IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Understanding meaning

For decades IOE has been at the heart of work in the philosophy of education and this continues to this day through the Centre for Philosophy of Education.

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Our researchers are interrogating our understanding of education and its aims, teaching, learning, the curriculum, democracy, citizenship, technology, the environment, inclusion and wellbeing, and the nature of language in which these matters come to light.

Professor Jan Derry, Operational Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Education, is leading work applying Inferentialism to education. Inferentialism is a theory that challenges our common-sense ideas about meaning. It shows that our understanding of concepts are dependent on norms governing their application. For example, we might refer to the ‘dog’ running in the street before realising, on second glance, that it is a ‘fox’. The use of the term ‘dog’ is dependent on norms determining its correct application. We may use the term ‘dog’ when we presuppose domestication and the term ‘fox’ when we assume it to be wild. The distinction we make may be as accurate as a scientist, but we will not know all of the norms governing the correct application to do with behaviour or physiology. These norms are established through our practices, both everyday or scientific.

Professor Derry’s work shows the importance for education of challenging how we normally think of meaning. Rather than assuming that representations automatically convey meaning we need instead to give attention to how the representation comes to be understood in the first place.

Representations don’t stand for meaning on their own. It is through understanding how a concept functions that we can acquire a full grip on its meaning, i.e. become committed to the norms that govern its use. This matters for teaching as we need to create an environment in which a concept can function appropriately for the subject domain in which it is being used. The term ‘force’ in physics functions quite differently to the use of the term in literature, as in ‘the force of destiny’.

The implications of Inferentialism are far-reaching with consequences for areas such as policy, health communication and politics, but it has a particular significance in the classroom. If meaning isn’t straightforwardly a matter of representation then we need to think carefully about aspects of pedagogy, including teacher opportunities for development. Students may answer a question in a test and get the correct answer, but this does not necessarily mean they understand what their answer means. For example, a pupil could know how to identify an oxbow lake from having looked at a diagram in a textbook but that does not necessarily mean they know what an oxbow lake is. Too often ‘teaching to the test’, where the primary focus is getting the right answer in exams, takes priority over understanding.

Professor Derry argues that by interrogating our reasoning we can become aware of the commitments to particular presuppositions that underlie what we say or do. Once we reflect on those commitments, we often find that we change our meaning.

Teacher stood next to whiteboard delivering science lesson to class

In the classroom, being fully aware of pupils’ developing understanding of concepts is crucial, i.e. not only how they come to understand but also what underpins their understanding. In everyday conversations not much hangs on whether we mean the same by our particular use of a term, e.g. ‘democracy’, but in formal education gaining access to a specific area of knowledge requires the relevant commitments that govern the correct application of concepts.

This has implications for research design too, not just pedagogy and classrooms. How we apply concepts in the design of research studies directly relate to the sort of data that we are able to collect. Explaining mental health, for example, solely in neuroscientific terms or solely in social terms will have significant implications for the results of any study. Each discipline will have a different conception of mental health. This is one reason why interdisciplinary work is so important but also why it is so difficult as different disciplines use the same word in very different ways.

By understanding this and looking at our education through this perspective, not only will we support a more questioning society – one that does not stop at easy but inadequate characterisations – but it can also help to develop a society that treats people more equitably by seeking to further understand what different people mean in their speech, outlook and actions.

In particular, Professor Derry’s work on the application of Inferentialism highlights the importance of philosophy as well as the many opportunities that arise from it. Philosophy need not be thought of as a self-contained discipline; the desire to question assumptions underlying knowledge and so gain greater understanding forms the basis of work on social theory, anthropology, psychology and a range of other disciplines.

Philosophy can instead be more broadly understood as encouraging us to think about what we have taken for granted and assumed to be ‘a given’. This is not simply the sort of reflection that we make anyway as we revise our ideas or views, rather it is to do with what we have presupposed when we use concepts. We may rarely reflect on our presuppositions - what we are committed to when using a particular concept - because we have assumed that meaning is contained in the word or representation itself. By recognising what presuppositions we hold, we can appreciate what they imply and so also what we are entitled to conclude from them. Attention to presuppositions often results not only in their revision but also in the development of knowledge.

While we all benefit from doing this, teachers do in particular. IOE has a longstanding tradition of seeing teachers as intellectuals. Doing so respects the space required for teachers to reflect, allowing them to enhance their fundamental contribution to society and to work towards a truly equitable and inquisitive world, one determined to further knowledge and embrace equality.