Thursday, 15 September 2011

Teaching ‘Bad Science’: implications for teacher professionalism

How important is the truth status of what we are teaching? This question was raised for me years ago when I was responsible for a programme of adult education that included a course in Astrology. The issue appeared again during the past year, when as a teacher educator I observed an experienced vocational teacher in Hair and Beauty Therapy, who was teaching a session on Hot Stone Massage Therapy to 16-19 year old students at a London Sixth Form college, as part of an NVQ level 3 qualification. Among the materials she gave to the students was a hand-out from the official curriculum document validated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority containing information the students are required to learn about the maintenance of massage stones. According to this document, students have to learn how to use:
appropriate methods to re-energise the types of stones (sun, moon, the elements, natural sea salt, sage, energy, mandalas, labradorite) (ITEC 2010 p3, appendix 9)

The ideas that stones can become ‘de-energised’, and must then be ‘re-energised’ by such methods as ‘burying them in the earth in your garden overnight’, ‘leaving them out in moonlight overnight’, or ‘covering them with sea-salt’ are completely non-scientific, and yet are here presented as core curriculum knowledge within a context of vocational training overseen by a national occupational body, and funded and quality-assured by government agencies.

At the time I was very disturbed to find myself playing an indirect role in validating and in effect giving authority to this type of false knowledge. An equivalent in a geography curriculum would be to teach that the earth is flat. The teacher herself pointed out to the students apparent contradictions between some of the methods listed as being appropriate for ‘re-energising’ the stones, such as ‘leaving the stones out in the moonlight overnight’ and ‘burying them in the garden overnight’.

As my role was to support the teacher in relation to the generic teacher training curriculum, I had no direct professional responsibility to raise issues concerning the content of the subject curriculum.

But there are still very important implications here for professionalism in general within the post-compulsory sector. One of the effects of the technocratic approach to standardizing quality assurance and funding arrangements within the sector is that the content of the curriculum is implicitly assumed to be completely unproblematic: these arrangements embody a view of teacher professionalism in which raising questions about the curriculum is not seen as something that teachers would need or want to do (this applies to students too for that matter). Once a teacher’s institution has taken the decision to offer a particular subject, the view is that a professional teacher will teach it according to the standards and content laid down by the relevant occupational body, which itself is validated and recognized by the relevant government agencies. Their professionalism is not understood to stretch so far as to raise questions about the validity of the curriculum itself; and still less would this be appropriate for a generic teacher educator like myself.

In this view of professionalism, therefore, I am expected to see no difficulties in supporting a teacher to teach what most people would consider to be ‘false knowledge’ to young people. The only way I can see the students rationalizing this situation is that their future clients are assumed to be willing to pay for services based on and justified by this false knowledge, and, in the interests of improving their employment prospects, going along with and spreading this false knowledge is justified.

In this view of professionalism, the truth status or otherwise of the content of vocational courses is not seen to be an important issue, as long as it has commercial credibility. Personally, I find this view morally, politically and professionally unpalatable. A society in which teachers are not supposed to be concerned with teaching truths as opposed to falsehoods is one in my view which has become almost entirely relativist, one in which knowledge is defined by those who can pay. This is a society in which teacher professionalism is more or less equivalent to brand loyalty.

The moral dilemma created by these materials for teachers concerned about truth rather than the commercial nexus reflects wider changes in British society during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and specifically the significant incursion of private and commercial interests into the sphere of public education during this period.  This has had two effects which contribute to the creation of the teachers’ dilemma: firstly, it has tended to blur the differences between the private and public sphere – because of the extent to which educational services and functions have been ‘contracted out’ to private companies, including the writing of curriculum content and standards, as well as the increasing tendency for the main provider institutions of education to be ‘incorporated’ as independent organisations expected to operate as businesses within a competitive commercial environment. Secondly, this blurring effect also has implications for authority: in a commercial world, commercial interests are paramount: there are no independent and impartial sources of information which can be trusted to provide the best (ie truest, most impartial and objective) information available.
What implications does this problem raise for the concept of ‘professionalism’ in relation to teachers in this situation? For example, how does this situation fit within Whitty’s typology of professionalisms?  His is a somewhat positivist model, in that there is a strong sense that the dominant concept of professionalism is evolving over time and gradually getting ‘better’. He prefers ‘collaborative’ to ‘traditional’ professionalism, though he is rather vague about what would mean in practice:

It potentially offers teachers new professional opportunities to support ….learning by achieving a balance between defining the teacher’s proper role and staking out the territory too rigidly. Identifying the contribution of teachers’ specific expertise remains important, but this will need to be deployed and disseminated differently in collaborative contexts (Whitty 2008, 43).

He also seems to favour ‘democratic’ over ‘collaborative’ professionalism, but this too seems to involve little more than sensitivity ‘to a wide range of stakeholders, some of whom have traditionally been silent’ (Whitty 2008, 44).

Whitty’s discussion implicitly assumes that knowledge itself is unproblematic: he therefore seems to imply that epistemology is irrelevant to a discussion of professionalism.  His endorsement of what I see as ‘New Labour’ professionalisms ignores the spread of cultural, political and factual relativism which undermines moral authority and allows the increasing dominance of consumerism in society as a whole.
The problem here (and there may well be other examples) lies in the perceived need for an officially defined curriculum in each publicly-funded course; this is exacerbated by the complete institutional separation and division of labour between teachers and those bodies now responsible for ‘defining’ the curriculum, in this case QCA and the ‘industry body’, ie ITEC. In my discussion of teaching as craft, I suggest that this separation itself is a source of difficulties and problems: craft practice should be separated as little as possible from teaching, expert craft practitioners attain this status to some extent because they are teachers – teaching is part of their craft practice. The alternative leads, in capitalist society, to mass production, which may be appropriate for many basic and useful items in our lives, but is surely not an appropriate mode for education. We do not want the products of education, that is, learners, to turn out identical in every way! Dickens made this point 150 years ago, interestingly enough about teachers ‘lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs’ (Dickens 1854, in Hard Times).

The Risk Society analysis (Beck 1992) puts a premium on individuals and organisations making decisions for themselves, because the traditional sources of authority and expertise are not reliable. Absolute certainty even about important scientific questions may be impossible to attain, but professionals nevertheless must make decisions on the basis of the best-evidenced knowledge available, and not, at least in my view, on the basis of commercial opportunity. For me the key role of the professional teacher is to make judgements about what learners need to know and how they need to learn that knowledge. In order to maintain this role they need to work to establish trust with their learners, and a reputation based on moral probity and proven expertise. Any organisation they work for also needs to command the same trust and respect. This is difficult if its primary aim is to make profits for shareholders. The key feature of this professionalism, therefore, is ethics.

A further aspect of this issue is that it is possible that teachers would be more likely to aspire to and take on this more complex and demanding professionalism if they saw themselves more as generic teachers than merely as experts in subject knowledge: if this is so, then more emphasis should be laid on the generic aspects of teacher development in policy frameworks for CPD.  A new paradigm for CPD, in other words, would also contribute to the development and maintenance of what we can call an ‘ethical professionalism’.