Competing Views of Teaching – thoughts on chapter 2 of Professional Capital by Hargreaves and Fullan

This chapter extends the dichotomy established in chapter 1 between the business capital view of teaching and the professional capital view of teaching. The latter is defined through a set of assumptions: that teaching is technically sophisticated and difficult; requires high levels of education and long periods of training; is perfected through continuous improvement; involves wise judgement informed by evidence and experience; is a collective accomplishment and responsibility which maximises, mediates and moderates online instruction. The business capital view of teaching is the antithesis to these statements.

Hargreaves and Fullan then go on to attack what they describe as “the misplaced focus on individual-teacher quality”. What really matters, they argue, is not improving the 20% worst performing teachers but transforming the whole profession. It is by having a string of great teachers that learner potential is maximised, not just one exceptional performer for one year.

The authors then go on to contrast the high status of teachers and teaching in some countries, such as Canada and Finland where teachers are predominantly drawn from the top 30% of the university graduating class with countries like the US and UK where they are mainly from the lower 40%. They link this difference to the relative PISA performance of these countries.

They then go on to discuss predictability of performance. They argue that in any successful organisation you should be able to rely upon a consistently high standard of interaction. With a good airline, for example, you can be confident that every employee you meet will greet you politely and deal with your issues professionally. Their argument is that in many schools this consistency of experience is not there and that this is what teachers, as a professional group should be working collectively towards.

Whilst I agree that there are key expectations and standards which any learner should be entitled to expect in their interactions with teachers, I do think that this analogy over-simplifies the complex nature of teaching. Airline staff and hairdressers do, admittedly, have to deal with fraught and unpredictable members of the public on a daily basis, but there is rarely the same level of tension and distrust that can pervade some teacher/learner interactions. The airline passenger or hairdresser’s customer has a clear vested interest in co-operating with the member of staff and this helps all parties forge positive and consistent interactions. There is also an overt financial aspect to their interaction which may also help to clarify the rules of engagement. The teacher/learner interaction also has an economic aspect and vested interests are certainly at play but these are generally at a deeper level than in the other examples and thus they don’t exert such a strong moderating influence on the behaviour of both parties, resulting in greater potential inconsistency of behaviour. Put simply, it is more important, on any given day, to most people, to get a damn good haircut than to participate in a damn good learning experience!

That said, Hargreaves and Fullan’s aim of system wide improvement is both daunting and inspiring. They argue that

The only solutions that will work on any scale are those that mobilize the teaching force as a whole – including strategies where teachers push and support each other.

– a useful touchstone when considering any educational change or initiative. Their argument for powerful collective responsibility rather than increased individual accountability is uncompromising but laudably aspirational. If it is to be achieved, it will require the profession to display the vigour and candour when assessing its own performance that are demonstrated by the learner in this clip that was sent to me by a colleague a few days ago. The teacher in this class does not appear to have been utilising their professional capital very effectively and could probably benefit from the professional learning and assistance of teachers from their region and beyond, as the book argues.

The clip raises the issue of the role of learner voice in developing professional capital and it will be interesting to see whether later chapters cover this. Teaching is, at heart, an interactive process, involving a contract between teacher and learner. Improving the quality of this contract involves consideration of the roles of both sets of participants. Does this mean that teaching and learning capital might be a more worthwhile concept than professional capital? We’ll see what later chapters bring.

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