Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Possibilism in State Schooling

  • John O’Neill
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_525



This entry considers first, the purpose of State schooling as modern social imaginary; second, selected examples of contemporary possibilism in schooling policy and practice; third, some of the theoretical and empirical flaws in possibilism; and finally, a productive distinction between possibilism as rationality and possibilism as rationalization.

The term “modern social imaginary” was coined by the Canadian hermeneutic philosopher Charles Taylor (2004) to convey the ways in which societies imagine, idealize, and attempt to realize themselves in both moral and practical terms. The social imaginary comprises three spheres through which these occur; namely, the economy, the public sphere, and self-governance. All three may be said to be relevant to a theoretical analysis of “State” or “public” schooling systems. From an administrative perspective, these systems comprise: (i) their constituent policy ensembles, narratives, and trajectories over time; (ii) policy settings at particular historical junctures (including both the quantum of funding appropriations and particular weightings or priorities within this); and, (iii) the specific policy texts (curriculum, pedagogy, evaluation) that are negotiated daily by teachers, students, and families.

From a hermeneutic perspective, schooling policies also inscribe a community or a society’s assessment of what is morally worthwhile and what is worth striving to realize through publicly funded and delivered schooling provision that is always imperfect. In this sense, a State schooling system is about the practical articulation and realization of a society’s moral aspirations for its young people. However, no society is homogeneous. Lobby groups (for-profit, not-for-profit), cultural and geographical communities, adherents of particular schooling theories, and diverse participant groups all engage in the public sphere in order to advance their own ideologies of the most important purposes of State schooling and how best to enact these.

Ideologies and theories of “possibilism” are central to this educational project not least because the day-to-day administration of schooling proceeds pragmatically on the premise that there will never be sufficient public funding to meet all the demands made on it by society as a whole, by the intellectual elites, politicians, powerful business interests, and secular or faith communities within it.

State Schooling

The practical administration of State schooling addresses questions of effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness concerns questions such as: What are the realistically possible outcomes of a comprehensive, compulsory schooling system that must satisfice the needs and goals of a socially, economically, spiritually, and cognitively diverse student population? Efficiency concerns questions such as: How can a publicly acceptable array of possible student outcomes be achieved at optimum cost to the State? Possibilism may be similarly understood as a matter of State school administration but at ideological, theoretical, and practical levels. In terms of its contribution to the modern social imaginary, it is about the ways in which the polity, civil society, and families conceive of and proselytise purported causal relationships between State schooling provision and improved individual student outcomes, enhanced intergenerational family prospects, and greater aggregate prosperity and harmony in society as a whole.

In the sense that they have always examined, judged, and progressively sorted young people for society’s preferred occupational destination types (manual, technical, professional, entrepreneurial), State schooling systems embody society’s official aspirations for, and practical pathways to, adult economic self-sufficiency and wellbeing. This operates on the jurisdiction as a whole (e.g., Gross Domestic Product), the family unit (e.g., school choices), and the individual (e.g., subject choices). State schooling systems similarly have been mandated a major role in the normative development and socialization of children, including their preparation for meaningful participation in and contribution to those aspects of society that are held in common (e.g., social capital). Equally, through their modes of central steerage and local self-governance, in their relative levels of public, private, and philanthropic funding sources, and in the degrees to which they variously serve social reproduction, redistribution, and equity purposes, State schooling may be understood as an archetypal modern social imaginary.

Political and cultural struggles to advance society’s idealized view of schooling rely on acceptance or rejection of the proposition that schooling is a “wicked problem” (Rittel and Webber 1973). Rittel and Webber refute the notion that public policy can be conceived of or enacted scientifically. On their criteria, State schooling would be a wicked problem because it cannot be definitively described due to the myriad of cognitive, affective, physical, spiritual, economic, and social challenges or problems it is intended to resolve on behalf of the rest of society. Moreover, there is no universal agreement on the nature of the public or social good that State schooling is intended to promote, or on the meaning of equity against which to evaluate its success. In this context, they argue that definitions of “optimal” or “acceptable” solutions must always be qualified while the criteria against which the success or failure of State schooling is judged, cannot be considered definitive or objective, but only ever subjective or intersubjective and partial.

In direct contrast to the view that State schooling’s inherent complexities are irreconcilable with policy science solutions, the school effectiveness and school improvement (SESI) movements (Morley and Rassool 1999) have greatly influenced the conception and operationalization of State schooling policy in developed economies since the latter part of the twentieth century. SESI theory and practice are premised on the position that it is possible for academics and officials to define a schooling problem, help practitioners and their communities to implement precise pedagogical strategies intended to overcome the problem, and evaluate the extent to which this has occurred – definitively and objectively. Moreover, it has been forcefully asserted in scholarly, professional, and popular cultural texts that it is possible to do this irrespective of the family, social, and economic circumstances in which teachers and students interact. This deliberate excision of the impact of local context and circumstances from definitions of the schooling “problem” represents what is arguably the dominant version of possibilism today. In the context of teachers and schools being required to meet officially mandated minimum outcomes from compulsory schooling for all their students, Nash (2003) has described this as “state-sponsored possibilism.”

Possibilism in Practice

In this part of the discussion, three representative texts are briefly described to illustrate the practices of contemporary State-sponsored possibilism. In the following part of the discussion, selected ideological and theoretical underpinnings of possibilism are examined.

In 2005, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2005) released an analysis of how its developed economy member states reportedly conceptualize and respond to the challenges of improving schooling outcomes for the significant minority of children who do not experience minimum expected levels of success. Known vernacularly as the “Teachers Matter” report, the report’s summary drew a distinction between matters that were judged to be readily open to influence by policy makers and those that were not. In terms of the latter, it was recognized that the greatest influences or sources of variation on student achievement overall were those that students brought with them to school: prior abilities, attitudes, and family and community background (OECD 2005, p. 2). Foremost among the former was reportedly “the broad consensus […] that ‘teacher quality’ is the single most important school variable influencing student achievement” (p. 2). In the context of the modern social imaginary, this may be regarded as an attempt by influential policy elites to refocus society’s imagination and idealization of what “matters” in State schooling sharply on what goes on inside school, as opposed to outside, and on matters of teaching practices and dispositions rather than broader social policy and its material effects. In this sense, it is a conscious effort to include teachers and teaching within professional and popular conceptions of the realm of the “possible,” and to exclude prior ability, attitude, and family and community background on the basis that these are matters over which it is “not possible” for schooling to exert direct influence.

By any definition, this utterance represents a radical attempt to alter the social imaginary of State schooling. It is one that has since been seized upon by politicians, officials, academics, and schooling policy entrepreneurs and advocates from both the public and private sectors across the OECD bloc. A few years later, for example, John Hattie, a professor of education at the University of Auckland, published Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses of studies relating to achievement (Hattie 2009), which was immediately labeled by one professional magazine reviewer as “reveal[ing] the holy grail” of teaching and learning, and thereafter marketed as such. The book continued the increasingly normalized possibilist theme of differentiating between matters that were open to influence by teachers and those that were not. It claimed to identify and rank order those dimensions of teaching and learning that according to “research” exerted the greatest measurable “effect size” on students’ cognition. The heavily qualified scholarship that underpinned the book’s opening sections was later widely ignored in the public sphere while the “scientific evidence” was repurposed to argue that teachers should be expected to increase all student’s achievement outcomes by at least the “hinge point” of the average achievement effect size, or 1 year’s growth, each year and then continue to do so every year.

In 2011, Sir Michael Barber, a former professor of education at the Institute of Education, London, and senior public policy “standards and targets” adviser in the UK Blair governments, published a possibilist manual with colleagues at McKinsey and Company called Deliverology 101: A field guide for educational leaders. Deliverology is defined in the manual as “a systematic process for driving progress and delivering results in government and the public sector” (Barber et al. 2011, p. vii), and the authors offer the reader proven strategies to “create an irreversible delivery culture” (p. 171). From roles as Head of Global Practice at McKinsey, and Managing Partner of Delivery Associates, Barber has since been appointed Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, the world’s largest private educational organization. A major focus of Barber’s work at both McKinsey and Pearson has been to exercise global “thought leadership” in the use of achievement data analytics. The agenda has been to encourage governments to adopt standardized measures of student achievement, to collate and authoritatively interpret comparative student achievement outcome data at system level from various primary sources on their behalf, and to then offer governments publicly and privately delivered State schooling “solutions” in partnership with a wide range of venture capital, social investment, and philanthropic schooling policy actors.

Looking across State schooling in both the OECD bloc and the Global South in 2016, then, one may discern a consistent discourse of possibilism in official policy, commercial and philanthropic schooling services delivery, and ongoing scholarly activity in the SESI tradition. Most significantly, perhaps, in terms of its adoption as part of the State schooling modern social imaginary within broader civil society, possibilism appears at present to be accepted as a largely unremarked feature of popular cultural texts: All children can and should succeed at school irrespective of prior ability, attitude, and family and community contexts.

Possibilism in Theory

Three approaches to possibilism are discussed. In order to broadly differentiate them, they are here called psychologically optimist, sociologically realist, and methodologically pluralist.

In 1976, the Journal of Teacher Education published a special issue to commemorate the American bicentennial and look forward to its “third century.” The guest editorial was written by S.K. Bailey (1976), vice-president of the American Council on Education and an academic expert in American schooling legislation and its administration. The title of his editorial was: “The case for ‘possibilism.’” Quoting a contemporary possibilist colleague, Bailey asserted that “the future is up for grabs. It will be, in part, what we will it to be” (p. 290, emphasis in original). Bailey then elaborated “four steps to possibilism”: first, “tell it as it is”; second, “dream how it might be different”; third, “affirm people’s capacity for decency and growth”; and fourth, “plot the instrumental means” (p. 290). While the brief editorial in no way attempts to theorize or justify possibilism, it does neatly capture its essential bureaucratic or public policy imperative, namely to socialize the belief that it is possible to will a beneficial State schooling future, irrespective of present circumstances. This is in some senses precisely the same ideology espoused by the OECD, high-profile policy actors, and academics working in the SESI tradition.

In contrast, the sociologist of education Roy Nash has argued that possibilist ideologies selectively ignore or fail to appreciate a large body of quantitative and qualitative empirical evidence that explains precisely why some children fail to succeed at school. According to Nash, this predictable and consistent failure to succeed is not amenable to simple will on the part of policy makers, administrators, or teachers. Educational inequality and difference occur sociologically because of what Nash conceives of as “the cognitive habitus.” According to Nash’s research, “durable cognitive schemes, acquired by children in classed environments, are a principle cause of observed class variation in educational performance” (p. 171). This cognitive habitus is necessary to success in “the kind of abstract problem-solving exercised in mathematics and other language-based, symbolic information processing” (p. 172), in other words during schoolwork. However, it develops differentially in families. Given Nash’s arguments that essential features of the cognitive habitus are formed in early childhood and that prior attainment is demonstrably the strongest predictor of subsequent scholastic achievement, he rejects the possibilist ideology that achievement gains can simply be willed by bureaucrats and delivered by teachers irrespective of the state of the child’s cognitive habitus. Nash holds to a realist view in the world in which social properties, such as the family resources framework that generates the child’s cognitive habitus, have material, durable effects.

The methodological possibilism of Albert O Hirschman (Lepenies 2008) also sits in opposition to the bureaucratic possibilism of the kind denounced by Nash. However, it offers something of a problem-solving alternative that could be of practical assistance to those charged with developing public policy responses to intractable schooling challenges, like the polity expectation that all children should succeed. According to Lepenies, “Hirschman advocates an escape from the ‘straightjacket constructs’ of policies grounded in generalizations, universal laws and fixed sequences by searching instead for the uniqueness or unique features of a given situation” (p. 448). This form of what might be called methodological possibilism is thus concerned with identifying what is possible given the unique features and local circumstances of, in this instance, a particular State schooling challenge. In this sense, like Nash’s realist family resource framework, Hirschman’s possibilism seeks to understand the complexities of how the social world actually works in practice, not how ideally it should work in theory, and to then encourage local interventions on that basis. Similarly, like Nash’s realist rejection of State-sponsored psychological possibilism, Hirschman’s methodological possibilism rejects externally imposed, mandated solutions in favor of flexible approaches that are locally responsive. Methodological possiblism assumes that a solution of some sort may commonly be found provided that the complexities of local circumstances, and their material effects, are sufficiently appreciated as a result of examining the same real phenomenon through multiple perspectives. In contrast, psychologically optimistic possibilism appears to claim that a solution may be found provided only there is sufficient common will and commitment.

Conclusion: Possibilism as Rationality and Rationalization

These opposing views of possibilism may usefully be understood in the context of State schooling by applying Flyvbjerg’s (1998) distinction between rationality and rationalization. The former is a description of the world as it is depicted according to official discourses articulated and circulated by those in positions of power. The latter is a description of the world as it is actually experienced by most people in society. According to the rationality of State-sponsored possibilism, centrally mandated schooling policies and officially preferred teaching and learning practices are claimed to offer the promise of a State schooling system in which all children can succeed irrespective of prior ability, attitude towards schooling, and the day-to-day material realities and effects of the child’s family and community circumstances. This is a possibilism constructed on a highly partial view of childhood and on an idealized view of the pedagogical relations between teachers, students, and families. In contrast, what we might describe as the rationalization of a realist or methodological possibilism would begin by developing a rich, nuanced appreciation of the durable cognitive dispositions that the child brings to school; of the ways in which these both enable and constrain the child from engaging in meaningful learning; and of what supports, opportunities, and resources the child may need to become more confident and agentic in school, in the family, and in the community. State-sponsored possibilism in schooling represents a concerted effort by those in power to decouple achievement from family and community circumstances. Such a psychological possibilism seeks to reorient the popular narratives that maintain the modern social imaginary of State schooling to ones in which all children can succeed provided only that teachers will it and children aspire to it. A realist or methodological possibilism of State schooling would instead begin with the material realities of inequitable early childhood experience as they are lived, and seek to identify all the necessary interventions (family, community, and polity) that might be required to mitigate them over time.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationMassey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand