by: Jorge Mahecha
I want to address the issue of standards in teaching as a profession from the perspective of two concepts that are superficially similar but very different at their core: professionalization and professionalism. Speaking of professionalization involves doing so from the study sociology has carried out on the characteristics of occupations as social order structures. In teaching, the path of professionalization involves acquiring the characteristics of high-status occupations, which include certifications and accreditations and the existence of professional associations. All these, I believe, together with the use of scientific knowledge which is a subject that I will talk a bit about in this entry, are the pillars of better established professions. In my previous entry, I stated how I believe school teaching incipiently displays one of the first three characteristics. On this occasion, in the spirit of beginning to propose ways of professionalization, I would like to discuss some aspects that are primarily related to professionalization and to professionalism, somehow.
To answer what it means for an educator to behave professionally in the classroom involves exploring what is it that a professional educator do the way only he or she can do it, which is or should be his or her specialty? I think it is the work of designing and implementing learning experiences. Not a class. Not a talk. A complete teaching unit, a sequence of lessons, an experience that is intentionally directed to learning something. Not simply a class: one class can be well-executed by anyone. Or poorly-executed… it is part of life! There are people who believe that because they explain things with eloquence they can be good educators. No. Its charm is to design a whole process that can last for months or years. A process that has ups and downs, that can face and will face unforeseen situations and resilient individuals. In this sense, an educator has to be skillful like nobody else.
To design a learning experience it is necessary to define significant educational objectives, design an assessment to see to what extent these are achieved and simultaneously support their achievement, and then, and only after that, think about what activities you will ask your students to do to achieve these goals. For me, this particular order of doing things is the only way to guarantee evaluations are always relevant and serve learning. Otherwise, it is common for assessments to deviate from what happens in class and then usual surprises arise: “But if they told me they had understood, then what happened? Why did they do so bad?” A professional educator will never believe his or her students understood something only because they say so. He or she continuously verifies it with evaluations. He or she analyzes the results, discovers what they understood and what they did not. A professional educator does not include “thinking tasks” for the first time in an assessment or ambush his or her students with over-elaborated and tricky assessments: he or she is a facilitator of learning, not a saboteur of the school experience.
A professional educator knows that designing questions is not easy, particularly multiple-choice questions with one correct answer which are so easy to do… wrong. A professional educator does not realize that reagents were outdated at the laboratory, at the same time with his or her students do, and that therefore the experiment will not work. A professional educator does not ask for an essay and then explains the rating criteria when students complain about inconsistencies in the grading. A professional educator does not have students who get good grades but “did not really learn”, because he or she does not give away grades; he or she takes them seriously. A professional educator knows how to improvise, but does not only do it. A professional educator plans ahead and is not naive to think his or her plans will literally occur; he or she knows they are a framework.
In the paradigmatic professions I mentioned earlier, the use and the role of scientific knowledge in the discipline is particularly important and obvious. These professions derive their selectivity and strictness to access a certification and professional association from the use of scientific knowledge in medicine or engineering. In teaching, educational objectives of great scope should be defined with broad sociological, not exclusively economic or academic, criteria. Evaluations should be consistent with the foregoing, technically designed to measure and support learning. Classroom activities should be designed with some support on the literature on how learning develops and on informed thinking on good practices, not on the occasional invention of an inspired professor or on a recreational exaggerated obsession.
Professionalism is an attitude toward work. Behaving with professionalism is important. Arriving on time, being enthusiastic and committed, fulfilling tasks. The minimum trait expected from a professional educator is for him or her to act with professionalism or in a professional way. As important as it is, however, professionalizing education is not enough. The problem is that in many cases, these minimums traits in school teaching are lost, and finding them again is considered a plus. A pedagogic discourse focused on professionalism is inadequate: it involves good intentions, without technical criterion. Good intentions without technical criterion are not acceptable in high-status professions: if they were in teaching, then teaching is a low status profession. The importance of quality research in education lies here and in the sciences that are relevant to it. Consequently, the importance of more technical approaches also lies in education. It is difficult to find good theory and easier to find motivational approaches rather superfluous.
Despite the fact that there is a large amount of research on cognition, development of literacy and mathematic skills, critical thinking development and even on moral development, the use of these research advances by teachers in the classroom is scarce, even for the most successful. In many cases classes design is driven by intuition of what may be right, what can work, or what can be motivating. In worse scenarios, classes are simply improvised, and even worse, by some postmodern excuse: nothing can be expected, reality is so complex, each child is a universe, also different from other universes, etc. This does nothing to help children achieve better learning. By making use of this ability we all have to read people and our environment, children very quickly realize when a class is improvised or when teaching has become a meaningless ritual in which they can selflessly participate by doing just enough not to have problems at home or at school.
When I think about the future that I would like for the teaching profession, the one I like best is something related to engineering. Where teachers are engineers who design learning experiences by using a multitude of tools from several disciplines: linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, the very nature of disciplinary knowledge in mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences. It is a community that has learned to systematize and recognize the professional work of its practitioners. This requires the joint work of the academy and of practitioners to continuously nurture and demand the generation of educational knowledge which is relevant to educational reality.
More readings on the topic:
- From Howard Gardner: To improve U.S. education, it’s time to treat teachers as professionals
- Ingersoll, Merrill, 2011. The status of teaching as a profession (Full Chapter available on PDF from the online repository of Penn Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania)