Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teaching as an Ideal: Part I

[By Michael Bycroft]

INTERVIEWER: Would you advise your students to become schoolteachers?
ANTHONY BURGESS: Only the ones that I dislike.

Let us suppose for a moment that Burgess was telling the truth on this one. If so, he shares a distaste for the art of schoolteaching that seems to me to have fairly wide currency among the general population. I do not mean a distaste for schoolteachers, but for what they do: the general population is on the whole quite pleased to have schoolteachers round to dinner, and if asked the general population would probably say that schoolteachers “do a fine job,” or something like that; but a lot of them privately consider that job to be one of the least appealing around. Since I have not yet had the general population around to dinner, I do not yet have a really accurate idea of its opinion on this matter; but everything I have heard so far seems to confirm what I have just said. If my impression here is correct, this is a bad situation, a really bad situation, and one that should change. If school education is really to perform its functions properly, and if schools are to be not just a kind of early zoo, or a sop to the prevailing ideology, it is not enough for the general population to have a vague idea that it is a healthy-minded occupation; there must be, among at least some people, and ideally among as many people as possible, a sharp sense of both the need for good schoolteaching, and the appeal of the job.

We tend to think of teaching as a job, possibly as a profession, maybe as a career, but usually as the enactment of a set of ideas and capacities that are developed through formal training: what we need is for a large group of ambitious, intelligent people to think of it as a vocation, the enactment of an ideal. The following is my first attempt to show why reasonable people can think of schoolteaching in this way. If my impression about the general population is incorrect, then the following thoughts can do no harm.

I will start this, the first part of my little polemic, by expanding on my suggestion that the current jobs of schoolteaching really does have some repellent features. Low pay and ill-discipline are two obvious features of this kind. These features are easy to regard as peculiar to our current system, however, and for this reason I will disregard them for now. Here I will deal with one other feature of current schoolteaching that is less obviously contingent, and which probably puts a lot of people off. It is natural to think that schoolteaching is a regression, a regression partly of a social kind but primarily of an intellectual kind. A schoolteacher is asked to abandon all of the sophistication of adult life, including the sophistication of their own discipline, and work in a place where there is not only a lack of such sophistication but also (in many cases) an unwillingness to embrace it. A maths teacher is asked to stop studying Riemannian geometry, and start teaching adolescents how to find the equation of a straight line; an English teacher abandons the subtleties of James Joyce or Milton for the sake of marking bad essays about Flowers for Algernon. There is something very depressing about this sort of backwardness, is as if all of the work in between was a waste of time: it seems like a collapse into the past, the opposite of human flourishing.

It may be that current schoolteaching encourages this kind of regression, but it does not do so necessarily. In saying this I do not deny that maths teachers are, in some sense, asked to downgrade their mathematics in order to become school teachers: what I deny is that this is a full view of the matter. First I want to make the obvious distinction between the matter that is taught and the matter of teaching. It may be (though I will raise some doubts about this in a moment) that the matter which schoolteachers teach is primitive compared to what they have learned. But the matter of teaching, the skills and ideas that are involved in the work of passing on that subject to the student, are not primitive at all. If one concentrates on the taught matter, one sees the teacher as similar to a highly trained surgeon who is asked to hand out plasters at a playground. If one concentrates on the matter of teaching, one sees the teacher (rightly, I think) as similar to the same surgeon who happens to have been asked to operate on children. The teacher’s key function is as an expert in teaching their subject, not in the subject itself, and the former requires just as much sophistication (though often of quite a different sort) than the latter.

Of course, I do not mean that the matter of teaching requires no knowledge of the taught matter. I do not think I would insult too many teachers (and I hope I do not) by saying that their knowledge of a subject is less refined than that of an academic expert in the subject. On the other hand, I want to stress that the subject-knowledge necessary to teach a subject is greater than one might imagine. To illuminate this point, it is worth making the distinction between the student’s knowledge of a discipline and the teacher’s knowledge of a discipline. By the first I mean the knowledge about a discipline that the student is meant to acquire as a result of teaching; by the second I mean the knowledge that the teacher must have of the discipline before she can teach it effectively. Even if the former were primitive, the latter need not be. Anyone who has tried to teach a subject will know that it is often demanding, and that the demands are placed not only one one’s patience, social skills and other general teaching skills, but also one one’s grasp of the subject at hand. It is one thing to be competent at drawing equations for straight lines; it is quite another thing to be competent enough at this task, and related tasks in mathematics, to convey the basic idea with clarity, brevity, with one eye to relating this problem to others and with another eye to making it all seem very novel and exciting.

It is also worth remembering that the teacher is usually hopelessly outnumbered by students. Remembering this allows one to recognise the breadth of subject knowledge that is required of a teacher if she is to satisfy the curiosity of all of the students in a class. As far as I know, a trained expert in Science (for example) is usually only expected to possess highly refined knowledge in, at the most, one of the three main branches of science (Chemistry, Physics, or Biology). A Science teacher, on the other hand, cannot call himself competent unless she has a sound knowledge of all of these branches, plus some knowledge of the History and Philosophy of the subject: a less refined knowledge of each of these than is possessed by an expert, perhaps, but knowledge nevertheless.

Another way in which the teacher’s subject knowledge, and also the student’s subject knowlegde, is less primitive than one might think, is by differentiating between two kinds of primitivity. Teachers are asked to return to the basics of their discipline, and this could mean two things: it could mean a return to trivialities, or it could mean a return to foundations. Knowing how to count is a triviality: but the idea of a number, which is most clearly expressed in the practice of counting, is foundational to mathematics. Likewise, the act of identifying some expression as a literal or metaphorical expression is (at least in most high-school versions of that act) a trivial exercise, something that an English student learns to do right at the start of their education, and which they do very easily after that; but the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical is, I would say, foundational to literature. And a similar point could probably be made about History, Art and Science: the first step towards learning these subjects usually brings a student into contact with concepts or skills that are, in one manifestation, the easiest to grasp; and, in another manifestations, the most essential to the subject, and because of this the most important to grasp.

Now, it may be that current practices encourage the teaching of the “basics” as trivialities, not as foundations. But this need not be the case. To be sure, there a limits to how far one can go towards teaching the foundations of number to high-school maths students (and there are probably few professional mathematicians, let alone high-school students, who have trudged through Russell’s Principia, or have read Quine on the subject of the foundations of mathematics), and I suspect that the point generalises: it usually turns out that the foundations of a subject are the most difficult to grasp as well as the most important. But I also suspect that there is enough that is both foundational and accessible about the basic notions of any subject, to make the teaching of those basics less like a return to infancy and more like a return to home, a return to the core of a discipline.

I hope that the above points give some genuine support to my claim that schoolteaching is not a regressive activity; the kind of support, that is, which not only gives the claim rational warrant, but also gives it emotional pull. One further point, and one which I would be especially negligent to ignore, is that schoolteaching is in fact one of the most progressive and forward-looking activities one could possibly achieve, as long as one considers its full consequences for society as well as its consequences for the teacher. As Richard points out, to equip young people with the general capacity to deal with future problems is to give society a second-order benefit. By becoming a doctor or a politician, a person enables themselves to contribute to the current health of people or of a state; by becoming a teacher, a person enables young people to contribute to the health of the people and the states that they will encounter throughout their own lifetimes. The difference is not only that the teacher contributes to future gains rather than present gains. It is also that (if her teaching is of the right sort) she contributes to a general ability to solve problems, rather than to this or that particular problem. It is also that she contributes to gains that are currently unimaginable, perhaps because we have not yet discovered the means to make those gains (though future humans will do so, if properly educated), or because we have not yet discovered the need to make those gains (though future humans will do so, if they are properly equipped to identify new problems). School teachers, far from regressing into infancy, are responsible for causing young people to progress into adulthood, and if they make good of this responsibility then they draw the future world into a better state.

In this post I have set out to beautify one feature of schoolteaching that is frequently regarded as ugly, or at least that is very easy to see as ugly. What I want to do in the next post is to continue on the same theme, discussing some other features of schoolteaching that should give it a genuine appeal to right-thinking people. My hope is that these features would (if they were widely appreciated) be helpful towards moving the art of schoolteaching, and moving education in general, from the dull suburbs of the public mind into the central city.

In the meantime, I am interested to hear the thoughts of other people on all this stuff, of schoolteachers especially but of other people as well. Is my impression about the public view of schoolteaching an accurate impression? And are there better reasons than the ones I have given, for thinking of schoolteaching is not regressive? Are there good reasons for thinking that it really is regressive? Comments much appreciated.


  1. teaching is known to be one of the best ways to learn somthing...

  2. Yeah, although I want to clarify just what that "something" is, for a schoolteacher. Clearly some things are ruled out: one does not learn much about high-level ring theory by teaching high school maths, for example. On the plus side, though, there are some things that you do learn more about in schoolteaching than in the study of high-level ring theory. You learn more about learning, I think, and about the human experiences that are caught up in the learning process eg. communication, empathy, submission to authority, using authority in a healthy way (I say something about this in Part II).



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