Importance of a Good Education

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GOOD EDUCATION: WHAT IT IS AND WHY WE NEED IT Inaugural Lecture Professor Gert Biesta The Stirling Institute of Education 4th March 2009

GOOD EDUCATION: WHAT IT IS AND WHY WE NEED IT Inaugural Lecture Professor Gert Biesta The Stirling Institute of Education 4th March 2009, 5.00-6.00 Introduction The topic I have chosen for this lecture is ‘good education.’ By using the phrase ‘good education’ – and not, for example, effective education, successful education or excellent education – I wish to make it clear from the outset that I am dealing with a normative question. In my view questions about education always raise normative issues and therefore always require value judgements, i.e., judgements about what we consider to be desirable. In plural democracies like ours we should not expect that there will only be one answer to the question as to what constitutes good education. It rather is a sign of a healthy democracy that there are ongoing discussions about the purpose and direction of such a crucial common endeavour as education. After all, education is not simply a private good; it is also – and in my view first and foremost – a public good and therefore a matter of public concern. Education, in its widest sense, is about how we welcome ‘newcomers’1 into our worlds. It therefore raises important questions about how we (re)present our worlds to newcomers – something which involves selection, choice and judgement. One reason why I consider it important to pay attention to the question as to what constitutes good education has to do with recent tendencies in policy, research and practice that seem to suggest that this question no longer matters or, to be more precise, that seem to suggest that this question can be resolved without engaging in discussions about value and purpose. One of these tendencies is the rise of an international ‘league-table industry’ which is increasingly influencing education policy at national and local level. Studies such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and, most notoriously, OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), generate a never-ending stream of comparative data that are supposed to tell us which educational systems are better and which are best. Although there is nothing against attempts to make such judgements, the problem with league-tables is that they give the impression that the data can speak for themselves. As a result, the deeper question whether such studies indeed measure what we value or create a situation in which we are valuing what is or can be measured, is easily forgotten. Whether a high score on TIMMS, PIRLS or PISA does indeed indicate good education is an entirely open question that crucially depends on what we expect from education. And even if we were to accept the validity of such measures, there are always further questions about the material and immaterial costs involved in achieving a high score, both for individual students and for the educational system as a whole.


I use the term ‘newcomers’ to refer to anyone who is new in a particular situation. The category of ‘newcomer’ therefore includes children, immigrants, but also those who are new in relation to a particular trade or profession, such as student hairdressers, student teachers, and so on. Elsewhere I have made a case for seeing the idea of ‘coming into the world’ as a fundamental education category. (see Biesta 2006).


A second tendency that has contributed to the marginalisation of questions about good education can be found in calls for turning education into an evidence-based profession based on research knowledge about ‘what works.’2 Again, I do think that to a certain extent it can be useful to examine the effectiveness of particular educational practices and procedures, as long as one bears in mind that in the social domain there are at most probabilistic...
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