I have a longstanding interest in how teachers create meaning from the things that they teach. Indeed, this question was right at the heart of two papers I had published a couple of years ago, one in the British Educational Research Journal and one in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. In both I sought to demonstrate how a subject discipline, when interpreted for the purposes of teaching, creates a set of curricular hypotheses that teachers, as curriculum designers, must then unpack and attempt to answer, a process which creates a corpus of shared professional knowledge where teachers, sometimes in quite different contexts, can launch into complex curricular discussions.
Where teachers are teaching the same thing – or closely related things – then this conversation is easy to sustain. When history teachers talk of ‘evidence’, ‘enquiry questions’ or ‘the Whig Interpretation’, they all have a fairly good idea what each other means. The problem emerges when teachers want to enter into discussions about teaching at more general level. This is a very common situation: the design of our institutions (i.e. schools) encourage a more general conversation about teaching, and many of our supporting practices – leadership, inspection, research – lean heavily towards the general. The problem here is that one of the most powerful providers of shared meaning – that is, the thing being taught – is lost.
One natural response to this problem is to create new concepts, and thus shared meanings, that might compensate for the loss of the object. These will be all too familiar to teachers, and might include pedagogical concepts such as ‘assessment for learning’, ‘explicit teaching’, ‘inquiry’ or ‘differentiation’, or curricular distinctions such as ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’ and ‘understanding’. The idea, I think, is that, armed with a set of general educational concepts, we can enter into meaningful discussions about teaching that do not need to make reference to the thing being taught.
The issue, though, is that this is a very difficult thing to do. Devoid of the context of the thing being taught, these terms become ephemeral. What one teacher means by ‘explicit teaching’ or ‘understanding’ might well differ significantly from another. Leadership decisions, inspection criteria or government announcement might well fail to connect with what teachings think and do when the same words are used to mean (possibly subtly) different things. We might have the illusion of shared meaning, but this is just as likely to be a mirage, with (at best) talking cross-purposes at (at worst) an accusation of lack of understanding or intellectual capacity.
One answer here is to resort to philosophy, the very discipline that is designed to cope with complex issues of meaning. I have a great deal of time for this, and it is one of the reasons I am a fan of writers such as RS Peters, who recognised that concepts are used loosely in education, with the result of confusion over meaning. In a recent blog post, I provided a précis of two articles on ‘critical thinking’ that I think do a great deal to strip away the various confusions over the use of the term, although, in the 20 years since it was written, I do not think it had much effect on how teachers use the term. I would be cautious about concluding that ‘this would all be solved if we had more philosophy in teacher education’, as that year is already pretty full. I do however think that we would all benefit from more conceptual analysis entering into our general conversations, and this is something I have tried at times to do on this blog.
In the final analysis, however, we might just have to accept that there are fundamental limitations to how much shared meaning we can create. This will be difficult for those who have built careers on talking in a general sense about education to stomach. It will be difficult, too, for school leaders, school inspectors and educational researchers, all of whom find it convenient to treat teaching as a generic phenomenon. I do not wish to take this conclusion to an extreme: I do, however, think we could all benefit from questioning just how far it is even possible to create shared professional meaning about teaching in a general sense.