Helen E Lees

Educational imaginations to save the future?

Helen E Lees BERA Alternative Education SIG co-convenor Monday 8 January 2018

At an ESRC-Palgrave-Springer Festival of Social Science event about social sciences impact, held at the Royal Society on 7 November 2017 (#FossImpact), I asked a question.

Before I repeat this question, I propose two points to consider.

First, it is worth noting that the discussion of interdisciplinarity impact in and from social sciences by a distinguished panel did not mention education once. At least not until my question.

When it comes to an interdisciplinary track-record, is there any domain in the social sciences, other than education, which stands to claim the crown for the discipline most packed with disciplines? Whilst this may not result in true interdisciplinary thinking and writing, that our discipline is not and cannot be a disciplinary silo is certainly a good start. We are forced to think widely. Yet bringing people’s attention to the contribution of education in discussions of interdisciplinarity feels like one is being rude. Why?

The imagination of the social sciences is stuck with an idea of education as mainstream societal schooling

This leads me onto my second point: the imagination of the social sciences is stuck with an idea of education as mainstream societal schooling. This includes forms of institutional top-down teaching model and currently robustly excludes other models, whatever the rhetoric. A mainstream model involves inherent curtailing of the curious, wandering imagination of students by virtue of a given curriculum. So, when those outside our discipline look at education for inspiration – to find ways to better serve our planet by addressing its societal challenges, for example, as was being debated at the event mentioned above – they might turn away in disgust.

Nothing to find here? I suspect it goes further than that. I think the response is that education is for babies and those weak due to under-education, and therefore it cannot and does not provide advanced thinking or thinkers to contribute to high-level discussions. Such discussions are not found in and from education.

How wrong. How wrong, to think that education is about schooling. How wrong that it is linked to deficits rather than contributions. These are immediate conflations which need to be tackled and stopped. They curtail the value of educational imaginings, were they requested, for they would start from a position of weakness. A confused understanding of our work as educationists prevents other disciplines from finding value in our vital and rich store of resources with which to think.

So what was my question at the event? I asked how the distinguished panel – speaking as they were about high-level responses to climate change, terrorist thinking and core social issues such as the ‘need for rest’ – could imagine solutions without coercion. How can we avoid forcing individuals down certain pathways of attitude and behaviour, and instead, honour and include their consent towards such attitudes and behaviours? The answer? Well, Lord Professor Stern, a panel member, was the only one to directly mention anything educational. But it is there that we see the problem: he immediately turned towards the notion of delivering a ‘moral philosophy’ curriculum to our schoolchildren.

That is not the way. This response, whilst ‘on the money’ of my question, went straight to the obvious and the unimaginative. It is not his fault, however. It is a social malaise to think of education in this limited way. Is this because it is a key contributor to creating or at least perpetuating many of the problems that social sciences interdisciplinarity aims to ameliorate? Inequality moulding, racism, sexism, subservience, low self-esteem from bullying cultures – these are, we see from research, learned in schools and higher education.

Such displays of educational ignorance from interdisciplinary thinking shows how much we need BERA and educational experts. It also shows how little understanding of the possibilities of a wider educational imagination is abroad in policy and guidance for societal change. It demonstrates our need to brand, spin, blend in and break through this lack of interest in our discipline to reveal complex, beautiful, fulsome imaginative educational solutions for social science thought. I suggest that educationists need to focus on education as alternative; as differently presented.

So mentioning philosophy was heading in the right direction, Lord Stern. But let me be specific: the issue with consent – which I offer to you as the way forward for our planet – is seriously problematised rather than aided by current schooling and school curricula. It is profoundly aided by education which operates in and on people through democratic deliberations, dialogue and consent protocols.

If you do not ask for consent, it is a case of ‘you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’. Alternative education asks, and the horse drinks freely.


Dr Helen E Lees is Reader (Associate Professor) in Alternative Education Studies at Newman University, Birmingham, UK. She is founding editor-in-chief of Other Education: The journal of educational alternatives (www.othereducation.org), and founding co-convenor of the British Education Research Association (BERA) Alternative Education SIG. Her recent books include The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education (2016, co-edited with Nel Noddings) and Routledge’s Education Studies: The Key Concepts (2017, co-edited with Dave Trotman and Roger Willoughby). She writes on alternative education, sexuality, adoption and silence. Email: hlees12@yahoo.co.uk