Creating a New Professional Paradigm

The professionalisation of teaching has gone hand in hand, historically, with the promotion of progressive ideas. One of the first campaigners was the American Horace Mann in the nineteenth century, and he succeeded in securing better pay and conditions for teachers, but at the expense of the simplicity of teaching. He introduced pedagogical notions which were beyond the ken of ordinary folk, thus developing a mystical aura around the teaching profession which would justify increased salaries and more job security for public educators, as well as the taxes which would pay for them.

This process went into overdrive in the twentieth century, as the professors of Columbia Teachers College carved out intellectual ground based on the exaltation of pedagogy in ever new and different forms, at the expense of subject knowledge. The politics of teacher professionalisation are thus deeply troubling from their inception. These early professors of education knew that they had to create their own territory, otherwise they would be seen as simply adjuncts to the subject-based university departments already in existence. This they did by inventing all kinds of new and complicated methods of teaching in which they could claim expertise, and derogating the transmission of ‘mere facts’.

In this view, teachers entering the profession are entering a sort of gnostic priesthood, and the sacred mysteries into which they are initiated are all of the mumbo-jumbo that comes under the title of pedagogy. While this intellectual trickery persists, we will not make much progress in placing knowledge at the centre of the curriculum and at the centre of our profession.

As a traditional teacher, I want to reclaim the essential simplicity of education as what G K Chesterton called ‘truth in the state of transmission’. But this does not mean the destruction of teaching as a profession. It means creating a new professional paradigm, which is primarily based around subject rather than pedagogical knowledge. It means teachers who spend as much time as they can developing their knowledge of the subjects they teach, rather than filling spreadsheets with pointless data or writing endless comments in five different colour pens.

It can be rather daunting to start thinking of yourself as a subject expert, rather than a pedagogical expert. But I implore my professional colleagues to see the beauty of this: wouldn’t you rather spend your time learning more and more about really interesting stuff, so that you could explain it better to your pupils? Has the model of pedagogical expertise really brought you, or your pupils, any joy?

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9 thoughts on “Creating a New Professional Paradigm

  1. I think you’re conflating several ideas here.

    Firstly, Hattie shows that subject knowledge doesn’t have a particularly large effect on the progress/attainment of students – so why should we spend our time increasing it? (I’m not arguing against increasing it, but I think you are advocating increasing it at the expense of pedgagocial development.)

    Pedagogical development and expertise does not equate to: “filling spreadsheets with pointless data or writing endless comments in five different colour pens.” If anything, this is a lack of pedagogical expertise.

    If our aim, as teachers, is to transfer knowledge and understanding, then surely we should ensure that we are doing this in the most effective, efficient, engaging, manner? This is why it is important to develop our pedagogical understanding – as well as understanding of related areas such as cognitive science. A teacher of thirty years may well have excellent subject knowledge, but they may still be working on archaic methods – advising students to revise by reading a textbook, for example.

    Surely we should be working to make the profession one based on empirical data and research, so that pedagogy can move from the historical “mumbo-jumbo” to “stuff that works because… science.”?

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    • Cognitive science certainly can help teachers recover from progressive ideology, so that they understand that practice and testing are essential for ensuring knowledge is securely stored in long term memory.

      Most of the pedagogy that is actually useful is either straightforward traditional teaching which has always existed, or an antidote to the theories with which trainees have been indoctrinated for decades.

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  2. At a public school in the 60s I had the impression that my teachers primarily loved their subjects, and brought to us ideas they were recently thinking about them. So I would assume that’s normal. Shocking to read it’s not. Good article.

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  3. I’ve previously commented on the military’s Methods of Instruction syllabus, but I didn’t mention that it’s so simple that it can be delivered inside of a weekend. If the effectiveness of NCO instructors is compared to that of qualified teachers, the former would win by a mile. Needless to say, you don’t become an instructor until you’ve demonstrated thorough mastery of a specific skill, as well as your ability to command the respect of your men.

    Hattie notwithstanding, it’s impossible to teach a subject that you haven’t mastered–and that’s a crucial problem these days, what with schools employing science and maths teachers who couldn’t pass a GCSE in their own subject. What with the new modular course in our newer universities, it really is that bad! And it’s a pretty safe bet that relatively few primary teachers are numerate enough to pass the new Arithmetic SATs. or even the Mathematical Reasoning paper.

    Granted, there are certain subject-specific skills one needs to be able to teach. It’s not enough to be literate if you want to teach basic literacy skills, but at the same time Sue Lloyd was one of the main originators of the synthetic phonics revolution, and she only had a Cert Ed. It’s wonderful to read Willingham and Sweller, but in the end all that happens is that you revert to the common-sense ideas that informed teaching in times gone by.

    The only sense in which teaching is now a profession is that one must be familiar with masses of regulations in regards to what you can and can’t do legally. One science teacher I know said that the only useful thing he learned in the course of his PGCE was how you can legally use force when a pupil kicks off physically. Sadly, we’ll never dispense with the idea that teaching is a profession: there are far too many egos at stake, as well as masses of non-contact jobs for those who find it a little too hot in the classroom. I speak as one who has an MA and a DPhil in Education; of course with my opinions, I’ll never be awarded one of those coveted sinecures.

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  4. Hello. Thank you for the blog. I have a question. What would you suggest for those teachers who are subject experts and who continually learn more and more interesting stuff, but are rubbish at explaining it to students? I know a few of these teachers. They adore their subject and love nothing more than deepening their knowledge. Problem is, they totally lack the ability to teach children. Their deep subject knowledge acts as a barrier because they cannot make it accessible. What would your thoughts be on teachers like this? Many thanks.

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      • Combination of factors: lack of understanding evident in work produced by students, poor GCSE and A level results over many years, students complain of being bored and switched off, decreasing numbers of students choosing the subject, complaints from parents.
        I’ve seen him teach a number of times myself and whilst I am interested in his subject (sociology), I have struggled to sustain interest. His voice is monotone and he doesn’t do much else but talk in lessons.
        The guy I’m thinking of is engrossed by his subject, he reads constantly and amongst staff he is very respected for his subject expertise.
        How can I help him?

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      • It sounds like he isn’t very good at teaching. Good teaching obviously isn’t talking all the time in a monotonous voice! The best thing to help teachers improve is for them to see examples of good practice.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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