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.
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.