Teaching is more than performance

31st August 2012 at 01:00
Pedagogy is not just classroom practice, and focusing solely on that part 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, 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 the classroom itself. Inspectors will, like theatre critics, decide if a teacher is outstanding or poor based on his or her 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.

But how closely do the observers look at the lesson plans or assessments you have completed recently? It may have been a while.

Aspects of performance appear ever more important when schools are subjected to external appraisal. Teachers can face even heavier scrutiny of their pupils' results - and this is the basis for the comparative success or otherwise of schools.

But 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.

We know that teaching begins well before we enter the classroom. 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.

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, 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 will have been gleaned from teacher training; some may derive from practical experience. Despite this, we may often be hard pressed to identify those pedagogic principles or their relationship to practice.

One of the most rewarding explanations of pedagogy is found in the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917), a founding father of sociology. Yet pedagogy was fundamental to his work; the introduction to Durkheim's Education and Sociology says he spent between one third and two thirds of his time teaching pedagogy to trainee teachers.

Although paying attention to basic themes of art and science, Durkheim differentiates pedagogy from both. His consideration does 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 the 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 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 many times each minute?

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, he 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 re-evaluating them. Thus, Durkheim summarises pedagogy as a systematic reflection that may be applied to teaching 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 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, reviewed and perhaps recombined with ideas - new or borrowed from a different context - that is the basis for the best kinds of reflection.

This kind of review becomes the basis for educational analysis. 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.

Robin Alexander 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.

Like Durkheim, he 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 those engaged in the broader consideration that forms educational analysis and theoretical development.

Alexander offers a useful analogy in a chapter on pedagogy and culture in the book Teacher Development: exploring our own practice, where he likens teaching to a musical performance. 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.

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


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.

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