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In this week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor and colleagues from the School of Psychology examine education through a 'social' lens, setting out some of the issues (and making a few links to DD317 material).

Psychologists have always been closely engaged with the study of education, developing theory and practice around teaching and learning at all levels, from early child development to tertiary and lifelong education. To reduce this to an individual 'teacher' and 'learner' is too simple. Psychologists would draw attention to the relevance of technologies, contexts, practices and relationships. Of course a technology can be as simple as a chalkboard or as complex as a piece of customised software but it is always utilised within a context, as part of a practice, and social psychologists in particular would point out the social nature of those practices. The social is relevant in many ways, from the original motivation for learning at all, to the associations it may carry, to the implications for our identities and for society generally.

It is easy to recognise that people want to learn, especially as adults, because of the value attached to it in society. There is the conventional status of being an educated person, well-qualified, perhaps a graduate. There is also the notion that learning is a form of personal development (DD317 students might recognise the new version of this associated with 'entrepreneurship', discussed by Rosalind Gill in Block 4) and of growth – most of us would associate education with the acquiring of new maturity. This also explains some of the difficulties of learning and education. In an interview for DD317, Ian Burkitt discusses an issue faced by people studying nursing. Part of their learning involved the taking up of the new professional identity, and this could entail losses as well as gains. A similar, painful story was told by the eminent US political and social activist, Bella Abzug. She said that when she crossed the stage at her graduation, she felt that she had simultaneously fulfilled her father's ambition for her to succeed, and also made herself into someone so different from him (a working class immigrant) that she had partly severed their connection.

The associations of learning are particularly strong for adults. Few of us can escape from the memories of school, positive and negative. It's no coincidence that many people who study as adults prefer to do so in a context as different as possible from their early education. If you have bad memories of school, then even small details like addressing the tutor by their first name (instead of 'Miss' or 'Sir') or using different technologies (a computer instead of a pen) can help make your educational experience different. But there will probably also be points when the experience returns, positively or negative, and that, again, is addressed by social educational practices. The concept of scaffolding, born out of the work of Vygotsky but more deeply explored by another great psychologist, Jerome Bruner, has shown psychologists how people can be enabled to fulfil their educational potentials in ways that they never thought possible. Scaffolding refers to a process where the learner is actively supported by a teacher or peer so that they achieve their goal much more quickly than if they learned unassisted. In the OU, we do this by generating teaching activities and interactive materials that encourage learners to take steps towards solving a critical problem. The whole 'OU system' is a complex form of teaching developed to help students maintain their goals, find solutions and stay motivated.

I have already mentioned society as shaping the values we attach to learning and education. Academics who take a critical approach, considering power and inequalities, would point to additional social connections. First, it has long been recognised that education has an economic value for society, because of the specific skills acquired through education and training, and also the more general capacity for learning that will enable educated people to adapt to change and acquire new skills. (This is of course particularly relevant given the current rate of technological change: the IT skills acquired by students today will soon be outdated, but the experience and confidence in relation to IT should make it easier for them to tackle the next round of new developments.)

A second point here is that education can help people to participate in society (DD317 students will note the connection to Block 3!). There are strong arguments, for example, from the work of the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey and the sociologist Craig Calhoun, that education prepares people to engage critically in the public sphere and thereby to challenge injustices in society. For these reasons, it can be argued that education is a social good (like clean air) that benefits society generally and therefore should be paid for by society, through taxes, rather than by individuals. In Calhoun's words, a university has a public mission and historical purpose ‘to educate citizens in general, to share knowledge, to distribute it as widely as possible, and to produce it in accord with publicly articulated purposes (as well as on the assumption of eventual public benefit)’ (Calhoun 2006: 19). 

To some extent, that argument has lost acceptance in recent years, especially in relation to university tuition fees, but it remains powerful. For example, it underpins most discussions about pre-school and school education, through the logic that society 'needs' children to be literate, numerate and otherwise appropriately skilled. There is also a related argument about socialization, often raised in relation to religious schools, which again points to the role education is assumed to have in preparing people to live in society, in that case, by making them aware of the shared society and history, teaching respect and appropriate behaviours, and so on.

Even to write about these ideas is to court controversy because they are so deeply embedded in both 'common sense' and bitterly contested arguments. To discuss them is also to recognise the interconnections of the social and the personal – we cannot put aside social meanings because they are part of our own meanings and feelings and the way we make sense of our individual lives, as critical discursive psychologists would note. For OU academics and students, the issues are particularly close because of our shared educational project. The OU is its own social space, a society within a society, with all the pleasure and possibility of society generally, and the excitement of challenge and conflict.


Craig Calhoun (2006) 'The University and the Public Good' Thesis Eleven Volume: 84 issue: 1, page(s): 7-43  Issue published: February 1, 2006  https://doi.org/10.1177/0725513606060516


Some of the content of this blog has links to our OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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