Are teacher educators the ‘ragged-trousered philanthropists’ of the academy?

In their 2015 book ‘Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work’, Viv Ellis and Jane McNicholl describe a process of ‘proletarianisation’ in which the exchange value of teacher educators’ labours (their academic capital) has declined over time. This, they say, is limiting the potential to contribute new ideas and innovations to schools and the wider education system through work which is recognisably academic. It is the emphasis on relationship maintenance (with schools, students and agencies) they argue that results in academics’ face-to-face work with school colleagues becoming an ‘expensive luxury’, and the shift to school-based mentor as the key player in the professional development of teachers new to the profession. Interestingly, their analysis of adverts for teacher educator roles finds relatively few references to specialist terms such as curriculum and pedagogy, and little mention of research and being research active. This raises questions for me about the kinds of professional knowledge teacher educators are expected to have, the extent to which this knowledge is ‘academic’, and whether the system is potentially developing hybrid or semi-academics.

Thinking about how teachers develop the craft and science of what they do brings to mind Pierre Bourdieu’s striking observation that the young mathematics graduate carries centuries of mathematics in her head. I wonder to what extent a mathematics teacher holds a body of knowledge about the pedagogy of teaching mathematics and how this knowledge was developed and passed on? Here the question of whether teaching is a craft or a science is played out as a struggle for resources as well as minds and hearts. Ken Robinson’s point in his TED talk that ‘teaching is more like gardening than engineering’ is persuasive rhetoric in pointing out what we are getting wrong, while the, increasingly influential, systematic approaches to teaching, such as Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champion, get a mixed reception (see the comments on this article for example). What we do know is that pedagogy is a matter of professional decision-making that is informed by knowledge and curriculum structures in which teachers have a level of autonomy. Here Ellis and McNicholl’s argument that there is a relative lack of emphasis on subject and pedagogical knowledge in teacher educators’ duties is significant and might also beg Brian Simon’s (1981) question ‘Why no pedagogy in England?’, an historical perspective on the development of pedagogical science and the demise of pedagogy in England in the last century (see also Hamilton’s (1999) ‘The pedagogic paradox (or why no didactics in England).

Returning to the theme of the proletarianised teacher educator I am reminded of Tressel’s book ‘The Ragged-trousered Philanthropists’ written a hundred years ago, and set mostly in a large old house (the ‘cave’), in which painter and decorator Owen, explains to his workmates the concept of the ‘surplus value’ that is generated by their labour. His efforts are frustrated by the inability and reluctance of his colleagues to comprehend or even contemplate an alternative system to the one in which they have become habituated. Professor David James reminded us of this in his recent seminar on Pierre Bourdieu in our Rethinking Theory series here at SHU – that it is the unquestioned acceptance of what constitutes normal, natural, and necessary, (its misrecognition), that maintains the status quo,  further sustained by hard-worked academics whose only fallback position is optimism for what they can achieve. Perhaps we should be more concerned about how far this optimism, alone, can take us?

Dr. Richard Pountney is a principal lecturer and leads curriculum development and technology enhanced learning in the Teacher Education Department in the Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. His current research is in quality of teaching in project-based learning in secondary education.