Thinking allowed: teachers must reclaim their moral purpose

David Lambert

Teachers, generally speaking, work incredibly hard. They work under highly controlled and high stakes conditions, and very publicly. So how do teachers feel about their work? Is teaching a confident profession?

I believe that the profession, at least in secondary schools, may have collectively lost the plot in terms of its core values and purposes. It is buffeted this way, then that way, and in trying to keep up it has lost its heart to the empty process of delivering performance indicators. I don’t blame the teachers themselves, but I do argue that teachers can and should take a more active role in curriculum leadership – a theme in a forthcoming special feature of the London Review of Education (16.3) which I have had the privilege of guest editing.

Recently, I had the great pleasure to spend the afternoon with some enormously impressive, mostly young, new teachers. I spent the entire time challenging their expectations, sometimes showing and explaining, often debating with them … as to what it means to teach geography well, and why this is so important. Possibly not the geography you remember from school. Maybe not even the geography they experienced as students. But worthwhile, engaging geography lessons exhibiting the highest quality engagement with knowledge. That is, geography that is appropriate for young people in this day and age.

Those final sentences are very demanding. For what exactly is high quality geographical knowledge? And pursuing this question with these new teachers ignited a disarmingly natural and intense curiosity. It was clear that they could see my point. Clear was their readiness to accept the responsibility of teaching, expressed as their role as the source of the curriculum experience of their students.

I can compare this pre-service context with my recent experience leading whole school workshops exploring the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ across all subjects. It is fascinating to see the alacrity with which experienced teachers address this question, resulting in truly illuminating discussions about teachers’ motivations and sense of moral purpose. Without exception, teachers said how much they valued (a) thinking about what they were teaching and why and (b) listening to other subject specialists thinking out loud about their subjects.

This is reassuring, for the plaintive question teased out of the new teachers near the end of my afternoon’s work with them was heart-breaking. “This is fantastic, and refreshing,” they said, “but it is hard to see how we can apply this thinking to the PowerPoint slides and the lesson plans we are asked to deliver.” They told me that the ‘source of the curriculum’ was not them at all, but the materials and instructions on the school’s internal drive. In the same breath they made it clear that they knew this was intolerable – at least in the context of the professional responsibilities we were discussing.

How has the teaching profession managed to lose sight of its moral purpose in this way? I contend that one reason is that curriculum thinking, by which I mean the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of teaching, has almost been forgotten. Many of us grew up so to speak with the post-modern turn, which overturned traditional ways of seeing. Its impact was to undermine rigid grand design – such as objectives-led, rational curriculum planning.  Whilst not a bad thing in itself, however, teachers’ curriculum thinking has been a casualty. It is no longer encouraged.

But it seems that  Ofsted has recognised this in their new concern for the ‘quality of education’. Perhaps the government’s much-vaunted ‘knowledge-led’ school policy is also a post, post-modern response. It will be interesting indeed to follow the extent to which Ofsted’s widely publicised rebalancing will result in their making distinctions between high and low quality knowledge-led curricula in schools. And it will be interesting to see where exactly they see the responsibility lying for making high-quality curriculum experiences for students.

Some of these issues are opened up in the London Review of Education (16.3).  The seven articles that make up the special feature arise in part from the Subject Specialism Research Group recently set up in the UCL Institute of Education’s Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. We hope there will be further articles a debate on the rescue of curriculum thought and its significance on the quality of education.

Photo by Frank Balsinger via Flickr Creative Commons 

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Posted in Teachers and teaching assistants, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “Thinking allowed: teachers must reclaim their moral purpose
  1. “They [teachers] told me that the ‘source of the curriculum’ was not them at all, but the materials and instructions on the school’s internal drive. In the same breath they made it clear that they knew this was intolerable – at least in the context of the professional responsibilities we were discussing.”

    This observation, like so much of this post, is absolutely right.

    The problem arises with the concept of, “powerful knowledge across all subjects.”.

    As a physics teacher I can think of no more ‘powerful knowledge’ than Newtonian mechanics and dynamics. It underpinned not only our understanding of the cosmos (or at any rate the solar system) and ’empowered’ the industrial revolution.

    However this ‘knowledge’ only becomes ‘powerful’ if it is understood. Consider this example from this article.

    https://rogertitcombelearningmatters.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/the-growth-mindset-misunderstood/

    “As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.” – Vygotsky

    As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

    Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

    Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

    Well, momentum = mass x velocity

    Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

    If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

    I am sure that plenty of similar examples from Geography can be found. Identifying the ‘knowledge’ is not the problem. The challenge to pedagogy is to find ways to help students internalise that knowledge in a way that not only makes sense to them, but enables them to debate their understanding of it with that of their peers. This not only ‘requires’ cognitive development, but also brings it about. When students attain the appropriate level of cognitive sophistication through science then they can also make sense of similarly hard knowledge in geography, and vice versa. We all need to go back to our Piaget.

    This website will help.

    http://www.letsthink.org.uk/

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