The Beaten Path

This is the longer version of my session description for ResearchEd on 9th September.

The Beaten Path: The Place of the Humanities in the Formation of Teachers

David Carr wrote in the Journal of Philosophy of Education in 1995 that student teachers “may stand to gain far more from a sympathetic reading of Dickens, Orwell and Lawrence in relation to their understanding of education than they are likely to get from studying Skinner, Bruner or Bloom’s taxonomy.” My interest is more in the spirit of this claim than in questioning which particular thinkers should stand on one or other side of the divide; I am particularly interested in Carr’s recognition, over 20 years ago, that “one is liable to attract the reputation of an educational flat-earther for even hinting at this possibility.” The developments of the ensuing years, and particularly the recent emphasis on the development of teaching as an ‘evidence-based’ profession, have served to push Carr’s suggestion even further into the educational dark ages.

Needless to say, Carr’s claim would be a hard one to evidence. Yet one can see the circularity of excluding from the educational dialogue – on the grounds of a lack of measurable evidence – the claim that one stands to gain as least as much from a thoughtful engagement with those products of human endeavour whose beneficial effects cannot be easily measured as with those that can.

No-one would question that teachers need often to make informed policy decisions or that they should to some extent offer explanations for their planning and its results, and that evidence thus has a valuable place in schooling. Yet so much of a teacher’s interaction with individual students exceeds what can be accounted for in evidence-based research – with its tendency toward the abstracted average – and is shot through with a moral significance which requires of the teacher a significant degree of wisdom and a humane disposition.

In making the case for an ongoing engagement with the rich resources of literature, philosophy and history as essential for teachers throughout their career I do not intend to suggest that teachers are generally lacking in humane dispositions or that it is the particular task of the academy to ensure that they are inducted into an elite canon of western educational thought. More modestly, I simply draw attention to the hard lesson of history: that humane dispositions will not look after themselves, and that we need to make an effort to nourish them continually, particularly in those whose task it is to similarly nourish the next generation.  

I hope that space can be made for this discussion at ResearchEd, a conference whose presentations are alive and enriched – for all their professed focus only on demonstrating ‘what works’ – with literary allusion, historical and political contextualisation, and ideological critique. I propose a small pause where attendees can consider for a time the search for ‘truth’, such as it has been conceived and exemplified by the poets and great writers, and return to their thoughtful consideration of evidence with perhaps a new or nuanced inflection. I hope to argue that this kind of pause has a new urgency at a time when the rapid progress of the technologies of assessment and accountability threaten to lead us astray from what Nussbaum has called the ‘beaten path’ of human being, but overall to make an entirely *positive* case for the ongoing role of the humanities in initial and ongoing teacher formation.


downloadToday I have been at a ResearchEd event in Oxford focusing on Maths and Science. I’ve been keen to engage with this movement, which aims at improving the research literacy of teachers. That can only be a good thing, especially since Tom Bennett’s initial accompanying rhetoric about ITE institutions not actually being very good at doing or teaching research seems to be softening. I got a complimentary ticket in any case, which I’m pretty pleased about. There was certainly a lively and intelligent atmosphere. I say this even though I offered a philosophical/ ethical presentation (on the use and abuse of certain narratives from the cognitive sciences to improve student motivation) that was rejected by the event’s organisers.

But I’ve expressed my reservations about these events in the past, particularly because the tagline – ‘working out what works’ – seems to take normative educational considerations off the table. I’m not a maths or science specialist, so I learned a lot today, but in general my concerns were borne out. This is perhaps best illustrated by a panel session on mixed ability teaching chaired (sorry, rather badly) by The Guardian’s Richard Adams. I recognised @oldandrew, @cbokhove and @bodiluk. My apologies to the other two debaters, who were probably kind of the good guys, but whose introductions were hastily mumbled. Andrew Old I’ve addressed on my blog before. His writing is a good example of what I mean by taking normative considerations ‘off the table’. He has argued that most time spent on debating the aims of education is wasted, since we know that the aim of schooling is unambiguously to ‘make children cleverer’.

I won’t rehearse the various papers and evidence (much of which was not really brought into the session). I’ve done so before and the story is not that mysterious. The jury is largely out on mixed ability v. setting. There are probably small gains for low ability students from mixed ability teaching and small losses for high ability, and it’s the other way round with setting. The question, from a ‘what works’ point of view, is how all of these small gains and losses stack up overall. To put it another way, the question is how to maximise cleverness for the aggregate of students?  And this is certainly an empirical question.

Other research and arguments on this issue were touched on only in passing references to ‘what teachers are comfortable with’ or to research that assumes an ‘egalitarian ideology’. What no-one explicitly mentioned was the reasonably well established correlation between ability sets and demographic groups. Without wanting to simplify things too much, setting by ability means setting by socio-economic group, and there isn’t very much mobility between these groups.

This raises an important question. What if there are other possible aims of our educational activity that deserve consideration at least alongside the maximisation of cleverness – something to do, maybe, with social integration or even the development of compassion? Again, these arguments have been well rehearsed and my interest here is not to explore their particular force so much as to point out how heretical it would seem even to raise them at an event concerned only with the empirical question of ‘what works’. To ask the question about what our educational aims really are is to raise the possibility that there might be good reasons for preferring and applying mixed ability teaching even if, in terms of the maximisation of cleverness, we had established that it did not ‘work’ as well as setting. A similar point could perhaps be made about the educational value of group learning, which gets hard treatment from the evidence-based crowd.

So I’m repeating here the familiar refrain that we should not be concerned about ‘what works?’ at the expense of the accompanying question of ‘to what end?’ Now, if the grass roots ‘what works’ teacher movement could be accompanied by a revival in similar circles of sophisticated discussion of normative educational questions… well then, a thing really would be happening.