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Speaking of Teaching: Lessons from History

reviewed by Richard Pring - June 12, 2009

coverTitle: Speaking of Teaching: Lessons from History
Author(s): Gabriel Moran
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0739128396, Pages: 192, Year: 2008
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Gabriel Moran begins his book with what appears to be two very strange questions: “Why is there almost no discussion of the activity of teaching in works of philosophy and education?” and “Why does the topic of teaching seem to be avoided?”

I immediately reach for my bookshelf. What of Scheffler in The Language of Education, Peters in Ethics and Education and elsewhere, Hirst in Knowledge and the Curriculum – and many more besides in recent philosophy of education? To be sure, they do ask: What does it mean to teach?

Indeed, there is a well-rehearsed answer to those who (in the ever decreasing courses in the philosophy of education) ask these questions. It goes roughly along these lines. The first step, invoking the authority of Ryle, is to distinguish teaching as a “task word” from teaching as an “achievement word.” Thus, to say that someone is teaching (task word) is to describe a particular sort of activity – namely, that of someone trying to get another person to learn something. As an achievement word, it is to claim that someone has successfully learnt that which the teacher was trying to teach. If that intended learner never learns anything as intended (no teaching in the sense of achievement), then one might question whether teaching is an appropriate description of the task. Teaching, therefore, involves (a) someone – the teacher (b) intending (c) someone to learn x (d) by performing an activity which is logically related to learning x, and (e) psychologically within the grasp of the learner. Thus a physics professor giving a lecture on nuclear physics to a group of five year olds may believe he is teaching, but one might refute this description because in no way could the children be expected to understand what is being said.

So what could Moran mean? Why do such traditional expositions not satisfy him?

This book provides an interesting, provocative and highly readable trip through a range of philosophers who have had something very interesting to say about teaching – Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Dewey, Wittgenstein and (in connection with the puzzles over the teaching of morality and religion) Durkheim and Kohlberg. But these are not disconnected accounts of philosophical giants or brief introductions to their philosophies of education. They offer different insights into the ways in which ‘teaching’ has been and could be conceived, given quite different philosophical presuppositions about the nature of knowledge, what is worth learning, the acquisition of language, the development of understanding and the meaning and centrality of experience. In other words, there is something inadequate in an understanding of a concept (and thus of the activities supposedly captured by that concept) where that understanding is supposedly revealed simply by attending to the grammar or dictionary definition of the word. Linguistic analysis is important and does much to get rid of the “mush” which characterizes much educational policy and not a little educational theory. However, as Moran reminds us, with reference to Nietzsche,


any word that has a history cannot be defined. That is, no definition can cover the

historical shifts in the meaning of the term. The result of those shifts is often sharply divergent meanings within a single term. (p. 131)

And the penultimate chapter on Wittgenstein reinforces this message. “Words are like tools in a box. One has to see the tool acting within what [Wittgenstein] calls a form of life”.

The word “teacher,” as with any other word that has a history, is learnt and understood within “a form of life.” The simple definition does not reflect that. And the benefit of Moran’s historical perspective lies in the way in which “teacher in use” reflects deeper questions about different forms of life than can be captured in a bit of linguistic analysis. Currently, in England, teaching is frequently referred to in government documents as “delivering the curriculum” – a curriculum devised elsewhere (not part of the teacher’s job). But that description of teaching has to be understood within a broader linguistic framework of “performance indicators” and “audits,” “inputs” related to “outputs,” “target-setting” and “efficiency gains.” Schools are increasingly run by “Chief Executives” working through “line managers” with teachers being the operatives, “delivering” the goods to the “consumers” according to agreed “targets.’” Teaching therefore comes to be understood in the light of a particular form of life, affecting profoundly the role, training and continuing professional development of teachers.

Moran’s exploration of “teaching” through the broader educational philosophy of distinguished thinkers of the past shows how the concept partakes in a wider understanding of what it means to be human, of how access to a culture shapes that humanity, of what is worth learning, and of who the agents of that learning might be. The insights gained from these thinkers challenge the impoverished understandings of “teaching” and “teachers” that increasingly prevail  - for example, the identification of “teaching” with what the paid teacher does, thereby dismissing the teaching-learning of early childhood or the ways in which children acquire social practices from the examples, corrections, demonstrations, etc. of their parents and home communities. Failure here results in a separation of schooling from the teaching-learning experiences on which successful schooling needs to build. And it leads to a reduction of “teaching” to “transmission of knowledge” – itself often little more than facts and formulae – rather than to the transforming of practical understanding, social capability and significant experiences already gained.

To understand teaching within the broader ethical and social context in which we come to use the word provides the basis for challenging current practice – as did such “radical reformers” as Ivan Illich, Carl Rogers and John Dewey. Moran deals only in passing with Illich and Rogers, but his chapter on Dewey (in its lucid exposition of that philosopher’s convoluted prose) points to the consequences for our understanding of teaching where continuity of experience (between the teaching community of home and village and that of formal schooling) gets broken. Teaching for Dewey lies in the many influences – some consciously undertaken – through which experience is transformed. That is achieved through yet further experiences, through failure of expectations, through critical reflection and so on. So understood, the educational journey is helped by the “teacher” (the parent correcting, the community initiating into social practices, and the professional teacher introducing at appropriate moments those aspects of the inherited “wisdom of the race”) which may help transform those experiences. But teaching so conceived did not endear Dewey to his many detractors – then or now – who saw teaching as essentially a matter of “transmitting knowledge” on the assumption that what leaves the mouth of the teacher will enter unscathed the ear and thus the brain of the learner. Indeed, when appointed as the first professor of Educational Studies at the University of Oxford twenty years ago, I was seated at dinner next to Lord Keith Joseph, the once formidable Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Having ascertained that my name was Pring, he accused me of causing all the problems in our schools – because I had introduced teachers to John Dewey. A conversation followed, lasting many months, in which I explained “why Dewey was so misunderstood” – Moran’s chapter title.

Each philosopher in this account has his own conception of teaching, arising from his or her understanding of what it means to learn, of what is worth learning and of the logical characterization of that which is to be learnt. And therefore any conception of teaching reflects, usually unthinkingly and uncritically, underlying philosophical questions in the philosophy of mind, in ethics and in epistemology. The importance of seeing teaching through the eyes of these philosophers makes one aware of this, and challenges the often “taken-for-granted” assumptions about teaching and the teacher’s role within society.

The Socratic method of Socrates, the emphasis on rational knowledge and the creation of a guardian class (Coleridge’s “clerisy”) of Plato, the inward journey exemplified in the teacher’s life in St. Augustine, the natural development (from seed to fully grown plant) in Rousseau – all embody different understandings of human nature and learning. Metaphors abound in the changing understanding of teaching – midwife, physician, gardener, facilitator and conversationist (what a pity Oakeshott got so brief a mention). But there is no freedom from metaphor as we come to understand teaching as part of a social form of life which itself embodies deeper understandings of being a person and of the relationship of personhood to an inherited tradition and the wider community.

This is an important book. It should be central to courses in the initial training and professional development of teachers. But, sad to say, that is not likely to happen because the prevailing understanding of teaching, which underpins training and professional development, participates in a form of life – a particular set of metaphors – which has no room for philosophical thinking.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 12, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15654, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 1:04:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Pring
    University of Oxford
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD PRING is presently directing the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training for England and Wales. He was previously Professor of Educational Studies, University of Oxford, and Director of the Department 1989-2003. His most recent book is John Dewey: Philosopher of education for the 21st century?, London: Continuum.
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