Interview with Roger Säljö

Rethinking the fabric of education in theory and practice: beyond the conception of outcome-based learning and teaching



SIG 25 Educational Theory

SIG 25 Interview Series: The role of theory and philosophy in Educational Science



In this discussion, Roger Säljö turns to the educational scholar’s role in our current times where schooling tends to be dictated by narrow political goals and normative concepts that urge the field to consider both theoretical and practice-oriented implications carefully. In doing so, he points at interrelated consequences, seeking to problematize existing views on education. For example, children’s and other students’ need of engaging in sense-making in schooling, beyond the predominant outcome-based learning discourse that problematically overlooks non-measurable and more open-ended knowledge forms and values of being educated. In his eyes, educational theory is too often neglected, but indeed has a significant potential to contribute with a deeper picture, combined with a substantiated empirical body of research as well.


Tina Kullenberg

Rethinking the fabric of education in theory and practice: beyond the conception of outcome-based learning and teaching



Tina: How do you view the focus of this particular EARLI-SIG-group? Do you think it is needed?

Roger: You mean focusing educational theory?

Tina: Yes, exactly.

Roger: Yes, we need it because the theoretical interest is too often neglected. It tends to be attended to different levels. One level is how you consider the basis for research. You know, you can adopt any kind of theory and regard it as educational science, if you like, or at least educationally relevant for the body of research. But a theoretical perspective that is used in research on instruction, learning and education has to be relevant for the particular role that education has in society, and it needs to be sensitive to the strategies we have for developing and understanding educational practices. Next, the other thing is that we too easily tend to overlook underlying theoretical assumptions of our own work. For instance, nowadays very instrumental perspectives on human learning and development are uncritically accepted. The idea in research is often that you should learn more, but this is not a sufficient criterion. Important goals of education have to do with the processes of engaging in learning, learning how to learn, how to interact with other people and so on.

Tina: Aha, and when you say goals, do you refer to learning goals in schooling or do you think about other goals?

Roger: Yes, I don’t think of goals technically speaking but rather I am often asking myself: what is it all about? What are the outcomes and the consequences of educational practices? This includes attending to issues such as what we need to know in our current age and what is relevant for citizenship, and things like that. For example, we think we already know the goals of education, but you don’t really know this in a full sense, because education has the power to transform society as well and, consequently, education may also profoundly change individuals’ resources to live an independent life and realizing themselves personally. This applies to all social groups, from those who are already well established in society to those groups which are less well off and resourced. What we can see when discussing the role of education today is that we are caught up in one mainstream discourse, a very instrumental view on knowing and learning, framed by economism. This represents a problematic reduction of reality and of the potentials of education, and the risk is that we do not realize all the more open-ended, broader potentials of education at various levels. First of all, I think discussions of the purpose of education should be framed in relation to our current societal challenges which, in turn, will have implications at the individual level; both at the student and teacher level. Accordingly, I think there are good reasons for asking ourselves more ‘updated’ questions, like what kinds of knowing are important to recognize and develop in institutions like schools? This is linked to the issue of what individuals find developing in the sense of learning for life and engaging in matters they are interested in, and, of course, learning about what they do not know.

Tina: Could we take such a reasoning one step further, linking it to what is already debated in our field: Should the scholar, then, research only the existing educational system in the pursuit of finding a so called “best practice” – or do you think they instead should contribute to new visions and ideas outside the existing practices?

Roger: Yes, I think the latter option is to be preferred. I think it’s important to engage in discussions about the role of school and education. You could say this is the premise for most of education, as well as for teacher education and educational research. But then the problem is that you cannot set the premises for the discussion yourself. You have to use the premises that already exist. It is true that we are living in a notably instrumentalist era. Like our former Minister of Education frankly said, the purpose of school (and educational research) is to improve the students’ test results on PISA! That is the means of assessing learning have themselves become the goals of learning. This means short-circuiting the debates about education and its role in society.

Tina: Are you thinking of our former Minister?

Roger: Yes, he said so and so we are stuck with this problematic shift of “goal and means-reasoning”. I elsewhere heard about a Danish Minister of Education, it is probably a dozen of years ago… He talked about the preschool and I don’t remember what I read exactly, but the essential message was that now it’s time to radically get rid of this unproductive play that has characterized the pedagogical ideas of learning and teaching in preschools. It’s time to start teaching. You see, here you have this idea of the sovereign traditional education that is ultimately all about systematic socialization rather than play, and this is a very instrumental view, isn’t it? Then you just overlook the problem of how preschools nowadays, in our part of Scandinavia at least, risk becoming more and more instrumental in their views of learning, as we initially discussed.

Tina: Yes, I agree that this type of demarcation is unnecessary and unwanted. There is also the risk not taking advantage of all various forms of potential knowledge that otherwise could be legitimately adopted in the teaching. I think this applies to leisure time education as well, the school education that continues after the ordinary school? In my eyes, this is an important concern because it goes without saying that leisure time should be something radically different than ordinary schooling? Nowadays also this educational form tends to have traditional teaching as a norm, at least here in Sweden.

Roger: Yes, I agree, and play has throughout history has a very significant function for children and it has been an important part of the ideas of child-centered learning. It has been a channel for playfully developing identities, experimenting with self-initiated activities och learning to be with others.

Tina: So, would you say that you subscribe to critical school research then? Research that problematizes existing values?

Roger: Well, the problem is that also the so called critical research easily becomes a genre or discourse of its own. Where you establish specific positions. Perhaps it must be a bit like this, but some kind of broader questioning of what are the purposes of contemporary education is needed. Again, I refer to this problem of instrumentalization with pre-given goals and values… This futile practice of standardized measurement of learning outcomes, based in a rigid belief that we already know what and how people can or should learn; the idea that we already know all that and also have the right to impose such values uncritically on next generations. You find the same principles at the university as well, “learning outcomes” are reified and taken as something that can be defined at a technical level. So we can see that this problem of instrumentalizing learning and instruction is not something that is exclusive for the primary and secondary school systems only. Also higher education is organized within such a framing. This is a view of learning that ultimately is about acquiring knowledge that is already known, not about discovery and expansion of our capacities to deal with issues in our lives.  

Tina: Yes…

Roger: Yes, and so the innovative and creative aspect of learning and teaching become neglected, a state of affairs that also impacts how students are allowed to make own choices about what to study.

Tina: And with a more dialogical perspective, isn’t there a chance to kill the dialogues as well? Dialogue defined in a wider sense than just conversational exchange, I mean.

Roger: True.

Tina: When things are ready-made and categorized and so on, I don’t think genuine questions and creative ideas could be developed dialogically. So, that’s another danger of our current school system.

Roger: Right, and over time it tends to result in a fixed ideology. A construction in which you take matter of facts for granted, not considering all alternative possibilities and truths. By the way, the eminent Swedish historian of ideas Sven-Eric Liedman has written very good and thought-provoking about this in a book that I am just revising. That you actually don’t know, and shouldn’t know, where the journey ends up… I think Dewey puts it in a similar way somewhere, the goal of education is education itself, or something of this kind.

Tina: Speaking of Liedman, has this also got something to do with the role of Bildung in learning? The personalized search for meaning, linked to knowledge development?

Roger: Yes, the practice of an ideology that announces in advance that ‘this is central’ and ‘this is not central’, and moreover exposing others to this on the basis of your own preferences and so. It seems to me like a passive and too bureaucratic view of what education and learning could be in people’s lives.

Tina: Right, so, if we turn to the role of the researcher, the educational researcher, and the growing interest in so called evidence-based school-development research, is there a potential risk that it just contributes to such an organization then?

Roger: Yes it is, but I think there are possibilities as well. I mean, school as an institution is like… In Sweden, for instance, there are more than 200 000 teachers at work and there are almost 1 ½ million students enrolled if you count primary, secondary and upper-secondary school. If we include all students from the preschool to university level, and then we end up in the largest activity system in society. It is very difficult to think that one size fits all in such a large system. At one level, the instruments which are developed to be in service of the school apparatus apply to the system as a whole. For us, as in other countries, there is a national curriculum that indeed is very openly formulated, emphasizing generic skills as democracy and respect. Respect for others and respect for nature and similar core values. But then we have a formal evaluation system that is not at all in accordance with these goals! Here the increasing impact of the comparative, international tests that do not related to many of the goals of education structures the debate. It is very difficult to have more open and forward looking discussions of Bildung and learning for life under such conditions, when the criteria so to speak are already there. Rather, the discussion will focus on how to improve measurable performance and the wider issues and challenges of society are not attended to. The insight that society is constantly transforming, and that teaching has to be developed accordingly, does not underpin these discussions to a sufficient degree.

What I think is especially intriguing to notice in all of this is how the discussion (and our practices) are colored by a particular perspective of knowledge: the literacy norm. I mean, the power of the written word. Knowledge is here understood through the rules of the written language and the idea that knowing is expressed in definitions. Dewey discussed this problem in several texts, the tendency to take what is already formulated as knowing, rather than attending to the process by means of which that knowing is generated. Consequently, you are not allowed to explore interesting questions on your own! Instead we are expecting them [the students] to answer questions that have answers. I am thinking of a study that my colleague P-O Wickman in Stockholm and his co-researchers conducted some years ago. They subscribe to a Dewey-tradition. The kids were supposed to work with something experimentally (I think they were around 10 and 12 years age), and then, as a result of their work, they had to formulate a question that would be interesting in the context they were working. The point was, interestingly, that they were not supposed to answer a question as they were used to, they were supposed to formulate one as the outcome of their learning. This appeared very strange to these kids because they were not used to this mindset at all in their schooling. So, they sometimes tried to formulate it in manner that would qualify both a question and an answer. This illustrates how ‘answer-oriented’ we are in education. When I’m thinking about this, I sometimes think that we perhaps are somewhat extreme here in the Western world? Compared to teaching in many other countries. For instance, in some of the comparative work in maths education, it has been shown in Japanese teaching students were given tasks and assignments of a kind that they had never experienced before. This would be considered as a breach of the basic didactic contract that you only ask questions on what has been taught. In the Japanese case cited, the children encountered problems they hadn’t yet been taught about, and the teachers argued that it is useful for the students to grapple with problems that they have not yet seen.

Tina: How intriguing, I didn’t know this. As you know, such pedagogical inquiries are very important also for me. Something else that lies at heart?

Roger: What I also think is important to return to is the need of addressing a child perspective on learning and education. I think it is essential to pay more attention to what engages children and young people when designing curricula. Today, young people are expected to spend 12, 15 or even more in institutions of formal learning. In some countries preschool is becoming mandatory, and more than half of the 18- to 19-year olds will go to university or other institutions of higher learning. But, especially for the young, I think it is important to develop educational practices that keep their interests and motivation alive, and that they perceive as relevant. If we would spend more time discussing this, and not focus entirely on ‘learning outcomes’, and if we would have evaluation systems that signal when students lose interest in school and in doing their best, we would have a much broader perspective on what education means to young people and to society. Loss of interest and commitment should be given as much attention as is currently given to performance indicators that objectify the competences of students. Children and young people should have much more of a say in how curricula are designed and how the school day is organized.

But I think the idea of emphasizing the role of theory in education and educational research is very important, indeed. Education is a normative practice, there are goals that are to be achieved. These matters have to be discussed as ideas and at a theoretical level. You simply cannot be a-theoretical in instructional practices: you can’t just stand up and talk, you have to follow principles and define practices that tell you as a teacher how to move ahead and achieve results. In this sense, institutional education builds of theories of human learning and development. In research, we have to be aware of the specific nature of educational practices; they are about growth, social justice, knowing, problem-solving and a lot of other important elements. For me personally, I think there are so many theoretical perspectives that do not take the problems of how to study growth and development seriously enough.

Tina: Thank you, Roger, for sharing important aspects on knowledge development, both on the research and practice-level.

Roger Säljö, Ph. D., Dr. h. c. mult., specializes in research on learning, interaction and human development in a sociocultural perspective, where he has published extensively. Much of this work is related to issues of how people learn to use cultural tools and how we acquire competences and skills that are foundational to learning and work in a socially and technologically complex society. In recent years, he has worked extensively with issues that concern how digital technologies transform human learning practices inside and outside formal educational settings. Roger Saljo has been engaged in interdisciplinary work with colleagues from a range of different disciplines/faculties including medicine and health, technology various natural sciences, linguistics, informatics and several others. Since 2006 he is Director of the Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS), a national centre of excellence funded by the Swedish Research Council (2006-2019). He has been a Finland Distinguished Professor (FiDiPro) at the Centre for Learning Research at the University of Turku in Finland. He is an honorary doctor at the University of Turku and the University of Agder (2017), and honorary professor at the University of Bath, UK. Previously he has been visiting professor at a number of universities, including Universität Konstanz (Germany), University of California San Diego (USA), Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht (the Netherlands), University of Oslo (Norway), Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Germany), University of Agder (Norway), University of Stavanger (Norway). He is a founding co-editor of Learning, Culture and Social Interaction (Elsevier). He has supervised 50 students to their Ph. D. degrees in six different faculties. His list of publications includes about 500 scholarly articles, books and chapters in different languages.




Tina Kullenberg, PhD in Educational Science, is a SIG25-member from Sweden (Kristianstad University) who is especially involved in the research area of dialogic education, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogue philosophy in particular. Other areas of interests are Art Education, music pedagogy, child research, democratic education and relational pedagogy. Her own teaching background comes primarily from music education in primary schools and preschools.