Closed minds of the people at the top

10th October 2008 at 01:00

I have been criticised in the past for claiming that there is a strong vein of anti-intellectualism in Scottish education, not least at senior levels of the educational establishment. However, I make no apology for returning to this theme as I recently came across a disturbing example of the tendency.

A teacher was nearing completion of her master's degree. She had enjoyed the intellectual stimulus of her course and wanted to undertake further study at doctoral level. To carry out her research, she required the agreement of her head. This was given grudgingly, with the comment: "I don't see why you're bothering." Undaunted, the teacher went ahead and completed her thesis successfully. She was invited to contribute to in- service courses, but was told by a member of the directorate: "You shouldn't use the title doctor." It would, apparently, risk alienating the audience.

How are these attitudes to be interpreted? Are they evidence of resentment, envy, insecurity? Whatever the explanation, they reveal a disappointingly negative attitude to professional learning. Here was someone who had devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to furthering her educational processes, but senior colleagues clearly did not value her achievement. They seemed unaware of the contradiction between attempting to open the minds of children through learning, and their own closed minds in relation to advanced study by a committed teacher.

When the chartered teacher programme was introduced, similar attitudes were in evidence. Some teachers kept quiet about their studies for fear of disparaging remarks by colleagues. What mattered, CT critics argued, was classroom practice and experience: the craft skill of teaching was more important than academic study. But why polarise the debate in this way?

I have great admiration for skilful classroom practitioners. I also admire people whose theoretical insights enable a deeper understanding of teaching and learning processes. And if you can get both in the same person, you are on a real winner. We rightly acknowledge the different kinds of achievement in pupils. Why not among professional colleagues?

Anti-intellectualism does not just exist at the level of some individual teachers. It is often found within teachers' organisations and national bodies. Lindsay Paterson commented on the "philistine" character of recent reforms which, he argues, show little understanding of theory or history (TESS, September 5).

The inspectorate uses "best practice" as the supreme criterion for its judgments and recommendations, and shows little willingness (or capacity) to engage in debate about fundamental educational concepts and principles. There is no recognition that the notion of "best practice" itself requires critical interrogation. HMIE publications are often narrowly-conceived documents in which the only sources cited are previous inspectorate reports.

Underlying all of this are important questions about the nature of teacher professionalism. The professional status of doctors depends not only on their credibility as medical practitioners but also on the constant updating of their knowledge and skills, in the light of new evidence based on rigorous research. There may be limits to the extent to which teaching can become a research-based profession but, at the very least, we need headteachers, directors of education and inspectors who are willing to engage with intellectually-challenging ideas.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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