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Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Do teachers need to understand what they are doing?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital28 May 2013

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.