School Students Concepts of a Flourishing Life and General Education

Störtländer, Jan Christoph (2014). 'School Students Concepts of a Flourishing Life and General Education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

 This paper sums up preliminary results from a qualitative PhD study that combines the capabilities approach (Nussbaum) with a current model of general education (Allgemeinbildung).

The model of general education called 'critical constructive didactics' (Klafki) stems from the so called German tradition of general didactics following Comenius, Humboldt, Weniger, Wagenschein and others. It is deeply rooted in German teacher training and often the normative background of core curricular throughout the country. It was also widely received in Scandinavian countries and to a lesser degree in China and Japan. The main idea of critical constructive didactics is that a student reaches a proper level of Bildung when she is able to relate to herself and the world in a reflective way that allows her to be more self-determent and co-determent or participatory in a way that fosters solidarity with all of mankind. The means to achieve this educational aim is to prepare teaching content that offers meaningful categories for the student to make the world accessible to her and simultaneously opens her up for the world. Klafki offers such categories in terms of 'key problems of modern times'. Identifying these key problems (e.g. war, inequality, environmental issues, relationships, ethics etc.) in teaching content and working with them in lesson becomes the main tasks of teachers. But there is fundamental critique to this model because by now almost no empirical research was undertaken regarding the questions what exactly a key problem is and how to identify it. It is even unclear whether these key problems are also the problems of the students and what kind of justification can be given to preserve key problems a prominent role in teaching.

The capabilities approach following Nussbaum can help to tackle those issues. Although it is highly concerned with education, it does not offer a model of teaching and learning by itself, so it may benefit from some ideas by critical constructive didactics as well. Describing key problems from a capabilities perspective leads to the conclusion that key problems point to severe capability deprivation, often on a global scale. Take the example of war: In this situation an individual's capability setting is threatened in several aspects. Not only life, bodily health and integrity are often diminished but also the capability to enjoy flourishing affiliation, to have good emotional development, to play, to exercise material and political control over one's environment is hindered. If Nussbaum's Aristotelian understanding of common central human experiences and corresponding capabilities is true, people can achieve an understanding of this key problem when they reflect upon the central capabilities that are involved. They can understand why this problem is a problem because they see that people in the state of war cannot lead a life that is worthy of human dignity.

This thought is the substructure of my empirical approach. I conducted eight episodic/dilemma interviews with 10th grade students from a comprehensive school to find out what is most important in their daily life, how they conceptualize 'the good life' and what problems might occur in realizing it. My paper will focus on these interviews and their results. The interviews consisted of three stages. First, the students were asked to narrate typical episodes from their life (family, friends, school, their happiest moment, critical situations). Then they firstly were asked to condense those episodes to their own notion of what it means to lead a flourishing life; secondly, they had to check if their subjective theory is universal. Finally, the students problematized their own theory The data was assessed by the operationalized categories of the capabilities approach and the didactical model with a qualitative content analysis.

Results show that the students largely relate to the categories given by the capabilities approach and critical constructive didactics. Particularly the structure of the last model where they also add new categories that can be analytically derived from the first one (e.g. missing time to enjoy recreation) have been rearranged by them. The argumentative structures of their justifications also hint to different levels of moral development mainly when it comes to inequality and social justice. While some attribute the social position to individual luck others have a more comprehensive view on society and the possible objectives of politics. Finally, an intensive insight into the complexity of adolescent life was granted that shows how intertwined capabilities are and how the stagnation of one capability hinders the development of others (e.g. a student with borderline-'disorder'; an immigrant student from an unfavorable socio-economic background etc.).

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