There can be few subjects, if any, that experience as great a degree of internal dissension as education. All disciplines, of course, have their tensions, to do with their scope, theoretical persuasion, methodology, application or other aspects of their practice. Academic life is a disputatious affair, and the historical longevity of the university as an institution may be due partly to the fact that it has found ways of managing conflicts that would leave a church in schism, fragment a political party, or drive a commercial company to the wall.
The tensions within education, however, reflect the very existence of the discipline and nature of the activity. They lead some people to doubt whether education is a proper discipline at all, as distinct from a collection of elements borrowed from other disciplines. And these tensions have practical as well as academic consequences. They place a question mark against the idea of teaching as a profession and undermine its credibility as a policy voice. They make the field peculiarly vulnerable to external pressures. And they lead to the sudden lurches and longer-term pendulum swings that typify educational practice, making it a prey to passing fads and fashions.
Many of these tensions concern what is taught and what ought to be taught—the curriculum. This is hardly surprising. The curriculum involves assumptions about the purpose of education, the nature of knowledge, the social context and the development of the learner, all contentious areas. It is also subject to more immediate political pressures to ‘do something about’ current problems of a moral, social or economic kind. There is a very substantial body of curriculum theory that helps us to analyse these various perspectives, claims and tensions, but the curriculum in practice seems destined always to remain an arena of conflict, reflecting as it does the unresolved issues of the society in which it exists.
However, there are also major disagreements about the process of teaching, the how rather than the what of education, and it is with these that this book is concerned. Such tensions often take the form of arguments about methods: whether the class should be taught as a whole or in small groups, whether lectures are preferable to seminars, or what the proper role of practical work is. In recent years, the development of educational and communications technology has added an extra dimension to such debates.
I shall argue in this book that such arguments are not only unproductive, but a poor way of thinking about teaching. After all, no other profession conceives of its work in terms of methods in the way that education does. Methods are involved in