The ‘artificial science’ of teaching: System vs Individual competence

Over the last two posts, I’ve been exploring the extent to which teaching is a natural ability and whether there is a formal or ‘professional’ body of knowledge or set of skills required for effective teaching. In summary:

The ability to teach arises universally and spontaneously in early childhood, implying that it is a natural ability (e.g. like first language acquisition). I’m not suggesting that young children can teach to the degree that professional teachers can (no solution for the recruitment issues in education here!) because great teaching requires a strong knowledge and understanding of the subject being taught and benefits from practical experience in the classroom to refine that raw ability.

However, there’s a question as to whether there is a set of formal knowledge or skills in order to become a great teacher. This challenge was taken up by @informed_edu who related a range of areas where teachers would benefit from formalised instruction.

For some of the areas he raised, I agreed: How children learn, curriculum and assessment design, some level of statistics and research methods. They are not the sorts of secondary knowledge teachers would necessarily have from their subject degree, therefore they would appear especially fertile ground for developing a formalised body of professional knowledge and skills.

We disagreed on a couple of areas, particularly behaviour management and mentoring/coaching/leadership skills. There was an implicit distinction I was making in the posts which I’d like to make explicit in this one: A distinction, I will argue, that might be useful when exploring the extent to which teaching is an ‘artificial science’.

Individual competence

In this post, I asked some questions about the proposed College of Teaching relating to the idea of ‘aspirational’ standards. I expressed concerns about the way such standards would be drawn up and how reliably those standards would be applied to members of the College. @GalcottGareth gave a tentative and reasoned reply to some of these points, suggesting any new standards would form the basis of some sort of ‘Chartered’ status – though he was understandably unable to detail how these standards would be determined or how they could be applied in a reliable way.

Professions like medicine and law require practitioners to have a specialist body of knowledge. It is not sufficient to merely have initial training in the subject, there is a requirement that members of these professions keep abreast of new development (e.g. the efficacy of new treatments in medicine or the precedent of new cases in law). These are essentially academic disciplines (though they involve a performance element, e.g. inserting a cannula or presenting a case in court). Thus formal professional development in these areas tends to involve academic specialism through attending lectures or conferences, reading articles or journals, etc.

Professional athletes and footballers have a degree of natural talent within their particular field of sport. It is not sufficient merely to have this talent; there is a requirement to refine their ability through training and practice in order to perform at their best during competition. These are essentially performance disciplines – thus the development of a professional athlete tends to involve personalised coaching feedback rather than academic study.

The question, I think, is whether teaching is an academic profession like medicine or law or whether teachers are performance professionals in the same way as footballers and athletes. My hope, to lay bare my ulterior motives, is that we are / can become a combination of both – but merely wishing it so isn’t a very helpful exercise.

As a natural ability, teaching would appear to be mainly a performance discipline. Yes, there is formal subject knowledge required, but a great teacher needs practice to refine their natural ability to teach and perform effectively in the classroom (rather than formalised academic study). If that is true, then we might expect effective professional development should principally involve personalised feedback.

What is the best form for this personalised feedback to take? Should it be through mentoring, coaching or line management? I don’t think it matters. I’ve been involved in a variety of frameworks for school-based teacher training, mentoring and coaching and I don’t think the format is the effective ingredient. What probably underlies effective feedback is not the system used but the qualities of the individual. The ability to offer appropriate challenge to a teacher’s reflection in a manner which does not undermine their self-efficacy is as ‘natural’ as teaching – I think. My ‘Dodo bird’ verdict is that whether that individual is doing this within the framework of a line manager, mentor or coach is irrelevant compared how that feedback is given.

If this is true, then drawing up ‘aspirational standards’ for teachers will be highly problematic. We know there are enormous problems with the reliability of measures of effective teaching. Thus, judging whether a teacher meets an enhanced set of standards for classroom practice in order to obtain chartered status will be equally problematic. Unlike medicine or law, where academic qualifications provide a pointer towards individual competence, judging performance in a fair and reliable way is extremely difficult and economically impractical.

So, the open question is whether there is a formal body of knowledge or set of skills which makes teaching like an academic discipline as well as a performance one.

At the moment, there isn’t. Teachers don’t go to conferences or lectures to learn about teaching, nor is there an expectation that teachers read articles or journals to update their professional knowledge.

Should they though? In my last post, I concurred with David that there are some technical elements related to teaching which might benefit teachers to learn about: How children learn, curriculum and assessment design, some level of statistics and research methods would appear especially fertile ground for developing a formalised body of professional knowledge and skills.

Whether there is genuinely an advantage to teachers learning these things is an urgent hypothesis for anyone seeking to move teaching towards a higher-status profession by combining academic and performance disciplines. If there were a body of knowledge related to effective teaching, then ‘Chartered’ status becomes a much more realistic prospect. Teachers could have access to formal instruction through post-qualification programmes of study (perhaps even assessed by exams – haha!) which would provide a reliable pointer for individual competence. The null hypothesis is that this formal body of knowledge will have no bearing upon the quality of teaching. I’d really like to reject that null hypothesis, by the way – but I don’t think we justifiably can at present.

System competence

A different way of examining the question of whether teaching is an ‘artificial science’ is to consider the question at the level of the system rather than the individual.

In my last post, for instance, I argued that behaviour management mostly involves the exercise of ‘folk psychology’ rather than requiring an explicit ‘body of knowledge’. Much more important than explicit training, I argued, is the identification of effective school-wide systems for supporting teachers in developing the relationships and routines in classrooms.

David replied:

“I’d like to challenge your discussion about behaviour. It feels like you’re saying that if I know how to understand what a child is thinking and I can set expectations then my behaviour management will be fine (if I’m in a school with good systems).”

Placing the responsibility for the behaviour of students in a classroom entirely upon the teacher (i.e. at the level of individual competence) is a very quick way to destroy that teacher – or undermine the teaching in that classroom. There are loads of examples to support this – but to pick one, @LearningSpy wrote this last year:

Undermining teachers is easy via @LearningSpy

The truth is, highly-experienced, effective teachers can struggle with behaviour – especially when they are a new face and/or lack ‘senior status’ within a school. More systematic evidence of this comes from Haydn (2014) which I discussed here:

Talking about the behaviour in our lessons

Haydn found that experienced ASTs reported struggling with the behaviour in some lessons:

“One AST (Advanced Skills Teacher) told me:

Well I’m an AST. . . I’m not saying that that means that I’m superman but it’s reasonable to say that there are some who struggle even more than I do and I go down to about level 4 with some groups.”

Now, I’m not saying that there’s nothing a teacher can improve in their behaviour management techniques. Certainly developing working relationships and a set of effective routines requires practice and (as a performance discipline) likely would benefit from personalised coaching. However, even the most effective practitioner will be undermined in a system which does not support them in this. Thus, I think evidence relating to effective behaviour management needs more focus as a system-level competence rather than an individual one.

A second area of debate was around the systems to support professional development in schools. I’d argued the ‘Dodo bird’ verdict with respect to whether schools adopted a manager, mentoring or coaching framework (which I hope I’ve clarified above) – David replied:

“I think your assertions that nothing is inferior/superior in teacher development is directly in contrast to the research base – e.g.”

It’s a really useful report – I’d encourage all teachers, especially school leaders, to read it. I’d argue that the TDT report is an excellent example of how research evidence might help improve ‘system competence’.

What the TDT report describes are aspects of the ‘system competence’ needed to effectively provide the personalised feedback to teachers. However, I’d argue that whether this regular, student-outcome focused, personalised feedback takes place within the framework of line-management, mentoring or coaching is probably less important that the skill of the manager, mentor or coach to give that feedback in an effective way. I might also argue that the TDT report into ‘Developing Great Teaching’ actually supports my view that teaching is a natural ability – therefore a performance discipline.

In summary

If teaching is primarily a natural ability, which its spontaneous, rapid and universal development implies it is, then in terms of individual competence it might be classified as a performance discipline. If so, teacher professional development would have more in common with that of a footballer or an athlete rather than a doctor or a lawyer – regular personalised feedback provided to challenge a teacher’s self-reflection whilst not undermining their self-efficacy. Accountability systems tend to get in the way of this form of professional development, thus I think there needs to be more focus on ‘system competence’ rather than ‘individual competence’ in order to make much progress in improving schools, teaching and student outcomes.

On the other hand, plausible examples of domains which might form a professional body of knowledge exist: How children learn, curriculum and assessment design, some level of statistics and research methods. One question is what these domains would look like as a post-qualification programme of study. There is also the urgent question of whether formalised instruction in these areas would improve teaching.


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7 Responses to The ‘artificial science’ of teaching: System vs Individual competence

  1. Education, and therefore teaching, as you point out, draws on multiple other knowledge domains. I see no reason why teaching shouldn’t be a rigorous, academically grounded profession like medicine or the law.

    The reason it isn’t is largely historical, I think. Teacher qualifications have always been waived to some extent during recruitment crises and the focus on what’s taught has traditionally taken priority over a thorough understanding of teaching and learning. And the reason for that is because the consequences of teacher expertise are often indirect. Nobody dies or goes to prison as a direct result of teachers getting it wrong. But the long-term impact can be just as pernicious.


    • Chester Draws says:

      see no reason why teaching shouldn’t be a rigorous, academically grounded profession like medicine or the law.

      But there is a huge difference, and that is that the core knowledge is disputed.

      All lawyers face the same law, and it is accessed using the same rules and practices.

      But I dispute vigorously with my colleagues about even basic starting “facts” about learning. I think rote learning has a place (albeit small) and that the best way to understanding is via practice, but others think the exact opposite. I prefer a classroom where the students talk but sit still, whereas my good friend prefers the exact opposite.

      The danger of a set teaching “body of knowledge” is that someone is going to have to set it up, and they are likely to do so badly. (I went to quite a good School of Education, yet was taught some utter rot there. It was much worse in bad schools, I’m told.) This is not a problem law or medicine face, because the bits where there are disagreements are limited to a couple of options only.

      Also, don’t forget that there are plenty of bad lawyers and bad doctors out there. The rigorous academic grounding doesn’t make them necessarily good at the practical aspects of the job. It just means they meet minimum knowledge criteria.

      Teachers won’t necessarily be any better at teaching for knowing what they should be doing in theory.Much of what you are taught as a trainee teacher is correct, but in practice near useless. That learning is best done when students are kept in a quiet, calm atmosphere where they feel safe is indisputable. But that doesn’t help someone one iota on achieving that atmosphere. We get told “set firm guidelines”, which is also true, but doesn’t actually help us set firm guidelines in a classroom.


  2. Pingback: Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you believe education is for | David Didau: The Learning Spy

  3. suecowley says:

    On the academic versus performance question, one thing that might be useful to consider is whether more academic knowledge will necessarily makes someone a better teacher, or whether more experience of actually teaching is what really counts. I could get 100% in an exam on the academic side of the profession, and still be completely incapable of actually teaching. I could know very little of the ‘knowledge’ that some people recommend should be insisted upon, and yet still be brilliant at getting children to learn. (This is not to say I wouldn’t get even better if I had the knowledge, just that the knowledge itself is apparently not what is making the difference between can and can’t.)

    When it comes to the behaviour sessions I run, what I am actually ‘teaching’ teachers to do is to become more aware of their own individual reactions and responses to problem behaviour, and how these can be controlled, managed and changed. This will vary massively from teacher to teacher, because some seem to have an intuitive ability to do this, and others don’t. I can give them all the strategies (or ‘knowledge’) that I have, but it is up to them to put this in place and some really struggle with that bit. I wonder if you have considered the role of personality within the question of ‘natural ability’? I think that would be a very fertile area for consideration.


    • Hi Sue – thanks for your comment.

      “I wonder if you have considered the role of personality within the question of ‘natural ability’?”

      Interestingly, personality has been the subject of research – for example Rockoff (2004) which I talk about here:

      You might expect personality traits to correlate with teaching ability – but they don’t appear to. Traits like extraversion – and even conscientiousness – don’t appear to bear any strong relationship with teaching ability. In that same article, I suggest a different factor which might underlie the ‘natural ability’ to teach – Theory of Mind. I think you’ll find the idea fits reasonably well with the experiences you relate in your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • suecowley says:

        Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I also think an ability to control your own emotional reactions is really important because of the nature of the physical environment in which teaching takes place.

        Liked by 1 person

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