Do teachers need to understand what they are doing?

John White

Do teachers need to understand what they are doing? Most of us, I presume, would think this a silly question. It stands to reason that teachers, like doctors or politicians, must have a good understanding of the purpose of their role.

Yet, in the last twenty-odd years, it has been all but forgotten. There has been plenty of training in the specifics of teaching a subject and managing a class, but I’m talking about wider horizons.

We could not imagine a trainee doctor learning about diagnosing symptoms or prescribing drugs without having a broader picture of what they are doing this for. They know it is about helping people to become or remain healthy. Although there may be disagreements about what good physical health is, they are at the margins. Most of us, including the trainee, share a broad consensus about what it is to be healthy.

Yet, teaching is not like this. The trainee teacher of mathematics knows, of course, that they are in the business of educating, but there are widely divergent views about what this is. If they are not equipped to critically evaluate such disagreements, within what wider framework can they place the specifics they are being taught?

Of course, he or she will have picked up some kind of implicit framework from their own schooling, as well as the training institution they attended and through government policy. However, it is largely up to the individual which of these frameworks they allow themselves to be guided by – or whether, they consciously select a framework at all.

If the trainee is ill-equipped in critical evaluation, they are likely to follow some such kind of received opinion. Most probably, it will be the dominant line of the last two decades: that school education is about following regulations for prescribed subjects, so that students can do as well as possible in national exams based on these subjects.

Unless we want received ideas like this to become, through constant reinforcement, even more ascendant across the generations, we have to do more to encourage teachers to reflect on them in the light of alternatives.

What might we want them to think about? We could start with the dominant line just mentioned. What is the rationale for it? If the point of good exam results is to help people get into interesting jobs, what relation does this vocational aim of schooling have to other possible aims – being a good citizen, for instance, or leading a fulfilled life? Is having an interesting job part of living a fulfilled life? If so, what else comes into the latter? – And what if a young person doesn’t land an interesting job? Can he or she still live a full life?

This is just the start of the journey. And already the thinker is plunging into deep waters to do with the nature of citizenship, personal well-being, and inequalities of life-chances. There are no quick fixes here. It takes time to sort these matters through with any rigour. We are in philosophical territory. Philosophy cannot equip our teacher with definitive solutions to these or similar problems, but it can at least help them to reflect and look at the assumptions behind certain positions, judge the soundness of arguments, and imagine alternatives. And all this takes time.

Am I arguing for a massive injection of philosophy of education into initial teacher education? Is that my – self-serving – motivation for writing this blog?

No. I taught the subject in the 1960s – and know that a lecture plus a seminar each week was a totally inappropriate package for teachers, who had much more immediate things on their mind, like controlling their classes. Even so, it would make sense to at least introduce teachers to these questions during their training, especially if linked to other aspects of their experience. If not, how else could they really know what they should be doing?

If it is agreed that teachers should be more than unthinking operatives, working within a received idea about what school education is for, then another way, or ways, must be found of equipping them to tackle these underlying issues with some degree of competence. How is this to be done? Are there lessons here for continuing professional development (CPD) as well as for pre-service work?

John White is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
15 comments on “Do teachers need to understand what they are doing?
  1. judechua says:

    Nicely said. Philosophy cannot help teachers work out solutions for urgent problems, but they do alert them to important questions and hopefully answers, and that in turn could help them see, at times, that these urgent problems may not be that urgent after all. In other words philosophy can help revise the paradigm that made us think we have all these urgent problems or things to do in first place, and so dissolve rather than solve them.

    • Ruth Heilbronn says:

      Yes, and if a problem cannot be dissolved and tensions or dilemmas exist it is good for development to see them and live with them. Education should not be about a quest for certainty but about knowing how to inquire into any problems or matters that arise. Philosophy can certainly help.

  2. 3D Eye says:

    It’s franky incredible that initial teacher training doesn’t begin with a philosophical examination of the aims of education in the 21st century. Whether implicitly or explicitly teachers must have some broad notions of what schools are aiming to do, why they’re doing it, and what the alternatives might be. This kind of questioning process is apparently what caused Finland to rethink its system and its pedagogy and put its schools on track to becoming so successful.

    • John White says:

      Do you have any information on Finland goes about engaging teachers in this kind of work? Does it do this at pre-service level? If so, how does it coordinate it with more practical training? Does CPD come into the Finnish picture?

      • 3D Eye says:

        Our interest in Finland’s system of education began with a paper written by Irmeli Halinen who is the head of the curriculum development unit with the Finnish National Board of Education. Our summary of the paper is here and here – together with links to other posts and to extracts from Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons.

        The outstanding success of the Finnish system began with a decision to abandon the 19th century “traditional” model of education and the formulation of a clear set of aims for rebuilding their system, which included a determination to ensure equality of provision for all children, and an intention to make education meet the real learning needs of children of every sort of background and ability.

        Pasi Sahlberg says in the concluding chapter of his book,

        “Until the [latter part] of the 20th century, Finland was following other countries, learning from them and sometimes adapting their good ideas for its own restructuring and development. But the future requires new ways of thinking. Will the Finnish education system continue to be a model in the future? It can’t [do so] without an inspiring vision of education.

        “Any movement . . . draws from a core set of values, philosophies, and a commonly shared vision. Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen’s vision, School 2.0, about future education, is truly a transformation of present day schooling. It would be based on a community of learners where learning sparks from individual interests, passion and creativity, and aims to help each learner to find his or her own talent.”

        Any teacher trainers or CPD practitioners who don’t start from “a core set of values, philosophies, and a commonly shared vision” are surely doing a disservice to their students. We may not agree with the values, philosophies and vision of any given secretary of state for education, for example, but we surely need to understand what they are, just as we need to know what the alternatives may be.


  3. John, as your recent book, co-authored with Michael Reiss, indicates, we are without a clear rationale for education in our country. What is our vision and what are we aiming to to achieve in educating the masses? It’s always been clear why the rich and powerful valued education and paid directly for the privilege. When free universal education was first introduced there was a clear purpose there, too. The new industries created during the Industrial Revolution had need of a vast pool of semi-skilled workers. It was an important development for ordinary citizens that opened up opportunities for very many and, until the last few decades, it could be argued, it made some kind of sense. The fact is, it no longer does. For the reasons you mention, education is rather lost; some would say completely so.

    Teachers should know what education is for and moreover ought to be capable of justifying their ideas. The reason this is not so is hinted at in your piece and explored more thoroughly in your book. There has been no sustained and open debate about the role of education in our new global society. It isn’t something that teachers should undertake in isolation but, as recent petitions and campaigns have shown, it is difficult to engage politicians in such a debate and ordinary members of the public tend to find it difficult to join in if they no longer have children currently being educated.

    There are ways to equip teachers to tackle these “underlying issues with some degree of competence.” as you suggest. However, first we have to remove party politics from education and initiate a national debate about the aims of education in the twenty first century (reference, Until such time as there is a sustained effort to address the important questions you pose above, about what education is for, teachers are more likely to be ‘infected’ by the “received ideas” you highlight.

    Education does in fact matter to individuals, whether they be parents or not. Whether through their initial training or via continuing professional development, every trainee and serving teacher should study philosophy of education, not as an academic discipline, but as a vehicle for clarifying why they do what they do and why they should resist the madness of those who currently miss-direct the whole of our education service. Once such professional development is underway, all children and young people need to be included in the programme so that they too understand why education matters and why it is the responsibility of all citizens to promote free and open access to life-long learning.

    • chriswq says:

      Totally agree.

    • judechua says:

      Dear Mr Mountford, thanks for your ordinaryvoices site, which is an important one, and which raises very important issues that are currently debated also here in Asia. The question re: what the aims of education are is such a crucial one, but which I fear would always be related with economic discussions, whether or not party politics is involved. For there will be politicians, and politicians will think about the economy, and how education should service that. Even so, one can ask what “economics” is, and what good economics can tell us about progress, wealth and poverty, and how education should therefore serve these. Hence economics need not just point to the GDP or other axiologically monistic indicators of success, leading ultimately to a senseless policy of numbers but alert us to the fact that poverty and hence wealth or visions of success are axiologically multidimensional. See for instance the work emerging from OPHI by Sabina Alkire, which draws on John Finnis’ and Amartya Sen’s work, and argues for a plurality of goods to be sought, even if we think economics – capabilities to reason well, asking questions about ultimate ends (religion, philosophy), capacities for friendship, play, spirituality even etc. These are then the true aims of education if we think economics aright. indeed, if economic wellbeing is a major goal of education, then perhaps one of those goals is to educate for what F A Hayek, calls the man of independent means, who can freely and without fear of coercion promote, on behalf of society, those very goods and ideals that bring no financial returns, but which stretch our appreciation of culture and notions of human flourishing in new and original ways (or perhaps retrieve displaced and forgotten but valuable accounts!) – i.e., to play. So even the father of free market neoliberalism, often charged with full responsibility for the woes we experience in education, would worry about the way education is too often led by the nose by one-dimensional thinking that goes by the name of “economics”. I’d like to send you a copy of my “Recent Reforms in Singapore’s Educational Landscape: What’s New” coming out in Education Today (June 2013) published by the College of Teachers, London, when it appears.

  4. chriswq says:

    Teachers, surely, should be helping each child to understand the subject they are learning to the best of their ability, so that they can use that knowledge/skill to be humane, fair, reasonable and confident people. We cannot do this alone – parents, society, everyone the child comes into contact with will influence the outcome. But we have to keep trying to teach the whole person – sometimes, exam results, the perceived success of a school and the needs of the child will run together. When they don’t, then the needs of the child should take precedence over the rest. Its not always possible to meet the needs we see and sometimes we have to explain that to the child, but they should know that our intention is to help, and that if we can – or know someone who can – then we will. A tall order? Of course. Impossible to manage all the time? Of course. Worth trying? Its the only thing that is, and the only hope I have for the future.

  5. sarahg0802 says:

    I’ve seen a worrying increase in teachers and sadly headteachers who don’t seem to have considered their education ethos and philosophy. This isn’t a profession you can enter into lightly-you need to have education ‘fire’ and passion for this job and you do need to consider what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s not really about the content but about what you truly believe makes for ‘education’. It makes it much more difficult to stand up for what you believe in if you haven’t considered what it is you believe. Student teachers should be supported to develop their own passion in education so they can use the latest govt. ‘thinking’ and not let it ‘use them’. We also would do well to consider what children really think of their days in schools-especially primary. Keeping true to protecting children’s natural curiosity, awe and wonder of the world they instinctively have when they first start exploring as toddlers is the most precious thing we can do. So we must consider it before we set foot into schools and meet children. What is it we must keep true to against testing, Ofsted, long division in KS1 and history facts coming out of our ears? If we haven’t thought about it then we’re doing a grave dis service to the ‘craft’ of teaching and all our children.

  6. Miss Honey says:

    Yes, John, teachers do need to understand what they are doing, but do our politicians want them to? It is difficult to devise a system of teacher education which aspires to teachers being more than “unthinking operatives working within a received idea ” when that is the avowed purpose of a Secretary of State for Education who sees teaching as a craft best learned by apprenticeship, and who has at his disposal,in Ofsted, a police force to impose received ideas.

    The prior battle is to release the stranglehold of the politicians on our schools and faculties of education; then, perhaps, more may be encouraged to move from the cave into the light.

  7. John White says:

    There seems to be broad agreement among us all – no surprise – that teachers need to think about the broader contours of their job. But how best to move forward? Are there good examples of philosophical (agreed, not too academic) thinking being woven into more practical work at initial training level, especially in a short course like the PGCE?

    And what about CPD? I have taught Diploma and MA courses in philosophy of education – and know how much more apt sustained work in the area is at this in-service level, given that teachers are over their teething problems and can think about wider things.

    This in-service work is now thin on the ground, not least because since Thatcher’s time teachers no longer automatically have their part-time fees paid by central government. In any case, courses were only for volunteers. Then, as now, the great majority of teachers lacked a proper induction into what their profession is about.

    Should we rather think of the reflection we have in mind taking place mainly in schools? Given more ideal conditions than we have now, could we envisage regular meetings on the larger issues among staff (perhaps not only academic staff; and perhaps also including students and parents). Could OFSTED then have as part of its remit to look at these activities and suggest ways ahead?

    Perhaps as part of this some teachers on a staff could lead the way on this kind of discussion – perhaps teachers taking CPD courses on this? (And perhaps the CPD courses could be more practically based, with not only academic input, but also sessions on leading discussions?).

    Could we, finally, make use of the internet and social media in some way, eg encouraging blog discussions like the one we’re having now – and giving teachers incentives (eg honourable mentions in references?) for participation in web-based work as well as the face to face discussions mentioned?

  8. You clearly achieved your original intention, John. There is significant agreement that both the art and the science of teaching cannot be undertaken with any real effect by teachers whose understanding of what education is for is weak, or even non-existent. In my opinion, there is no viable alternative to reinvigorating philosophy of education in seeking to achieve this.

    I just finished delivering a short course in Philosophy for Children, modeled on Matthew Lipman’s approach, which encourages children to behave like philosophers. A small mixed gender, mixed age group was selected by staff on the basis that the individuals identified to take part might benefit from developing their spoken language in a close-knit group, set up to encourage and nurture oracy. Segments of the project were filmed by a colleague from one of our local comprehensives and the material is currently being edited. At some point I will make make the decision whether or not to publish it, because it offers a working model of how to get teachers interested in the idea of developing language and thinking across a broad curriculum. It also pays dividends in terms of promoting self-confidence in a way few other approaches do. The reason I mention this here, is to offer it as one possible way of encouraging teachers to develop a philosophical approach to their work. It is well understood that, when teachers are encouraged to apply new approaches that work for them in their particular setting, there is an added incentive for them to ‘find’ more of their valuable time to develop their practice.

    There are ways to encourage and enable all educators to understand why they do what they do. However, there is an impediment to making this happen. Miss Honey puts it plainly, “The prior battle is to release the stranglehold of the politicians on our schools and faculties of education.” My own proposition for achieving this is discussed more fully elsewhere. The point I would like to make here is, there will be no breakthrough unless educators re-discover their courage to be the professionals they need to be. This has to be achieved through enlisting the support of ‘ordinary’ people and helping them see how important it is that we reject the rampant politicisation of education. But to return to possible solutions to the immediate problem!

    The most significant way forward, from what many perceive to be a very low starting point, has to be for school leaders to step up and commit wholeheartedly to promoting philosophical discussion in their own establishments. It was the thought of finally being expected to perform this precise function that I most relished when I took up my first headship in 1988, only to see the whole education landscape change under the unrelenting Thatcherite dynastic diktat that followed. It has become harder for school leaders to regain their ground since, and your call to involve Ofsted in this process will, I fear, inspire disgust in most professionals because of the shameful manner in which the once credible Her Majesty’s Inspectorate has had its original purpose manipulated by successive governments.

    The growing tendency for local schools to collaborate in hosting and supporting CPD is encouraging. In fact, it is a possible vehicle for promoting your agenda. The impediment to its success lies in the fact that alongside this tendency, as schools are increasingly expected to compete for students, dwindling resources and in terms of protecting their in-house expertise, the tension created may result in a more insular approach.

    If we remove all party political interference of education and set up a National Council for Education, which I will continue to campaign for, we would be much better placed to take positive steps to take up your challenge, John. Unfortunately, we will have to stick our heads above the parapet and campaign more actively, otherwise nothing is going to change and we will still be conducting this debate a generation from now. I believe we have all the ideas and means needed to raise our game with regard to defining a twenty first century education. We only seem to lack the will.

  9. […] a recent blog, Professor John White raised concerns about the lack of space for teachers to consider the broad […]

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