A little bit of ontological digging

As I began my most recent assignment, I felt suddenly anxious that I had not yet charted a sufficiently accurate path down which for my study to tread, especially as I am expected, quite rightly, to be honing and refining my research question, in this case through epistemological and ontological lenses. And then, by chance, Foucault set my mind at rest: “I like to open out a space of research, try it out, then if it doesn’t work try again somewhere else. On many points… I am still working and don’t yet know whether I am going to get anywhere. What I say ought to be taken as ‘propositions’, ‘game openings’ where those who may be interested are invited to join in…” (1991, pp.90-91)

Perhaps, then, my perceived need for a detailed map is the product of the system in which I have been educated, in which I have taught (and do teach), and in which I am, now, learning. Here, I consider the concept of ‘curriculum’, which rears its head at every juncture in which I begin to conceive radical new possibilities for schooling, and I wonder whether what I am trying to do is consolidate a curriculum for my research, alongside the explicit curriculum the taught part has also provided me, when, in fact, my instinct finds more comfort in a Foucaultian space/game opening and trying things out.

I also wonder whether that is my preferred route as I conduct my pre-doctoral research, gathering stories from various school stakeholder groups around the world. Burdened with a habitus full of objectivist ontology, I will have to stop myself approaching each conversation with a hypothesis in need of proof, or, even, with a list of specific questions.

I am also concerned whether my early research questions are, ontologically, too narrow. Do children want a democratic education? Would they benefit from one? Should their full dataset be democratised? Would the child’s ownership of that dataset facilitate and effective democratic education? Whilst I did not, initially, consider these questions to be either narrow or leading, I am now questioning that initial assumption. Surely, verstehen and an subjectivist ontology would favour more inductive questioning. What do children want from education? What should be their relationship with their dataset? Such starting points would enable me to be detective, and investigate the crime I believe to be the status quo.

But is that ontologically awkward? Even if my questions have been inductivised, does the fact that I consider the system to be broken mean that I will still, nonetheless, cloud the process? Should I, instead, be adding another question, and ask, is the system broken? Or is it permissible that some degree of assumption is inevitable, normal and unproblematic? On the one hand, if I see my research as, effectively, criticism, then Foucault would seem to argue that my assumptions necessitate challenging: “Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought (which animates everyday behaviour) and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see that what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such… As soon as one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible.” (1988, p.154)

And, yet, the assumption of a ‘broken’ system can surely, and simply, be my ‘Intellectual Problem’ (Nozick, 1993, p.164), or my ‘awkward space’ (Barnett, 2005, p.795) and, therefore, an essential paradox to frame my research. This tension does not appear dissimilar from Dall Alba and Barnacle’s warning about learning and teaching: “Gardner points out ‘how hard it is to teach without sliding into views that exaggerate both one’s own knowledge and one’s students lack of’ knowledge (Gardner, 1994, p. 81). Creating space and opportunities for learning demands that we recognise and draw upon the commitment, openness, wonder and passion that are integral to learn-ing. It also requires dealing with the resistance, prejudices and anxieties that limit learning.” (Dall’Alba/Barnacle, 2007, p. 685) Indeed, if they are “…calling for educational approaches that engage the whole person: what they know, how they act, and who they are” (ibid), then what I am learning is that my own research needs to make possible that ‘ontological turn’, and go freely and with an open mind into my research arenas.

Heidegger says as much when he argues that “…real education lays hold of the soul itself and transforms it in its entirety by first of all leading us to the place of our essential being and accustoming us to it.” (Heidegger, 1998, p. 167) And this, then, leads me back to my understanding of the broken system and my desire to explore the paradox of the contradictions therein. In fact, am I not proposing the reverse of the syllogisms of management to which Ball refers: “If self-examination fails, the expert, the consultant, the moral disciplinarian is at hand to intervene with their models of ‘effective practice’. In this role the scientific and the moral are tightly intertwined. In effect, given the logic of management, ineffectiveness is seen as a disorder of reason and as such susceptible to cure by the use of appropriate techniques or organization.’ (1995) For me, the excess of ‘reason’ and order in the status quo of education is, in fact, its disorder, and I perceive a ‘moral’ duty to cure those ills.

All of which then makes me sound like some sort of hero crusader, which is, ontologically, overblown, probably betrays dysfunctional habita galore, and would doubtless dominate, hinder and overbear both any attempt at inductive research and also any hope for verstehen.

My assignment requires me to experiment with some ontological questions to plough the epistemic earth of my research focus. I now find myself considering many such questions:

  • Is our standard system of schooling broken? If so, can it be cured?
  • What do children want from education? What do they need? Is there a difference?
  • What role could data play in that process?

On that last question, I wrestle too. Data, in schools, is tyrranical by nature, and, like Nietzschan thought was contaminated as a result of its Nazi espousal, so has data been sullied by its adoption as governmental artillery. Data comes to life – becomes human, warm and optimistic – when it becomes part of the child’s individual narrative. Or perhaps that is what I would like to explore:

  • What should be a child’s relationship with their own data narratives?

Finally, I am reassured by the fact that I do not, yet, clearly know what I want to find out, how I want to do so or from whom, by Angus’ observation that this has been the undoing of the broken system of the need for whose cure I am so convinced: ‘…predictability and efficiency are valued to the extent that schools would surely become dramatically more boring places than they are already’ (Angus, 1993, p.343)


Angus, L. (1993) The Sociology of School Effectiveness, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(3), pp.333-345

Ball, S.J., (1995), Intellectuals or Technicians? The Urgent Role of Theory in Educational Studies, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol 43, No. 3, pp.255-271

Barnett, R. (2005) Recapturing the universal in the university, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37(6), 785–797.

Dall’Alba, G. and Barnacle, R. (2007) An ontological turn for higher education, Studies in Higher Education Vol. 32, No. 6, December 2007, pp. 679–691

Foucault, M. (1988) Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault. Technologies of the Self. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press)

Foucault, M. (1991) Questions of Method. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. (Brighton: Harvester/Wheatsheaf)

Gardner, M. R. (1994) On trying to teach: the mind in correspondence (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press)

Heidegger, M. (1998/1967) Plato’s doctrine of truth (T. Sheehan, Trans.), in: W. McNeill (Ed.) Pathmarks (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Nozick, R. (1993) The Nature of Rationality. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)

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