Teaching is more than performance

24th August 2012 at 01:00
Pedagogy is not just classroom practice, and focusing solely on that element of the teaching process neglects other vital aspects, writes Graham Fowler

Today, it seems the basis for judgements about teachers' talents and capabilities rests entirely on how they are witnessed performing in the classroom. In earlier times, when the classroom door remained firmly closed once a lesson had begun (unless someone needed a board rubber or the head arrived), the basis for such judgements may have been whether the class seemed relatively quiet to passers-by.

These days, the noisiness of a class may still be used as an indicator but teachers will be judged far more directly: by observers present in their classroom itself. Ofsted inspectors will, like theatre critics, decide if a teacher is outstanding or poor based on their live performance. Members of the senior leadership team will pop in as part of official observations, or unofficial ones, or "learning walks". Some schools will even seek feedback from pupils themselves.

But how closely do the observers look at the lesson plans or assessments you have completed recently? The amount of attention they pay will vary from school to school, but unless you are at an early stage in your career, it may have been a while since they had a proper look. Indeed, review of assessment may not be considered in detail until an outside moderator comes to look at portfolio work or formal tests. Effective teaching may involve planning and review of pupils' work, but these can be given a much lower priority than performance.

Aspects of performance appear ever more important when schools are subjected to external appraisal. If reports are to be believed, highly rated teachers from one school may be bussed to another undergoing Ofsted inspections as ringers. (Where do less favoured teachers go? Are they encouraged to disappear or go off sick? Or are they bussed in the other direction?) Teachers can face even heavier scrutiny of their pupils' results - and this is the basis for the comparative success or otherwise of schools in the league tables. But how much of the success of pupils is a reflection of teacher activity alone?

Just as there is something crude about league tables and the superficial judgements they imply, so appraising classroom performance is partial and neglects vital aspects of the teaching process.

In reality we know that teaching begins well before we enter the classroom: it is not easy to teach without any preparation. Whether the emphasis is on the development of content or ensuring the right artefacts are available in a suitable learning environment, preparation takes place earlier.

And teaching involves more than merely considering individual lessons in advance. In effect, we need to plan the structure within which individual lesson preparation takes place. And subsequent to performance, we are wise to think not only of assessment of pupils but evaluation of the lesson. Such evaluation is not limited to oneself as a teacher but includes, for instance, whether the materials worked well. These views are more encompassing.

Broader view

As Robin Alexander writes in his Essays on Pedagogy, the skills demanded of teachers are impressive and represent a broad array of engagement and capabilities. Of course, there is an attempt to develop some of these skills in the training of teachers. A helpful collection of articles on this has been provided by Bob Moon and the late Jenny Leach of the Open University, in their edited volume Learning and Pedagogy.

They identify the kinds of understanding that teachers need as:

- subject knowledge;

- awareness of the school;

- recognition of personal values; and

- pedagogic knowledge.

All are important facets of what teachers bring to the classroom setting. And in combination they probably represent all that may be possible to fit into initial teacher education. Certainly, papers from England's ongoing Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) suggest that these kinds of understanding are normally covered, in one way or another, in teacher training.

However, when teachers settle into their careers, the broader view of pedagogy can be lost as they are pressed to focus increasingly on classroom practice.

What is pedagogy?

Pedagogy has a developed place internationally in teaching and teacher education. But in Britain, if asked to provide a definition of pedagogy, even classroom teachers may fall back on little more than the dictionary view: "the art and science of teaching".

But what does this mean? When are we being artful in the classroom? Is there a scientific basis for either those artful practices or pedagogy itself?

Although apparently little formulated in Britain, pedagogic principles do lie behind teaching. Some awareness of these principles will have been gleaned from training to be a teacher; some may derive from practical experience. Despite this, we may often be hard pressed to identify, let alone analyse, those pedagogic principles or their relationship to practice.

One of the most rewarding explanations of pedagogy is found in what may seem an unexpected time and place. The French sociologist emile Durkheim, who lived from 1858 to 1917, is best known today as a founding father of sociology. Yet pedagogy was fundamental to his work; the introduction to Durkheim's Education and Sociology, a short book not translated into English until 1956, says he spent between one-third and two-thirds of his time teaching pedagogy to trainee teachers. And he did this both when lecturing at Bordeaux University and when he moved to Paris in the first years of the 20th century.

Although paying attention to both basic themes of art and science, Durkheim goes on to differentiate pedagogy from both. Durkheim's consideration does indeed see much that is artful in the teaching process. He talks of the "instinct" and "intelligence" skilled teachers bring to bear in the classroom. In many cases, this will demand not only fairly immediate responses to events, but also that those responses bear in mind both the "intelligence" and "temperament" of pupils as individuals and as a group.

In aspects of his work, Durkheim prized science. But he noted that there would be problems with seeking scientific answers. For not only was the study of education new, but so were the fundamental disciplines of sociology and psychology that underpinned education. Consequently, the basis for scientific analysis was limited.

For all that we have seen considerable investigation since then, a couple of problems remain. First, there are comparatively few developments that are sufficiently groundbreaking - as perhaps work in neuroscience may be - to make a deep impact on teaching and learning. Second, how would such scientific developments affect context, preparation or those instant judgements the skilled teacher needs to make, and make many times each minute?

Anyway, Durkheim argued that education was too important to wait for scientific breakthroughs. Rather than deny generations of children, we needed to make the best pedagogical speculations possible. And, crucially, Durkheim also saw that this was possible, since between art and science was another way of understanding: reflection.

The importance of reflection

Reflection is formed by taking the best of acts and ideas, and revisiting and evaluating these again. Thus Durkheim summarises pedagogy as a systematic reflection that may be applied to teaching and with awareness of education in general.

Pedagogy, then, is crucially related to reflection. But it takes different forms. It may be the minute-by-minute observation of the classroom, most probably accompanied later by overall evaluation and reconsideration. And if we think about the ways teachers develop, it is often the degree of reflection - not mastery of the subject or even the best skills in interaction - that is the best marker for a successful career.

But excellence in action may not be the same as excellence in ideas. A fine classroom teacher, Durkheim argues, may have limited exploration of pedagogy. For it is pedagogy taken a stage further, given additional reflection and perhaps recombined with ideas - new or borrowed from a different context - that is the basis for the kinds of reflection at the heart of pedagogy.

In effect, this kind of review becomes the basis for educational analysis - possibly theory or even science, albeit rarely in precisely the terms that Durkheim envisaged. The strength of teaching in terms of classroom skills may appear independent of pedagogy, but is rooted in this level of educational analysis.

Furthermore, educational analysis demands that pedagogy take into account historical and social contexts. Awareness of this kind may help us to recognise when educational understanding is being undermined by powerful forces elsewhere, which threaten not only pedagogical understanding but impact on the classroom, too.

Writing about a century after Durkheim, Robin Alexander also stresses in Essays on Pedagogy that teaching is much more than performance -more even than attention to purpose, approaches and evaluation. A more encompassing view of pedagogy requires recognition of the theoretical and historical context in which educational discourse arrives.

Similar to Durkheim, he also recognises the social context as being influential. In Alexander's terms, the classroom may be the place where education is "enabled", but the school and broader policy arenas legitimise actions, and all are "located" within the culture and society in which pedagogy emerges. Consequently, an evolved pedagogy demands reflection not only by teachers in the classroom, but also by teachers and others engaged in the broader consideration that forms educational analysis and theoretical development.

Alexander also offers a useful analogy in a chapter on pedagogy and culture in the book Teacher Development: exploring our own practice. Here, he likens teaching to a musical performance. Initially this may seem limited - after all, we have questioned views that stress the merit of mere performance - but Alexander provides a broader canvas. Teaching itself may be a form of conducting, perhaps with different interpretations and even improvisation. Yet behind all the themes is composition, which Alexander sees as lesson planning.

Of course, given the control that the government exerts on education in England (see panel), a question arises. What degree of freedom can teachers be given, not merely for conducting, but also the way they may develop the composition?

Graham Fowler is an education consultant and writer.


Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy (2008). London: Routledge

Alexander, R. Pedagogy and Culture: a perspective in search of a method in Soler, J. Craft, A. and Burgess, H. (eds) Teacher Development: exploring our own practice (2001). London: Paul Chapman Publishing in association with The Open University

Department for Education, The Importance of Teaching (2010). Cm 7980

Durkheim, E. Education and Sociology (1956). New York: The Free Press

Leach, J. and Moon, R. Learners and Pedagogy (1999). London: Paul Chapman Publishing in association with The Open University


We have heard the old, apocryphal story of a French education minister being able to look at his watch at any moment and know what all children in French schools would be doing.

The UK's education system has never been quite so prescriptive. However, teachers have grown used to top-down initiatives and other politically driven interventions.

In practical terms, we might have seen the latitude teachers possess decline with the arrival of the national curriculum in 1988. The introduction of the literacy hour in the 1990s may have given some teachers an opportunity to consider different approaches to pedagogy, but it was still prescriptive and imposed from the centre.

However, we have been promised a degree of change. The White Paper The Importance of Teaching, published by the current government at the end of 2010, offered positive - some very positive - developments for both schools and practitioners. It promised reduced bureaucracy and a less rigid national curriculum, as well as allowing teachers greater scope to exercise expertise and professionalism.

These changes could permit teachers greater scope over the conduct of the lesson, and the range of interpretations that may be considered. We may then see a very positive shift that encourages more flexible interpretation, even allowing for improvisation.

The extent of this freedom will be clearer once the new curriculum plans for 2014 onwards have been published. If genuine, this autonomy could help promote a broader view of pedagogy.

However, the proposals in The Importance of Teaching on teacher training point in the opposite direction.

It states that training will "focus on classroom practice". The thrust of the paper - and of several speeches and announcements by the government since then - seems to be that there is nothing prospective teachers can learn from higher education institutions that they would not learn better from good teachers in schools.

Yet even assuming those teachers in schools do have excellent skills, will they be given the time for reflection, analysis and research that is available to those in the university sector? And what about the good teachers who do decide to work in universities in order to share their practice more widely?

There is a danger - even if there are attempts to mollify the effects by additional professional development - that those who gain initial experience within school will obtain skills that are current but on the way to being ossified. If we are looking for flexibility and latitude, let alone expertise, in the classroom, we gain it by looking beyond the classroom.

If we are serious about giving teachers the range of skills needed to conduct their lessons, to meet various pedagogical interpretations, we need reflective and critical teacher education in a university setting.

In this way teacher education - initial and recurrent - could offer the prospect of both greater professionalism and the increased capacity to revisit "composition", which we may see as rather more than just lesson planning.

In brief, we may wish to consider broader dimensions of pedagogy - a word that is notably absent from The Importance of Teaching.

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