It's not craft or profession. Teachers without both skills will be a walking disaster

11th February 2011 at 00:00

We have heard much over the past few months from education secretary Michael Gove about how teaching is a "craft" to be learnt and developed in the classroom rather than in a university setting. But is it really the case that trainee teachers would be better off just learning their skills from existing teachers - or is there something to be said for the claim that teaching is a profession, one that also requires engagement with an academic knowledge base, as with other professions?

There's no question that in some very important senses teaching is a craft. It involves the exercise and deployment of an extensive repertoire of practical skills and strategies to motivate pupils. It calls for the capacity to enthuse and inspire and to instil the willingness to learn. It entails direct engagement with pupils in pursuit of their educational progress.

These skills are nurtured through direct experience of the classroom, through working under the supervision of accomplished practitioners and through sustained experience as a teacher. All this accumulated experience generates the kind of personal craft knowledge, often tacit and unarticulated, which underpins the countless practical judgments teachers continually make in their demanding work.

Any teacher whose grasp of these were tenuous - no matter how intellectually distinguished or otherwise talented - would be a walking disaster in a classroom. And those who qualify should be required to demonstrate the capacity to deploy these skills with confidence in the classroom.

However, there is a strong international consensus that effective teaching calls for rather more than this.

Teaching needs to be evidence based: teachers need to study what is known about how pupils think, develop and are to be motivated to learn, about the barriers to learning and much else besides. Arguably, the personal knowledge associated with the learning of a craft has to be complemented by the broader knowledge that comes from the review and study of existing academic evidence about the conduct of teaching.

One of the supporting arguments for teaching as a profession is that in training and qualifying, students must draw on a public knowledge base. It would be presumptuous in the extreme to set to one side the extensive evidence base on teaching and learning and to proceed only on the basis of personal experience of a classroom environment.

Another hallmark of a profession is a commitment by its members to continually hone their expertise and enhance their performance. Providing a professional service is not a matter of merely relying on previous practice or doing what has been learned by observing someone else in situ. Teachers therefore need to be trained not just through classroom observations and experience: they continually need to evaluate their work as a prelude to its improvement. That obligation points to the need for teachers to adopt a systematic approach to the scrutiny of their own teaching and that of others, testing the quality of work undertaken against practice elsewhere and relevant research findings.

Teachers need to see themselves as researchers of their own practice, adjusting their teaching strategies in the light of the available evidence. It also implies a professional duty to keep in touch with the literature of teaching and learning, and indeed to contribute to it as a way of raising the level of public and professional debate on teaching and learning. It would be irresponsible to restrict the evaluation of practice purely to the exchange of personal experiences.

Academic study allows teachers to evolve and articulate a rationale for their work, to elaborate a framework of principles underpinning the activities of the classroom and to become aware of the values underlying the wide range of their professional responsibilities. While classroom experience is of course essential, time away from the classroom gives trainees the opportunity to reflect and share experiences with those working in contrasting schools and scope to learn about new ideas (and government policies) which can then inform their teaching.

The time has surely come to jettison the familiar dichotomies between teaching as a craft and teaching as a profession. Of course, as in other professions, teaching includes the skills, insights and techniques that are captured by the term craft; but in teaching there is continuing interplay between that personal craft knowledge and a much more extensive knowledge base. At the heart of that wider knowledge base lies the capacity for critical reflection. On this view, becoming a teacher is to be inducted into a community of reflection, enquiry and debate. The capacity to engage in such reflection underpins a teacher's effective performance in the classroom.

But why does it matter whether teaching is considered a craft or a profession? At a time when the Government is reviewing what makes a good teacher and is proposing to overturn a system that has developed generations of teachers who have learned their profession through a combination of academic study and classroom experience and whose training is consistently highly rated by Ofsted, it is vital to take full account of the knowledge base of teaching and the role of universities in enabling teachers at the beginning of, and throughout, their careers to exploit that knowledge base to enliven their teaching.

Emeritus Professor Gordon Kirk is academic secretary to the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers and was formerly dean of education and vice-principal of Edinburgh University.

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