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Published by: joseph3128 on Oct 19, 2011
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01/05/2013

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One of the central concepts associated with progressivism both in

England and America is one whose use went far beyond the work of

the explicit supporters of this educational movement. So, for

instance, over a period of twenty years (1960–80) it was rare, in both

informal contexts such as primary school staffrooms and formal con-

texts such as government and local authority documents concerned

with education, not to be confronted with the idea that education

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should derive from the ‘needs’ of the child. The notion of basing

education upon children’s ‘needs’ seemed to solve several educational

problems in one neat move. It provided a solution to the problem of

the aims of education, which was particularly pressing for a move-

ment often considered to be weak when it came to such aims; the

aim was to meet the needs of the particular child. In solving the

problem in this way this move ensured that – following the Plowden

Report (1967) – the child was central to education. But it also seemed

to mesh education in the empirical work of the psychological theor-

ists such as Piaget and Maslow admired by progressivists, and thus

bypassed what was taken to be a sterile argument concerning educa-

tional values and the way in which these could be located within a

curriculum. It also seemed, to some, to solve the problem of moti-

vation in a particularly forceful way – in that pointing out to some-

one that they need something seems to provide both a motive for getting

that something and – because it seems to imply a lack – a sense of

urgency for the people concerned to satisfy the need. And last, but

by no means least, it provided a nice ad hominem argument against the

critics of progressivism who seemed to be forced into a position of

denying children’s needs.

However, as critics (Dearden 1968; Woods and Barrow 1975) were

quick to point out, such solutions were illusions based upon a lack of

analysis of the central concept. If needs statements are purely

empirical, that is, concerned with matters of fact, then they cannot,

in themselves, solve the problem of educational aims for such aims

must involve values: things we ought to bring about; and statements of

value cannot be derived directly from a simple statement of fact. The

work of the admired psychologists either illegitimately smuggles in

values disguised as facts (Barrow 1984; Egan 1983) or, equally illegi-

timately, simply assumes that if someone has a need then it ought to

be met. As has been pointed out (Woods and Barrow 1975), would-

be murderers need a weapon and an opportunity but this does not

mean they ought to be given either. The question of motivation

cannot be solved by statements of need because people may have

needs of which they are completely unaware, such as for a blood

transfusion when they are unconscious, and therefore they are not

motivated to seek to satisfy these needs. Also awareness of needs and

therefore desire to satisfy them, for example medical needs, depends

upon a level of sophisticated knowledge which many people, espe-

cially children, simply do not possess. It is certainly not the case that

people always want what they need, like painful dental surgery, or

need what they want, for example a large, expensive car (ibid.; but

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see also Rousseau (1911a), who is clear that wants and needs in

education are distinct). Nor do needs statements imply a present lack;

I need air to breathe but I have never lacked it. As far as the centralityof

children’s needs is concerned– and therefore theforce of thead hominem

argument – any educationalist, including the most anti-progressive

traditionalist, may agree that we ought to meet children’s educational

needs; however, there will be vast disagreement as to what constitutes

such needs. In this sense every curriculum, however different, is a

‘needs’ curriculum (Komisar 1961) and thus statements of putative

‘needs’ will not solve any significant educational questions.

Whilst the critical points made above do a good job in containing

some of the wilder progressivist claims, there often seems to be a lack

of clarity or sharpness in the analyses in which they are found. So, for

instance, it often seems to be implied (Dearden 1968; Woods and

Barrow 1975) that ‘needs’ statements are essentially evaluative despite

the fact that there are plenty of commonplace examples, such as that

my car needs petrol to work, which do not seem to involve values at

all. Likewise, it sometimes seems to be suggested (Dearden) that

needs statements imply normative considerations, where again there

seem to be plenty of counter-examples to such a claim – for example,

if you wish to go from Northampton to Bath by train you need to

change trains in either London or Birmingham. Part of the problem

here is that ‘needs’ statements are often elliptical, that is, radically

incomplete in a way that precludes a decision about truth content.

So, for instance, on being told that Carol needs a new dress we

cannot tell whether this is true or false unless we are told what she

needs the dress for. And given there may be many different objectives

for which the dress might or might not be needed – so as not to

offend public decency; to please her boyfriend; to match her new

shoes; to go to the ball – it is likely that given some of these objec-

tives it is true that she needs the dress but given others it is false. For

example, it is true that she needs one to match her shoes but false

that she needs one so as not to offend public decency (Brandon

1981). If a fully determinate needs statement must specify an objec-

tive (ibid.; Dearden 1968; Woods and Barrow 1975) then perhaps the

best analysis of ‘needs’ is in terms of them being necessary or essential

requirements for the realisation of the given objective. As such their

truth, or falsehood, will be purely a matter of fact; either it is true

that X is necessary for Yor it is false. However, the factual nature of

the needs claim should not obscure the fact that choice of objectives

is a matter of values – and thus often makes reference to norms – and

that therefore whether we think that such a necessary requirement

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should be met or not will depend upon whether, or how much, we

value the objective in question.

It may be the case that, following Brandon, we should eschew any

talk of ‘needs’ in education. However, given the disagreements which

continue concerning educational value and the lack of reliable infor-

mation concerning educational processes and their effects, we suspect

that such statements will continue to proliferate and to cause confusion.

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