On 'Professionalism' in Teaching

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In the details of these reports and in the activities of many groups attempting to professionalize teaching, we see an exclusionary focus on techniques, mechanics, and "effective behaviors." This narrow outlook results in a distorted, reductionist view of teaching.

We encourage instead the development of an inclusive, dynamic concept of teaching as a profession. Our definition includes the following elements:

Teachers as professionals should continually expand and renew their knowledge of the learning process and of their subject areas. In doing so, they should weigh carefully the implications of this knowledge for their classroom practices.

Professionals understand the purposes of schooling and recognize the implications of its social and political context in American culture.

Professionals discuss critically with their colleagues what they do and why they do it.

The contrast between prescription and professionalism is great. To clarify the differences, we might first look at some of the factors that promote a prescriptive approach to the methodology and evaluation of teaching.

Many staff-development classes and workshops in schools and districts focus on "effective" teaching techniques. Such exercises are based on research that finds correlations between given techniques frequently used in classrooms (most often teacher-centered) and scores on achievement tests. Since certain methods are vaguely linked to higher standardized-test scores and therefore are deemed "effective," some researchers and policymakers assume that all teachers should use them.

But they fail to take into account other research that more completely incorporates current knowledge about learners, the learning process, and the subject fields. Rather, these researchers and policymakers argue that the prescribed techniques constitute the knowledge base about teaching, a notion that many schools and districts unquestioningly accept.

An exaggerated emphasis on techniques, however, can lead to dysfunctional teaching. Such an emphasis results in neglect of other areas of pedagogical knowledge. We may at the same time forget the importance of understanding the purposes and the context of schooling, areas about which we make many erroneous and short-sighted assumptions.

Under these circumstances, the evaluation of teaching may be reduced to judgments of teachers' performance with a few prescribed techniques. This situation undermines the efforts of teachers to broaden and deepen their understanding of the knowledge base.

The problem is exacerbated by the current interest in holding teachers "accountable" through stressing these limited behaviors. When evaluating teachers, manyadministrators prefer to look for specific techniques prescribed by popular models of instruction. They do not feel comfortable with their understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning; it therefore becomes convenient to justify this limited focus, this prescriptive reality.

Professionalism, however, does not result from exposure to training in technique. In a complex process requiring continual effort, professionals seek growth and renewal through the act of reflecting on their classroom practices and on the knowledge, beliefs, and values that underlie those practices.

A major element of this reflective process is collegial dialogue. For example, rather than attend classes or workshops where they are trained to behave in certain ways, teachers could meet to discuss substantive matters with their colleagues. Perhaps they would begin by describing some of their classroom practices, and then turn to exploring the rationale supporting these practices.

Subsequently, they could juxtapose new information about the nature of learning, for example, against their reasons for engaging in certain practices. If differences appeared, then teachers might in the light of new perspectives create alternative practices.

To illustrate, let's look at how teachers might examine the practice of teachers' classroom talk. As teachers discuss their practices with each other, they discover that they spend a large portion of their time talking to their classes. Further probing reveals that this practice rests in beliefs about filling children's minds or about providing explicit directions for behaviors that children should exhibit.

In both cases, the teacher holds the significant information and feels compelled to provide it. Through exposure to current knowledge about cognition, however, these teachers learn that meaning exists inside learners, not outside, and that to learn is to construct meaning. A child's intellectual framework will promote or impede his absorption of information from outside.

In addition to considering current knowledge, at some point professionals will also evaluate what they do in light of the personal, social, intellectual, and vocational goals of schooling. As teachers discuss different outlooks, they face choices. Are their existing practices and ideas consistent with research concerning cognition? Are students provided with opportunities for social development? If so, then perhaps no action is necessary.

If not, perhaps they should create a new classroom activity that reflects the information. For instance, teachers may create practices to encourage students to reveal the mental framework influencing their understanding of a particular concept. In order to do this, students will need more time to talk about their perspective, and less time to listen to the teacher. As students come together in this group activity, they have the opportunity, through working with each other, to develop personally and socially, as well as intellectually.

This condensed version of a single scenario is only one of many possibilities. The point is that, as professionals, teachers interact with each other regarding the fundamental concepts and current knowledge on which they base their daily work with students.

Turning away from a prescriptive model of teaching with an emphasis on technique, this view calls for rethinking the concept of professionalism.

Vol. 07, Issue 22, Page 24

Published in Print: February 24, 1988, as On 'Professionalism' in Teaching
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