Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Education as Transformation

  • Andrea R. English
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_385


Education as a transformational process has been discussed across traditions of philosophy of education. If we initially consider the basic meaning of transformation as a process of change, we can say that education, in the social imaginary of western society, is commonly understood as a process by which human beings undergo change through the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Philosophy of education, however, has developed a more specialized concept of education as transformation that will be discussed here.

As early as 1916, in his major work Democracy and Education, John Dewey refers to the “ordinary” conception of education as the transmission of information from the older generation to the younger (Dewey 1916/2008, p. 12). Today, 100 years after Dewey’s remarks, such a notion of education as transmission remains a prominent part of the social imaginary. This popular understanding of education continues to be reinforced through a particular image of the teacher, a figure frequently represented in popular culture as the person at the front of a classroom authoritatively passing on information to children sitting in rows of desks, passively listening. At the same time, this image of “teacher-centered” education, influenced by traditional ideas of education as the passing on of intellectual and cultural heritage, has been countered by a different notion of education influenced by progressive education movements. Commonly referred to as “child-centered” education, progressive ideas of education are reflected in common notions that learning should be enjoyable and that children should be happy when learning. On this view, the child’s interests guide the educational process and in turn determine the organization of classroom activities. In popular culture, images suggestive of child-centered education also emerge: children playing together, sitting in circles rather than at desks, or engaged in a hands-on school activity or project, often without the teacher in frame. Although teacher-centered and child-centered images point to contradictory theoretical positions, they nevertheless coexist in the social imaginary today. Both views of education can be seen to be competing for dominance in educational policy and practice, for example, in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe.

These popular images and the related ideas surrounding the nature of education stand in contrast to the critical philosophical notion of education as transformation, which has been developed in the traditions of philosophy of education. In these contexts, thinkers have sought to distinguish education from socialization and schooling. Socialization involves habituating the younger generation into the rules, customs, and norms of a given society. “Schooling,” in this specific context, describes a mere transfer of facts from older generation to younger. For many philosophers of education, this sense of schooling departs from the ideal role of the school in modern society as one of engaging the younger generation in transformative educational processes.

This entry discusses the philosophical notion of education as transformation by first considering Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It then describes related notions of education from three different traditions of philosophy of education – the concept of Bildung in the German tradition of educational theory, John Dewey’s American pragmatist conception of education, and British analytic philosopher R. S. Peters’ ideas of education and transformation – and also identifies some contemporary viewpoints from current philosophy of education. Finally, the entry indicates how current trends in twenty-first-century educational policy relate to the idea of education as a transformative process.

Plato’s Cave Allegory as an Image of Transformation

Early in the western philosophical tradition, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (1997) tells us something important about education as transformation. Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine prisoners inside a cave starring at shadows on a cave wall and believing them to be real. When one slave is pulled out of the cave and freed, at first he is painfully blinded in the brightness of the light and then he is able to gradually see brighter and brighter objects until he can look at the sun. In the process, he starts to question and compare this new world outside the cave with the old one inside the cave. His gradual change in perspective on knowledge and truth, and on himself and his relations to the world, is so dramatically altered that he can hardly imagine how he could have ever held the beliefs he held while in the cave. Plato’s cave offers a foundation for thinking about education as transformation because it illuminates the idea that, in educational learning processes, what was once familiar and taken for granted becomes strange and what was once strange becomes familiar. This theme of transformation arises in various forms in classical and contemporary traditions of philosophy of education, as discussed below.

Bildung as a Transformational Process

The German idea of Bildung (commonly translated as education or formation) has its roots in the Greek Sophist and Socratic traditions and the questions they posed about the legitimacy of our basic forms of perception and understanding of the world (Ruhloff 1993). German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt’s short writing entitled Theorie der Bildung des Menschen (translated as Theory of Bildung) (1969 and 2001) provides a foundation for thinking about how education involves a human being’s active and passive interaction with the world. From these interactions, human beings are able to come to new ideas, gain new perspectives, and learn. Humboldt draws out the idea that human beings learn from difference and otherness; we need difference in order to flourish, such that we rely on a world that is “not us” [NichtMensch] (Humboldt 1969, p. 235). Thus, Bildung is dependent upon the manifold, “most general, most free, and most animated interplay between self and world”; this interplay is one in which both self and world change (Humboldt 1969, p. 235).

Bildung as a transformative process is mediated by moments in which we question our taken-for-granted ways of seeing and being in the world, moments that Humboldt refers to as “self-alienation,” and these are followed by a return to oneself with a different perspective and understanding of the world and one’s relation to it (Humboldt 1969, p. 237). Self-alienation relates to what G.W. F. Hegel calls the experience of consciousness, when one is aware of oneself in the world. Processes mediated by self-alienation are part of what make it possible for human beings to arrive at a transformed outlook on the world, such that their feelings, wishes, capabilities, and questions change and reshape the ways they inhabit the world.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher of education J. F. Herbart (1806/1902) extends the notion of Bildung and the idea of human beings as capable of transformation. Herbart considers the fact that the world as other can either help or hinder human transformational processes. For Herbart, educators have the responsibility of making the world into a space that facilitates human transformation. Herbart differentiates between two kinds of transformations, one cognitive and the other moral. The cognitive transformation involves the extension and expansion of an individual’s “circle of thought” [Gedankenkreis] to include differentiated ways of knowing and modes of participating in the world. The moral transformation involves the individual becoming capable of self-critique of his own motives of action and established norms (Herbart 1806/1902). In particular, Herbart emphasizes that transformation in the moral realm involves us in a necessary “inner struggle” incited by the difficulty of moving away from egoistic ways of interacting with others and learning respect and recognition of others (see Benner and English 2004; English 2013).

Herbart (1835/1913) develops the notion of Bildsamkeit (translated as educability) as the foundational principle of education. Both terms, Bildung and Bildsamkeit, have the same root word bild, and the word bildsam relates to the Latin word formabilis or docile, meaning formable or teachable, respectively. The concept of Bildsamkeit captures the idea that human beings are capable of forming the world around them and being formed by it, and for Herbart, it therefore describes an aspect of the human condition that educators must presuppose before they can consider educating another human being. The term Bildsamkeit underscores the idea that human beings are learning beings, capable of transformation.

Education as Reconstruction: John Dewey’s Notion of Transformation and Education

John Dewey, a philosopher of education in the tradition of American Pragmatism, draws upon a central idea in pragmatism that can be found in similar forms in C. S. Peirce, William James, and George Herbert Mead, namely, the idea that experiences of resistance lead human beings to fall into doubt or become confused and that this can promote thinking about and questioning of taken-for-granted habits and ideas. This idea of how thinking and questioning are initiated informs Dewey’s notion of education as a transformative process. Dewey’s concept of education ties educational processes to our experience of the world, in particular to our experiences of new, as yet unfamiliar objects and ideas that, because they are new, are unexpected and point out a limit to our existing knowledge and ability (see, e.g., Dewey 1916/2008). Such experiences interrupt our common, habitual ways of thinking, judging, and acting (English 2013). Our encounters with new objects and ideas can incite what Dewey calls “reflective experiences,” experiences in which we reflect upon the strange and unfamiliar encounters we have had in the world and rethink how we understand our relationship to the world.

In contrast to the “ordinary” definition of education as transmission, Dewey puts forward a “technical” definition of education as reconstruction. Education as a process of reconstruction involves the “reconstruction or reorganization” of a human being’s experience, such that our experience gains new “meaning” and increases our “ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (1916/2008, p. 82). Education, on this view, has to do with the enrichment of our experiences through our encounters with difference and newness.

Dewey’s understanding of education has commonalities with the German tradition of Bildung. In particular, Dewey highlights the idea that in educational processes, our interaction with the world incites self-reflection and struggle and, through this interaction, both self and world change. However, Dewey places more emphasis than his predecessors on the idea that human beings are capable of holding themselves in “suspense” before taking action or fixating on a solution to a problem. When we are in suspense, we are held between old, “tried and true” ideas, that now appear flawed, and the new ideas that have not yet been established, a space which can be thought of as an “in-between” realm of learning (English 2013, pp. 65–78). This realm between old and new knowledge and ability, in which we have not yet found the ways out of our difficulties, is a space of reflection upon self and world, in which we are engaged in inquiry and experiment with new ways of thinking and new possibilities for action.

In engaging in such reflective experiences, which Dewey also refers to as “reflective inquiry,” our experiences become more meaningful because we have increased our understanding of the connections between self and world, that is, between what we “do” and what we “undergo” in consequence (see, e.g., Dewey 1916/2008, p. 146 ff.). This process does not simply involve adapting to our environment as it is nor simply forcing the environment to adapt to our will; rather it involves an interaction between self and world. When such interactions are transformative, they enhance our ability to reimagine the future and create new aims.

Transformation and Education in the Thinking of R.S. Peters

For R. S. Peters, a philosopher of education in the analytic tradition, education as a transformational process is not equivalent to mere self-actualization, nor does it amount to one’s conforming to the existing order of things. Peters discussion of education addresses the issue of the learner’s confrontation with the otherness of the world and its connection to the learner’s transformation (English 2009). Without reference to Herbart, Peters takes a similar approach to the issue. Early in Ethics and Education, he notes the possibility of the individual’s narrow, limited and undifferentiated development and emphasizes throughout his work that the learning individual needs to be initiated into the differentiated forms of knowledge, awareness, and practices that make up the tradition of human thought and activity (Peters 1966, pp. 47–48). In his discussion of education as “initiation,” Peters utilizes a metaphor of getting learners “on the inside” that helps clarify his understanding of education as transformation. Educators not only have to “initiate” learning processes of learners, but they also must initiate learners in the sense of getting them “on the inside” of human modes of thought and understanding (see Peters 1966, e.g., p. 31). This process involves more than merely learning by rote or acquiring inert knowledge, activities which would not be considered education: “education implies a man’s outlook is transformed by what he knows” (Peters 1967, p. 7). For Peters, what is referred to as education is only education in this deeper sense when it results in an individual’s transformed perspective, which affects how he or she sees the world.

Although he spends less time considering what is entailed in the process by which an individual’s perspective is transformed, Peters does discuss the interaction between the child and the world in a way that helps clarify how he is conceiving of this process. The world that the child enters is a shared world, common to both teacher and learner, that Peters describes as an “impersonal world” made up of human traditions of thought and knowledge and “the criteria by reference to which that content is criticized” (1966, p. 52). Peters views the child as starting life on the “outside” on this world, without knowledge, language, or an understanding of human relationships. Both the natural order, the world of objects, and the moral order, the world of human relationships, appear fixed to the child (Peters 1966, p. 52). As the child develops and gradually gains an understanding of things and human relationships, the child gets on the “inside” of the shared world.

The transformation that is part of the child’s development occurs in both the “natural order” and the “moral order.” Transformation in the natural order involves the child coming to distinguish between real and imaginary and understand causal connections that are beyond his control (Peters 1973, p. 118). In the context of the moral order, the child’s transformed perspective arises from learning to take the “point of view of the other” into consideration (Peters 1973, p. 118).

For Peters, the teacher plays a critical role in the learner’s transformational processes. The teacher understands the shared world and knows how to question the validity of thought and knowledge. A central task for the teacher in supporting educational processes is to question learners so that they find their errors, which in turn helps them to take on “the questioner in [their] own mind[s]” (Peters 1967, p. 20).

Contemporary Notions of Education and Transformation

Contemporary philosophers of education continue to develop ideas of education as transformation and have drawn largely upon the traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology to illustrate key aspects of transformational processes. For example, in contemporary German philosophical discourse, the notion of Umlernen is used to capture the idea of learning as a “painful turnaround” that involves the transformative restructuring of foregoing and possible experience (Meyer-Drawe 1984; Buck 1969). Other scholars have discussed negative and discontinuous experiences as constitutive of both teaching and learning as transformative educational processes (e.g., Koch 1995; Benner 2003; English 2013). Others within the Anglo-American discourse discuss how certain kinds of interactions that challenge one’s self-understanding are transformative in that they offer new insight into oneself and the world (e.g., Kerdeman 2003).


In the twenty-first century, diverging trends in educational policy indicate that teacher-centered and child-centered understandings of education are still significant features of the social imaginary which continue to compete for representation in contemporary educational policy. Narrowly teacher-centered views of education, which reduce the idea of teaching to a mechanical transmission of facts to be regurgitated by students on tests, point to an understanding of education as a linear process, rather than a transformational one. Such views of education and teaching are increasingly reinforced by the global educational policy movement toward international comparative testing. Arguably, the value placed on test-based accountability in education has influenced a new global social imaginary in which education is generally thought to be easily measurable by standardized tests. There also has been a reaction against this trend, in which the stresses of the testing regime on young people are thought to be counterproductive to their well-being. These reactions tend to be associated with alternative child-centered policy trends, such as those that place emphasis on active learning (in contrast to rote learning).

On the other hand, some recent policies reflect ideas more strongly associated with philosophical notions of transformation. For example, the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence’s guidance documents for teachers of “Religious and Moral Education” encourage teachers to initiate “moral challenge” as part of students’ learning processes. Additionally, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics in the United States has introduced the notion of “productive struggle” as essential to mathematics learning at all ages and provides guidance for teachers as to what “productive struggle” looks like in practice. In the European Union, higher education policy is promoting the development of students’ ability to self-correct, think critically, and communicate across difference. It is yet to be seen the extent to which these ideas will take hold in the social imaginary.

What remains essential to the idea of transformation is that it involves a change that can be painful and entails moments of self-critical reflection in which we question the old ways of thinking and being before the change toward the new becomes fully possible. This notion of education as transformation is still significant in philosophy of education today, and it is seen to provide us with criteria for evaluating whether or not an individual’s interaction with objects (e.g., a child’s interaction with science lab resources in a classroom), or with other human beings (e.g., a child’s interaction with the teacher), is truly educational, in the critical philosophical sense.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Moray House School of Education, University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • John O'Neill
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of EducationMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand