Teaching as a Professional Activity

We continue the discussion of the teacher’s role, exploring in what ways teaching can be said to be a ‘professional’ activity. It recognises the conflicting expectations which society holds of teachers and the consequent dilemmas which teachers face within the complexities of the classroom. It suggests that it is the teachers’ knowledge base—content, pedagogical and curricular—which enables them to juggle and balance the range of demands made upon them during the school day. This suggests that what we observe in the ‘expert’ teacher’s classroom is ‘knowledge-in- action’, even where the skilled teacher may find it difficult to analyse and explain to others the basis and rationales for those actions. How far do you think it may be possible for a new teacher to begin to bring theory alive by reflecting critically on reading in relation to observations of skilled teaching in action? How might this be helped by joint analysis with an experienced teacher ‘mentor’?

Teaching is a complex process that can be conceptualised in many different ways, using alternative models, metaphors, and analogies. One metaphor that acknowledges the intentional, problem-solving aspects of teachers’ work is that of teaching as a reflective, thinking activity. This highlights several key characteristics of teaching, which it shares with many other professions such as medicine, law, architecture, and business management. Consequently, the metaphor sometimes used is that of teaching as a professional activity.

According to this metaphor, teachers possess a body of specialised knowledge acquired through training and experience. Just as a doctor possesses formal knowledge of physiology and pathology, together with knowledge acquired from experience about patient behaviour and the various combinations of symptoms that complicate the task of diagnosis, the teacher has acquired knowledge about the curriculum, teaching methods, subject matter, and child behaviour together with a wealth of other particular information resulting from the experience of working with children in numerous contexts and with different materials. Like other professionals, teachers rely upon this specialist knowledge in their daily work.

A second feature of professional activity is its goal-orientation in relation to its clients. Doctors aim to cure their patients, lawyers to defend their clients’ interests, architects to design buildings to suit their clients’ specifications. In the case of teaching, who the clients are is a little more ambiguous. Although much of teachers’ activity may be oriented to the education of their pupils, teachers, more so than many professionals, are also answerable to a number of others, including parents, administrators, advisers, inspectors, employers, curriculum development agencies, and politicians. These individuals and agencies are in a position to influence what teachers do by controlling the provision of materials, curriculum guidelines, and finance, and in the determination of the conditions in which teachers work. Influence might also be exerted at an ideological level through the perpetuation of beliefs and ideologies of good classroom practice. There is rarely any consensus among teachers’ ‘clients’ on what constitutes good practice. Consequently, teachers may encounter numerous expectations that can be in conflict with each other as well as with the beliefs of the individual teacher. The fact that there are no agreed goals for education and that there are several interest groups to whom teachers may be held accountable frequently results in teachers facing impossible dilemmas. Consider, for instance, the popular call for the school curriculum to return to basics, coupled with the equally popular demand for schools to prepare children for a future, technological, computer- oriented society.

A third characteristic is that the problems professionals deal with are often complex and ambiguous, and professionals must use their expert knowledge to analyse and interpret them, making judgements and decisions as they formulate a course of action intended to benefit their client. A lawyer, for instance, may encounter an array of conflicting evidence. His knowledge of court practice and legal procedures, together with his previous experience and knowledge of how witnesses and juries typically respond, enables him to make judgements about the plausibility of alternative lines of argument. He can decide how best to interpret and present evidence in court, which features to emphasise, and when doubts might be implied about particular points of fact in order to advantage his client.

Teachers similarly face complex situations, the complexity of the classroom environment in terms of six general features:
1. Multidimensionality,
2. Simultaneity,
3. Immediacy,
4. Unpredictability,
5. Publicness &
6. History.

Classrooms are busy places. At any one time, teachers may be faced with a series of incidents to manage—keeping the class working quietly, for instance, while dealing with one particular child’s difficulty and postponing or redirecting other children’s requests for attention. As a result, teachers face competing demands and often teaching decisions are a compromise among multiple costs and benefits. For instance, in deciding whether to carry out a particular activity in groups or as a class, teachers may have to weigh the possible benefits of encouraging co-operative work and perhaps obtaining greater pupil satisfaction against the costs of more preparation, the risk of some pupils opting out and leaving others to do the work, and greater demands on teachers’ managerial skill. The pace of teachers’ activity in the classroom is necessarily rapid. There is also considerable uncertainty in the teachers’ world. Unexpected events, distractions, and interruptions threaten to disturb the normal course of events. Lessons don’t always go as expected, and children’s behaviour is sometimes unpredictable. In addition, teachers, for much of the day, are ‘on show’. How they are seen to cope with classroom situations can influence how individual children assess them and respond to them in the future. And as a result of classroom interactions, particularly those occurring early in the year when teachers and children are first assessing one another, each class develops its own norms, its own ethos, its own work routines, a history that shapes the ways in which it copes and responds to activities in the present.

Given this complexity of the teaching task, it indeed seems a remarkable achievement that teaching and learning occur in schools at all. The school and classroom environment clearly place a heavy burden upon teachers to attend to and process a large volume of information and continually to juggle conflicting and competing interests. Teachers must use their knowledge to cope with a constant barrage of complex situations.

In classroom teaching, however, there is often little opportunity to reflect upon problems and to bring one’s knowledge to bear upon their analysis and interpretation. Teachers must often respond immediately and intuitively. This relates to a fourth feature of professional activity, namely that it involves skillful action that is adapted to its context. Through repeated practice and reflection on practice, the professional has developed various specialist and ‘knowledgeable’ skills. The lawyer, for instance, in his skills of cross- examination demonstrates a keen knowledge of human behaviour in a legal context and an awareness of alternative questioning strategies. The professionals’ expert knowledge enables them to perceive significant features in their work and to respond to them. Teachers have extensive knowledge about children, curriculum materials, classroom organisation, and approaches to instruction. This knowledge helps them to establish relationships with children, manage the class, decide how best to teach a particular topic, maintain the children’s interest, and instruct them. The teachers’ knowledge and experience of children in a classroom context has in some cases become so closely tied to their practice that they can, for instance, notice a child’s inattention to work and readily identify it as a case of difficulty in understanding, attention-seeking, lack of interest, tiredness, or the child having an ‘off-day’, and respond appropriately, when to an outsider the same cues may be lost in a blur of classroom noise and activity.

Schön (1983) uses the term ‘knowledge-in-action’ to describe the knowledge that is embedded in the skilled action of the professional. Knowledge-in- action is sometimes inaccessible directly to professionals themselves in the sense that, although they can demonstrate it in action, they are unable to disclose it verbally. Just as expert tennis players, who might return shots in rapid succession, intuitively calculated to land at particular spots on the court, often cannot describe the knowledge of ball control that lies in their skilled performance, neither can lawyers in their skills of cross examination or teachers in their classroom interaction.

In some respects, teaching sits uneasily alongside professions such as medicine, law, or architecture. Teachers, for instance, are not self-employed, in most countries they do not have their own professional association that oversee a standard of good practice, nor generally do they have high status or high salaries. In fact, it has sometimes been suggested that teachers’ claims to professionalism can be viewed as status-enhancing strategies or as a means of defending competence, autonomy, and individualism from outside interference. Nevertheless, in terms of the types of activities in which professionals engage, there seem to be some enlightening similarities, and the metaphor may be a valuable one in helping us to conceptualise and explore further the nature of teachers’ practice. Such a metaphor illuminates crucial aspects of teaching by guiding us towards an exploration of the nature of teachers’ knowledge and the influences on its formation, how it is applied to the analysis of teaching situations, and how it has come to be embedded in teachers’ actions.

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