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Conceptions of Education & Teaching

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

Education and Teaching: Some Thoughts for Our Policy Makers

For me, teaching is not just a job. I had little idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated. However, the commitment that I now have to teaching (in whatever form it might take) is largely answerable to the examples set by a few fine teachers I was lucky enough to encounter at school and university. I owe one of them in particular a huge debt for all he did for me as an undergraduate. When I asked him what I could do for him in repayment (I had thought of buying him theatre tokens!) he told me to do for others what he had done for me. I have continued to try to honour that request. There is nothing more wonderful than witnessing a student having the possibilities of their humanity revealed to them through a love of learning – expressed in a desire to learn for no other reason than to learn.

Concepts such as ‘learning outcomes’, ‘best practice’ and ‘behaviour modification’ are well-known in schools and colleges. They are however, essentially a drive towards mediocrity because they are not resonant with what it can mean to love a discipline and teach it in that spirit. They are (merely) quantitative concepts that allow us to separate out, in one way or another, achievement from the discipline - usually on some kind of utilitarian basis. Accordingly, such concepts cannot illustrate what a love of a discipline can mean, or what amounts to an authentic study of it, because such study, and the love of a discipline are fundamentally interlinked.

Authentic study of a discipline, and what is practical in relation to such authenticity, amounts to being faithful to a commitment that seeks to rise to the highest possible standards set within a discipline. This intrinsically separates out the study of academic disciplines (physics, geology, philosophy and theology, for instance) from utilitarian degrees such as tourism, education management and business administration. It also creates a distinction between those who study a traditional academic discipline with particular career goals in mind, from those who do so in the spirit of a faithful commitment to their discipline. In other words, what matters is different in each case. A student whose ends amount to achieving good grades above all else, may believe that to write their essays in ways that pander to the philosophical sympathies of their various tutors, will do the trick; philosophical consistency between essays in different modules may figure little, if at all, in their considerations. A teacher who sees the purpose of education to be that of achieving employment, and perhaps also wealth and prestige, will tailor their teaching in ways that they believe best facilitate such outcomes for their students. I have seen both these phenomena first hand.

If the argument is made that it is all well and good to talk about studying a discipline for no other purpose than to try to achieve the highest standards set by that discipline, but that such an approach is just not practical in the 21st century (I hear this all the time from pushy parents, the media and government ministers!), then the answer is as follows: what is practical does not determine what matters. It is the other way round: what matters determines what is practical. If studying a discipline matters to you in a way that requires you to try to rise to the highest standards in that discipline, then what is practical will reflect that. By contrast, if what matters to you is a better paid job, then what is practical (in terms of what and how you study) will be similarly reflected in what you consider to be the right focus of your efforts; this is frequently exemplified by both parents and students caring not a fig for the discipline itself, but merely the grades achieved at the end of a course of study, and the prestige of the school or university from which those grades were attained. However, it is a logical condition of the authentic study of any discipline with an academic heritage that it be studied in ways not determined by ends that exist independently of it.

In case you think that what I have said is just a matter of intellectual snobbery, let me say that utilitarian subjects are often just as demanding of one’s intelligence as disciplines with an academic heritage. Neither is it the case that studying for the sake of one’s salary requires more or less intelligence than traditional academic study. It is merely that what matters in each case, in terms of how one exercises one’s intelligence, is very different.

Accordingly, there is a fundamental difference between education and training. Training sets limits around what is learnt because it is accountable to particular ends; education can have no such limits. A career, or economic based conception of education is really just a species of training, because what is practical is answerable to something other than the discipline being studied. It is, as such, a means to an end, and once that end has been achieved one can, without further thought, relinquish one’s studies. Education is about the development of individual independence of mind and the possibility of perpetually deepening one’s understanding; training is not. One teaches to educate; one trains to attain certain specific ends.

Moreover, in spite of what we are encouraged to think by politicians and educational managers, students are not customers and their teachers are not service providers (this is how the relationship has been described in university staff meetings I have attended). However, in relation to training, such a customer/service provider description would be legitimate. The reason for this is that a customer is in a position to understand what getting value for money is when they see it because they are aware of the nature of the products being sold and, consequently, what they are buying and what they should (as a result) be receiving. One can hold a supermarket to account over the labelling of horsemeat as beef, for instance. Similarly, I have a tree-felling qualification. In order to acquire my qualification, I undertook training from a qualified training provider. Once I had passed my exam, that was the end of the matter – I had been trained successfully and could be described as a satisfied customer. Education, by definition, can have no such extrinsic constraints because, in the search for truth, exemplified in one’s desire to rise to the highest standards one is capable of in one’s chosen discipline, one is not always able to say where one will end up; as such, teaching which is made answerable to strict outcomes which are designed so that students can assess whether they have received the products advertised, not only undermines the pursuit of truth in a discipline but also degrades the concept of education to nothing more than a species of training.

The point is this: in education, students should discover ideas and ways of thinking they had never before considered; these ways of thinking are interdependent with (and require) the perpetual development and deepening of of thought. In training, that is not so. If education is merely treated as a species of training, then the possibility of the wonder and love of the world that an education can nourish will not arise because one’s studies will be answerable to something with a specifiable end. Once that end has been achieved, nothing further is required – the training has done its job. In the spirit of training (as opposed to teaching), the idea that one might study a discipline with no other end in mind than to try to rise to the highest standards in that discipline, is incoherent.

All of this relates to how one conceives of what one is doing when teaching – i.e. what it means to teach. One can teach in the spirit of educating and nurturing a love of one’s discipline in one’s students, or one can do it in the spirit of it being one’s profession – something that can be gladly relinquished when one retires. This is the difference between what one might think of as a ‘calling’ (or a vocation) and a profession, and can be understood as running in parallel with the distinction between education and training.

I am not, for one moment, suggesting that professional standards are poor; a teacher can uphold the highest professional standards but need never think about what they are doing in any other way than as their work. Such professional standards however, are decided by managers and committees dedicated to establishing “best practice” (horrible phrase!) within a school, college or university, and are almost always designed to optimise the development of strategies that are answerable to quantifiable ends (frequently associated with specific professional phrases – an almost specific professional language); these are, as such, extrinsic to the disciplines themselves. A vocational commitment to teaching cannot be defined like this; rather, it is defined by a love of the discipline one teaches and, through that, a desire to reveal to students what it can mean to study it. Such a commitment requires the teacher to transform their student’s understanding in a way that illustrates to them what is necessary when attempting to rise to the highest standards in a discipline, and what such love looks like in practice. In other words, the student has to learn to love (and how to love) their discipline, as opposed to understanding their studies as answerable to extrinsic benefits for which that discipline might prove useful. This amounts to embarking upon a journey with the student that must exclude condescension, no matter how benign, whilst being sensitive to the fact that the student is taking their first tentative steps and will be looking to you for guidance. A teacher – whether they be a PhD supervisor or a secondary school teacher – who condescends to their students will be unable to reveal what the love of a discipline can mean and, as such, unable to illustrate what it takes to try to rise to the highest standards within it, because their condescension is an expression of an inability to see in their students the possibility of worthy companionship on such a journey. Teaching in a professional spirit, in ways answerable to generic and agreed upon strategies such as ‘learning outcomes’, ‘best practice’ and ‘behaviour modification’, is an invitation to mediocrity because it degrades both the discipline and its teaching by making them answerable to definite quantifiable ends that are extrinsic to the discipline itself.

I will leave you with a question for our institutional policy-makers – it is not rhetorical: would you wish for an education system in which your children are taught by teachers who conceive of what they do as training, or by teachers for whom a love of their discipline saturates everything they do?

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