Why is everyone an expert on education?

politics of ed

Image Source: Tyack, David (1974). The One Best System. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 286 (Thank you Jon Becker!)

Everyone is an expert on education and its particular, dominant subset – school. Everyone who has either attended school, taught at school, had their kids at school, managed school, funded school, even avoided school knows what school does. Unlike any other public institution, we can quickly produce an opinion on what schools should and shouldn’t do. Scores of politicians, business leaders or (other) powerful pundits who arrive on the scene claim the credential of knowing how to run schools. Many of these self-proclaimed experts are widely interviewed and financially supported, many more ignored beyond their personal sphere of influence.

But just why are we all ‘experts’ with a more or less considerate opinion on how things should be with schools and education?

Short answer: If we presume we are constituted, built of what we ‘know’, then we don’t only KNOW a lot about school, we ARE school. School is not (just) an institution, it is a particular way of thinking and knowing we are attached to. And because we can’t imagine anything different, we get cornered into dead-ends of ‘solutions’ that substantially change – very little.

Now for the long answer and explanation…

This is the first in a series of posts, collaboratively co-written by Ira Socol, teacher and educational researcher at Michigan State University, Dr Greg Thompson, lecturer in education at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia and myself, a high school classroom teacher. In this series, we hope to explore the main ideas that make schooling and with it the broader process of education such a powerful, almost monolithic system that so many people are itching to and want to change, yet it has not substantially changed for the last 250 years despite an enormous amount of effort and investment worldwide.

Each of the posts will have a central theme, through which we will try to answer the starting question: “Why is everyone an expert on education?” The themes will try to round specific ways of conceiving education and with it schooling. We posit that it is these ways of thinking we are all ‘experts’ in that are largely responsible for locking us into mostly fruitless debate and superficial change.

The first post (published) will look at the view of education as a science. In this view, education and with it schooling is a scientific, measurable, rational pursuit craving the certainty and with it ‘improvement’ of atomistic parts that make the whole. This view bears statements like “if we could only know, measure and improve this part the whole system would be better off”.

In the second post (published), we will reflect on the view of education as production. This is a corollary of the scientific view and drives the ‘alignment’ of economic and educational system (“because education prepares students for workforce we all want to participate in, we should do this…”).

The third post will draw on the first two and look at education as competition. Education is a positional good and with that comes the language and ideology of competition, thus ordering people on their ‘merits’ (“because I want my child to get a head start I want them to go to the best school possible. This is what a good school is…”).

In the fourth post, we will critique education as (a use of) technology. Technology, and particularly digital technology of the past decade, has been seen by many as an ‘agent of progress’ that could prove false, useless, even damaging. Equally, it can swing the other way and genuinely help as indeed one of the most promising agents of change (“If only teachers could get on board and use more technology in their classroom…”).

In trying to answer the posed essential question (Why is everyone an expert in education?), we will look at where these beliefs come from, how they may be (in)appropriate, (mis)guided and what sort of difficulties they might have been causing.

Finally, and in a fine oxymoronic fashion (because we are ‘experts 🙂 ), we will offer our own re-think of schooling, even education. We will attempt to do so at the ontological level, re-imagining not just what and how should be known and taught, but interrogating the very concepts of ‘school’, ‘teacher’, ‘student’ and alike, what they ARE and what difference such interrogation and re-imagining could make.  For example, if one-on-one tutoring and mentoring produces best results for (young) people we are trying to educate, we probably don’t need more ‘traditional’ teachers. Instead of such measure (surely cost prohibitive, if nothing else), we could perhaps rethink what/who IS a ‘teacher’ in the community and what difference would such re-thinking possibly make.

Sounds a little vague? A bit like some existing ideas? Uncertain? Unsure? Unusual? Fallible? Hopeful? You bet, like some of the most treasured things, people and ideas in our lives!

We are doing this to imagine and argue for something helpful and unapologetically on the side of the younger generations. Importantly, the word ‘helpful’ comes with a disclaimer – we are not certain of the ends of this help, merely the intent of our effort and ideas.

And since we assume we are ALL experts on education, we would love to hear from you all along. This is largely why we are not writing a more ‘static’ academic paper but a blog post (series), with a chance for all to hear and learn from different views.

Why do YOU think everyone is an expert on education? We look forward to the conversations, so feel free to have your say in the comments section below.

PS Since we are working across jobs, continents and timezones, the posts may not be delivered with metronomic frequency. Feel free to subscribe to the posts and comments to have them delivered to you as they appear, or perhaps follow us (@irasocol @gfthommo and @lasic) on Twitter or other social media.

17 thoughts on “Why is everyone an expert on education?”

  1. I think that everyone is an ‘expert’ on education because we have all been through the education system. It’s like having a conversation with someone about a technical process that is part of your job, yet if they don’t have any prior knowledge of what it is that you do then they aren’t really involved in the conversation. Education is something that we all ‘know’ about even if there are many aspects of it that we don’t know that we don’t know about as opposed to what we know and what we know that we don’t know. (I hope that makes sense)

    Education debates are ones that will take arguments from all sorts, ranging from teachers themselves, to parents, to business leaders and last but definitely not least, the politicians. Somewhere along the line, students are forgotten. It’s great to hear how curriculums are meant to be student-centred, yet how many of that is actually true? I know that there are a number of my colleagues who do a great job in empowering the students and really getting some learning out of them, especially yourself, Tomaz. Yet, that is unfortunately the exception to the rule right now and yes, it has been for 250 years as you have mentioned.

    Fantastic post today, really looking forward to the next installment. Keep up the great work.

  2. This is a very personal response to the themes outlined in the post.

    I first started educating others in a formal sense in my mid-40s, and my first reaction with my first class was one of great apprehension. My teaching style was based at that time on the wonderful people that had been teaching me at that time, and I have since come to formulate my own theories of what it takes to successfully transfer knowledge and understanding between individuals, a.k.a. “teaching”.

    It never occurred to me that I was ever an “expert” in education. My experiences while I was learning to teach (and I am still learning, meanwhile) have simply confirmed my initial belief.

    In my view, one of the major functions of society is to empower those who are new to that society to be able to function in it as it is at the time and as it is most likely to be in the future (a.k.a. “schooling”). Those people who are new to a society are usually children. However, newcomers to a society also include refugees, for example. There are other empowering functions that any civilised society needs to undertake, such empowering those who are changing their career for whatever reason (a.k.a. “adult education”).

    Given the above, society needs to organise itelf in such a way that the empowerment of its members can happen. There are a number of words that are used to describe that empowering process, and those that come immediately to mind are schooling, teaching, educating and training, and these typically happen in schools, colleges, universities and in the workplace.

    It is in the light of the above comments that I look forward to reading the forthcoming posts. My thanks go to Tomaz Lasic, Ira Socol and Dr Greg Thompson for putting in their efforts! 🙂

  3. @Simon

    Sounded like Donald Rumsfeld there a little Simon 🙂 but I certainly get what you are saying – would not be writing this otherwise. Yes, we are so soaked in a particular view of education ubiquitous around the world (we may have many differences with say North Korea but I bet their classrooms are one of the things that look kinda same as ours) that we have difficulty imagining something else, even asking ‘why would we’?

    @ Phil

    First of all, you my friend are an inspiration, an open mind to treasure. I don’t know too many long-time teachers like you, sharp and ‘with it’ after all these years. Hats off (yes, that’s the ego stroke part).

    I think you will find just about all our post will carry a message of empowerment, which, as you rightly point out, education can be a great agent of. We will look at how our positions in and on these views on education place us in the societies we live in (at least the ones we are familiar with, can’t speak for the world).

    I hope we haven’t talked it up too much… 🙂

    Thank you both for your ideas and ‘stay tuned’.

  4. I notice that the word “learning” is absent from this first article in your series. Education is a process that sometimes results in learning. We need a new process that always results in learning, in every kid — and in everyone who helps kids learn.

  5. @ Byron

    A very good point Byron – learning is indeed essential to everyone, ‘learning’ (of certain, approved type & content) also legitimises the whole enterprise of education.

    Our series will look at not (just) how & what we learn but perhaps more at how does what we learn position us, what do we become in the society we live in (we do position ourselves too, we are not powerless to do so). ‘Becoming’ here refers to more than a professional title (eg a doctor, teacher etc). There is a lot more to education than learning what the curriculum says then passing a test and getting a title.

    We are thinking of ‘unpacking’ education (messy business!) and firstly see why is it that we always get cornered into these dead-ends where we think we will ‘move with the times’, perhaps be more just, rigorous or whatever the cart we are pushing, yet the big picture just doesn’t change.

    I hope this will make more sense as we go along. Thanks for your reminder and look forward to your future contributions to this conversation. Cheers!

  6. Hi Tomaz,

    Thanks for a great article. It certainly got me thinking about how education has changed…

    …it has not substantially changed for the last 250

    Well, as a private tutor I can certainly agree that one-on-one tuition is certainly not a new thing (there are female members of the Wild family who were governesses in the 1800’s, so I guess I’m following a long family tradition… except that I’m a man, obviously). But back then classrooms used the monitor system, which is obviously very different from the system we are using today.

    There are a couple of really good books describing how education has changed over the past hundred years or so and, IMHO, it’s changed much more radically than we all realise:

    Trevor May’s “The Victorian Classroom” – which is a fascinating read.

    Another gem is “Three Times Table: The Diary of an English Village School 1863-1948” by John Boynton. I’ve a feeling this book out of print – which is a pity. Head teachers in state funded schools here in the UK had to keep a journal and this is one such journal from a village school, covering the dates in question. The school (Cutnall Green First School) is actually still open – and not far from where I grew up, in fact.

    Apologies if these thoughts/suggestions are slightly off-topic but I think it’s well worth considering where we are coming from with classroom education if we are to consider where we are going to.

    Looking forward to the next articles.


  7. Oops…

    That should have said “…it has not substantially changed for the last 250 years”.

    Good job I don’t teach English 🙂


  8. How courageous to tackle such a question!

    From an existentialist’s perspective, yes we are all experts from our own contexts and perspectives. No one can dispute one’s own experience and since we’ve all experienced education (what I deem a lucky thing), we are all experts in our educational experience. Further, I think it’s a fairly common perception that a teacher is one who ‘knows’ and therefore teach. More modern thinking on this is a teacher as a facilitator – yes, still one who knows the way enough to show it.

    I find it fascinating that you take an ontological approach. Firstly, there is a focus on be-ing, existence, experience and everything that goes with that. Secondly, an ontological approach necessitates asking questions – what does being an expert mean? What does being an expert with other experts mean (be-ing in the world with others who are also busy be-ing). Thirdly, it is such a humble approach despite the initial assumption that we are experts – is this part of the oxymoron bit? Fourthly, it has stirred up memories of my Philosophy class, not the least of which, “I know that I do not know” …isn’t this a powerful platform from where learning begins?

    So with that, I wish you luck on this ‘journey’. Enjoy the journey and whereever it may lead.

  9. A recent article by Howard Gardner makes a good point regarding why education “expertise” is so diverse:

    “Where education differs from most professions is in the contentiousness that surrounds so many of its activities. Medicine, law, accounting, engineering, and architecture all involve value judgments; however, the core values of these professions are not particularly controversial, except perhaps among those who are intimately involved in its practice or critique. In contrast, education is driven by fundamental questions of value on which nearly all citizens have strong and often inconsistent opinions. For example, consider the rival goals of preparation for citizenship; preparation for the workplace; mastery of the great traditions of the past; training for the unknown future; a focus on academics, the arts, or athletics. One can find defenders and critics in every hamlet. As I have sometimes quipped, how in the United States, could we ever come up with an educational agenda that would please Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura?” (Mind, Brain, & Education, vol. 3, no.2, June 2009, p. 69, “An Education Grounded in Biology: Interdisciplinary and Ethical Considerations.”)

    I look forward to exploring this topic via the posts of this thoughtful team!

  10. Educational experts, or skilled practitioners?
    I am not an educational expert. I am educated. I am a learner, a lifelong learner. I have become skilled in learning, in assembling knowledge, in seeking further knowledge. I have a graduate degree in education. I understand the educational theories and strategies. I believe that education is empowerment. Education is change, social change. I do not have THE answer. I help search for solutions, I partner with and collaborate with those seeking and participating in education. I am a companion on the educational voyage or journey.
    I am a practitioner. I support education. I ask questions, I engage people in a dialogue. I collaborate with others. Knowing that the ends of education are fluid and dynamic, I seek to create an environment where all succeed, as all are able to succeed. I provide options, informed options, that may be used in education.
    I am a servant-leader. I serve the process of education. I work to create an environment that is appropriately structured for the learner, the learning, and the learned. I am a resource, an asset, a facilitator and a collaborator for the educator. Realizing that the process of education may change, I am prepared to provide leadership in a paradigm that shifts. I have many resources, and access to a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be used to transform the educational experience.
    An expert? No. An educator? A teacher? Or someone who is genuinely concerned and committed to education. I am concerned and committed to education.

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  12. “The literal translation of educate is to draw out of, lead out of, etc. The Romans considered educating to be synonymous with drawing knowledge out of somebody or leading them out of regular thinking. The Romans developed the noun, educatio from the verb educare.” http://www.babeled.com/2008/11/27/

    We’ve complicated the process of drawing knowledge out of somebody a bit, don’t you think? I think we’ve added in training them how to be good soldiers and employees, which is frequently contradictory to the notion that knowledge is already resident in the human being whom we’re educating.

  13. @Dan

    Pretty much Dan. Further in this series, we will develop exactly some of the things you’ve just mentioned – obsession with technicality, loss of relationship, lack of meaning & obsession with technicalities are driving us away from the (the Roman verb) ‘educare’. You may want to look in the second post in the series that critiques the view of education as a science http://human.edublogs.org/2009/09/24/still-waiting-for-eureka/

    Thanks for your input, appreciated.

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