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Teaching Profession Opinion

Toward a Strong Profession

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann — February 25, 2004 10 min read
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Given the current situation in education, how can we possibly hope to attract able, imaginative, and honorable people into teaching, and how, once they enter, can we sustain them?

Given the current situation in education, how can we possibly hope to attract able, imaginative, and honorable people into teaching, and how, once they enter, can we sustain them? Admitting that this will be very difficult, I think our best hope lies in working to make education what I would call a “strong profession.”

Sociologists have, of course, written many volumes about the characteristics of a profession. My view is derived from a distillation of those theories, especially theories advanced by Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago, and also from experience I have had since becoming the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education. To me, strong professions have two outstanding features. First, they can certify the competence of their members to act more effectively on the problems of their guild than nonmembers can do. Second, they exercise considerable influence in the governance of the domain in which they act. Let me say a few words about each of these.

As a parent, I have had to deal with ill health, making decisions about when to give Tylenol and when to keep a child home from school. When the ill health was such that my amateur efforts were not proving to be sufficient, I turned to our pediatrician, whose diagnostic skills and access to prescription drugs may not have always created miracles, but certainly made it more likely that he would be able to help our child than I could. This is an example of professional competence.

To be able to certify the competence of their members, strong professions need to identify ways of thinking and acting that will have a high likelihood of enhancing their members’ capacity to address the characteristic problems of their field. I have become fascinated by differences in the way the case method is used at different Harvard professional schools. What is interesting about this is that each of the schools serving what I would characterize as a strong profession uses the case method differently because each is trying to teach a different way of thinking and acting.

Strong professions need to identify ways of thinking and acting that will have a high likelihood of enhancing their members' capacity to address the characteristic problems of their field.

At the Harvard Law School, for example, cases are actual legal opinions. Students read them and professors teach them via the Socratic method, calling (without warning) on students and asking them questions that force them to reason to the essence of the legal precedent set by the case. At the Harvard Business School, members of the faculty write cases that describe “real world” problems in business, government, or the nonprofit sector, and students are asked to analyze those problems in study groups. Then, in class, professors ask volunteers to tell them what they would do to resolve the problem at hand. At the Harvard Medical School, meanwhile, cases are very short, often only a paragraph. The cases are given to students in class, where they immediately pool whatever they do and do not know about the situation with which they have been presented. They then agree on who will do research about specific unresolved questions and, then, come together again to pool and refine their knowledge before once again going off to do further research.

Implicit in these different approaches to case teaching are different ways of thinking and acting. The law school is teaching students to reason from precedent—to think like a lawyer. The business school is teaching students to make decisions and take action—to act like a manager. And the medical school is teaching students to diagnose an illness—to reason like a doctor.

In addition to being able to certify the competence of their members, strong professions have the power to influence the domain in which their members hold expertise. Through the American Medical Association and other professional organizations, doctors have considerable influence over health-care policy. To be sure, their influence is always in contest with that of other professional groups that have their own primary interests—nurses, pharmaceutical companies, and the like. And the influence of doctors is always also in contest with that of lobbyists for different segments of the public—the AARP, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and many more. Although the status and power of professions are never set or held constant, their power ebbing and flowing in response to challenges for control of their domain, strong professions, by definition, have more power than competing groups.

How could education become a strong profession? The first step, I believe, will require that we identify how educators characteristically think and act. Of course, teaching is too personal an art always to be done in the same way. Without in any way demeaning the artistic side of educating, I still think it is possible that we can identify the distinctive ways in which educators enter educational encounters and proceed through them. Actually, I mean to be more prescriptive than that. I think we can and should identify the ways in which educators should enter educational encounters and proceed through them.

We now have sufficiently powerful ways of studying instruction so that we have a reasonable chance of accurately estimating which patterns of instruction will match up with better rather than worse outcomes.

I am, of course, aware that many people before me have also quested in this direction, and I have been extremely critical of their aspirations. What has changed my mind—and I reserve the right to change it again—is my sense that we now have sufficiently powerful ways of studying instruction so that we have a reasonable chance of accurately estimating which patterns of instruction will match up with better rather than worse outcomes. We can at least discover which behaviors are more and less likely to produce the desired results.

My optimism—perhaps, guarded optimism is more appropriate—about our capacity slowly, but surely, to learn what it is that is pretty much always involved in effective instruction comes from my sense that we really are making progress in education research. Statisticians have now developed techniques whereby one can measure change over time, using repeated waves of data. This gives us newly powerful ways to describe and analyze learning. Research syntheses, which enable one to aggregate the findings of different studies, also promise to help us build a stronger knowledge base concerning effective instructional practices. Finally, we now recognize that along with traditional disciplinary research, we need more active modes of experimentation. Engaging in design experiments will enable us to test theories in the murky world of real-world practice. Developing active treatment trials, in which one experiments with different instructional strategies within different school settings, will enable us to figure out which interventions are most effective.

I suspect professors of teacher education teach what they know, which may or may not include cutting-edge research about instruction.

Relying on research to identify some key variables of effective instruction, we then need to build new research-based professional curricula. Isn’t that what teacher education programs already do? Theoretically, yes. In practice, however, I suspect professors of teacher education teach what they know, which may or may not include cutting-edge research about instruction. Interestingly, too, there is extreme variation between and among programs of teacher education. I doubt there are many teacher education programs that have the same requirements for coursework and student teaching. I also doubt there is much commonality in what is studied in methods or foundations courses. Clearly, then, to the extent that teacher education programs are based on the findings of research, they reflect a lack of consensual knowledge in education.

A second necessary ingredient for building a strong profession in education will be developing common standards and norms. Today in education, we lack common standards and norms. No two schools train teachers in exactly the same way. No two schools prepare researchers in the same fashion. I believe this lack of common standards and norms seriously weakens our field. Because we do not have a common body of knowledge and skill, the field of education does not have widely shared criteria to distinguish good from bad teaching or good from bad research. Even though some editorial boards can enunciate the criteria they use to evaluate manuscript submissions, and even though various subfields share general, if tacit, agreement about the ingredients of good work, across the entire field of education there is a lack of agreement on what makes a question significant or how one should assess matters of rigor and reliability.

Because we have a cacophony of theories and methods, we cannot produce authoritative, warranted knowledge for policymakers and practitioners.

The current situation in education leaves us too much like the U.S. Supreme Court when its members held that, while one could not define pornography, one would know it when one saw it. Because we lack common standards and norms, we cannot truly certify the competence of the members of our profession. Because we have a cacophony of theories and methods, we cannot produce authoritative, warranted knowledge for policymakers and practitioners. Without common standards and norms, we cannot be a strong profession.

In addition to needing to identify characteristic ways of thinking and acting and develop common standards and norms, we must create a special, common language. Critics of education joke about what they see as the excessive jargon in education—"edu-speak” or “educationese.” And I fear that we do sometimes make up complex terms for phenomena that could be described in a more parsimonious fashion. That notwithstanding, I also believe we need a meaningful vocabulary that all would-be educators would master regardless of their subsequently developed specialized roles. This would facilitate communication across areas of specialization. It would provide a shorthand that would only be available to members of the professional community in education. As many people have argued, there is a critical relationship between those who can communicate with one another and those who belong to the same community. Significantly, too, a common professional language would serve to flag those phenomena that are universal and central to the practice of education.

There is a fourth and final element that I think should be a necessary ingredient of a strong profession, and that is professional ethics. I would emphasize that I just said “should” because from a descriptive, historical, or sociological perspective, there may be lots of talk about ethics, but, in truth, it is not ethics that enable strong professions to certify the competence of members of their guild or influence policy and practice in their particular domain. It is power—the power to act on a particular kind of problem in ways that will produce more desirable outcomes than can be produced by someone without this profession’s special expertise. Admitting, then, that this fourth ingredient is prescriptive—and definitely not in evidence in some other strong professions—I nevertheless think ethics are crucial.

Education is a profession that deals with human beings. Educators are people to whom we entrust our children or our selves. Educators are people to whom we entrust our chances in life. Because of the trust placed in them, educators must be trustworthy. They must be honest and not rig test scores. They must develop criteria for when blind trials and other forms of experimentation are and are not appropriate. They must be frank with one another, and with the public at large, about the evidence on which they place their claims and their practices.

If education is to become a strong profession, developing a body of ethics for the profession of education must accompany the development of standards and norms. Ethics must also be built into the special, common language of education. Ethics must be inherent in the characteristic ways of thinking and acting that are distinctive to educators.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is the dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass. This essay is adapted from her speech last year at the conference “Images of Teaching for the 21st Century,” in honor of University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Philip W. Jackson. A full text of the speech will appear in the conference proceedings, to be published next year. Read excerpts of her talk, posted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education News.

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