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Education from a Hegelian Perspective

G.W.F Hegel is not the most well-known philosopher, however, he massively influenced the musings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their writings on Communism and Socialism. Although Marx ultimately rejected the Hegelian view of the world as idealistic, it actually influenced Marxist philosophy quite drastically. Although I too feel it to be rather idealistic, I think it has some merit in explaining the current state of education.

Hegel’s principle of view of history posited that it was a series of events that displayed a process of development and that in order to understand one part, you must first understand the whole. I believe this notion parallels quite aptly with the state of modern education. In order to understand how teachers teach effectively now, we must first understand what methods teachers used before us and why they were deemed to be ineffective, or how our methods have grown from them. Furthermore, you cannot understand an individual concept within teaching, whether it be Constructivism or spacing, without first understanding education as a whole. Constructivism and spacing both co-exist and spawn from other theories that contradict them (e.g. Behaviourism and Blocking). In order to understand the merit of spacing, I must also understand the pitfalls of block teaching.

Each concept exists under the umbrella of education within which it manifests itself.  It can therefore be assumed that education is always developing, because each concept draws and improves upon concepts that have preceded it. In that sense, education is dynamic and imperfect, but has the capability and potential of achieving perfection, or so Hegel would have argued (this is why Marx deemed Hegel to be a bit of an idealist).

Unlike other philosophers, Hegel rejected the notion that philosophers should comment on or predict the future. His ideas focused on the zeitgeist of the period. This too mirrors the current state of educational theory and dialogue. We often analyse and comment on the contemporary condition of education, and often look backwards to do so, but we rarely comment on the future. This links back to Hegel’s view about the dynamic system that is always progressing by utilising the views that preceded it. In this sense, it is impossible to comment on the future because we have not yet had enough experience of the concepts that dominate the present zeitgeist. Perhaps a current example would be the idea of retrieval practice. We are unsure of what will follow it, or how it will be improved upon, because its prominence is very current and is yet to be held up to intense critique. At the moment of writing this, retrieval practice has swept across education as the saviour of ‘remembering more’ and ‘changes to long-term memory’. But over-reliance on this concept without first truly critiquing it will inevitably lead to retrieval practice that is, at least in some part, rather ineffective. For example, the emphasised focus on low-stake quizzes tends to focus only on substantive knowledge and largely ignoring disciplinary knowledge. You can see more on that in these two blogs –… and…

The Hegelian perspective is characterised by the idea that ideas can develop and progress by looking backwards. From this, Hegel’s view of the ‘dialectic’ was born. This entails that we must carefully examine an idea by linking it to other ideas (previous or current), either because it can contradict or complement it. So Hegel’s view of history was not just that of a simple list of events, but that history is the view of how all these events link together. Education again parallels this. All educational theory links together, whether you choose to adhere or align most to Piaget, Vygotsky or Skinner (those are the only big names I can remember from my PGCE). Where I think the ‘dialectic’ relates to education most is in its origins. The term originated in ancient Greece, whereby a ‘dialogue’ was established upon opposing views and this led to the formulation of truths. Hegel believed that by having these opposing views or contradictions, only then could we progress (I think a lot of EduTwitter trolls could learn a thing or two from that statement).

The ‘dialectic’ entails three steps. Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis – always in that order. Thesis is the original idea that starts off the dialogue; antithesis is the contradicting idea that builds on this dialogue by presenting an opposing point of view; and synthesis is the reconciliation of these first two steps into a new, established truth. Of course, the synthesis part can be ongoing and challenged itself, and that is why we continue to have multiple new theories that are born out of singular, past ones. The process is very cyclical because of this. This led Hegel to conclude that changes can be gradual, but that they can have a very sudden impact (see retrieval practice mentioned above). Ergo, the state of education changes slowly for the most part, but with very sudden transformations.

Hegel determined that the ‘dialectic’ was governed by certain laws. The most relatable one of these laws to education being that of ‘the law of the unity of opposites’. This states that all things in the world exist in opposition to something else (e.g. hot and cold, short and long) – so too does educational theory (e.g. Constructivism vs Behaviourism) and every teacher’s opinion on Twitter!

I hope this made sense to someone. It mostly feels like nonsensical ramblings when I read it back. This is simply my interpretation of how the Hegelian perspective applies to the modern state of education and in part to EduTwitter. Still, I’m glad the sociology part of my undergrad degree finally came in use for something.

NB: For a better understanding of my ramblings, read through Rupert Woodfin and Oscar Zarate’s Marxism: A Graphic Guide. This blog was written after reading that book.

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The author

Mr Morgs is an experienced Year 6 teacher from South London. He is a trained SATs marker, LA Moderator and has an MA in leadership. He is interested in keeping up-to-date with current educational research, specifically related to the teaching of maths and reading.

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