How Professor Dan Lortie changed teaching forever

Never heard of Professor Dan Lortie? He has more than likely influenced your teaching, writes Andy Hargreaves

Andy Hargreaves

Professor Dan Lortie has had a profound impact on modern teaching, writes Andy Hargreaves

It's always important to know where an idea began.

A coach, for example, was a Hungarian carriage in the middle ages that "carried" people from place to place. Then, much later, aristocratic youths would be accompanied by a tutor, or coach, as they travelled in their coach to university and back.

This is what "coaching" originally meant – not being trained in an imposed method, but being carried along and educated by someone with superior knowledge or skill. It helps to know where the idea began. 

The same is true for teachers who are guided by many ideas that they may not know the orgins of: when and why did we start thinking about better career structures and opportunities for teachers, and about teaching being a collaborative rather than an individual and autonomous profession, for example?

The answer is that these ideas originated with an American professor, Dan Lortie, mostly unknown in the UK and elsewhere, who wrote one defining book more than 40 years ago – Schoolteacher – and who sadly passed away recently at the age of 94.

The impact of Dan Lortie on teaching

To honour his huge impact in the field of teaching, these are four key findings from Professor Lortie's work that inform much of how teaching has evolved since the 1970s and that remain as insightful today.

1. The flat career

Teaching, Lortie told us, was a flat or unstaged career. Schooling in the 19 century had to develop “a system of remuneration that would attract new members and paid little attention to those who already taught”. So salaries and seniority were inextricably interconnected.

Other professional careers gave members promotions to look forward to.

They had “cycles of effort, attainment and renewed ambition”. But teaching was flat. So teachers focused on the present rather than the future, and quietly resented colleagues with guaranteed pay rises even when they expended less effort.

Nowadays, organisations like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development advocate for a teacher career with different paths and distinct steps.

All this began with Lortie.

2. The 'apprenticeship of observation'

How do teachers learn to teach? Mainly, Lortie said, through an apprenticeship, as pupils, of endless hours of observation, from “the other side of the desk”.

Learning to teach was about surviving the sink or swim experience of controlling your class, and then fitting in with the way teaching already was.

The whole teacher education reform movement with better programmes of induction and integration between theory and practice still strives to undo this age-old pattern of Lortie’s script.

3. The psychic rewards of teaching

Teaching is rooted in what Lortie called “psychic rewards”. Teachers “concentrate their energies at points where effort may make a difference”, rather than in vague discussions about how to make things better in the long run, Lortie wrote. 

Reformers ignore the psychic rewards of teaching at their peril.

In short, it’s children, not data, that drive teachers. During the Covid-19 crisis, we are realising just how much online learning struggles to maintain teachers’ "psychic'" connection to their pupils.

4. The culture of individualism

Lortie’s greatest legacy is his argument that teaching has a culture of individualism that makes teachers reluctant to change.

Individualism, Lortie claimed, was reinforced and rewarded by a job that had uncertain criteria for successful performance and that drove teachers to rely instead on their own “indicators of effectiveness”.

Teachers were isolated in their classrooms, insulated from collegial feedback, and uninterested in substantial, collective change. They showed little enthusiasm “in working together to build a stronger technical culture”. Teachers were therefore invested in their own autonomy and resisted changes that threatened it.

Lortie’s observations inspired antidotes to individualism among many educators, in the form of teacher collaboration and collegiality, including the worldwide movement to build strong professional (learning) communities.

His work is point zero for all we now know about teacher collaboration. We think about and organise teaching differently because of his brilliant book.

A personal note

Sadly, I never met Dan Lortie. I had a near-miss at a conference in Birmingham where we were both keynotes in the early 80s, but I had to return home after my presentation.

Nevertheless, Lortie had more influence on my own writing and career than any other scholar.

Professor Lortie’s legacy is monumental. He is a giant in research on teaching.

Andy Hargreaves is an emeritus professor at Boston College, USA, and honorary professor at Swansea University

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