Aspects of educational meta-theory

This paper was published in PROBLEMS of PEDAGOGICS; Pedagogics and the study of education in South Africa, (pp.247 - 254) (ed) P.N.G. Beard and W.E. Morrow, BUTTERWORTHS, Durban and Pretoria, 1981.

Aspects of educational meta-theory

Zak Van Straaten

In this paper I shall (1) briefly outline a meta-theory for education; (2) draw attention to the merits of the theory, in particular showing how ‘Fundamental Pedagogics ’ is merely one ‘paradigm’ among many; and (3) show how the theory explains a basic claim from a rival theory.


A meta-theory should not be thought of as being analogous to a meta-language in linguistics, or computer science, or logic. Rather we ought to expect such a meta-theory to give us an overview of educational theories. This overview ought to explain the major differences between educational theories, something which is could only do if it gave us a characterisation of the nature of an educational theory. A meta-theory therefore does not imply educational theories, on the contrary, the very existence of competing or different educational theories allows for the construction of such a meta-theory. If we find ourselves in a situation where many theories exists, none of which is compatible with another, but all of which purport to explain the nature and purpose of basic educational structures, then unless we could eliminate some theories in favour of a dominant one, some explanation must be possible of why the competition between the theories cannot be resolved on logical or rational grounds.

The meta-theory which I shall propose in this paper derives from some ideas first put forward by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The structure of scientific revolutions, and from Paul K. Feyerabend who discussed a similar set of ideas in his essay Against method. The fundamental sentence in my meta-theory is that ‘education’ is the transmission and acquisition of a set of paradigms. This fundamental sentence can be interpreted in many ways, each of which has a different set of implications. By reference to the characterisation of meta-theory given above, the success of such an enterprise would have to be judged by reference to the major differences between educational theories and the basic characterisations of the nature of educational theories which can be generated from educational practices and structures.


The first interpretation of the fundamental sentence in my meta-theory is that ‘education’ is a multidimensional process which consists in the transmission and acquisition of an inter-animated set of theories which are themselves paradigm-embedded. In his book The structure of scientific revolutions (1970) Thomas Kuhn argues that in ‘normal science’ scientists are taught to fit their experience of nature into a set of paradigms. For our purposes a ‘paradigm’ is conceived of as a set of methodological, epistemological and experimental rules which determine one’s perception, thought and experience of nature. A stretch of scientific history is thought of as ‘normal’ if the activity of problem solving occurs within a relatively stable paradigm. Some situations in scientific history will be preparadigmatic, characterised by a multiplicity of competing methodologies and theories, indicating that this stage is not yet a scientific stage. Later a paradigm might be imposed on this disorder. But once order has been established in a discipline or set of disciplines, potential scientists only qualify for membership of the scientific community by demonstrating their ability to solve problems within the prevailing major paradigm. The distinction which I am drawing between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ paradigms is one of logic, scope and degree. In point of logic a major paradigm will ultimately imply a set of minor paradigms. The minor paradigms have the possibility of their existence written into the dominance of the major paradigm. The minor paradigm which consists in the methodology characterising the structure and function of the DNA molecule is itself embedded in a major biological paradigm, a major chemical paradigm and a general theory of what counts as a stable strategy for adaptive survival organisms in evolution. This example illustrates the difference in scope and the difference in logic between major and minor paradigms. The question of degree is seen in cases where the so-called minor paradigm has a broad ranging scope of its own and does not stand in such a subservient relation to major dominant theories.

In general major paradigms determine fields of information and the form and adequacy of particular theories which occur within the scope and domain of their particular frameworks. For example, if the subject is physics then the major paradigm is the Einsteinian world picture. This major paradigm determines to a large extent the boundaries and limits of contemporary physics. The minor paradigms, whose conjunction constitutes contemporary physics all presuppose and are consistent with this major world picture. Examples of minor paradigms are the theories of magnetism, X-rays and electron interaction in atoms.

According to Kuhn, paradigms generate puzzles for research scientist to solve. These can usually be solved inside the paradigm. However, sometimes ‘anomalies’ arise which can only be solved by rejecting the paradigm and using a new paradigm whose justification consists in its ability to solve the anomalies and generate solvable puzzles for future research. On Kuhn’s model of natural knowledge a change of major paradigm to espouse a new one, there is no third major paradigm in the background which acts as a reference point which you can use to evaluate the respective virtues of the competing paradigms. It is more like exchanging a pair of green-tinted concave spectacles for rose-coloured convex ones. At the moment of interchange the subject does not have a vision to speak of since it is only his spectacles that allow him to see properly. Change of major paradigm is therefore a revolutionary process.


The second interpretation of ‘Education is the acquisition of paradigms” is that education is a multidimensional, polymorphous process which consists in the transmission and acquisition of an ideology. The word ‘ideology’ has been interpreted in many ways but for my present purpose the following will suffice. Statements about society are ideological if they are ultimately to be derived from prescriptive principles which are embedded in, or definitive of some of the paradigms or conventional beliefs of a speech community.

It is because ideological statements help to define the social existence of a speech community that the members of the community rely on the ideological statements to tell them how they ought to act in given circumstances. Ideological statements are therefore always true, relative to a speech community or society. In a socialist country teachers are required to explain and emphasise the importance of the inevitable historical processes in history which will ultimately vindicate Marxist socialism. Whereas in a liberal capitalist democracy one is taught to be suspicious of ‘communism’ (however defined) both inside and outside of school. More positively, one sort of ideological bias is displayed in the efforts schools make in our kind of society to achieve a delicate balance between encouraging individual initiative and encouraging community cooperation. All of these kinds of activities are linked to webs of belief into which ideological statements are woven.

It is transparent that this second interpretation of my basic principle implies that education is necessarily concerned with the acquisition of a certain ideology (in the sense of ideology defined above) and a set of behavioural paradigm which reflect certain social values. This conception of education is almost wholly about values, and can never be value neutral.


The generality of the theory allows us to claim merits for which we would not be able to claim for a more restricted and sectional theory like that of Peters.


My meta-theory can explain the difference between conservative and radical theories of education along the following lines. The conservative theorist is one who allows no choice as to the ideological paradigms which are transmitted. However, if the ideology is amenable to the existence of certain minor political stances within it then the conservative never allows for more that a very limited choice of stance within the major ideology. For example, if the major ideology is liberal capitalism, then the conservative might allow a stance on individualism which is not immediately inconsistent with the major perspective. When it comes to the transmission of particular disciplines like physics or history, each one possessing its major and minor paradigms, the conservative likewise either allows no choice in the schooling process or may under certain circumstances allow a very limited choice.

The radical theorist by contrast is someone who could allow the student, within the limits of practicality, to choose his own major ideology, and might in fact encourage (insofar as this is possible) a dispassionate discussion of various ideologies, and alternative systems of social and individual existence. The radical will point out to the student that in particular disciplines there often is an alternative set of paradigms and will encourage the student to choose the paradigms which he would find most useful or congenial.


This meta-theory perspective on education can also explain how and where ideology enters into competing theories of education. It emphasises the extent to which different theorists are forced to make choices in respect of ideological involvement in education. In addition one can use the theory to explain how and where systems of values and accounts of normative behaviour enter into object language theories.


My meta-theory can also explain the nature and scope of Fundamental Pedagogics and the various branches of Pedagogically orientated theories of education. On reading T.A. Viljoen’s article ‘Pedagogics’, I am struck by the number of universal generalisations which are themselves insufficiently semantically determined.

A fundamental question therefore is, ‘what empirical or practical spin-off is to be derived from the fundamental key words in this theory? No clear answer is forthcoming from either Viljoen’s paper or C.J.G. Kilian’s paper, ‘Fundamental Pedagogics’ (1971). Some of the key words in questions are ‘autonomous science’, ‘pedagogical investigations’, pedagogical constitutions’ and ‘being-somebody’. The only way to answer the question about practical spin-off is to look at what happens at the secondary and primary school level. While this may be inadequate from a theoretical point of view, it will certainly yield one interpretation of the semantic assignments which these key words ultimately generate, and hence explain how Fundamental Pedagogics could be applied in one society. In regard to the question of how and where ideology enters into competing theories of education, it is also possible to give an interpretation of current educational structures in South Africa which have been partially, if not completely determined and motivated by the application of Fundamental Pedagogics. The ideological bias of Fundamental Pedagogics, even if not stated by Viljoen and Kilian, can therefore be read from the evident practical implication of (one ideological set of interpretations of) Pedagogic theory.

If my arguments above are correct, then it is evident that the generality of my meta-theory as characterised by the two fundamental interpretations given above, can account for the nature and scope of Fundamental Pedagogics just as cogently as it did for the difference between what I called the ‘conservative’ and radical’ theorist of education. It should be evident in this section that since my meta-theory can explain the differences between competing theories of education, ‘Fundamental Pedagogics’ being merely one of these, it must possess a greater generality, scope and explanatory logic than any of the theories which it can explain. I do not suppose that this argument counts as a refutation of ‘Fundamental Pedagogics’ but it at least denies some of the claims of generality made for ‘pedagogics’ by authors like Kilian and Viljoen. My hope is that the strength, scope and inherent logic of paradigm based meta-theory for education is shown by its being able to cope with these kinds of cases.


The theory also explains how we are to determine the form and content of the particular disciplines to be transmitted in education, the content at least depends on the attitude one has to the major and minor paradigms which one believes to be true. At any given period in its history a speech community or homogeneous society possesses a stock of knowledge which is directly derived from the sum of its major paradigms. On the basis of one or another education theory the professional educational managers decide which of the paradigms should be taught at the primary and secondary levels of schooling. They decide, for example, that the Great Trek and traditional grammar are to be omitted. The form of any particular discipline will naturally depend on the form of the relevant paradigm. So if the paradigm is set-theoretical mathematics a special method of teaching, namely ‘new mathematics’, which emphasises model-theoretic or set-theoretic methods of understanding fundamental equalities will be employed.


My theory shows up the transparently false claim of the theorist who asserts that one does not have to understand anything about the superstructure of education to teach a discipline, since it is sufficient to be a good practitioner in that discipline. Such a theorist might say, for example, ‘to be a good teacher of physics you only need to be a good physicist’. The a priori falsity of such a view is guaranteed by the observation that one only becomes a good physicist by a display of allegiance to the prevailing paradigms in physics, and by exhibiting in numerous tests a facility at problem solving within the paradigms. How could one be a good teacher of physics unless one were aware of the paradigmatic nature of the enterprise?


The authority that teachers have is institutionalised in various ways. An adequate meta-theory should justify the teacher’s authority. In my theory the teacher has authority in virtue of the easy access he/she has to a multiplicity of paradigms. This fact guarantees the direction of the authority relationship. It flows in most cases from the teacher to the students. However, in some cases the students will have access to paradigms outside the teacher’s experience – Zen Buddhism, or the electron microscope. In those cases the flow of authority is reversed. This is a more natural justification of authority relationships in education than those which depend on elaborate conceptual analyses of concepts such as ‘discipline’, ‘punishment’ and ‘authority’.


One of Peters’ most basic claims is that education is the initiation into worthwhile activities. He sometimes talks of the claim as though it were a conceptual truth, but other times treats it like a contingent regularity. If the principle were contingent one would have to put such stringent control on what counted as ‘worthwhile’ that too much would be eliminated from the field of education. We might not be able to do this since the criteria for ‘worthwhile’ activities are relative to a speech community or individual. It is more realistic to view the principle as a conceptual truth which cannot be falsified by experience. It is also a transparently normative claim.

However, Peters (1966, p. 62) has claimed that it is not for the philosopher to make normative judgements about educational practices and policies. Perhaps a philosopher, as philosopher, should not get involved in ground level normative disputes, but that sort of attitude should not preclude him from analysing the various reactions between the paradigms which he perceives to be operative in a given context and the normative judgements which are embedded in those paradigms. If some paradigms have normative or ideological implications, then the philosopher of education ought to expose these implications in his analyses of the paradigms.
Peters’ justification of the principle depends on the acceptance of the centrality and importance of certain liberal ideas and institutions. But I do not want to give a philosophical account of ‘education’, which is as inextricably connected to liberal institutions and institutionalised practices as Peters’ account undoubtedly is. Nor do I want to delimit ‘education’ as Peters attempts to do. The difficulties he gets into in his attempt to defend his ‘differentiated concept’ of ‘education’ suggest that he is trying to get too much empirical mileage out of philosophical definition.

In my meta-theory the claim that education is the initiation into worthwhile activities can easily be maintained and justified. Firstly, I can, unlike Peters recognise the normative nature of the claim without inconsistency. Secondly, much is gained by seeing that every speech community must always judge its own prevailing paradigms to be worthwhile. If a society or speech community always values its own web of paradigms and theories, such a valuation is sufficient justification for being keen and determined to transmit the chosen paradigms. My paradigmatic perspective is broad and flexible enough to include what is valuable in an institutionalised account of education, and to allow that the basic connection between ‘education’ and ‘worthwhile activities’ transcends the parochial restrictions of Peters’ paradigm.

A meta-theory should make the basic connections, and spell out the implications. But its justification depends on its usefulness in organising experience and theory. My slightly ironic hope is that experience will justify my theory.


FEYERABEND, P.K. Against method. London: Verso. 1978
KILIAN, C.J.C. Fundamental Pedagogy. South African journal of pedagogy, vol. 5, no. 2, December 1971.
KUHN, T. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970
PETERS, R.S. The philosophy of education. In J.W. Tibble (ed.), The study of education. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966
VILJOEN, T.A. Sociopedagogics. Educare, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 25-33