Posted by: mrlock | May 24, 2014

Liberal philosophers of education 2 – P. H. Hirst on ‘What is Teaching?’

One of the things that attracts me to philosophy is the inclination to question our assumptions. This is the case with Hirst’s essay, published within ‘The Philosophy of Education’ edited by R. S. Peters and published as a series in 1975. One of the things that can frustrate me about philosophical arguments is that they lend themselves to sophistry, with people on opposing sides trying to claim their proponents for their own. This also, it occurs to me, might be the case with Hirst’s essay.

When one talks of teaching, I would argue that one’s view is usually formed (unless one is an educator but even then, there’s some truth to it) by one’s direct experience as a pupil. And one assumes this is fairly consistent with others’ experiences. I take the view that this assumed consistency of experience is a mistaken assumption. One’s experience is unique and may be very different to others.

I think that it’s important that teaching takes place in schools. Some others may disagree, but for me this is the primary function of schools – to be expert providers of teaching. I would further argue that the blurring of what teaching is, including by the monoliths of enforcement that are the National Strategies, Local Authorities and OFSTED, mean that this has been further obscured. I think Hirst has a lot to say about this, and his essay fits in 2014 as well as it did when published in the 70s.

The reason this is an important question, as Hirst says is:

Firstly, a lot of new educational methods are now widely canvassed in which the significance of teaching is far from clear. Repeatedly one finds an almost exclusive emphasis on certain activities of the pupils, say those of inquiry, discovery, and play, not on the activities of the teacher…

Secondly, people are now aware of a range of activities, some of them thought to be morally undesirable, whose relation to teaching is by no means clear: activities like indoctrinating, preaching, advertising and propagandizing…

Thirdly, we are clearly in need of a great deal of carefully controlled empirical research on the effectiveness of different teaching methods. But without the clearest concept of what teaching is, it is impossible to find appropriate behavioural criteria whereby to assess what goes on in the classroom. Most teaching methods new and old are advocated or defended on little more than hunch or personal prejudice.

Sugata Mitra and many others, various objectors to some free schools or academy chains, and some of the poor pedagogical discussions that meant Tom Bennett and a crowd of others set up Research in Education events, please stand up. My point is not to challenge individuals but to point out that these things apply today and the questions Hirst’s essay asks have not been resolved.

Hirst’s last reason for the question applies to OFSTED and in my view expresses how destructive they’ve been by judging teaching on all sorts of invalid criteria:

being clear about what teaching is matters vitally because how teachers understand teaching very much affects what they actually do in the classroom. If it the case that our activities depend on how we ourselves see them, what we believe about them, then if we have crazy, fuzzy ideas about teaching, we will be likely to do crazy and fuzzy things in its name. One of the most important things for a teacher is surely to be clear about the nature of the central activity in which he is professionally involved. And if that is true for teachers in general, it is certainly true for the teachers of teachers in particular.

No-one who knows me can fail to know my distain for the PGCE course I undertook in 1998. It was a bastardisation of anything that effective instruction could claim to be, and the last sentence from Hirst, above, is damning when considered alongside my testimony.

Hirst’s essay acknowledges that the term teaching as a whole enterprise may involve many more specific activities, and that these elements might not be teaching on their own at all – for example cutting card for a card sort, opening a window for air, preventing poor behaviour. These things can be a part of teaching, but they are clearly not teaching without being a part of something else. I believe that some educators may not agree with that. The ‘guide on the side’ brigade almost certainly won’t.

Having said that, teaching is clearly not identifiable as one specific activity. Other activities are, such as riding a bike, or walking a dog. In contrast, there are very many specific things that may be named teaching. Hirst says:

Is there then a limited number of specific activities which constitute teaching…? A teacher would then have to know how to question, how to prove things, how to demonstrate, etc. If this were (all that) teaching involved, it would greatly simplify the business of teacher training and indeed it seems to me that there is a large grain of truth in this idea.

The problem is that if one specifies those activities, one is also beholden to call them teaching in circumstances when we are clear they are not teaching. I read my daughters stories they know by heart, because they enjoy them. Or as Hirst says “in proving something, one may actually be discovering the proof, not teaching someone else. One may be translating something without teaching anything to anybody”. So it is not possible to just list an exhaustive list of activities that imply teaching. There are, though, a large number of things that can be called teaching.

Hirst concludes early in his essay that teaching can only be characterised in the way in which, common to all human activities, we look at its point or purpose.

It is by clarifying the aim, the intention of what is going on, that we can see when standing on one’s head to demonstrate something, or any other activity, is in fact teaching and not, say, simply entertaining. The difference here is in the different overriding intentions involved in each case.

I don’t think anyone would argue that teaching should not promote learning. Not explicitly anyway. However, I think teachers who belong to the edutainment lobby – those that promote engagement of pupils as at least part of the goal, (to be fair they largely claim this is in order to teach them) – will claim they have learning as their ultimate purpose. I think that compromising on a goal (learning) is the same as changing it, and hence would argue otherwise.  That’s for another blog, and as I said in the opening to this blog, I suspect people will claim Hirst agrees with them no matter what. However, I think edutainment is not teaching (and even if you put it on a continuum, it’s at the wrong end). The intention of all teaching activities is to bring about learning. This is, as Hirst says, banal but important.

If therefore a teacher spends the whole afternoon in activities the concern of which is not that the pupils should learn, but, say, the inflation of his own ego, then in fact he cannot have been teaching at all. In these terms it could be the case that quite a large number of professional teachers are in fact frauds most of their lives, because their intentions are never clear…

Of course pupils may learn many things when a teacher is not in fact teaching. That is another matter. What would seem to be particularly important here is that in taking a job as a professional teacher one is presumably being paid to carry out this intention whatever else one is paid to do….

That is not to say that one may not be doing many other things which are of value. There are many ways of occupying children’s time, some of them profitable, but that does not make them teaching. I wish to maintain therefore that the notion of teaching is totally dependent for its characterisation on the concept of learning and that this has important practical consequences for how teachers see their job and therefore what they do in the classroom.

As I read this, I was reminded of Project Follow Through and the superiority of Direct Instruction to other forms of pedagogy. Pupils learn more when what they need to learn has been planned meticulously, rather than being open to the randomness of what they experience, for example during project work.

Hirst spends some time distinguishing between teaching as an intention, and teaching as an actuality. For example, Jean Bullen of Churchill 6th form taught me integration and differential equations. This implies that I succeeded in learning (which I did). However, if I hadn’t have succeeded, would Jean Bullen have been teaching? Hirst suggests yes. On the flip side, learning does happen in spite of the teacher, and as Hirst says “in schools we are not primarily concerned with unintended learning”:

we believe there is much that we can do towards making learning more than a random business. Of course, taking the education of children as a whole, what they pick up in the context of our unintentional teaching may indeed be important. Still this does not alter the fact that in schools we are centrally concerned with intentional teaching and that as soon as we turn our attention to what has been unintentional teaching, we thereby necessarily change its character

I feel like writing “if the cap fits” here – there are so many commentators who appear to me to embrace what Hirst calls unintentional teaching. I also think back to Direct Intruction again, and the evidence from Project Follow Through.

Hirst correctly identifies that he has made his concept of teaching entirely parasitic on a concept of learning, and he hence turns his attention to this. He points out that this is also probably not reducible to a core of activities, and again that the answer to ‘what is learning?’ comes from looking at the intention of activities. What is the intention of learning?

The end or aim of learning is… always some specific achievement or end state… (eg) believing something which one did not believe before, knowing something one did not know before, being able to do something (etc)…

I want to digress into Willingham, Bjork, and other cognitive scientists (indeed I’ve just started reading Make it Stick), and talk about how learning literally changes the brain, but keeping with Hirst, he says something similar:

achievements of learning are new states of the person

So if teaching is married with the intent of learning, and learning with the intent of an end-state of changing the state of a person:

if teachers are not clear what end achievements their teaching is concerned with, they cannot know what is involved in (a pupil) learning X, they cannot (therefore) know what is involved in (a teacher) teaching (the pupil). Any notion of learning which is not the learning of some particular X is as vague as the notion of going somewhere but nowhere in particular.

Please don’t bastardise this by claiming that this is why we show learning objectives/ intentions/ etc on the board! However subject knowledge is key (and I claim it has been reduced in the 1990s and since the turn of the millenium to a very great extent – including my philosophy degree being enough for me to train as a maths teacher!)

Some particular person B is necessarily learning this X. Following the logical chain, it is therefore only in a context where both what is to be learnt and who is learning it are clear, that we can begin to be clear about teaching B, X. Just as pupil B cannot simply learn, but must necessarily be learning X, so A cannot simply teach, he must be teaching B, and he must be teaching B, X. It is as much a logical absurdity to say ‘One teaches children not subjects’ as it is to say ‘One teaches subjects not children’.

Hirst suggests there are two necessary demands on something to be considered teaching – one on activities to be considered to teach a particular thing and a second in relation to the person being taught. Even for someone as brilliant as Hirst, by his own admission this is hard to express.

To be ‘teaching’ Hirst claims it must be indicative of the thing that is being taught – ie it must embody what is being taught, including being indicated to the pupil. It doesn’t need to be explicitly discernible in the activity, but it must be clear what is to be learnt. Not, how it is to be learnt. To me this is key – the matter of education is of primary importance in comparison to the manner of education (to paraphrase RS Peters):

just because these activities are such effective means for expressly indicating a given X, they can be significant not only in teaching but in such other concerns as entertaining. It is only when such activities are used in a learning context, to indicate what is to be learnt that they can become teaching activities…

specific teaching activities must be indicative of what is to be learnt and it is for this reason that the opening of windows and the sharpening of pencils could never be themselves the teaching of historical facts or of Pythagoras’s theorem

The second demand is that the teacher considers the pupil. His example is that teaching pupils of age six by reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is not teaching. This is plainly true, the six year olds would understand nothing. I worry that this truism has manifested itself in schools as ‘differentiation’ which in other words might be termed ‘dumbing down’. Hirst nonetheless says that teaching is only teaching if the pupil can (or I suppose could) take on what is taught.

Hirst has a challenge for me at the end. I’m traditional (but don’t get excited progressives, he’s after you too):

Traditional teaching methods have above all concerned themselves with the indicative features of these activities, often meeting the present learning state of the pupils in an over-generalised and inadequate way. In reaction, more progressive methods have tended to cater extremely well for the present learning state of individual pupils, but at the expense of the necessary indicative features that teaching activities must embody. It is not that either group of methods is of itself necessarily deficient as teaching activity, and each might well have its place according to what exactly is being taught and to whom. What is important is that we come to realise that in all teaching activities both these necessary features need the fullest responsible consideration.

I couldn’t agree more – however I feel like a polemicist who needs to characterise oneself as a traditionalist because progressive methods are reinforced by the monolithic establishment (I don’t like the term, ‘the Blob’, because of the connotations, but I understand where it comes from).

Conclusion: This sounds banal, but it’s only banal because we assume we know, and I’m not sure we do. We certainly don’t agree – I think we need to explore what teaching is to understand what good teaching is. Like most aspects of modern education, the contemporaries of RS Peters have a lot to add to this discussion. I hope more people will read them.

I will leave (almost) the last word to Hirst:

I have been concerned with mapping the features that distinguish teaching activities from all others. It has not been my concern to lay down the criteria for good teaching or even successful teaching. Successful teaching would seem to be simply teaching which does in fact being about the desired learning. Good teaching, however, is much more difficult to discern. I am not even sure that successful learning is a criterion for good teaching. Certainly in a given particular case there is no contradiction in saying that a person was successfully yet badly taught. Yet in so far as this account of teaching is correct, it has at least indicated which activities we are concerned to study in a critical comparison of teaching activities. What is more it must have at least some important implications for the methods whereby such comparisons must be made.

Hirst goes on to modestly say that he won’t elaborate and will await the criteria for what teaching is to be agreed. He wrote that in 1975. I am not sure we’re far ahead of that in 2014.

Last word: the Hirst paper is crying out for educators to listen to and engage in research in order to improve education. A similar cry goes out today, but now we have a movement. Please attend researchEd on 6th September and engage in the debate.


Notes/ links:

The introduction to this series on liberal philosophers was here.

The next post on Liberal Education and the nature of knowledge (again Hirst), is here.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Great analysis of what matters. In particular, it is reflecting on Hirst’s and Peters’ thoughts that assists us as educators to inform the debate.

    Peters’ emphasis on the impact of the humanities in helping pupils to deal with the central issues and problems of life, helped me to clarify what knowledge I wanted to impart on pupils long term.

    Your blog encourages this process of informed reflection and discussion. This is how teaching will move forward


  3. A fascinating post which I will read several times more.

    Surely the key messages from this post would support the assertion that….

    1 a professional educator should have in mind the knowledge and understanding they wish their learners to have at the end of the process

    2 a professional educator should consider the individual pupil when considering the best approach to delivering the process

    3 Not all learning should be serendipitous, most should be planned

    This is how I read the post and I feel that this simply equates to, “don’t be all trad or all prog, be each or both as and when required”.

    It also means that “factual knowledge is important”.

    My issue is that this is my view.

    It seem to me again that you are looking here at the extremes of progressive education (I am currently attempting to purchare the Hirst/Peters work).

    For me, you being able to train as a maths teacher is not a sign of dumbing down, but a sign of a system in crisis, a system struggling to change in line with global change and in the UK political ideology and expediency.

    The vast majority of professional educators I know fit very well the descriptions you use about to describe Hirst’s and Peters’ ideal educators.

    I see lots of examples where individuals and groups have misappropriated the system for their own ends, financial, ideological or expedient. I see many teachers who have simply implemented suspect practices for a quiet life and the fact even suspect practices have some value. VAK actually has some benefit even if it isn’t matching teaching to the individual learning styles of learners.

    It is fascinating for me (and I am learning as I go) the way in which the multitude of factors affecting learning, teaching and education tend to be conflated to try to find a correct answer via philosophy.

    The monolithic establishment you describe is for me the bureaucracy that arises when the state enforces attendance at school and then attempts to minimise the cost (maximise the efficiency) of delivering that education to those who have minimal wealth. You get what you pay for. Call the police and you will see a CSO. Have a disagreement with someone and you will have legal representation appropriate for a person of limited wealth. Go to hospital and will will receive medical treatment appropriate for a person of limited wealth.

    The establishment cannot control the system despite their attempts. I agree that things have been dumbed down but this is a political/economic issue not an educational issue.

    2 or 3 bloggers are teaching me a great deal (intentional and unintentional). Should I be denied that unintentional learning in the interests of efficiency and the beliefs of philosophers?

    Thanks for the chance to participate. Sorry about the lengthy reply.


  4. Thanks for the comment. I am not sure we disagree tremendously. I certainly agree with 1,2, and 3 and that factual knowledge is important. I also agree that I look at the extremes – I think that’s instructive – to look at the extremes is to expose the possible implications of a softer position – and this is important. Being polemic in argument doesn’t mean one has to take that polemical position in actuality.

    I agree that many educators loosely fit the Hirst and Peters definitions, but I wonder if even those educators might be more effective if they explicitly considered fitting the definition, rather than arriving there over time. IE to not be so loose about it.

    I also recognise that my post might appear to be attacking a great many educators – that’s not my intention.

    I’m not sure I understand your penultimate paragraph so forgive me if I get this reply wrong – I don’t think anyone is saying that unintentional learning should be denied – it just is – more that we are being inefficient to consider this our aim as educators. Unintentional learning happens, but it’s a mistake to try to embrace this as our aim and we should carefully plan what is being learnt (and that is, I suppose, what Hirst is saying teaching is).


  5. Very informative blog post. Thanks for posting it. I have never heard of these philosophers so it is enlightening to find out their views.

    At the heart of this discussion is the meaning of ‘learning’. Wittgenstein indeed discusses at great length what it means to have ‘acquired’ language – does it mean being able to associate some words with mental images, or does it mean being able to use certain words according to the grammar of the language games of the community? However, the issue of debate between the ‘progressive’ and ‘traditionalist’ educators is not even this – it goes further. They disagree on what learning is AND whether it is possible to have an understanding of that BEFORE the learning actually happens. In my limited understanding, it seems to me that the progressive educator (consciously or unconsciously) holds the assumption that learning as not ntirely ‘determinable’ in advance. The idea seems to be that when a child learns something ‘beyond’ our expectation, this is somehow closer to the true meaning of ‘learning’. In your terminologies, it seems that they endorse ‘unintentional learning’ to be closer to the true meaning of ‘learning’, than ‘intentional learning’ (unintentional is of course used with reference to the teacher, not to the child).

    As a result, if Hirst’s view (and what you stated in this post) is to be argued as preferable, one needs to either: i) argue why the idea of learning as ‘indeterminate beforehand’ is absurd/lead to absurd conclusions, or ii) why ‘intentional learning’ should be considered as closer to ‘true’ learning, according to some criteria, than ‘unintentional learning’. I am not sure people will be convinced if the answer is merely that by definition, ‘intentional learning’ is what should happen in schools.

    (By the way, will any materials like this be presented in researchED 14?)


    • That’s a really interesting comment. Thank you. Very interesting that the liberal v progressive debate goes further.

      I think I take issue with your characterisation of the positions. I think it would be more accurate to describe progressives as believing that unintentional learning (ie not defined by someone else) is always preferable and hence more effective.

      Liberals are more likely to believe that unintentional learning happens once one has been inducted into the conversation and can participate in it – ie as a novice it’s nonsensical to try to get pupils to behave as if one is an expert – the induction into the conversation happens by experts, or masters as Hirst presents them.

      So if we are to learn unintentionally (which happens anyway), it is far better to be led through the necessary knowledge than to hope it happens at random, in the right order. I think being indeterminate beforehand relies on luck, whereas planned learning by a master is not.

      I agree that ‘intentional learning’ is not the ultimate aim – once pupils have enough knowledge there’s a host of stuff they’ll have access to (though I’d argue that there’s still a lot of planned knowledge they can and should have) – this is one reason I’m against the teaching of philosophy in schools – you need to know a lot about a lot before you can sit in judgement of it or critically analyse it.

      So I feel like there’s an answer to your question and a slight rephrasing of your question, though I’m not sure I’ve done a great job of it.

      I doubt ResearchEd will be academic in character – you’re better off with the philosophy of education society of GB for that.


  6. Thanks for your reply. That is very helpful and I agree that your characterisation is more accurate (I have started education research on in Jan 14 so I am relatively new to all this).

    Following your comments, I think the key issue is to inquire about the ability of children to enter into an unknown conversation without guidance. I am not sure whether there are any research into this. The game-decider between ‘unintentional’ and ‘intentional’ learning is whether children is actually able to ‘induct themselves’ without guidance in particular areas of knowledge field/under particular circumstances. Of course, I don’t envisage that the reality is one or the other. It is more likely that in some circumstances/knowledge fields, children have a higher chance to induct themselves without guidance and in some circumstances/knolwedge fields, children are not capable to induct themselves without guidance. I think to figure out which knowledge fields/circumstances belong to the former and which the latter, is the key. Let me offer some thought experiments.

    For example, I think that children have very little chance to induct themselves into learning a new language from scratch. The ‘language games’ in Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations do provide highly idealised situations where children possibly can ‘induct’ themselves – if all other children in the learning community (i.e. a class) ‘behave’ according to the same rules coherently. If this is the case a newcomer, without necessary guidance, might be able to pick up the knowledge of that game by *observing the behaviour* of the community. This point is useful to shed light on the debate because it shows that the reason why unguided learning in practice is (quite) hopeless is that children as a group in general don’t behave in a coherent manner naturally, without interference or ‘external’ guidance either from parents or teachers.

    However, consider an example where a child is learning to pick up how to play a computer game. Consider a relatively simple game like tetris. If the game has limited variation, after a while a child will pick up the basic operations. It is highly doubtful that he might work out what the purpose of the game is, but that’s besides the point. He will be able to get himself to a particular knowledge level without guidance. Just by experimenting.

    Of course, these extreme cases are not entirely conclusive. The ‘progessives’ would not let children to learn basic language, reading and writing unguided. Classroom learning is not like learning tetris either. The question becomes: *when* does it become possible for children to learn constructively without guidance? Again, I think my tentative answer refers back to my above condition: when there is a possibility where a group of children can find out some knowledge/learn something in a highly coherent manner such that being unguided, they all come to the same conclusion. If this is possible, then there is a high chance for unguided learning to happen.

    I make the following conclusions from the two examples:
    (1) Without children having some sort of anticipatory knowledge about how to learn in a coherent manner in a given task *without* guidance, in practice it is almost impossible for children to learn constructively ‘unintentionally’.
    (1a) In order for (1) to be possible, there must be a certain level of coherence in the class’s knowledge/background understanding such that when they are confronted with the task to learn something new without guidance, they will come to the same conclusion (this enables children to learn by ‘reading-off’ each other’s learning).
    (2) Children can learn without guidance, *up to* a certain level of knowledge (cf the tetris example). There seems to be a limit where unguided learning is bounded. (But I think this point might be wrong. I could well imagine a very gifted child learning how to play tetris by himself, even figuring out the purpose of the game by himself.)

    I am interested to hear what you think about these points.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: