I think that most teachers assume that being a professional means that we should have a certain level of autonomy. We close the classroom door and make our own decisions about how best to serve the needs of the students in front of us. Yet I don’t think that this is how other professions necessarily operate. If I went to the doctor with a nasty rash then I would expect to get the same standard treatment, regardless of who that doctor is. I would expect a lawyer to use a standard approach to applying for a court order or an engineer to use standard principles in order to design a bridge.
Perhaps this is what sets teaching apart. Perhaps it is simply different to other professions in this way. After all, attempts at standardising teaching practices can be terrible. Think of Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate, patrolling the country enforcing group work and limiting teacher talk. We don’t want this. And the standard of evidence in education is different even to that in medicine. It is harder to be certain that a particular approach is the right one.
However, there are a couple of problems with this argument. Firstly, are we comfortable that a child in Mrs Black’s class could get a very different experience to a child in Mr Brown’s class, even if it’s the classroom next door? At least on some dimensions, one of the classrooms is likely to be better. Is this fair? And if we argue that teachers should make their own decisions then does this not imply a kind of Darwinian logic to policymakers?: Teachers may choose their methods and then we may reward the ones who get the best results and punish or demote the ones that don’t.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programs use scripted lessons. I don’t claim that this is true but let’s just imagine that there was overwhelming evidence that students in such programs outperformed their peers who were taught using different methods and let’s assume that there are no negative consequences, such as a loss in motivation or a lowering of self-esteem. Would we all start to use these programs? I think that the answer is a resounding, “No.”
The reason for my confidence is that we have the same situation already in the form of systematic synthetic phonics. The evidence is compelling that this is the best approach to teaching early reading (see here, here and here) and yet the model that is still promoted is a ‘mixed’ or ‘balanced’ approach that de-emphasises the importance of phonics and that may include the use of multiple cues, a strategy that is potentially harmful. Misconceptions about phonics abound e.g. that it is about single letter-to-sound correspondences or that English is mostly non-decodable.
Oddly, the fact that teaching practice is so vaguely defined seems to support a whole industry built around telling teachers what to do, from education schools to consultants to purveyors of edtech and so on. The recent attempt at creating a “College of Teaching” in England demonstrates the problem well. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the organisers that the college should be all about classroom teachers and the sentiment has been returned in the form of monumental indifference. With days to go in their fundraising appeal, they have only raised £20,000 of the £250,000 that they said that they needed in order go ahead. How much of this £20,000 comes from actual teachers is unclear and they now seem to have shifted the goalposts to 1000 donors rather than £250,000.
Contrast this with the overwhelming success of teacher-led, grassroots movements such as researchED, Northern Rocks, WomenEd, teachmeets or the many online forums, chats and blogs that are transforming the ways that teachers see themselves in the UK and around the world. Much of this is fueled by teachers taking charge of the agenda and taking a critical stance towards what the experts proclaim. It is a welcome development that Scotland now makes educational research freely available to teachers. It’s odd to contemplate that this is not standard practice and we should be arguing for such access everywhere else.
If teaching is a profession then it is certainly not the same kind of profession as medicine. I am not sure that it can be but I am growing more certain that it will be up to us to define what teaching is in the future.