On teaching as a profession

Reflections on Is teaching a profession?

The idea that the term ‘teacher’ be universally understood seems sensible; particularly if the term ‘teacher’ is used in conjunction with qualifiers such as ‘trained’ or ‘accredited’.  While this may seem sensible and consistent with community expectations, the means for achieving a universal understanding is problematic in a pluralist society.

Universality has many appeals.  It allows for teachers, deemed ‘accredited’ in one context, to transfer jobs to a context sharing that accreditation process. It also assists students to develop a consistent understanding of what a teacher is so that they can match those expectations.

That universality is too controlling and prescriptive is one anticipated criticism. Indeed, universality could be seen as a return for direct instruction, explicit teaching, and highly structured curricula and syllabi.  Such prescriptions would indeed de-professionalise teaching as a profession.  So a more open definition of universality needs to be developed, a definition that’s able to capture diversity and difference and leaves the way open for certain forms of innovation. Claims for universality should not simply be on the basis of asserting a particular way of doing things, a particularly methodology, or even a particular ideology.

My working hypothesis/principle regarding universality is that a competent teacher acts in a way that other competent teachers would agree with. This is a working hypothesis only and will need to be adjusted and developed as I work though it.  It follows the work of Habermas and his principle of universalisation and principle of discourse ethics(Habermas, 1996).  My working hypothesis/principle allows for diversity of methods and outlooks within a broadly agreed framework.

My working principle relies on the development of norms for education. As I have argued elsewhere [norms and teachers], in my experience norms and standards provide for prosperity. Further, all successful innovative project I’ve worked on became routine and successful once norms were agreed across participants. However, the creation of norms is not straight forward in a plural society undergoing significant structural transformations at a number of levels.  Education is responding to demands from feminist theory, minority discourses, post-colonial discourses, new means of wealth creation, new means of production, and emerging technologies. All these influences make valid claims of education and need to be incorporated into new norms.

Teacher-led movements are a good way to develop new norms that are consistent with broader societal expectations. Unfortunately the involvement of teacher led institutions in education has diminished in recent decades, particularly the role of subject associations. Again following Habermas (Habermas, 1987), much of the atrophy in teacher participation is due to colonization by the system (non school actors) of the lifeworld of the classroom. Instrumental reasoning (e.g. uni-dimensional assessment) , strategic management, and expert coteries have subsumed many forms of teacher engagement. Grassroots movements such as researchED, Northern Rocks, WomenEd, teachmeets, as well as online forums are therefore a welcome development that needs to be built upon.

Teacher-led institutions are essential for vibrant education systems. Systems and central bureaucracies also need to engage with teacher groups as many new norms will need central and institutional support to implement. These include norms related to curriculum, and norms requiring regulation or legislation such as those pertaining to privacy and technology. Other norms require central support in terms of technological and infrastructure provision.  In return for this support, by way of reciprocity, teachers will need to come to table being able to constructively engage with a range of perspectives in order to work towards solutions that are agreeable to all.

Habermas (Habermas, 1985) also alerts us to the dangers of regressing to instrumental or technical reasoning when reasoning about disagreements. Habermas suggests that in coming to an agreed understanding participants need to engage three worlds; the technical or objective world, the inter-subjective world of norms, and the personal world of integrity and intent.  Learning styles provides a good practical example. For example, much research indicates that learning styles have no efficacy in terms of learning outcomes, nevertheless most people do indicate a preference for a particular style (see Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). So from a technical perspective learning styles may be of no use, where as from a perspective of norms it may be seen as important in terms of generosity. Why serve a cup of tea if someone prefers a coffee? So perspectives are important and make discussion more complex. Furthermore, validity around technical reasoning is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, particularly in relation to the validity of measurement, causation, and meaning (e.g. see Markus & Borsboom, 2013; Newton & Shaw, 2014). These developments increase the cognitive load on norm setting participants.

While teacher involvement through teacher-led associations and central office working parties is welcome, care needs to be taken to ensure that such groups do not descend into group think or other forms of balkanisation.  These groups need to be broadly representative, and representatives need to be competent to participate. Society is becoming increasingly complex and knowledge becoming increasingly differentiated. Education needs to respond to these changes. Teachers need to be in the forefront of these transformations.

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the rationalization of society. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1996). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. (C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen, Trans.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Markus, K. A., & Borsboom, D. (2013). Frontiers of Test Validity Theory : Measurement, Causation, and Meaning. New York: Routledge.

Newton, P. E., & Shaw, S. D. (2014). Validity in Educational and Psychological Assessment. London: SAGE.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3, 105–119.