Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Phenomenology in Education

  • Tone Saevi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_98



In Scandinavia and Europe, educational institutions are being transformed due to particular political, economical, and educational agreements such as The Bologna Process, to the policies of The Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OECD), and to changes in availability of global knowledge and information mobility through internet and social media. Moreover, families, kindergartens, schools, universities, social welfare programs, and cultures in general are affected deeply by increasing political migration, economic centralization, unemployment, and profound organizational changes in society and work. The structural changes of human and cultural life in Europe contest the common meaning of humanity and democracy and revive critical questions of how to possibly judge and incite alternative thinking and acting in the present situation in education. However, due to the influence of the Bologna Process and the OECD, education is increasingly a means for political and economic interests. The sole focus on knowledge and (lifelong) learning is making education the strategic center of rotation of society with issues of humanity in the purpose and aims of education coming under severe pressure. This critical situation calls for a radical rethinking of educational means and aims, and actualizes a renewed interest in how to encounter the young generation in the complexity of their lived present, rather than in their potential to increase the outcomes of education. The state of affairs has stirred up major contrasting educational views represented in the Western traditions of education. The cultural history of education in respectively Anglo–American (the English-speaking world) and Continental traditions (Europe and Scandinavia) is key here (Biesta 2011). Although the basis of the present problem is neither of the two systems per se, the very idea that more knowledge represents the main answer to educational questions and prospects has its source in the Anglo–American ideal of capitalism, competition, and the belief in an always more profitable future. While in the English-speaking world education is an object of study dependent of interdisciplinary views and conceptions from “real” disciplines like psychology, sociology, history, economy, and philosophy, the historical European understanding of education as “pädagogik,” indicates an independent discipline in its own right with its own conceptions, characteristics, and historical justification (Langeveld 1969; Oelkers 2001; Biesta 2011). Education as an interdisciplinary objective study – the study of the object of knowledge – and education as “pädagogik” – a discipline of its own oriented toward the moral relation between the new and the older generation – deploys a distinct difference of how educationalists understand their relation to education and how education relates to other disciplines like philosophy and phenomenology.

Dependent of whether we consider phenomenology to be a philosophy or a methodology, its relation to other disciplines is impacted. Phenomenology as a philosophy in its own right with its own conceptions, definitions, and disciplinary regulations encounters the sphere of other disciplines based on philosophy’s own language and meanings. Philosophy of education might be an example of how philosophy as a discipline lends its bearing to the object of education by subjugating education to philosophy in a hegemonic relationship. An encounter between phenomenology as a philosophy and education in this context would mean that education accepts the philosophical (phenomenological) characteristics to take control over educational intentions, purposes, and vocabulary. Education would become “phenomenologicalized” and lose its own disciplinary qualities. While phenomenology as a philosophy claims its own independence from other disciplines, phenomenology as a methodology lets itself be applied to other disciplines, allowing the disciplines to be in their own right and asking their own professional questions. Phenomenology as a methodology is not merely a method to be applied, it is implicitly also a way of seeing and living life, or as Mollenhauer (2014, p. 20) indicates “a way of life,” but it positions itself according to the disciplinary character of the other discipline. Phenomenology as a methodology is a kind of human science theory that explores the discipline and questions its foundations, not in order to subjugate it, but in order to sustain its legitimation. Hence, phenomenology as a methodology supports the discipline’s own questions and intentions without taking over its vocabulary and disciplinary characteristics. Phenomenology as methodological approach (and way of life) and education as “pädagogik” have coexisted in Europe over decades as a method of existential inquiry into professional practices of children and young peoples’ lifeworlds (for more details see van Manen 2014), reinforced by a range of philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Levinas, Løgstrup, and Gadamer. Phenomenology as methodology (or human science theory) and a particular way of life focuses on the individual’s lived experience of existential phenomena “the reality slowed down”, as Mollenhauer puts it (2014, p. 19). In this way phenomenology offers “pädagogik” ethical resistance by asking questions of reason, basis, and alternatives. By constantly reflecting and transforming “pädagogik’s” own questions, paradoxes, and complexities while sustaining education as “pädagogik” phenomenology puts education as well as itself to the test of revealing the experiential reality of the young to reflection in research and practice.

Phenomenology as Methodology in Education

Nonphilosophers commonly carry out a methodological phenomenology and the professional practice of research indicates that phenomenology is seen from the perspective of the actual professional practice rather than from the perspective of philosophy. This means that phenomenology in this context is not a philosophy of education, but a way of doing educational (pedagogical) research and practice. Phenomenology is a way of contemplating educational questions within the context of educational theory and practice. We might call this “practice” a “phenomenology of practice” which according to van Manen (2014) is a methodological approach relevant to any professional practice. Phenomenology in education is a “phenomenological ‘pedagogic’”. The term ‘pedagogic’ was first used in Phenomenology & Practice 2/2014 as the common basic anglicized term indicating the fact that there is no Anglo–American pedagogical tradition, and therefore no word for the practice of this tradition. It is therefore not easy for the Continental pedagogue to tell the English reader what pedagogic is. Theoretical pedagogic, in German “Allgemeine Pädagogik,” cannot be equated to philosophy of education for reasons explicated in the introduction to this article. One main distinction is that education refers to what is happening in schools and educational institutions, while pedagogic refers to everything that is happening to the child from early childhood to adulthood; the broader upbringing and educating the young generation. The special issue of P&P was a tribute to the translation into English of Klaus Mollenhauer’s classic book Vergessene Zusammenhänge. Über Kultur und Erziehung (Mollenhauer 1983), 30 years after its publication. It is a virtually giving or giving back “the phenomenon of pedagogic itself [...] without recourse to pat definitions and easy theoretical conceptualizations” (Levering and Saevi 2014, pp. 5–6), as the word “pedagogic” is the anglicized form of the German term “pädagogik,” the adults’ formal, nonformal, and informal being and acting in relation to the younger generation. The term “pedagogic” indicates a differentiation to the English term “pedagogy” that according to Wivestad (2014, p. 7), “lacks the ‘ic’ and hence the ‘techne’; it lacks the signals of an academic discipline. Wivestad (2014, p. 8) refers to Hügli (1989, p. 4), who claims that pädagogik “is and continues to be… a collective singular [noun] encompassing the whole spectrum of practice and theoretical concerns with upbringing [Erziehung].” Pädagogik as a discipline of its own is here pointed out in English by the term “pedagogic.” There is a range of European countries that share the German educational tradition and thus the term “pädagogik” in singular, indicating the unity and autonomy of the discipline (e.g., Norway – pedagogikk, Sweden – pädagogik, Denmark – pedagogik, The Netherlands – pedagogiek, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland – pedagogia, Latvia- pedagoģija, Lituania – pedagogika, Estonia – pedagoogika, France –pédagogie). Within the European and Scandinavian cultures, pedagogic is understood as the educational practice of helping the young generation to grow up in a culture, as well as the theoretical and conceptual reflective and reflexive responsibility for questioning and reformulating this particular culture’s insights, traditions, and habituations. While we might think of education as a formal preparation or qualification to jobs in society, and as children’s socialization to same age mates and to the cultural norms and standards of the status quo, pedagogic also presupposes an element of subjectification of and by the child or young person (as well as of the adult or teacher). This quality of subjectification, which in German is called “Bildung,” indicates a subjective independent counter voice or self-action (Mollenhauer 2014) sometimes from the utterly other; a resistance to the actual, which according to this tradition is the crucial identifier of pedagogic.

Explore Education Anew

Jan Masschelein (2011) in his paper entitled “Experimentum scholae,” provides an interesting exploration of education via the related word “school.” He alludes an allegory to Hannah Arendt’s introduction to her book Between Past and Future, where she claims that educational terms like authority, freedom, culture, and the word “education” itself are being emptied of content; the meaning of these words has “evaporated,” leaving behind “empty shells.” The challenge they present to education is “to distil from them [the empty shells] anew their original spirit” (Arendt 1968b, p. 15 in Masschelein 2011, p. 530). Masschelein continues:

Distilling the original spirit is neither to perform a historical reconstruction or genealogy, nor to engage in essentialist analysis in order to define a (suprahistorical) essence. It rather consists of attempts to relate these words to the experiences and materialities connected to the inventions or events that they name and to our actual experiences.

The term “distill” etymologically stems from Latin “distillare” “trickle down in minute drops,” from dis- “apart” + stillare “to drip, drop” (www.etymonline.com), and in chemistry is used to purify and identify a compound. To distil anew the original educational experience then could be to filter out replicas and counterfeits and to admit that experiential insights of education cannot simply be approved by tradition and institutional customs. On the contrary, what is called education has to be explored as fresh and uncontaminated as possible. This is Masschelein’s point of departure in his exploration of education. Also phenomenological method has to be invented anew every time an original research project is initiated (van Manen 2014), and no method (or any style or attitude) can be freed from prejudice and assumptions. Phenomenology in education or a phenomenological pedagogic is concerned with actual experiences of everyday life as they are experientially lived, sensed, and acted (rather than as they should have been or ought to be according to norms and traditions), and in particular the existential experience of situations as experienced by the singular child or young person. Phenomenological pedagogic resists preset aims and the adult’s psychological effort and ability to define the inner landscape of the child in order to make the correct preplanned learning incitement, as is commonly a teacher’s task today. Rather, the existential orientation of a phenomenological pedagogic evokes a concern for the child’s life as experienced by the child, and in his or her attention to issues of the world. The attentiveness to what is experienced – to what shows itself in the presence of present – demands that the adult or teacher inserts him or herself in time, space, and relationship with the experience and is exposed to what actually happens (rather than to what should have happened according to plans, norms, and assumptions). The adult is concerned with the present – he or she is “present in the present” (Masschelein 2012, p. 356), caring for the present, and in touch with and touched by what is actually happening.

Let Existence Address

Mollenhauer (2014, p. 26) asserts that at the heart of Continental pedagogic lingers the quest of a moral responsibility for my own being and acting and thus for how I encounter the other as an-other. A moral responsibility for how I am and act (rather than a professional accountability for who I am, e.g., teacher, social worker, psychologist) comes from the existential basis of phenomenological pedagogic, indicating that my being and acting has other ways of being and acting as its alternative. What would it mean to education if educational practice spoke to the existence of children and young people, and put reality to the test of human responsibility? What if the adult or teacher realized that all life situations (including the life with young persons) were an exposure to existential choices? The relation between the adult and the child – if it is a pedagogical relation – must be a relation of potentiality, openness, emptiness – a relation that is not preplanned to the extent that it is in the full power of the adult. On the contrary, the responsible relation hesitates in the presence of the other and requestions its purpose and aim. Here, intention and aim are not theoretical concepts helping the adult or teacher to master educational practice, so to speak, from the outside by applying general rules and regulations to present situations in order to pursue objectives and fixed processes and results. Rather, the concern of the pedagogue is to be present in the present along with the young and being attentive to the existing pedagogical and ethical bases. The moral and pedagogical concern for the child and young person’s experience in and of concrete educational relations and situations is a risky project that might lead to educational failure and defeat. One aspect of risk is the fact that the authority of the adult is different from the authority of the child or young person – although neither of them is unaffected by the power and powerlessness of the other. Authority unlike authoritarianism is a gift from the other and it is relational. Authority like morality, however, is never preset, but could always have been given to me differently or not given to me. The willingness of a phenomenological pedagogic to be addressed by the complexity of existence and care for the other is an ethos that cannot be utilized for a purpose outside the situation (even though the purpose might have good intentions), but has to be put “to the test of its own thinking” (Masschelein 2012, p. 355). To put education to the test of its own thinking might mean to explore its validity for children’s lives and for the critical questions of present time, which more often are complex existential dilemmas (e.g., fleeing from war, terror and poverty, young peoples’ experience of dismissal, discrimination, devaluation, unemployment, marginalization) than controllable issues of knowledge or learning. Existential educational traditions in Europe put the person (as first person) to the test of ethical existence and coexistence (Masschelein 2012; Mollenhauer 2014; van Manen 2014). They test out a kind of truth telling that concretely and riskily demonstrates (often through cultural works of art like fiction, paintings, and film) what being a teacher or young person might be and, implicit in the demonstration, offers a judgment or ethos of what is good and right. Moral questions are always questions that unlike statements or rules are constantly put to the test of relational coexistence and the complexity of human and existential life.

Why Phenomenology Matters to Education

What does phenomenology mean to education, or said in another way, can phenomenology address questions or incite understandings to education that would not be possible without phenomenology? Education as pedagogic and phenomenology coincide in their shared focus on the concrete, situated, singular, and irreplaceable human experience taking place in the complexity and paradoxes of the moral-relational lifeworld (Sævi 2015, p. 344). Nevertheless, while pedagogic tends to recollect concrete episodes in a more formal scholarly way, like useful didactic material for a particular educational purpose (Mollenhauer 2014, p. 74), phenomenological pedagogic puts lived experience concretely forth as existential examples, depicting present moments in the (em)pathically and bodily sensed experience. Examples of concrete presence in existence can be seen in the films made by the Belgian directors Jean–Pierre and Luc Dardenne, where young people and adults in open, exposed life situations put questions of pedagogic and existence to test (Mai 2010; Masschelein 2012). The films explore existential educational questions where responsible actions take place (or the lack thereof) to let pedagogic happen, or as one of the directors say, to allow the “future [to] take place” (L. Dardenne 2008 in Mai 2010, p. 84). The Dardennes ask once again the old questions of what a teacher, a father, a mother, a child, or the other as other actually is, when existence has little or no support in traditional norms and regulations. They show how humanity and relationality in contemporary life conditions are exposed and vulnerable to human responsibility. They put education to the test of its own thinking and acting and the risk of losing is real. The films help us see that the experience of what is in pedagogical situations is different from what ought to be or should have been. The attention to what is experienced implies nearness and attentiveness to the moral and pedagogical potential of the situation and indicates a basic difference between existential phenomenological pedagogic and a psychological prescriptive foundation of education (Saevi 2014, p. 43). Being experientially present, relating the meaning of the episode to my own experience, my own practice or what might have been my own practice, allows the experience to address me as a pedagogical possibility. The responsibility for that which is urges us as adults and teachers to keep educational situations open to experiential understanding – rather than to point to a problem or suggest a solution. If the future should have a chance to take place in present education as Luc Dardenne says (2008), being with children must carry existential human and moral weight as experiential moments for the adult and teacher.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NLA University CollegeBergenNorway