Teaching: a very natural act?

In 1971 the philosopher of education Paul Hirst published a paper titled “What is teaching?” in which he set out, in the style of RS Peters, to conduct an analysis of the concept ‘teaching’. He began by raising a concern about the confusion being sown in discussions of teaching in words that, despite being written nearly half a century ago, resonate clearly today.

Repeatedly one finds an almost exclusive emphasis on certain activities of the pupils, say those of enquiry, discovery and play, not on the activities of the teacher. In the discussion of such methods it seems to me there is much misunderstanding of what teaching is and therefore of what it involves, and this not infrequently leads to a very distorted view of the whole educational situation.

Hirst’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety, not least because it shines a powerful and critical light on a number of current debates in teaching. To summarise, however, he argued that teaching cannot be defined as any particular set of activities, but must rather be understood as any act done by Person A with the intention of bringing Person B to learn X.  He adds further caveats to this, principally that the act being done by Person A needs to be in some way indicative of X (the thing being learnt) and that the act must make X accessible to Person B (so reading Wittgenstein to six-year-olds would not constitute teaching, as the pupils have no hope of accessing it). I want in this post to take Hirst’s analysis and to run with it in a direction that I have found most helpful in understanding some of the big questions in teaching today.

Many of the drives in recent years towards creating something called ‘pedagogy’ have made teaching a complex task requiring many years to master. For reasons I shall reach towards the end of this post, I do think it takes years to master teaching, but not because teaching is itself a particularly complex thing. I should be clear here that I am not equating ‘simple’ with ‘easy’: there are, after all, many simple things that are difficult (such as running or climbing a hill). I would nevertheless argue that, although teaching is difficult, it is not complex. To the contrary, teaching is a deeply natural act in the sense that we as humans have evolved to teach one another: indeed, one has only to watch lions teach their cubs how to kill prey to realise that we are not even the only species who teach each other. Humans have been teaching one another for as long as humans have been around. Children quite naturally teach one another (the rules to a game, the words to a rhyme) and they do not need any particular training to do this. In this sense humans are teachers by nature: without much prompting, we teach one another.

And what does this natural propensity entail? In short, it is communication from one who knows to one who does not. I use ‘know’ here in the broadest sense, incorporating all sorts of ‘know-that’ and ‘know-how’. I today gave directions to two strangers who wanted to find the Premier Inn in Cambridge: I was teaching them how to get there. If I tell my wife about my day at work, I am teaching her about it. In writing this blog I am teaching you about the ideas I have. In all of these cases I know something – the way to the Premier Inn, what happened at work, the ideas I have – and I communicate this to someone who does not know these things (respectively the strangers, my wife, and you).

It should be noted, too, that in all of these cases I had to ascertain what the person I am teaching already knows. “Did you see the Catholic Church at the crossroads?” “You know the headteacher?” Even in this most one-sided form of teaching – writing – I am making certain assumptions about what you my reader might already know, and giving more gloss where I think it might be necessary: I can’t be sure you have read Hirst’s 1971 article, and so I tried to summarise it succinctly for you. Communication does require that we we make some attempt to establish what the people with whom we are communicating already know, and again if you listen to a conversation between two people you will notice this happening quite naturally. Where this is not happening (see, for example, ‘mansplaining’) it is simply a case of poor communication.

All of this indicates to me that teaching is, quite simply, a matter of communicating something I know to someone who does not. Adopting this parsimonious conception of teaching helps us make sense of some practices used in classrooms without getting tied up in empirical questions about ‘what works’. Teacher talk is in many ways a very pure for of teaching, for it strips everything back to the fundamental essence of one who knows something communicating this to someone who does not. So-called ‘structured inquiry’ might still constitute a form of teaching, where the teacher has selected the sources from which the students might learn, but it is a very indirect form of teaching. Pure ‘discovery learning’ cannot really be called teaching at all or, more specifically, it involves the purported teacher abdicating the teaching role in favour of whatever book, article or video clip is going to end up doing the actual teaching. In a classic ‘snowball’ group exercise, pupils themselves become teachers, although it is not clear whether they understand properly what is to be taught.

And this, finally, leads me to explain why, despite being natural, teaching is not easy. There are of course some practical issues (particularly concerning teaching a large group of people) that make school teaching difficult. But the actual act of teaching does not become more complex: it is rather what we teach that is complicated. Children can teach each other – perhaps even large groups of other children – the rules of a game, as most games are actually not that complicated. But maths is complicated. History is complicated. Playing guitar is complicated. Driving a car is complicated. None of these things are natural: to the contrary, all are recent inventions in the greater scheme of things. Grasping the content and structure of these practices in such a way that you can explain it clearly to someone who knows less takes a great deal of time to learn. Working out the lynchpin ideas, finding the powerful examples, knowing how one concept rests on knowledge of another: these are the things that require a great deal of thought and consideration. Spotting common misconceptions, on this argument, is most properly understood as a component of your subject knowledge: some misconception are very subtle, but we come to spot these by reflecting on the nature of what we are teaching.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that the curriculum is what teachers should spend most of their time thinking about, rather than the methods one is going to use to teach that curriculum. You can of course come up with more complex methods, but this is not necessary in order to teach. Instead, I would encourage history teachers to spend their initial training and professional development focusing primarily on what they are planning to teach. There is, of course, much to be said for learning about the people we are teaching, particularly in terms of the learning process. But, if Hirst is right, and teaching can be understood Person A acting with the intention of bringing Person B to learn Subject X, then it makes sense to spend time thinking hard about Person B (what they know and how they learn) and Subject X (what is to be taught): spending large amounts of time making the activity itself more complex is probably not worth the investment.

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5 Comments on Teaching: a very natural act?

  1. Tom Burkard // 21 February 2017 at 23:01 // Reply

    Excellent post!

    The notion that teachers needed formal training in order to teach is relatively recent–it first emerged in the middle of the 19th century, and didn’t become the norm until the 20th century. In 1858, the Massachusetts board of education, which introduced the first ‘Normal Schools’, conceded that

    “For nearly two hundred years our system of free schools was sustained directly by the people, without special care or direct aid from the government…there was little completeness of detail, yet the results were worthy of all praise.”

    When I consider all those who have taught me in any capacity–parents, teachers, friends, employers, various corporals and sergeants, lecturers and professors– it’s safe to say that their means of imparting their knowledge was as varied as the things that they taught me.

    Ironically, substantial sums of public monies are devoted to teaching trainee teachers not to teach.

  2. Fascinatedone // 23 February 2017 at 11:00 // Reply

    “It should be noted, too, that in all of these cases I had to ascertain what the person I am teaching already knows. “

    To quote Louis Armstrong…..
    “it ain’t necessarily so”

    “Where this is not happening (see, for example, ‘mansplaining’) it is simply a case of poor communication.”

    To quote Louis Armstrong again…..
    “it ain’t necessarily so”

    “None of these things are natural: to the contrary, all are recent inventions in the greater scheme of things. Grasping the content and structure of these practices in such a way that you can explain it clearly to someone who knows less takes a great deal of time to learn. ”

    I thought neo trads were of the view that there is nothing new, just the same old same old. Soon you will be telling me that just as driving a car and playing a guitar are new inventions, there are some 21st century skills that are “new inventions” using the examples you have given.

    You have tried to simplfy the process to define it as “natural”. Clearly before language evolved it would have been difficult to “teach” complex ideas but luckily there were few if any complex ideas so it wasn’t an issue.

    It is always fascinating to read the thoughts that led someone to where they are and this blog is no exception.

    I am not sure where the issue is here….

    “But, if Hirst is right, and teaching can be understood Person A acting with the intention of bringing Person B to learn Subject X, then it makes sense to spend time thinking hard about Person B (what they know and how they learn) and Subject X (what is to be taught):”

    Of course, that is the definition of teaching that most teachers I have ever come across would use, no need to defer to Hirst.

    The first 95% of your post talks about teaching and then you go and spoil it all (Nancy Sinatra) by mentioning how children learn. For me this issue is exactly that, it is about how children learn. Mostly about general traits but also how individuals differ. For me this is all about putting the child and how he/she learns at the centre of the process. I am a “child centred” teacher. I then do as you suggest, I manipulate the information and present it in ways that will facilitate understanding.

    Hirst’s views expressed in the sources you reference regarding the lack of necessity for learning to take place for good teaching to have occurred is an interesting one which can easily get mired with the quicksand of equivocation.

    What I see are teachers who wish to “teach”, with very little concern for individual learners or the ways in which they learn and then justify this on the grounds that Hirst says that learning isn’t necessary for good teaching.

    We find people who foam at the mouth any time learning styles are mentioned. We find people who start to shake when group work is discussed. We see people who seem to exhibit OCD when any sort of “reduction in teacher talk” is mentioned. I feel (but I am happy to admit this is just my observation and may be complete nonsense) that a number of heavy duty neo trads have a Hirstonian view,…..”I taught well, if the kid didn’t learn then that is their lookout”.

    I see a group of teachers who believe that anyone who believes that teachers should pay too much attention to the needs of the learner is somehow a “progressive”, and the conversation soon degenerates into talk of Rousseau, Dewey, Peal and Christodoulou. The dichotomy debate for me is born out of the neo trad idea that they are teaching well, and Hirst said that was ok.

    This post is for me therefore a bit shaky in it’s assertions and lacks a bit of consistency. Mostly it is just common sense and when the need is felt to defer to a thinker from history to try to justify what is mostly common sense I think the seeds of disharmony are born.

  3. An interesting post, and I agree with your fundamental premise: that we should be spending more time focusing on the ‘what’ which is to be taught. Alongside your example of lions teaching cubs, there are similar examples of the youngest children teaching one another things they have learned.

    That said, we underestimate the complexity of the work of the skilled teacher in fulfilling your definition at our peril. As Ball and Forzani have argued, the acts of a teacher are different from the acts of a normal, competent adult (for example, in probing at moments of uncertainty) and they demand the integration of a wide variety of forms of knowledge. Consider the teacher’s decision on how to respond to a student who asks, in a lesson on Henry VII’s consolidation of power – “Isn’t this similar to Charles I’s Personal Rule?” The teacher must consider the prior knowledge of the individual student and the class, the strengths and weaknesses of the analogy, the thread of the next few lessons and the student’s enthusiasm… and offer a coherent, clarifying response without a long pause to think.

    Teaching a class of students effectively is, I would contend, neither natural nor easy.

    • I think I would simply response to Ball and Forzani and say “a teacher of what?” Your example is quite pertinent in this case, as what is complex is the thing being studied (a comparison of Henry VII and Charles I). My position on this is fairly extreme in that I think (say) a history documentary producer and a history teacher have more in common than a history teacher and a maths teacher.

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