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.

Norms and Teachers

In response to a short twitter conversation, that required a fuller explanation.

When I first started teaching in the 1980s I was assigned to a school with declining enrolments but good infrastructure. In particular there was a large ‘open span’ classroom for over 100 students, the legacy of a group of innovative team-teaching maths teachers from the seventies. When I started these teachers had left, and the school had reverted to a one teacher, one class, one room setup. I have since observed several cycles between open plan including team teaching and regular classrooms, a norm to which it always seems to revert.  This scenario is emblematic; however an increasing urgency is developing around norms in education.

What norms can do – the heyday!

Norms come from practical and social influences and we may not always recognise them. After World War 2, and arising from a practical economic imperative, many Victorian children were taught in grey Light Timber Construction Schools.  In hindsight these were drab, but their standardisation allowed them to be quickly built across the state.  We also have educational content norms such as curriculum and the common books we read. There are also social norms related to what culture we consume such the films we watch and bands we listen to.  These norms provided for a social cohesive and prosperous post war generation.

One norm that I would like to focus on a bit more is the humble A4 paper.  Some like myself still remember foolscap, but the A4 standard won the day. This allowed printers, paper suppliers, photocopy manufacturers and a range of distributors to streamline operations. It also gave us a common understanding of fairness on exams and NAPLAN tests that are in standard white A4 for all students, other than perhaps for special supplements.

The norms we once took for granted are becoming less relevant, and new norms need to be created. Over the decades, educational norms have been challenged by developments such as feminist theory and minority discourses.  Norms are also being challenged in a massive way by technology, from the way that classrooms are physically organised to the way that educational content is delivered.  But required new norms are not being created or manifest as proprietary patents or trade secrets.  There is a wild west in technology towards norms and standards.

When norms fail

Some spectacular examples of failures in norms include technology problems with the GSCE exams in the UK, the Apple-Pearson curriculum in the US, and the Utranet in Australia. All these projects involved achievable technology, but I contend failed due a lack of appropriate norms.

A more spectacular example include the difficulty of getting high stakes exams on computers.  Exams such as the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) are massive logistic exercises requiring coordination across all VCE teachers and schools, central offices, printers, and related stakeholders and suppliers.  There are established norms for the size of paper and how to behave in terms of seating and not copying.  These established norms do not apply to computer-based exams, and new ones need to be created. How will fairness be managed with NAPLAN on BYOD where students with better computers may be at an advantage. Time will tell, whenever computer-based NAPLAN is implemented.

But these are small examples of a massive range of new norms that need to be developed for technology-based education. In particular new norms for how we manage space and time in education.

The Role of Teachers

Drawing on the work of R.S Peters, a key purpose of education is initiation into society that involves both cultural transmission and cultural regeneration. Teachers are central to this process of shaping, moulding and growing.  To abrogate this responsibility is to leave students in a technological ‘Lord of the Flies’ limbo, we cannot leave this to students to decide. No matter how complex this task, this moment in history requires teachers to be particularly involved in creating the environment for students to be socialised into broader society so that they can live happy and fulfilled lives.

How to Create Norms

Norms are about broad agreement and common understanding, they cannot be imposed. Wherever teachers withdraw their participation coteries of experts and commercial interests are more than happy to step in. However, these groups are not as well placed to inform the development of norms as teachers. Teachers know how students work, teachers are aware of antecedent norms and their workings, teachers know what’s practical, and teachers tend to better clued in to society including what business wants.  So teachers are well placed.

Teachers therefore need to make greater demands for the establishment of, and participation in, government-based working groups and committees to establish new norms. These norms need to address new usages of technology including general specifications for new learning spaces and technology-based curriculum. This may be expensive, but it is likely to be more effective than clueless expert coteries and solo innovators.

I have been involved in a small number of successful innovative projects from the classroom through to the international level. In hindsight, the success of each of these projects rested on the establishment of agreed norms across participants. Norms are as important as facts.