibility rather than as objects of the actions of others” through the positive and negative impacts of education

Although we can distinguish between the three domains of purpose, they cannot really be separated.

Biesta complains that the narrow emphasis on achievement, falling in the domain of qualification, applies excessive pressure on both students and teachers to perform, with the result that the impacts on subjectification are exceedingly negative, particularly in cultures where failure is not an option.

Therefore, the role of teacher judgement is central to maintaining a balance between the three domains. The concrete question of how to do this plays out in the classroom, and in relation to each individual student. While the three domains of purpose may be balanced synergistically, it is also possible for domains to be in conflict, too. These judgements of balance and of trade-offs are necessary in addition to judgements of pedagogy, curriculum, classroom organisation, et cetera. Judgements made by the teacher, often in new, unique, and concrete situations, must be pragmatic and depend crucially upon their purpose. Thus, at different times, education does need to be flexible and personalised, or strict and structured. In some cases, it needs to be student-centred, while in others it needs to be driven by the curriculum or by the teacher (or both).

“What works” in education only works for a particular purpose or set of purposes. For example, Hattie’s meta-analyses highlight evidence for what works for a single purpose: academic achievement, which is a narrow aspect of the domain of qualification. Such assertions are also limited by the research available. The problem with discussing “effectiveness” is that it is of value only for particular purposes; we must ask the desirability of those purposes.

Similarly, “excellence” in education is a problematic discussion because it leads to a competitive mindset. Biesta suggests that

the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

Biesta moves on to argue that the current discourses and policies around teachers and education limit rather than enhance the scope for professional teacher judgement.

If education requires judgement, and if this judgement is ‘of the teacher,’ then it would follow that teachers have ample space and opportunity to exercise such judgement.

Professions are specialised areas of work that promote human wellbeing, require highly specialised knowledge and skills, and function in relationships of authority and trust. Professions, he argues, must be regulated internally rather than ruled externally. Accountability is important in reducing authoritarian operations and interactions, however, extended democratisation and movements towards accountability risk achieving the opposite through the erosion of responsible professionalism.

For example, the movement towards viewing the student as a customer risks distorting the purpose and function of education. Giving extensive emphasis to the voice of the student as a consumer of education may not actually enhance education because

the voice of the student and the voice of the teacher are very different voices that come with different responsibilities and expectations.

It is a case of students not knowing what they do not know, and thus being unable to judge their own needs from education accurately (although they may express desires, and some of these desires may be met by education).

Further, Biesta argues that the current bureaucratic form of accountability focuses on easily measurable outputs and indicators, for the purposes of measurement and control. Bureaucratic forms of accountability value what can be measured, rather than measure what should be valued. Democratic forms of accountability would engage in substantive exchanges between professionals and stakeholders about what good education is and what the parameters for identifying good education are.

On the topic of “what works”, Biesta posits that the

logic of making education ‘work’ is often based on quasi-causal assumptions about the dynamics of educational processes and practices rather than on the acknowledgement that education ‘works’ through language and interpretation, meaning-giving and meaning-making, and thus through processes of communication and encounter.

Finally, Biesta suggests the following strategies for reclaiming teacher professionalism:

  • observation of current developments in education for what they are, rather than what they pretend to be;
  • engagement in “a detailed analysis and critique of the ways in which the space for professional judgement is being constructed and confined”;
  • discussion of the purpose of education and definition of “good” education, leading to a clear consensus on what the profession is about;
  • developing an account of education for more than just learning and that teaching is about more than the facilitation of learning; and
  • maintain an educationally meaningful balance between the domains of qualification, socialisation and subjectification.
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