Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you think education is for

In a fascinating series of posts, Nick Rose has discussed to what extent teaching is a natural ability and how far it might be described as an ‘artificial’ science. In The ‘artificial science’ of teaching: System vs Individual competence he explores the implications for teacher training and professional development of these different interpretations of what it is to teach. All of this harks back to the hoary old chestnut of whether teaching is an art, a craft, or a science; whether great teachers are born or made.

If the act of teaching is, as Rose suggests, in part a natural ability, a module of what Geary calls ‘folk psychology’, then, yes, anyone can teach. Much of what we consider ‘pedagogy’ is the more or less natural instinct we have to offer explanations, demonstrations, support, to check listeners have understood and to evaluate outcomes. All this might be termed informal teaching and we all, to some extent, engage in it at various points in our lives.

But simply having the ability to teach is hardly sufficient for a career in education. Regardless of where you stand on whether education should be concerned with transmitting a body of knowledge or developing dispositions, we also need something to teach. And whatever this thing – the curriculum – is to be, the teacher is required to have some sort of expertise in how to teach it. If you believe the what of education trumps the how, then subject knowledge inevitably comes to the fore, and if you’re inclined to think teaching is ‘all about relationships’ then personality must take precedence. The consensus is, of course, that a professional teacher needs some combination of specialist expertise and personal charisma, but throughout my career, subject knowledge has definitely been considered as the less important of the two. This has led to the widely held belief that a good teacher can teach anything well.

So, if the ability to teach is natural, anyone can teach but, if being a good teacher is dependent, at least to some degree, on personal qualities and characteristics, then maybe not everyone can teach well. This seems reasonable. Running is a natural ability, but it’s uncontroversial to point out that some people can run faster or further than others. All abilities, natural or otherwise, will be normally distributed with most of us clustering around a median point and a few outliers at both extremes. Like all natural abilities, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that teachers improve the more they practice – although various studies (Hanushek, Rivkin & Kain (2005) and Kraft & Papay (2014)) indicate that this isn’t anywhere near as certain as we might want to believe, but still: it surely makes sense that there might be a select group of particularly gifted natural teachers, but how to identify them?

Just because one has a natural gift for teaching does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that one will be a teacher. In fact, if teaching is just a module of folk psychology then it would seem likely that these gifted teachers might be equally gifted politicians, paediatricians or playwrights. It might even be reasonable to suggest that those most gifted in the natural abilities of folk psychology are drawn to the most prestigious careers which make use of their abilities. It could be that teaching fails to attract the best potential teachers.

Another consideration is precisely what attributes a natural teaching ability might consist of. We would probably want to include more mundane sounding characteristics like organisational ability, commitment and thoroughness alongside the more showy aspects like passion, creativity and perspicacity. And what about intelligence? Some psychologists and geneticists are of the opinion that many highly desirable qualities such as leadership and creativity are strongly correlated with general intelligence or g. This might suggest that all we have to do to find and recruit the best teachers is to give potential candidates a battery of personality and intelligence tests and never mind what they know.

Unsurprisingly, no one is suggesting we go that far down the path of valuing natural ability over expertise. Clearly, with a postgraduate qualification still the preferred route into teaching, what we know continues to be considered important. But what exactly do we need to know in order to teach? This is far from settled and there is nothing like a clear curriculum across teacher training institutions and schools’ professional development programmes are even more diverse. One approach would be to adopt something along the lines of Kris Boulton’s Model of Teacher Development which values teachers’ knowledge at least as much as teachers’ craft.

All of this seems to demonstrate the importance of debating the differences between traditional and progressive ideologies. Just vilifying those who disagree with you is unlikely to elucidate anything. We need to understand why we disagree. If you believe education should be mainly concerned with exposing children’s unique and natural potential then you might well decide that developing the craft of teaching and concentrating on practising pedagogical techniques must be prioritised. And, if you tend towards the belief that education should be about cultural transmission then you’re going to end up focussing on the depth and quality of what teachers need to know to build students’ knowledge of the world.

So, can anyone teach? Ultimately, you can’t really have an opinion on what makes a good teacher unless you also have an opinion on what education is for.

10 Responses to Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you think education is for

  1. “Much of what we consider ‘pedagogy’ is the more or less natural instinct we have to offer explanations, demonstrations, support, to check listeners have understood and to evaluate outcomes.”

    I think this is the challenge for the profession in a nut-shell! I suggested that much of the ‘craft’ is likely natural ability to teach subject knowledge – refined (though not always!) through practice and feedback. The question is whether the years of sharing ‘best practice’ or ‘pedagogy’ really added much to this. Historically, I’m not certain it has – but could it in the future?

  2. nictaewa says:

    Good food for thought. I can always get better at most things but I will never be an Olympic sprinter. I think that a combination of natural dispositions & gut reactions & subject & craft development are essential.

    Adressing the area of identifying such potential is difficult. Any system would surely create a type of rigidity & the variance of what we think education is. This would make it problematic to come up with a universal approach. We can potentially develop such areas if we narrow our definition.

    However, if you are too weak in either, then you I am not convinced that a universal best practice is helpful (not that this is attainable or even a good thing). I teach 16-18 year olds. If I don’t have sufficient depth in disciplinary knowledge, I will not be as effective, irrespective of the type of approach I take. If I can’t build effective learning relationships with them, then what good is my extensive subject knowledge?

    The Boulton model seems as good as any but a clear & consistent curriculum across training institutions does not sound desirable (depending on how specific you want to go). We should be able to analyse a diverse range of different programs (that are quality assured) & make an informed critical choice over what is best for our individual circumstances.

  3. Carly Waterman says:

    ‘If the act of teaching is… a natural ability… then, yes, anyone can teach.’ Funny, when I read that sentence my instinct was to assume that you were going to end it with, ‘then, yes, only those who have that natural ability can do it.’ Later on you talk about the degrees of effectiveness, but in essence your argument begins with the idea that if teaching is natural then we can all do it. My experience tells me the exact opposite. I do agree that natural ability is crucial, but I don’t agree that we all have it – even ‘to a lesser degree’. My view is that some people don’t have it at all; they have no natural ability to teach (in any form). Unfortunately, some of those people are teachers.

    Thankfully, I know many teachers who have that natural ability. They just ‘get’ it, they like children and they do what they do for the best reasons – to make a difference. That, combined with content expertise, makes for a great teacher. What I also see each day is that these great teachers also love their subject – they are passionate about it and want to enthusiastically share their knowledge with others.

    The balance between pedagogy and content is a fine one. Too much one way and students disengage. It’s useful, I find, to remember what the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray said about ‘the trap’. He said that when learning isn’t happening he asks himself if he has fallen into the trap of teaching his subject, instead of teaching his students. Only through other-centred endeavour can we truly learn to be human. That’s what education is all about for me.

    Great post. Thank you.

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  5. […] Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you think education is for | David Didau: The Learning … […]

  6. I have three thoughts.

    1. What we might do instinctively at small scale, we might need to systematize at large scale – first because it is not just one person doing it but many, and they need to work together through some sort of commonly agreed process. Second, because even if you look at the practice of one person, the sort of human interaction that we might say comes naturally in the context of a one-to-one conversation becomes much more difficult when there are large number of people with whom who are supposed to be conversing.

    2. I agree that we will make little progress in defining what makes for good pedagogy (which I define as the means by which we teach) unless we can first pin down the purposes for which we teach. That is why I think we have not yet got to grips with the real challenge presented by the abolition of levels. Levels did not define our objectives clearly enough – but I don’t think we have yet put anything better in their place.

    3. In your list of things that teaching might be, I would like to replace “science” with “technology”. Science is about what you know, technology is about what you do. It is defined by the OED as “the application of science to a practical purpose”. Once we understand that teaching *is* at least part of the tech in “edtech”, then we will have a chance of developing kinds of edtech that works (the question “what works” being a perfectly reasonable one when and only when we have defined our purposes).

    Thanks, Crispin.

  7. […] 5th January – Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you think education is for […]

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