Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Teacher “Training” Under Three Philosophical Lenses: The Analytic School of Philosophy of Education, Wittgenstein, and Foucault

  • Jeff StickneyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_83-1


Teachers’ education, professional development, and evaluation can be seen differently through three philosophical lenses, shown here by surveying alternate meanings of the “training” concept as it bears on teacher preparation and formation. The first lens is based on a negative definition, defining “teaching” as something other and higher than “training”: a rejection of both stimulus-response behaviorism and dogmatic or doctrinaire authoritarianism, in favor of cultivating within teachers and pupils a rational and autonomous disposition as practitioners of liberal arts constituting our curriculum. This liberal-analytic lens makes teacher education (i.e., “teaching” proto-teachers as opposed to “training” them) a process of initiation into and gradual embodiment of the finer distinctions and public tests we conduct to rationally assess truth claims as literate and sensitive readers in the sciences, math, history and literature (Hirst 1965).

The second Wittgensteinian lens that does not entirely refute the first and is in fact a prior basis for it; however, it eschews emphasis on individual rational dispositions in order to demonstrate that certain claims “ring true” for us because of membership within a culture (hence more “communitarian” in Charles Taylor’s sense), having been initiated into similar concepts, practices, and techniques from young up through basic training and enculturation. Furthermore, on this view, the correctness of teaching moves we make in the liberal arts hinge upon this more basic training into culturally and historically-linguistically relevant, second-nature reactions, shared agreements, and judgments upon which people hold in “solidarity” (as Richard Rorty coined it) some claims to be “true” or values “right” (without rational deliberation), predisposing us to appreciate the normative methods and tests we employ when doing or teaching the liberal arts. Teacher training is thus perceived as being more about doing than reasoning or absorbing the bedrock knowledge and practices of the curricular subjects being taught by immersion in and mastery of the content and techniques: becoming adepts at playing (as “naturally” and non-ratiocinatively as socially dancing) by the tacit, normative rules that regulate shared language games of education within each subject area and therefore better able to expertly judge when pupils or teacher candidates demonstrate felicitous performance within various disciplines.

The third adopts an even more genealogical, Foucauldian lens on the socially ascribed rules and practices that govern the teaching profession: generally in terms of how teachers come to see and conduct themselves discursively as “good teachers” or as “sound professionals,” and much like doctors acquire the “clinical gaze” for diagnosing their students’ needs, and, particularly, through an historical survey of how discourses have changed over time and now come to constitute authoritatively the various disciplines/knowledges we have inherited as “games of truth,” such as biology, sociology, psychology, etc. On this view, teacher training is initially a disciplinary process of normalization within the current rules governing professional conduct: learning to navigate institutional fields of educational practice while under pastoral supervision by associate teachers or mentors at the pre-service stage and later administrators or superintendents as in-service teachers. Becoming a “subject teacher” in the dual sense of mastering content and practices selectively rather than slavishly and also forming a professional identity require developing agency for self-constitution or subjectification as a self-stylized “teacher” by distancing oneself from these standard, power-related norms and knowledges: coming to problematize these ways of knowing and acting so as to see alternatives for how educators can think and act.

Analytic Philosophy of Education and Images of Rational Teaching

The Analytic School of Philosophy of Education emerged in the 1960s with key figures like R.S. Peters, Paul Hirst, and Robert Dearden in the United Kingdom, the so-called London School, and Israel Scheffler, James MacMillan, Paul Komisar, and Thomas Green in the United States. Skeptical that education could ever secure the status of empirical “pedagogical sciences,” it was thought that philosophers of education could most usefully analyze its key concepts: “teaching” and “learning.” Much was written about the distinctions between “teaching” and “telling,” as the former concept is more parasitic on at least some learning being achieved: it is hard to claim that “one was actively teaching the whole class but nobody was learning,” used in the sense of intentional “teaching acts” during instruction and not in the “occupational sense” of teaching (Komisar 1968) that includes cleaning chalkboards, taking attendance, or planning field trips. When we talk about “teacher education,” we ordinarily have this intentional sense in mind, as an integrated program of study (including but not reducible to periods of immersion in schools through practicum-placements) that incudes courses variously gathered around a nearly ubiquitous “normal school” or common “teachers college” syllabus: the foundations of teaching (introducing legal, ethical, psychological, and philosophical aspects of education); subject-related inquiries devoted to mastering the “relevant content” (according to the state or ministry curriculum as well as canonical knowledge deposited and new developments emerging within the university located “field”) and pedagogical techniques generally acknowledged by recognized educational experts or theorists to best enable students to learn (in Shulman’s terms, “pedagogical content knowledge”); and other auxiliary, mandatory, or elective topics (including educational uses of technology, issues in equity and diversity, environmental sustainability education, student and teacher wellness, literacy and numeracy, etc.). On analytic grounds, teachers are legitimately “learning” in these courses so long as they come to freely and rationally weigh the reasons or evidence offered in support of their uptake and retention.

Common to the Analytic School was a liberal-philosophical perspective, reaching back to Enlightenment roots: Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill. Within the twentieth-century political philosophy, Michael Oakeshott (1989) championed this tradition as it pertained to teaching and training in the “liberal arts.” As Oakeshott’s writings were endorsed by the Analytic School of Philosophy of Education, the central concern became redefining the “liberal arts,” inherited from the Greek classical education system as learning not intended practically for any profession but as a liberating form of self-fruition (Hirst 1965). Analytically delineating the proper meaning of “teaching” in light of liberal conceptions of “learning” occurred, significantly, during an era of Cold War propaganda and fears of indoctrination or brainwashing in communist countries, coupled with critical theorists (e.g., Apple, McLaren, Giroux) and feminists (e.g., J.R. Martin, Noddings) awakening us to ideologies lurking in our own education’s “hidden curriculum.” Drawing to a limited extent (and sometimes improperly) on terminology from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, analytic philosophers talked about “mapping” concepts and also looking at “family resemblances” among related terms. What distinguishes these “cousined” terms: conditioning, training, advertising, teaching, proselytizing, and indoctrinating? The criteria for “teaching” (qua teaching) were said to include intentional acts that involve the giving of reasons or weighing of evidence, enabling pupils to rationally and autonomously assess and then adopt knowledge claims instead of holding ideas unshakably through stimulus-response (behaviorism) or dogmatic implantation by authority (indoctrination). Teacher education (not “training”) under this Oakeshottian model was primarily about carrying on conversations which begun in the primeval forests and higher articulations of the subject-matters we have inherited from antiquity: taking up a rationally liberal position so as to initiate students into the various vocabularies, methodologies, and public tests for truth claims that we have developed and refined within each of the liberal arts over millennia (Hirst 1965; Peters 1965). Accordingly, the history teacher in-training becomes proficient in the use of primary documents as a form of evidence and hermeneutically knowledgeable of different interpretive frameworks through which we read and assess such evidence (e.g., great man theory, materialist or class action theory, feminist theory of counter her-stories, postmodernism, etc.).

Developing teachers as subject-specialists recalls Collingwood’s division between craft and art: artful, master-teachers proffer finer distinctions, having greater vision, depth, and originality than mundane craft practitioners. Such epistemic/pedagogical perfectionism may appear elitist and scholastic, however, begging the question of whether there is room for vocational forms of practical education as well as loftier liberal arts. But it is important to recognize that liberal-analytic approaches flourished in the wake of and often blended with elements of John Dewey’s non-authoritarian, pragmatic, and non-scholastic Progressive movement, including more democratic aims and practices in classrooms, especially as it took form in America with such leading figures as the neo-pragmatist Israel Scheffler and as it drew on inspirational thinkers of social justice outside education such as John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Training to be a “liberal educator” also meant working to teach and practice citizenship skills and character development in schools, as well as addressing distributive and legislative injustices brought to attention by the civil rights, women’s liberation, and anti-war movements.

Wittgenstein on the Importance of Training

It is rather ironic that the Analytic School was originally inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later work in the Philosophical Investigations (1968), where “training” plays a pivotal role and the “giving of reasons” is shown to come quickly to an end, as “our spade is turned on shallow bedrock” (1968, PI §§211 & 217). In the process of showing how meaning is to be found not in stipulated, ostensive definitions but in ordinary usage (as language is practiced, opposed to an ideal order), Wittgenstein also demonstrated the fundamental role of rudimentary training in establishing rule-governed behavior (Stickney 2008), such as common reactions to signs (e.g., word recognition or facility with math and music notation) and shared judgments (e.g., reading facial expressions, shared aesthetic sensibilities, or agreement on what constitutes accurate practices of “measurement”). His earlier practices of corporal punishment in elementary schools and use in his preliminary Notebooks of the German word Abrichtung – normally reserved for harsh forms of animal training – have drawn considerable, negative commentary. Focusing attention on training into ordinary usage of language-games was meant to shift how we understand the verification of truth claims: Instead of looking for the meaning of a proposition as the way we can externally verify/prove it (the view of logical positivism he later abandoned), Wittgenstein was concerned with how meaning is conveyed rather internally by the way we come to learn and share the use of words and how this social avenue through training also conveys what we commonly and normatively hold to be true-or-false.

“We are sure of it” does not just mean that every single person is certain of it, but that we belong to a community which is bound together by science and education. (Wittgenstein 1969, OC §298)

Wittgenstein’s later philosophical perspective is a form of post-foundationalism, acceptance of which makes the enterprise of teaching less a liberal and more of a communal act of initiation into a shared form of life, including common practices, second-nature reactions, and agreements in judgment: considerably less rationalistic and more animalistic at its base, but not irrational or demeaning on that account (Wittgenstein 1969, OC §§358-9, 475). So much of learning to teach is acquiring this art (savoir faire): knowing almost instinctively how to respond sensitively to circumstances arising in classrooms.

It is significant that Wittgenstein changed his picture of meaning to one based on training after he himself had undergone teacher training in Vienna in 1919–1920 and later worked as an elementary and secondary teacher for 6 years in rural Austria (see Savickey 2017). He was to some extent initiated into Glöckel’s education reforms, which marked a turn in Austria similar to that occasioned by Dewey’s progressive reforms in America, from scholastic education to Arbeitsschul: “learning-by-doing.” Although he sometimes jested about the slogans of the Glöckel reforms, he internalized some of its practices, such as taking students on field trips, retaining a classroom dictionary of words gathered from his students own usage, and then publishing A Dictionary for Elementary Schools he claimed would help students to self-correct their work. The initial training into common usage of words was not intended to merely condition pupils but provide the preconditions or essential competencies for autonomous or felicitous performance within our shared rules (grammar) of usage. From this perspective, the role of the teacher is to facilitate by means of immersive and active learning, through case studies or practice, the early adoption and eventual mastery of techniques we rely on in our social life – such as mathematics, language proficiency, history, and geography – in order for the adept graduate to then partake successfully in social life.

A further irony is that Wittgenstein concluded in On Certainty (his final notes 1948–1950) that the “system of verification” we employ when deciding whether a statement makes sense or not is not something we formally learn but take in or absorb along with other trainings and more broadly through enculturation (OC §279, cf. §152). On this account, the teacher-in-training is still learning how to initiate pupils into the liberal arts but is also becoming cognizant of how pupils come through even earlier training to regard/see these socially constructed and sometimes arbitrary operating norms as being sound. How truth claims in the arts and sciences now “ring true” (PI, p. 214) depends on prior, informal means of education – mastering an array of language-games grounded in doing, playing, or acting. Instead of rationally persuading the student or practicing teacher of the merits of a pedagogical practice (much in vogue today with evidence-based learning), on this model, one might ask them to simply try it, or role-play and see if it works. As Bourdieu noted, this lens also opens a vista on how the language acquired in elite schools gradually lends “cultural capital,” such as the armature of academic vocabulary or the “right” currency of an Eaton (“old-boy’s”) accent, as well internalizing shared value or belief systems as in religious versus secular education.

Foucault and Teacher Training as Normalization and Subjectification

Drawing at times from the same well as Wittgenstein, Foucault also used Nietzsche and Heidegger to deepen his genealogical and historical-linguistic perspective on how some ways of thinking and acting have gradually become regarded as normal or sound. On this view, teachers are constituted through three axes of subjectification (Foucault 1994 V.1: 318):
  1. 1.

    Through the veridical discourses that come down to us through time and concretize into the disciplines or fields educators have mastered and now teach, as well as those that have emerged around theories of pedagogy or educational psychology, such as gender or brain-based learning, or recent inquiry into cognitive and neurosciences of learning

  2. 2.

    Through power relations, such as the hierarchical, pastoral supervision system through which teachers are panoptically inspected and assessed by superintendents or administrators, or the regimes of professional development in which designated experts disseminate “games of truth” around “best practices”

  3. 3.

    Through various arts or technologies of the self that teacher candidates or experienced teachers bring to bear upon themselves, such as self-directed study, networking with colleagues out of purview by authorities, problematization or even public contestation of the universality, or necessity of “games of truth” both within their fields and also those circulating within education


Addressing the first two axes, participants in teacher-training are seldom if ever invited to weigh evidence for the efficacy of endorsed techniques and are more often infantilized into dutifully, passively playing the role of less-informed and compliant, docile students – divided both from the higher authorities or designated experts conducting the training and from liberal arts they are emblematic of as history or science teachers: not invited within the training session to exercise their subject-based disciplinary tests for assessing the validity of truth claims or supporting evidence and so not participating as educated audiences capable of reading primary documents or examining the merits of empirical claims and experimental methods. Not casting teacher training, however, as either a situation of total domination or autonomy, the teacher-subject is rather situated in what Foucault (1994 V.3: 342) describes as a state of permanent provocation between the “impertinence of the will and the intransigence of freedom.” As new theories of learning come down the pipe from Ministries of Education and Faculties of Education, teacher candidates and experienced teachers undergoing training are not hapless selves, impressed upon by monolithic structures of state- and university-sanctioned knowledge; they also may have a sense of their own agency, as intelligent professionals capable of inquiring as to how we might conduct education otherwise and speaking truth to power (parrhesia) when either subject or professional knowledge and practice do not resonate as being right (Foucault 2001). On this later (1980s) Foucauldian view, teachers may enter into negotiation of the rules governing their academic and professional lives, questioning whether the curriculum adequately captures the breadth of knowledge and methods within the evolving fields they teach and embody, interrogating educational discourses and policies (games/regimes of truth) around such initiatives as “differentiated instruction” and “authentic assessment” as these are brought into teacher training through hybrid forms of power-knowledge: for instance, as they roll out in some jurisdictions in conjunction with “quality assurance” and accountability rhetoric within an era of neoliberal manipulation and minimization of choices for action. Teacher training under this lens could be likened to learning (practically/normatively/critically) various ways of playing historically, socially produced gender performativity games, but also critically reviewing these scripts available to us presently and considering the constraints and affordances they play out.


These philosophical lenses offer three ways of looking differently at teacher formation. The first and second contrast is how “training” is regarded: whether as a betrayal of “teaching,” defined analytically as rational engagement in weighing reasons or with Wittgenstein as the basis-through-action for enculturation into a unifying way of life, upon which we judge the truth worthiness of claims, not rationally or deliberatively but as second-nature ways of reacting, seeing, and judging in common. The first and third differ substantially in how they regard the political dimensions of teaching: as the legacy of liberal philosophy, safeguarding individual rational autonomy, or as a continuous contest between normalizing pressures of educational institutions to fashion and govern subjects through the discourses and rules they internalize (e.g., the power-dynamics that sort them into different kinds of subjects: “pre-/in-service teachers,” “teacher”/“principal”) and the resistance or agency teachers may engage in, whether as teacher-candidates or career/contract teachers, through arts of self-stylization, problematization, and truth-saying. In Philosophy of Education, James Marshall and Michael Peters notably critiqued analytic philosophy in the 1990s and pioneered a Wittgenstein-Foucault hybrid, also bridged in the work of several contemporary feminist and political philosophers.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jeff Stickney
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada