Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Jack Mezirow and Transformation Theory

The idea of transformative learning came up in discussions today with partner organisations. This reminded me of Prof. Jack Mezirow, who is widely acknowledged as founding the ‘transformative learning’ concept and a worthy member of this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Prof Jack Merizow

Prof Jack Merizow

Mezirow first applied the label ‘transformation’ in a 1978 study of U.S.women returning to post-secondary study or the workplace after an extended time out of education. He built his professional reputation on developing an evolving Transformation Theory that tries to define the features and processes of learning and their implications for adult educators. His work has led to a transformative learning movement in adult education. Other great educational thinkers including Thomas Kuhn, Paulo Freire and Jürgen Habermas all influenced Mezirow’s work.

One of his main areas of work on transformative learning has been the division of knowledge into three distinct types:

• Instrumental
• Communicative
• Emancipatory

Educators consider that gaining instrumental and communicative knowledge are the most common types of technical and practical learning.

Instrumental learning is the simple attainment of skills and knowledge. Communicative knowledge depends on students understanding the meaning of what is being communicated. Emancipatory knowledge is much deeper and is based on the idea that everyone has the potential to break free from the limitations of their own situation to transform their own life.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…

In the WEA we see the distinctions between teaching subjects, where the outcome is increased knowledge, and teaching students so that they learn how to learn, where the outcomes are multi-faceted, longer-lasting and can be life-changing. The types of learning don’t exclude each other and students can benefit from emancipatory and transformative learning while they are studying specific subjects.

Mezirow suggests transformations come about due to one of four ways:

• Elaborating existing frames of reference
• Learning new frames of reference
• Transforming points of view
• Transforming habits of the mind

Born in 1927 and now retired, Professor Mezirow has been a consultant in adult literacy and community development for UNDP, UNESCO, U.S. AID, USIA, Asia Foundation and World Education in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

There’s a brief and balanced post on Mezirow at with more detail and there’s a lot of information online about Mazirow’s ‘phases of transformative learning’.

The term ‘instructor‘ seems to be at odds with the concept, but the bullet-pointed appendices on the webpage at are interesting. They summarise the characteristics and roles of instructors, students, course content and learning envornments which facilitate transformational learning, together with professional challenges and ethical considerations for instructors facilitating transformational learning.

Any thoughts or more information on Mezirow’s work or transformational learning?

Who’s next for the Hall of Fame? Any suggestions, or even guest blogs?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Edinburgh women

Here are links to 13 extraordinary women whose contributions to education earn them a collective place in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame. They feature in a 2013 calendar called, Inspiring Edinburgh Women who advanced the cause of education in Scotland.

The calendar is available online at and has brief but informative biographies of each of the women in clickable links for each month.

Members and learners of the WEA Lothian Women’s Forum researched and compiled the calendar. The Forum is a self-organising student group of the WEA concerned with planning and organising women’s education workshops, classes and activities in Edinburgh and the Lothians

It’s worth clicking on the link to start with the striking cover photograph of WEA voluntary member Evelyn Muir who is pictured with the WEA Edinburgh and Lothian banner. Liz Beevers took the photograph as groups from across Scotland gathered at the Meadows in Edinburgh on 10th October 2009 to re-enact the 1909 Women’s Suffrage Procession.

The other featured women are:

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville 1780-1872 – “Queen of 19th century science” – Science writer and polymath (January)
Mary Burton 1819-1909 – Educational and social reformer (February)
Naomi Mitchison 1897-1999 – Writer, politician and matriarch (March)
Priscilla Bright McLaren 1815-1906 – Women’s rights campaigner and mother and stepmother to activists (April)
Phoebe Anna Traquair 1852-1936 – Free spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement (May)
E B K (Kitty) Gregorson ARCM MBE 1903-2004 – Music Teacher who inspired generations (June)
Dame Anne McLaren 1927-2007 – Pioneering scientist and campaigner (July)
Chrystal Macmillan 1872-1937 – Campaigner for women’s equality (August)
Sarah Elizabeth Siddons Mair DBE LLD 1846-1941- Pioneer, higher education of women (September)
Frances Melville MA BD LLD OBE 1873 – 1962 – Ambassador of women’s education and suffragist (October)
Anna Morton Geddes 1857–1917 – Music teacher, soulmate and partner in Patrick Geddes’ projects (November)
Joyce Connon OBE – Adult education leader and WEA Scottish Secretary, 1991-2012 (December)

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – John Hattie

I’m including John Hattie in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame because of his reputation for research into positive influences on students’ learning. He was already a well-known academic when he made an international impact with his 2009 book, ‘Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement’.

Hattie Visible Learning

Visible Learning – 15 years of research
He based this book on the biggest ever collection of evidence-based research into the most important influences on school-aged students’ achievements. He considered many factors. These included the influence of home, school, curricula, teachers and teaching strategies. His findings are relevant to adult education too.

He analysed all the evidence that he had collected and ranked the various factors in order of their ‘effect-sizes’. Some of his variables, such as ‘feedback’ or ‘acceleration’ can mean different things to different people and Hattie explained them more fully in his narrative.

Hattie’s average effect-sizes
He used the following descriptions to explain ‘effect-size’ as used in the table below:
• An effect-size of 0.5 is equivalent to a one grade leap at GCSE
• An effect-size of 1.0 is equivalent to a two grade leap at GCSE
• ‘No. of effects’ is the number of well-designed studies producing effect-sizes that were averaged in the table’s right hand column.
• An effect-size above 0.4 is significant and above average for educational research.

This extract from a table of his findings shows some of the highest scoring factors that Hattie identified, ranked by their average effect-sizes. Some of his results seem to be highly significant given his explanation that a score greater than 0.5 can raise students’ GCSE grades. His analysis identifies feedback as being massively influential.


Hattie’s conclusions
Hattie is careful not to use his research to produce superficial ‘how to’ guides for teachers but he outlined some signposts to excellence in education in the last chapter of ‘Visible Learning’.

He came to important conclusions about the power of teachers and feedback, developing a model of teaching, learning and understanding based on his ideas of ‘visible teaching and visible learning’. He concluded that we need teachers who are empowered by being educated about how learning is best achieved and who are enthused about their position and responsibility in helping students to achieve as much as possible. He proposed that the best teachers have a powerful sense of personal agency and a belief in their ability to intervene and to make learning happen.

More recent work
Hattie continues to update his research and findings. He has written a follow-up book, ‘Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning’ and, in December 2011, he published an updated version of rankings in his table of classroom interventions based on 141 more meta-analyses, adding 14 more variables to his new list.

The highest new entry of high-scoring influences, in fourth place, was ‘teacher credibility’. This factor wasn’t listed in his original study.

“The key is the students’ perception that teachers have credibility in enhancing their learning,” he said. “Students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference to their learning. And teachers who command this credibility are most likely to make the difference.”

“The effects on achievement are high and the reason is that teachers who constantly show students they care, and know about the difference and impact they are having on them, are ‘visible’ and welcomed.”

About John Hattie
johnhattieJohn Hattie is a Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia and was until recently a Professor of Education at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. This is a very brief and basic introduction to his work, which is current and developing.

A feature in the Times Educational Supplement on 23 September, 2012 (} described Hattie as, “one of the most divisive figures in world education.” It went on to say that, “Opinion is split between those who know of the New Zealander and praise him as the author of teaching’s “holy grail”, and those who know of him and accuse him of being an “egotistical, self-serving” academic, too keen to bask in the limelight.” Strong stuff!

Some readers might have met John Hattie, heard him speak or been influenced by his work. Please feel free to add any further information or links to more resources – or to add your thoughts on the impact and usefulness of Hattie’s research in improving teaching, learning and assessment.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Paulo Freire

And so to Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a towering figure in adult education for social purpose.

Freire was the Brazilian educator, political philosopher and writer, best known for developing his highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He used his own experience to shape his educational practice, having suffered from poverty and hunger as a child and imprisonment and exile as an adult. He spoke movingly about how hunger had limited his own ability to learn in school – an issue that’s all too relevant for some children and schools today.

A persuasive man with an impressive intellect and strong convictions, he was determined that the world’s poor and exploited people should have better lives, especially in his native Brazil.

Freire believed that education has an essential role in relieving poverty and transforming lives. He developed methods of encouraging literacy while also raising social and political awareness through his educational work with impoverished Brazilians. He showed that oppressed people could become involved in democracy even if they hadn’t known about the concept before. He won poor people’s trust and attention, convincing them that they should and could have a say in the day-to-day decision-making that affected their lives.

Freire firmly opposed the idea that an education system should be like a bank, with students expected to withdraw specific types of knowledge that more powerful people had decided were necessary. (E.g. UK education policies of recent years?) Instead, he believed that there should be dialogue between the student and teacher and that the teacher should never impose their views of a problem on a student.

In Freire’s approach, literacy workers studied their students’ lives and derived a curriculum that promoted their sense of dignity and self-worth in their own knowledge. The educators encouraged students to develop literacy skills while they explored issues of exploitation, the meaning of culture and the power of written language through critical action learning. He and his colleagues created more than 20,000 ‘culture circles’ throughout Brazil using these principles. They worked on the basis that ‘understanding the world was as important as understanding the word’ and that students’ increased awareness of political matters could provide a basis for action to improve community wellbeing and resilience. (These concepts are highly relevant to the current review and development of the WEA’s curriculum .)

Freire proposed that the use of his ‘see-judge-act’ student-centred methods could raise critical consciousness and create change by inspiring students to:

  • see the systems that preserved injustice
  • judge the assumptions that maintained those social systems
  • act to achieve equality and democracy.

The Paulo Freire Institute was created in Sao Paulo in 1991. It brings scholars together to foster dialogue about new educational theories and interventions in a Freireian tradition.

Freire was a brilliant thinker and his ideas about education and society were original and effective, so it seems odd that his writing (or his translators’ interpretation) is unexpectedly complex for someone so interested in making ideas more accessible to the masses. Evidently he wasn’t a fan of dumbing down. He didn’t patronise the poor, but worked with them to broaden their horizons and to make sure that they could be involved actively in democratic processes.

This is a very condensed summary of Freire’s work. Please feel free to add any comments about his relevance to current educational policy developments at a time of austerity, pointers to other resources or any other thoughts on Freire’s contributions.

Pedagogy of the NEETs?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Robert Gagne, Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner

Here’s a guest blog by Mary Hunter. Mary has a voluntary role in our senior governance as the WEA’s Association Committee Representative from the West Midlands Region.

About Mary

I started teaching, after a career in banking, a few years after the publication of Gagne’s “Conditions of learning”. As a linguist I have been involved in the development of language courses, worked at the (then) Schools Council on the Normal and Further Level Proposals for a new Sixth form curriculum, so worked across the subject spectrum. Later I was heavily involved in developing with my colleagues courses  run under the aegis  of the City and Guilds, B/Tec , GNVQ s, CPVE – ie. working with Sixth formers on the more pre-vocational path. During two years work with the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative I worked extensively on the development of the relevant skills curriculum, providing courses for teachers .

I continued my involvement in these areas after my formal retirement and am currently doing some exciting work with colleagues on the curriculum for a new Free Vocational school to be set up in Herefordshire

Mary’s guest blog

As a contribution to Ann Walker’s blog on the great educational thinkers  I want to add three names; not quite so formidable or well-known  perhaps as  John Dewey, Piaget, Freire and Bloom, but who have seminally influenced my work as a teacher and who are therefore my heroes – Dr. Robert Gagne, Jerome Bruner and (latterly) Howard Gardner.  I would have added Benjamin Bloom, of course, but his slot is taken already.

I also want to provide a – dare I say it – more practical slant, trying to link the work of the three cognitive psychologists (and Bloom) to suggest that their educational thinking  is really very similar, and also to tell teachers and tutors that while they might not all know the work of my heroes they have been using their  insights and methodologies in their teaching all along!

(I have been researching on the Internet to get my information  and refresh my memory,  so I am assuming that readers will do the same. I shall not therefore do the pen portraits, concentrating on the practical aspect, including the issue of assessment).

Dr. Robert Gagne’s  main book is “The Conditions of Learning” (1965).

For Gagne there are FIVE types of learning, EIGHT  conditions of learning and NINE  “Learning Events”. This all sounds too much, but I assure you that you as teachers and tutors are using them regularly!

The five types of learning: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills and attitudes.

The eight conditions of learning: signal learning, stimulus –response learning, chaining, verbal association, discrimination learning, concept learning/formation, rule learning/application and problem solving (which involves using abstract, creative and strategic thinking to deal with new situations.)

This list of 8, in a hierarchy mirror the six in the Bloom Taxonomy set out clearly by Ann in her first blog

I.e. Learning,  understanding,  applying,  analysing,  evaluating and creating.

While the Gagne “Conditions of learning” might seem too constraining in some learning  contexts( though in my  foreign language teaching they have been the bedrock for my work), I feel that whatever activity we undertake we start with

Gathering information and making the relevant  selection, (discrimination) then we can organise and classify the information as appropriate to our topic, then understand   the material, analyse, then  synthesise the material, allowing us to form rules, learn to apply these rules and deduce principles which can be applied not just to the material at hand but to new material – and so the peak of the Bloom taxonomy – we problem solve!

Again, for most of you who are teachers and tutors, this is what you do in all your preparation and teaching. All I want to say here is that all this apparently high-sounding theory in fact is the basis for formative and summative assessment because the taxonomy/hierarchy makes it easier to develop the set of criteria needed for assessment which is fit for purpose.

And the 9 Learning events? You achieve these every time you prepare a lesson! They just sound over-complicated!

  1. Identify the types of learning outcomes;
  2. Identify  the internal conditions or processes  needed to achieve the outcomes;
  3. Identify the external conditions or instruction needed to achieve the outcomes;
  4. Specify the learning context;
  5. Record the characteristics of the learners;
  6. Select media for instruction;
  7. Plan to motivate learner;
  8. Test the instruction (i.e. via formative evaluation)
  9. Summative evaluation (to judge effectiveness of learning and teaching.)

A few quotes:”The assumption is  that  different types of learning exist and that different instructional conditions are more likely to bring about these different types of learning.” (This all seems obvious now, doesn’t it? And the work of Howard Gardner in postulating the 7 Intelligences confirm the significance of knowing not just the types of learning but crucially the types of learner!  Jerome Bruner would have agreed.)

“The focus of the theory is on the retention and honing of intellectual skills”.

Gagne (as Bloom) puts Problem Solving as the last of the 8 learning types, but this is not to say that  a young child cannot solve problems – which Jerome Bruner emphasises in his “Spiral Curriculum”. Nor does Problem Solving take place in a vacuum, devoid of content knowledge.

“The major condition for encouraging the learner to think is to be sure he already has something to think about”(!!) Learning by Problem Solving leads to new capabilities for further thinking. Included among these are not only the “higher-order” principles, but also “sets” and “strategies” that serve to determine the direction of thinking and therefore its productiveness”

His theories have been applied to the design of instruction in all fields, though originally his work was within a Military Training setting. (Which I only found out myself when doing this on-line research!)

The work of Jerome Bruner which I have known best is “Towards a Theory of Instruction” (1966).

Howard Gardner says that Bruner has in his books, “put forth his evolving ideas about the ways in which instruction actually affects the mental models of the world that students construct, elaborate on and transform”

A few relevant quotes from the internet will confirm how easily he sits within the other heroes bloggers have discussed, and how well he would have understand the WEA’s central  theme of education for social purpose.

“What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broader context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young. How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognise is a function of how one conceives of culture and its aims, professed and otherwise”.

His MACOS project (Man a Course of Study) sought to produce a comprehensive curriculum drawing upon the behavioural sciences. It is this programme of research which drew Howard Gardner to work with Bruner-so my three heroes are on the same wavelength!.

“Bruner suggested that intellectual ability developed in stages through step-by-step changes in how the mind is used. (His) thinking became increasingly influenced by writers like Lev Vygotsky and he began to be critical of the intrapersonal focus he has taken and the lack of attention paid to social and political context. “

In her introduction to the blog Ann said, inter alia,”Ofsted’s greater emphasis on teaching, learning and assessment (my emphasis) means that we need to show clearly that these activities are at the forefront of our planning and that we understand how to recognize good quality teaching and learning.”

Benjamin Bloom I have already incorporated into this blog. The group leadership models of Kurt Lewin sit well in the instructional framework of my thinkers, and the essential “two-way process” of education (viz. of learning) of Freire is implicit too. And Mary Hamilton’s “literacy as social practice” argument chimes in well with the work I have done particularly in the development of foreign language teaching, where the Gagne 8 conditions of Learning are an ideal basis for teaching, learning – and which provide the criteria for the assessment, formative and summative of the learning.

……………and this is another blog for those interested!

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Carol Dweck and motivation theory

Carol Dweck

Here’s another reflection about a thinker whose work influences teaching, learning and assessment in adult education. This time it’s Carol Dweck’s work on the theory of motivation.She has researched the effects of students’ beliefs about their own intelligence and how their views can affect their progress. She describes students who think that their intelligence is static as having an ‘entity’ view or a fixed mindset. She suggests that others, who believe that they can increase their intelligence through effort, have an ‘incremental’ view or a growth mindset.

In practice, her research suggests that teachers motivate students more effectively when they give feedback on the processes of learning and don’t link their assessment to the person’s assumed ability.

“That was a good way of working”, is more effective than, “You’re very clever.” A good teacher makes the link between effort and success instead of reinforcing the view that there’s a limit to what any student can achieve.

We learn by experiment and experience. We learn from what doesn’t work as well as from what does – so long as we’re not discouraged or told that we’re stupid. Allowing a student to think that they’re simply not bright enough to be successful is a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Teachers who are aware of Dweck’s research can motivate students by showing that:

  • our brains continue to develop and to grow connections – especially if they’re stretched and exercised;
  • we can improve results by putting in extra effort and trying different approaches.

Promoting a growth mindset gives students much more of a message of hope and possibility than confirming perceptions of fixed intelligence. I know from personal experience of being kept alive on artificial life support for a while in 2009 that brain function is far from fixed. It can be lost and it can be gained. Many of the gains come from other people’s expectations and encouragement.

The 2-minute video from the excellent Teachers’ Toolbox website explains Dweck’s motivation theory. This site has other useful video links for teachers.

Carol Dweck’s own website at: shows how motivation theory is relevant to many aspects of life.

Do you agree with her theory or not? What other factors might affect motivation and achievement? Thoughts and comments welcomed.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – More on John Dewey

A guest blog by Alison Iredale, Senior Lecturer at Oldham College

Alison Iredale

I am grateful for Ann’s previous post on John Dewey’s influence on learning (

In this post I want to offer a personal perspective related to his work on democracy and education. Some of this post appears in an article about Routinised Practices, part of my PhD thesis.

While researching Dewey at the start of my doctoral studies about 4 years ago I came across an address by Richard Pring, the soon to be retired Director of the Oxford Department of Educational Studies, to an Escalate conference in Glasgow in 2003. He recalled being blamed by Keith Joseph for the low standards in schools, due to teachers being introduced to the works of John Dewey in his department. Having just been knocked sideways professionally by Dewey’s writing myself after 20 years in vocational training and teaching I felt vindicated by my unease with the growth of standards driven education policy and processes in college based vocational education. I wondered whether the standards that Sir Keith Joseph said were falling were long in dire need of a good push. This went against all my training as a vocational teacher hitherto, where the discourse of standards and criteria dominated my teaching and my CPD.

As a teacher and trainer slurping the alphabet soup of CPVE, YTS, NVQ, GNVQ and BEC in the 80’s and 90’s I failed to question the underlying inequalities of narrowly focused quasi-skills criteria, preferring the certainties of the well constructed and cross referenced NVQ portfolio ‘owned’ by the candidate and ‘signed off’ by the internal verifier. Dewey, a pragmatist just like me, revealed that education was part of the democratic ideal, an imperative, and fundamental to the growth of an individual and society. I thought that I already endeavoured to promote transformative learning by taking risks in my lessons, introducing my students to collaborative working, new technology, and experts from the ‘real world of work’. Yet I was doing this generally within a confident, safe, collaborative, democratic, and supportive environment back then. Now, as a teacher educator I observe my own developing teachers basing their pragmatism and pedagogic decisions upon adequacy, compliance and capability because of the precarious, insecure labour conditions prevalent in the lifelong learning sector.

Central to Dewey’s writing is the notion of a democratic education. Laurence Stott (1995:31) describes his philosophy thus:

“Surely Dewey was right that humankind is implicated in an organic-material world open to intelligent and creative scientific research.

I like the word ‘implicated’ in this quotation, particularly as it suggests that I must take responsibility for my contribution to the inculcation of new teachers in the lifelong learning sector.

Dewey has been both castigated and revered, often in the same breath, by those wishing to influence educational values at a political and philosophical level. A pivotal notion surrounds his argument for growth as an end in itself, rather than growth towards a pre-determined end. Human beings recreate beliefs, ideals, hopes, happiness, misery, and practices and when individuals in a social group eventually pass away, through education the social group continues (Dewey 1916:6). This suggests to me an emphasis on education as an imperative.

Education, defined by Dewey as transmission through communication, not only ensures continuity of existence, but existence itself.  He argued strongly for experience to be favoured over instruction, in that whereas all genuine education derives from experience, not all experience is positive in the sense of being able to take an individual forward educationally. He was particularly interested in the nature of reflection, and the non-linear process of learning. Indeed for Dewey, reflection is about problem solving -the embodiment of learning as a holistic activity, taking into account the accumulated experiences of both parties.

“An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment, whether the latter consists of persons with whom he is talking about some topic or event, the subject talked about being also a part of the situation; or the toys with which he is playing; the book he is reading […..]; or the materials of an experiment he is performing.” (Dewey, 1938:43-44).

I return to Stott’s final words on Dewey’s influence in North America:

‘Dewey’s educational experiment-revolution designed to bring democracy to North America has not been successful: its humanistic promises lie unfulfilled, and classroom group activities can be even more oppressive and less growthful than superior class instruction. Education is at the crossroads’. (1995:32)

I find his conclusion troubling when viewed through the lens of the dominant discourses emanating from this coalition government.


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963)

Iredale, A. (2012) Down the rabbit-hole: Routinised Practices, Dewey and Teacher Training in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning, 2:1.

Stott, L (1995) ‘Dewey a Disaster?’ International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 18: 1, 27 — 33

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Richard Henry Tawney

This is a guest blog by Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s General Secretary

Ruthe Spellman, WEA General Secretary

My vote for educational influencers would probably go to RH Tawney for all the reasons why I applied to become General Secretary of the WEA, and why I have had a lifetime’s commitment to improving access to learning.One of my favourite quotes from Tawney;“The purpose of the association is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.”

The quote has huge resonance today as more and more of our language and discourse is dominated by the need to re-examine short term returns, short term profits, short term gratification for the consumer, short term windfalls and bonuses.  Education (as Tawney reminds us) is a longer term investment enabling us to participate in and benefit from the huge technological advances of the 20 century.  To use our inventiveness and creativity and channel our energy into positive outcomes for our society as well as our economy.  Reading the testimony of men and women who have been students, tutors and volunteers for the WEA over 100 years I am forced to agree with Mary Turner (1921 -1989) who was a hugely prolific advocate of the WEA in the North West she said “In terms of interest on investment, the WEA does a lot better that the stock market”

Richard Henry Tawney, former President of the WEA

The Wikipedia entry on Tawney is at and there’s more information at

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sonia Nieto

Sonia Nieto is an inspiring educational thinker. Much of her writing is relevant to adult education although her experience is as a teacher-educator and classroom teacher in the American public (state) school system.

I really liked this section from page 76 of her book, What Keeps Teachers Going? (Sonia Nieto. New York: Teachers’ College Press, 2003). She describes the characteristics that we value in our WEA tutors.

(If you’re new to this, pedagogy means the art or science of being a teacher.)

Quoted text from Sonia Nieto (with the author’s kind permission)

“Good teachers think deeply and often about the craft of teaching and the process of learning. They are not simply technicians who know how to write good lesson plans and use collaborative groups effectively, although this is also part of what they do. Above all, excellent teachers are engaged every day in intellectual work, the kind of serious undertaking that demands considerable attention and thought. They devote substantial time and energy to their teaching and, over time, they develop extensive expertise and confidence in the work they do. Henry Giroux has defined teachers as intellectuals in this way: “in order to function as intellectuals, teachers must create the ideology and structured conditions necessary for them to write, research , and work with each other in producing curricula and sharing power…. As intellectuals, they will combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students with the skills and knowledge needed to address injustices and to be critical actors committed to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation.”

All good teachers, whether they consciously carry out research or not, are researchers in the broadest sense of the word. This is because good teachers are also learners, and they recognise that they need to keep learning throughout their careers if they are to improve. They probe their subject matter, constantly searching for material that will excite and motivate their students; they explore pedagogy to create a learning environment that is both rigorous and supportive; they talk with their colleagues about difficult situations. Above all, they value the intellectual work that is at the core of teaching.”

Further thoughts? 

  • How can we tell the difference between a teacher who is an intellectual and one who is a ‘technician’?
  • Does this approach apply to other jobs and roles (especially in the WEA?)
  • Why might the difference matter to students and to society?
  • Has a tutor inspired you with an intellectual approach?

There’s more information about Sonia Nieto at


Thanks for various emails responding to this thread, including one from Phill O’Brien from the WEA’s North West Region who sent this link to teaching and learning resources: