Educational philosophy and theory: Priorities and new directions for research

Educational philosophy and theory

The editorial team of Philosophical Inquiry in Education, Bruce Maxwell, Lauren Bialystok, Kevin McDonough and David Waddington, outline their views on promising new directions for research in educational philosophy and theory

Like philosophy itself, the field of educational philosophy is notoriously difficult to define even, if not especially, for the very people working in it. Other areas of educational research are more straightforwardly delineated in terms of a characteristic object of inquiry. Researchers in mathematics education, for example, investigate matters relating to how that subject is taught and learned in schools and researchers in teacher education study the acquisition of professional competencies among new and experienced teachers.

What unifies scholarship in educational philosophy and theory is something more abstract: a commitment to a particular mode of inquiry. Philosophers of education tend to explore fundamental questions that touch on meaning, value and purpose in education and pursue the answers to such questions using the tools of critical inquiry and argumentation.

During the early years of its history as a distinct area of scholarship, expounding and developing what great thinkers of the past had to say about education was the bread and butter of educational philosophy. This orientation was largely driven by the demands of teacher education programmes, which generally considered that exposure to the “classics” was an essential part of the professional socialisation of future teachers.

As teacher education has evolved in recent decades, the philosophy of education has changed with it. “Modern” educational philosophy has coalesced into four discernible thematic areas which, taken together, embrace the research activities of the vast majority of scholars who identify as philosophers of education.

Roughly in the order that they emerged historically from the 1960s on, these areas are:

Analysis of the language of education. What began as a project to clarify fundamental questions about education (e.g., what is an educated person?) by clarifying the meaning of words, the quest for coherence in the language of education is now more likely to consist in subjecting to critical scrutiny terms that have gained currency in educational discourse (e.g., constructivism, brain-based education).

Critical pedagogy. Drawing on intellectual currents in the social sciences and humanities such as critical race theory, Marxism and postmodernism, this approach to educational philosophy applies a critical lens to educational questions to unmask forms of identity-based discrimination and other social injustices perpetrated by educational institutions.

Politics and ethics of education. Primarily concerned with how educational philosophy can contribute to public debates around policy and ethics, thinkers associated with this approach gravitate towards two broad issues: the proper aims of citizenship education in liberal democratic societies (autonomy? patriotism? civic engagement?) or the ethical analysis of policy options and other ethically laden questions facing teachers, educational leaders and parents. Such questions include school choice, banning religious clothing in schools and “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies.

History of educational thought. The philosophers of education who continue in this tradition are inclined to reinvent the history of educational ideas as a dialogue between education’s past and present, either by seeking to uncover insights from the work of philosophers of the past that can shed new light on contemporary educational questions or by turning to such writings to retrieve valuable ways of thinking about education that have been lost or forgotten.

Prognosticating about the future of any field of scholarly inquiry inevitably involves making uncertain distinctions between passing trends and stable tendencies. The philosophy of education, like other areas of the humanities, is highly subject to both occasional enthusiasms for particular authors and peaks of interest in issues determined by the ambient political climate. As editors of Philosophical Inquiry in Education, a philosophy of education journal with a deliberately open and inclusive editorial policy, we are regularly exposed to new work emanating from all four of the thematic areas described above. From this vantage point, we see two recent shifts in scholarly activity that already show signs of shaping the contours of research in educational philosophy and theory.

The first of these is assigning greater importance to public engagement. Bringing to bear a philosophical perspective on current educational issues has always been a concern in work on educational policy and ethics. However, recent years have seen philosophers of education being more pragmatic in the choice of questions to address and finding ways to write about ethical and policy issues that can make educational philosophy accessible to decision makers and educators.

Two notable recent examples are Amy Shuffelton and Bryan Warnick’s work on gun violence in schools and Doris Santoro’s work on teacher burnout.

Paralleling a similar development in mainstream philosophy, a second promising direction for research in the philosophy of education involves a new appreciation of how the philosophical perspective can be enriched through greater integration with empirical work. In the past, philosophers of education were largely expected to engage primarily with the work of other philosophers and to eschew empirical inquiry.

Today, we find philosophers of education increasingly attentive to how appropriately designed empirical studies can complement the traditional activities of conceptual analysis and social critique. The finest recent example of this approach may be Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess’s investigations into teaching about controversial issues in schools, which has won accolades for breathing new life into old debates about teacher neutrality.


Bruce Maxwell, PhD

Associate Professor of Education

Co-editor of Philosophical Inquiry in Education

University of Quebec Trois-Rivières


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