What is education for? Biesta (2015): Summary & Reflections

During a recent lunch conversation with colleagues we had an interesting discussion on an article that questions what is education for (Biesta, 2015).  This topic intrigued me, and that night when I got back I read the article. It lets you take a step back and brings you back to the basics that needs attention. In this post, I put forth a summary of the paper and my own reflections. I think this is an article that is a worthy read for all educators.

Biesta (2015) puts forth a fascinating discussion on the purpose of education and how and why this purpose needs to be balanced by teacher’s own judgments regarding their teaching. He starts by emphasizing the recent diminished focus on teacher professionalism and the necessity for it re-emerge in our conversations on education and its purpose. The second aspect he brings to the table is on the “language of learning”, and which he calls as learnification. I am quite fascinated by his use of this term. He argues that this language of learning is undermining the language of education, and is impacting education in negative ways, particularly the ways in which teachers and policy makers are dealing with education.

According to Biesta, the purpose of education is multidimensional, and he classifies the functioning and working into three domains that are inseparable:

  1. qualification: the ways in which education qualifies an individual; provides one with the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions.
    The current excessive emphasis on academic achievement causes severe stress on both the students and students, particularly in cultures where failure is not really an option. This strikes a chord with me. In one of my recent studies that looked at impact of implementation of a gradeless learning system at our university, one student summarised this fear very well, ‘The ultimate fear among students is maintaining a decent GPA. Thus, not many would take the risk of widening their horizons by compromising their GPA in a graded semester’ (McMorran et al. 2015). This study helped me realise that convincing students of the value of learning beyond grades, especially for many who have been ingrained in a grade-focused culture, may be the greatest challenge.
  2. socialisation: the ways in which an individual can become part of and identifies with the existing social, cultural and political practices and traditions; establishes an identity for one
  3. subjectification: the way in which education impacts on the person; how one exists outside of the existing orders (actions of others, existing social/cultural practices) through his own initiative and responsibility.

For education to be purposeful, there needs to be a balance and synergy between the three domains and it needs to be emphasized that qualification alone is not sufficient. Education should help learners develop and transform to be a better person, caring for others around him. And it is really heartening to know that Singapore as a nation and my own university, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is addressing this aspect. For its 110th anniversary, my university’s theme of ‘Because We Care’ emphasized it’s service to the community, and its drive to improve lives. Here I quote the nation’s education minister to highlight the emphasis taken,

“where employers look beyond academic qualifications, … where educators focus on holistic education, building a strong foundation of values and the capacity to learn, where our institutions of higher learning play a leading role strengthening the nexus between learning and work, learning and life, where parents recognise every child’s unique strengths, and do their part to build their children’s character, where students flourish through a range of academic and co-curricular activities, take different pathways to success and grow up to be well-rounded”.

(Taken from “From ‘Study Book’ or du shu to Learning with Joy for Life.” The Straits Times 2015, March 7, sec. Opinion.)

Biesta’s point is that teacher judgment is at the very centre of maintaining this balance between the three domains. With possibilities for synergies and conflicts arising within these three domains, it is crucial that teachers make informed and situated judgments about what is desirable at any point of time, and the attention that needs to be given within these domains. Taking into consideration the importance of teacher judgement,

Biesta (2012) strongly advocates the need for thinking about teacher education, and puts forth three parameters for consideration:

  1. a focus on the formation and transformation of the person towards educational wisdom;
  2. a focus on learning through the practising of educational judgments; and
  3. a focus on the study of the educational virtuosity of others

This now leaves me to start exploring Biesta’s other work to look into ideas on how a competent teacher can become a good teacher. This will be for another day’s read, and sure it going to be interesting!


Biesta, G. (2012). The future of teacher education: Evidence, competence or wisdom? Research on Steiner Education, 3(1), 8-21, July 2012.

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgment, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75-87.

McMorran, C., Ragupathi, K., & Luo, S. (2015): Assessment and learning without grades? Motivations and concerns with implementing gradeless learning in higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education,


5 thoughts on “What is education for? Biesta (2015): Summary & Reflections

  1. Oh, yes. I like the quote by your education minister. That made me Think of a lecure with professor Dylan Wiliam from UK, about the impact of education. Look at this videoclip (2 min) (I hope it’s possibly to look outside Sweden) http://urskola.se/Produkter/188784-UR-Samtiden-Koden-till-battre-larande#start=495&stop=619 . If you have time look at the whole lecture. Dylan Wiliam is a very good lecurer. I was IRL at this lecture. It’s like a big popstar is arriving.

    I dont quite understand the difference of “language of Learning” and “the language of education”. And why the language undermining the education? Here in Sweden we talk about that the pupils and students need many languages/vocabulary: one for their time with family and friends, one about Learning and vocabulary for different subjects. /charlotte


  2. Hi Charlotte, When we use “language of learning”, students are referred to as ‘learners’, teaching is called ‘facilitating learning,’ and university campuses and schools are referred as a ‘learning environments’. and what he argues is that the essence of education is not what students learn but it is that whatever students learn, they learn it for a purpose and from someone. Instead of concretely thinking and engaging with the important “educational questions of content, purpose and relationships”, we think in rather shallow terms of merely promoting or supporting learning. i think you will enjoy reading the paper, read it if you have some time.

    Thank you for sharing Dylan William’s lecture. i will listen to the full clip, he seems very interesting.


  3. Hi Kiruthika,

    Thanks for this nice summary and the thoughtful reflections on Biesta’s work. As you say, he really does make one take a step back and question one’s most fundamental assumptions. Like Charlotte, I was initially taken aback by his criticism of the language of learning. Surely, I thought, learning — and student learning outcomes, high levels of achievement — are what education should be all about? But as you explain, Biesta’s point is that we cannot just think of education in terms of achievement and ‘qualification’: the language of learning tends to neglect the ‘of what’ and the ‘for what’ of learning (p.77), i.e. the important educational aspects of socialisation and subjectification. If we just focus on qualification and thus achievement of learning outcomes, and hence on quality of instruction (‘teaching excellence’), we neglect the normative dimension of education. What this means concretely is that we need to think about why we teach: to what end. Otherwise there could be a situation where a highly skilful, excellent teacher is very effective in teaching students ethically dubious things, or where students become fixated only on learning and grades (as a measure of learning), at the expense of a more holistic view of education. As Biesta says, and as we know in Singapore, such a fixation on grades can have highly detrimental effects.


  4. thank you Johan for your comments. As both you and Charlotte pointed out, his criticism of the prolific usage of language of learning was perplexing.

    For me to understand his argument fully, i had spend some time reading his very early works. In one of his early work, i think in 2004, he laments about how education is presented as “meeting the needs of the learner” pointing to a debatable assumption that students already know what their needs are! And that when such stands taken, it is not true to the actual role that an educator (and his expertise) plays in helping students understand and find what they really need.

    thank you both for these insightful comments.


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