Sunday, 17 April 2011

Teaching as craft

My paper exploring craft as a metaphor for teaching was published this week in Adults LearningHere it is, though please do buy Adults Learning as well: it also contains chapters on why the tax relief system should be reformed to support workplace learning for the low-paid and lowskilled, on adult education and the Bog, sorry Big Society, and intriguingly, on the 'Men's Sheds' movement in Australia.

Teaching as craft?
Jay Derrick, Institute of Education


Is it useful to think of teaching as craft? It is according to Michael Gove, the Coalition Government’s Secretary of State for Education: ‘Teaching is a craft and it is best learnt as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman’ (Gove 2010). John Hayes, Minister for Business and Skills, seems to agree: ‘The instinctive value we feel for craft must be reflected by our education system….this is, this must be the age of the craftsman’ (Hayes 2010). Hayes entitled his speech ‘Craft so long to lerne’, from the first line of the Parlement of Foules by Chaucer, itself a translation, via the latin proverb Ars longa vita brevis, of part of a Greek verse by Hippocrates, the father of medicine:

Life is short,
the craft long to learn,
opportunity fleeting,
experiment fallible,
judgment difficult.

Hippocrates was referring to his work as a doctor. How valid is it to use the word craft to describe teaching? Can Hippocrates’s somewhat world-weary sentiments be applied to teaching? And if we agree that teaching is craft, what implications does this have, for example, for the way we organise the training and development of teachers?

This question is not the same as suggesting that teaching is like this or that craft: conducting an orchestra, for instance, or gardening, though both of these are quite effective metaphors highlighting different aspects of teaching. I want to explore the idea of craft as a generic concept, to see how useful it might be to apply it to teaching. This approach avoids arguments about whether this or that human activity is or isn’t a craft, or about the difference between art and craft. Such discussions are interesting, but don’t help us much in trying to understand the nature of teaching, the kind of people teachers need to be, and how best to train and support them throughout their careers.

This is a timely question, and not just because the comparison has been made recently by members of the Coalition government. The nature of teaching as a profession has been the subject of intense debate for many years, driven by the developments in digital technology, both in terms of the technology people use in everyday life and work (such as mobile phones, facebook, the internet etc) and the technology now available to support teaching and learning (again, mobile phones, facebook, the internet etc). These developments have raised fundamental and new questions about the role of teachers in general (for example, do we need them at all?), and have simultaneously created a wave of new possibilities in terms of learning activities and classroom organisation, which teachers are expected to learn how to use proficiently. At the same time, accelerating globalisation is increasing the cultural diversity of student groups, enriching the resources available to teachers but also creating challenges in terms of expectations and assumptions. This paper is intended to be a contribution to the debate stimulated by these and other developments.

Craft as an attitude

The fact that ‘craft’ is used in relation to many and very different human activities, suggests that rather than being a distinct category which includes some and excludes others, the idea of craft is more helpfully understood as an attitude: as something referring to the manner in which we approach an activity or discipline, or to the way we value it – the way in which we see it as ‘worthwhile’. The idea of craft, from this perspective, puts the spotlight on the human agent, the craftworker themselves, their motivation and dispositions, rather than on the particular activity involved, and still less on the objects or outcomes produced by that activity. The key to craft, and to teaching, I suggest, is not so much what the craftworker or teacher specifically does (though this is of course very important), but the kind of person they are. The first task of craftworkers, from this perspective, is to produce themselves.

So what does ‘the craft attitude’ involve? I think it has six key aspects: attitude to quality, to practice, to learning and teaching, to the workshop (the craft environment in its broadest sense), to time, and finally to mass production. Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. Quality: the craft attitude implies an absolute commitment to the pursuit of quality, with the practical recognition that this may not always be achieved to the same degree. Edmund de Waal bluntly describes this as ‘a contempt for shoddiness’ (de Waal 2011). Secondly, it seeks to work as efficiently as possible, in terms of time, the cost of materials, and the sustainability of the workshop, as long as quality is not compromised; and finally, it assumes that the ultimate arbiter of quality, efficiency, and mastery in general is the community of practice, ie other practitioners.

2. Practice: this is firstly about a particular orientation towards the discipline of practice, by which I mean respect for the hard, repetitive work required to move towards mastery, commitment to improving practice and knowledge over extended time periods, respect for other practitioners, for the materials and for the tools of the trade; secondly, readiness to collaborate in making, learning, and teaching the craft to less experienced work colleagues; thirdly, seeing accidents, mistakes and less than perfect work as opportunities for reflection and learning; and fourthly, acceptance of a more or less informal hierarchy in the workshop, based on length and breadth of experience, but also on the continuous collective evaluation of the quality of work.

3. Teaching and learning: the craft attitude embodies deliberate and continuous learning through work, with the recognition that this can be both formal and informal; that teaching and developing less experienced colleagues is recognised as an essential part of craft and of improving one’s own practice; teaching and learning is structured around the continuous search for new and better techniques, practices, and tools; and finally that the work is central to the craftworker’s identity: that the character of every worker is embodied in their work.

4. The craft workshop is an environment organised around the needs of practice, as determined by the practitioners, the materials and the tools involved. A key aspect of the workshop is its culture: the extent to which it fosters and supports authentic communication between practitioners, and a mutuality which enables constructive evaluation of each other’s work. This is the team scenario in which there is creative tension between individuals’ strength and weaknesses and the collective expertise of the team as a whole. This has been described as an ‘expansive’ as opposed to a ‘restrictive’ learning culture (Evans et al 2002, Fuller and Unwin 2008). The dynamic of the workshop also reminds us that although craftworkers typically have a main field of expertise, they need to know about related areas as well: beautiful and useful products are often worked in different materials, and need the combined application of very different skills and knowledge. Craftworkers are specialised, their skills have limits, but they are continually learning more about related fields, they work closely with different specialists, and are curious about their work. Workshops facilitate this interdisciplinary practice as far as they can, and continuously evolve so as to do so.

5. Time: it is an inherent quality of craft that knowledge, skill and expertise are hard-won, through long hours, days, weeks, months and years of practice. The craft attitude is suspicious of easy achievement, precocious skill, any work which seems to have been achieved by cutting corners in terms of time. It recognises that while tools make work easier and quicker, the tools themselves have been developed through extended processes of experimentation by hundreds of practitioners, perhaps over centuries. In general, it is an axiom of craft that time is a sine qua non for the sustained achievement of high quality work, and that it is time, filled with sustained practice and learning, that confers expertise – there are no short cuts to mastery.

6. Mass production: the aim of craft is not to produce wholly standardised artefacts, but to reveal the potential of material worked by knowledgeable practice; mass standardised production eliminates the human and the particular from the production process (these are seen as embodying ‘error’): its products are in a very real sense ‘lifeless’, whereas craft aims to maximise the human and the particular in the production process, and embody these in artefacts. Dickens implies all of this in his condemnation of teacher training systems in the mid-nineteenth century:

So, Mr. M'Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs.’ (Dickens 1854)

This quotation is of course from a novel in which the factory system, and the moral philosophy which generated it, is quite clearly delineated as anti-human. The same ideas are explored by Kipling, from a slightly different perspective in which the craft attitude is shown as being distorted and undermined by the institutionalisation of demarcation between different craft specialisms, first in the mediaeval guilds, and later in some aspects of early twentieth-century trade unionism (Kipling 1910). It is an irony that one of the main areas in which the concept of craft survives in the 21st century is in thinking about industrial work which is demarcated into separate crafts for the protection of employment. This point is not just a historical one, but highly topical: there are indications that digitisation of craft expertise in the ‘brainwork industries’ (including teaching) may be leading to social and political consequences similar to those produced by the division of labour and the subordination of humans to machines within the factory system (Brown et al 2011). What Dickens and Kipling remind us so powerfully, however, is that these are moral issues, not merely matters of efficiency or ‘what works’.

Ideas and practices in tension with the craft attitude

Another way of delineating the craft attitude is to look at aspects of life and work which sit uneasily, or are in tension, or even in outright contradiction with it. Among these are firstly, the idea that the outcomes of craft can be evaluated, compared and enumerated objectively. From the perspective of craft, quality is apprehended through the practice of judgement, usually by ‘masters’ of the craft. This judgement may be aided by numerical indicators, but is never determined solely by them, because craftwork does not intend to produce artefacts which are ‘the same but better’ than others, it aims to produce objects that embody the humanity of their maker, and which reflect the highly specific qualities of the materials being used. It is a central tenet of the craft attitude that although craft objects can be compared in a general way, they are not essentially comparable. Richard Sennett puts this another way:

What do we mean by good-quality work? One answer is how something should be done, the other is getting it to work. This is a difference between correctness and functionality. Ideally, there should be no conflict; in the real world, there is. Often we subscribe to a standard of correctness that is rarely if ever reached. (Sennett 2008)

There is therefore an inevitable tension between an idealised, static, ‘objective’ view of quality, and the actuality of a particular piece of work, which may, even if it appears not to be perfect, do the job perfectly well. If practice is systematically subordinated to the idealised perspective, then practice will quickly become restricted, and practitioners will be deskilled.

Secondly, the particular take on time and mastery that is essential to the craft attitude implies that apprenticeship is a long drawn out process and that its completion is only achieved, and arguably not even then, by attaining the status of ‘master’ as judged by peers. The modern idea that apprenticeship finishes when you start work, or even more when you gain your license to practice, is completely at odds with this. So is the modern practice by which apprenticeships within a particular craft are all the same length and contain the same content. Apprenticeship, from the craft perspective, cannot be embodied solely in a formal course of instruction with a fixed length: that is a mass production, rather than a craft model. We will explore the implications of this for teachers a little later. Sennett highlights the learning process itself, and in particular problematizes the tendency of our formal education system to divide and separate the intellectual curriculum from the practical:

Skill is trained practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of that repetitive, concrete, hands-on training. When the head and hand are separated, the result is mental impairment. (Sennett 2008)

Once again, we see that ‘craft’ is not a concept that should be restricted to thinking about ‘vocational’, ‘practical’ skills and occupations: this is a deformation of its true meaning. The craft attitude requires the intellectual and ‘practical’ to be integrated, as each is impaired without the other:

There is nothing as practical as a good theory’ (Lewin 1951)

Thirdly, the idea that you can make craftworkers produce better work, or work more efficiently, by setting them quantitative performance targets, is clearly at odds with the craft attitude. Sennett connects this with the promotion of competition over collaboration as the dominant feature of practice (Sennett 2008). Again, this tendency arises from the mass production model of work, and the desire of external authorities to control production and practice.

Implications of a ‘craft’ perspective on teaching

If the craft attitude outlined above is applied to teaching, a number of implications emerge, under each of the six aspects of craft I have discussed: I present a few here for discussion.

Under quality, we would see a confident move towards professional self-regulation by a teacher-controlled body. Self-regulation within the community of practice is an essential aspect of the craft attitude. This doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t be accountable: the issue is that they should be accountable to students first and foremost, and to their own community of practice. Bureaucratic attempts to measure the quality of teachers through a standardised framework and through counting qualifications would be abandoned as expensive, misleading, and damaging to practice and learners alike. Teacher training and development would foster ‘contempt for shoddiness’ (de Waal 2011). Teachers would be empowered to distinguish between unimaginative work that satisfies technical standards, and sustained high-quality work. Teaching would be celebrated as a moral and sustaining activity rather than an industrial and technocratic one.

Under practice, we would see a much greater emphasis on professional development through work, with policy attention shifting towards an enabling framework for supporting CPD rather than the present major focus on initial teacher education. There would be a much greater emphasis in the curriculum of teacher education, along with skills and knowledge, on developing learners’ capacity to judge the quality of work, through collective qualitative evaluation of collaborative projects.

Under teaching and learning, all experienced teachers would be involved in ITE for pre-service trainees and in mentoring new entrants to teaching. This teacher-education work would be completely integrated into their role and practice as teachers. Teachers would be seen as new entrants for at least 5 years after their initial training.

Under the workshop: organisations employing teachers would be ‘expansive’ rather than ‘restrictive’ in relation to the learning of their staff (Evans et al 2002, Fuller and Unwin 2008). In relation to time, it would be recognised that there are ‘no short cuts to mastery’, that experience confers expertise that cannot be achieved any other way. And finally, any vestiges of mass production practices and procedures in teacher education would be eliminated: learners would not be expected to be standardised outputs, and would not be measured as such. Variations of practice would be welcomed and encouraged if they served quality, as would be the integration of intellectual and practical skill and knowledge. Efficiency and effectiveness would be measured by qualitative judgements rather than in solely quantitative terms.

All of these implications of adopting what I have called the craft attitude to teaching seem to me to be highly desirable: a great many of them are supported by research as well. The argument against mass production approaches to educational systems is made for example by Ken Robinson (Robinson 2010) on the grounds of its anachronism in the 21st century. Very many teachers, moreover, already have this attitude, and struggle to maintain it, and the quality of their work, in a technocratic system which tends in many ways to deskill them.

Conclusion: learners and teachers

If teaching is craft, learners are the material teachers fashion: they are the artefacts of teaching. However, learning is also work, it is work done by learners, with guidance from teachers. This suggests that we should see the work of teaching as helping learners produce and develop themselves, as individual mathematicians, plumbers, philosophers, nurses, etc, rather than standardised factory-output versions of practitioners of those disciplines, ‘like so many pianoforte legs’, as Dickens has it. At the same time, reflective teachers are continually producing and developing themselves as teachers. So the craft attitude to teaching sees it as a contribution to the collective work of being and continually becoming human; and at the same time as holding off, resisting, and repairing the social, cultural and political damage done by the dominant ethics of mass-production.

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