What Do We Mean by “Quality Education”?

By Francisco Esteban Bara and Juan Luis Fuentes

This month’s post from the current Educational Forum is by the authors of the article, “Swimming Against the Tide in Current Educational Practice: Thoughts and Proposals from a Communitarian Perspective.” It is available for free through the month of April.

Francisco Esteban Bara is an associate professor in philosophy of education in the Department of Theory and History of Education, Faculty of Pedagogy at Universitat de Barcelona (Spain). His research focuses on values education and ethics in the university.

Juan Luis Fuentes is an associate professor in theory of education in the Department of Educational Studies at Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). His research is centered on character education, intercultural education, and the use of ICTs in the educational sphere.

A casual conversation with parents of school-age children reveals several common themes. As parents, of course they tend to be very concerned about the well-being of their children. But this concern can be channelled very differently. In the welfare state typical of Western societies, where basic rights are guaranteed for most of the population, the focus has been on the quality of such rights. Establishing the standards for a quality education is an honest and reasonable concern for responsible parents, but a key question arises: What do we mean by educational quality?

A “quality education” is superficially understood to be innovative, changing, and dynamic, capable of adapting to society and the challenges it poses. Other times, the answer to that question is more simplistic: education quality is held up against so-called “traditional education,” something supposedly unacceptable in the 21st century—an outdated model, with outdated methods, old teachers, and schools that are not “current.”

According to this perspective, a “quality” school will be an alternative—a modern, high-tech, cutting-edge school—empathetic, flexible, and focused on the hottest topics. This new school is receptive to everything parents or school boards propose, even at the risk of forgetting that it is a school, where change is not impossible, but where the importance of its role in the community means that changes cannot be made lightly, without understanding what they mean for one of society’s most fundamental institutions.

Certainly quality, in all facets of life and of course in education, implies reflection and renewal, but the second cannot happen without the first. Nevertheless, sometimes defending this prudent idea is seen as swimming against the tide of educators at different levels, political actors, and parents, who seek the best for their children.

In our article, we raise some questions about what should be considered “useful,” and whether the school should only teach subjects that can be identified as useful and profitable. This means ignoring things that are apparently “useless,” yet are actually worth a great deal. Indeed, education is not solely concerned with the teaching and learning of certain subjects, skills, competencies, and the like. It is also concerned with how teaching and learning that educates others and oneself is unique to the human condition.

We cannot forget that the accumulation of information, methodologies, and resources may not be enough if we lack a sense of direction or orientation. Educational practice is not an assembly line of workers and citizens, nor a car wash from which one emerges gleaming bright. Education is a transformative process from which one should emerge different—changed—from the way we went in. Educational practice is a truly human and humanising process, a veritable ethical event. It is more than taking on the role of student or teacher; it means understanding that learning and teaching are a way of life.

However, certain tendencies distort the overall purpose of educational practice, and undermine this transformative power. Among other tendencies, we identify three: the obsession with adapting educational practice to some subjective reality; the excessive prominence of one of the three educational actors; and, finally, the belief that educational practice is something in which everyone should have a say and a choice.

Education certainly concerns us all, as human beings, but we can’t rely on a superficial analysis of what a quality education is, excessively utilitarian or abandoned to the loudest political voices. Educators and parents cannot afford to stand by; the stakes are too high.

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