What does it mean to be a teacher? In trying to define education and taking into account the previous two posts to this, the concept of teacher needs some thought. At a basic level a teacher might be defined as someone who teaches. But in turn, what does it mean to teach?
A simple definition from Merriam-Webster is:
This suggests that teaching as a process is not only carried out by qualified individuals in formal education, but by most people given the right context. This means that children might teach children, adults can teach children and children can teach adults. The reasons for teaching and the form of teaching may also take many forms as the aims, processes and ongoing results of teaching may all be different.
Therefore, we might say that most people have a natural capacity to teach, to explain things to each other, to demonstrate something or to help someone become more expert at a given process. In this sense, most people, at a very simple level, might be thought of as teachers. However, are most people the same as those teachers who work in formal settings like schools.
We can think of teaching as being a collection of processes within a spectrum. Most people teach in informal settings, often helping only a single other person, sometimes as part of a group. The settings also tend to be focused on a specific skill or area of knowledge. This might be a child teaching another child how to overcome a problem in a video game, or an adult showing and then observing another individual as they hang wallpaper for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum are teachers in formal educational settings.
Professional teachers tend to operate in a very different context, one where they have to teach larger groups of individuals at the same time; they need to develop and/or follow a set curriculum; most often they have to assess learning in some way. Due to these facets of formal teaching, the processes involved are more complex and interconnected than in informal settings, and hence a greater level of understanding and expertise is needed relating to the action of teaching. Therefore, qualified teachers are separated from others who teach in that they take an explicit interest in how to teach, and how to relate teaching to other processes such as learning, curriculum development, child development, assessment approaches, etc. The process of teaching is also at the core of their activity, and often becomes part of their identity as professionals.
We often see teaching as a defined set of processes taking place in formal educational contexts. In thinking about how we characterise and define education, we have to see teaching as a holistic set of processes which occur in many different contexts, and which focus on many different foci for learning. However, we also have to differentiate between qualified teachers and informal teachers based on the degree to which they engage with conscious development and increasing expertise as teachers, particularly when working with learners in formal educational contexts.
In part 1 of this thread I sketched out the idea that when we try to say what education is, one way of considering this is the context involved, leading to a brief consideration of formal, non-formal and informal education. As suggested, framing education in these ways leads to further questions.
1. If we only include formal education, what are the processes which occur outside of this narrow sphere?
If we only equate education with formal education, we are narrowing our view of what education is. In essence, it becomes synonymous with schooling, FE/apprenticeships and higher education. This leads to education as a formal structure which is driven by certification, and which on the whole leads to traditional processes involving a teacher and a learner. In most cases, the teacher has some form of expertise in the area being taught, and the learner is assumed to know less than the teacher and is to have knowledge and skills transferred from the teacher to them. This is a gross simplification of the spectrum of activities and approaches taken in formal education settings, but as a basic outline it gives an essential idea of what is involved.
However, is it sustainable to define the complete spectrum of education in this way? We might argue that education encompasses all those processes which involve learning in some way, be it formal or not. In addition, if we take a very wide view of education, and see it as the process by which people develop their understanding of the world and how to act within it, then suggesting education is merely formal is far too restrictive.
2. If we include these wider processes what implications are there for the processes and position of formal education in relation to this more holistic context?
Perhaps one way of understanding what we believe education to be is to reflect on a core process. Education can only take place if it involves learning of some kind. It is learning which will bring individual change and a change in the way we act in and on the world. It has to be stressed that this is not to diminish the importance of teaching, but perhaps we need an equally broad way of defining this as a process.
If we begin by thinking about learning, it is useful to give a basic idea of what the dimensions of learning are. Illeris (2003) offers a model of learning, involving three dimensions.
I see this as a central diagram in education, and it will no doubt crop up again in future posts. Illeris is arguing that learning has three dimensions. Within the individual there are two dimensions, the cognitive and the emotional. These are crucial for an individual to learn as firstly they need to be cognitively ready to learn, for example in terms of attention, and in terms of how the new knowledge they are engaging with fits with what they already know (e.g. schema theory) to name just two elements. Emotion is also crucial. If an individual is anxious, or tired, they might not be emotionally receptive, but it they are relaxed, motivated and challenged at the right level, they will engage far more easily. The interplay of these two dimensions leads to the process of acquisition and is the core of the learning process. However, it is incomplete without a social dimension as the interaction of the individual with others, with artefacts etc is a crucial element of learning; learning always takes place in a context and in the vast majority of cases learning is something that is done with the aid of others. Even if I am sitting at home in a comfy chair and reading a book, I am interacting with another person, it is just happening asynchronously.
If we accept this model of dimensions of learning and see this as the core of the notion of education, then formal education as the limit of the process is seemingly far too restrictive. We can learn through these dimensions in many contexts outside that of formal educative structures. As suggested in part 1 what-is-education-part-1.html, learning can take place in families and communities, through dialogue, through copying what others do and learning from them, e.g. learning how to help put up a fence.
Therefore, when we try to define what education is, we need to ensure that we allow for a wide range of contexts, well beyond the formal education system, as learning can occur in a wide spectrum of environments and can be supported by others in many different ways. This then suggests that in trying to define education, the nature of the ‘teacher’ becomes equally diverse.
And it is a reflection on the teacher that I’ll consider in my next post.
Illeris, K. (2003) Workplace Learning and Learning Theory Journal of workplace Learning 15:4. (link)
In beginning to think about the characteristics of a well-conceived education system, one which may require change to the current system, we first need to begin by reflecting on what education is. This is important as experience suggests that education is a concept which is used to mean different things by different people. An example of this is the relatively frequent argument made by some teachers on twitter that ‘educational research is often a waste of time’ because it doesn’t focus on the concerns of teachers and their practice in the classroom. This demonstrates a particular positioning of both research, and for the purposes of this current reflection, education itself. It suggests that for some, education is synonymous with schooling. In some ways this might not be particularly surprising; successive English education secretaries have decimated wider notions of education, and have focused solely on schools, colleges and universities. This might be due to the purposes successive secretaries of state have assigned to education. Under New Labour the purpose of education became handmaiden to economic growth; under subsequent Conservative administrations, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb (the real power behind the department once Gove had left) both saw education as a generator of social conservatism and traditionalism. In both cases, such aims could only be realised through certain channels within education, hence the defunding of a wider spectrum of activities, such as community education. Over an extended period, politicians successfully narrowed the national perception of education to cover only formal education (i.e. structured, systematic education which is formalised by the state and which covers the core elements of education which take individuals through their learning from perhaps 3 or 4 years old, to graduation or completion of training through apprenticeships).
However, this is a very narrow description of education. An alternative is to see education as encompassing a range of activities and processes which stretch from the cradle to the grave; it sees education as a tangle of processes through which we learn in a wide range of contexts. An example of this might be community-led learning through informal projects such as allotment societies or groups who teach each other how to repair and upcycle old furniture. Here, those taking part are doing so because they have a keen interest and motivation to learn a particular skill, or develop an area of understanding and expertise beyond the core process of schooling and FE/HE. Where learning activities are provided to help people grow beyond the formalised structure of schooling/FE/HE it is described as non-formal education.
Beyond both formal and non-formal education occurs the ongoing emersion we experience through being part of a family, a community and a society. In the contact we have with other people, and even other species, we learn from conversations, dialogues and experiences which all add to our learning. This might include the insights a child gains from listening to the life experiences of a grandparent, or the way in which a child shows their grandparent how to use an app on their mobile phone. In these cases, learning is spontaneous and is not focused on but is the by-product of interaction and experience.
These different ways of defining the contexts and processes of learning are important in aiding us to begin to think about how widely or narrowly we wish to define education as a concept. If we wish to keep it narrow, and only include formal education, what are the processes which occur outside of this narrow sphere? If we include these wider processes what implications are there for the processes and position of formal education in relation to this more holistic context? I’ll reflect on these questions in my next post.
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education