Is it harder than ever to be a teacher?

19 March 2010

There’s a crisis of identity at the heart of the teaching profession. We don’t know exactly who we are or what our roles should entail. Are we the founts of all knowledge who pour it like milk into the empty vessels of our pupils? Or are we merely facilitators of learning, guiding our pupils through the learning process? Or are we merely the victims of forces totally out of our control, constantly negotiating power struggles in our complex post-modern world?

I spoke at SCETT, the Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers, about this matter, talking about these matters, confessing to the difficulties in my own classrooms, dealing with pupils with short attention spans, and tackling them by posting audio files on the internet for them to listen to in their own time. The audio files can be rewound, paused, and listened to again, unlike  a lecture in the classroom. They’ve worked well for a number of my pupils. I suggested that there are two main models for teaching — the Enlightenment model and the Romantic/post-Romantic model — which have become fatally confused in our modern age, leading to the emergence of the post-modern teacher who doesn’t know where he is — teachers like me!


‘Enlightenment model of a teacher’


‘Romantic/post-romantic model of a teacher’


‘The post-modern model of a teacher’


Set body of knowledge to impart: a hierarchy of knowledge, sciences at the top, mathematics, logic,


Knowledge acquired through nature, through the study of nature, by imaginatively combining facts and opinions


No set body of knowledge: no hierarchy, all knowledge is equal, blurred genres


Behaviouralist model of learning: imitation, positive and negative re-inforcement, repetition


Active learning model: pupils learning  by doing, problem solving

John Dewey, Paulo Friere


No model is favoured; pragmatism; nihilism;

Teachers; deliverers of knowledge; authority figures; educare – leading to; lecturers Pedagogues – nurturers of learning; facilitators of learning; rebels; liberators; important personalities Contributors to cultural debate; powerless; using internet; audio guides; removing themselves from equation
Discipline; deference; respect Communal values/student voice; respect is earned Negotiating power struggles; valuing what is of use within the context; contextual awareness
Immutable laws; eternal truths; learning objectives; Solving problems; valuing epiphanies; developing empathy; compare and contrast; only connect! No set curricula; blurring of genres, of subject disciplines; negotiators or fractured, disjointed discourses
Authority Shared rules; fighting against oppression Exploration of power relations; searching for hidden meanings
Unified self, mind/body dualism Creative selves; binary selves; master-slave dialectic Multiple fractured selves; emotional states; gay, feminist, lesbian, transsexual identities
Newton/Locke/Kant Rousseau/Hegel/Dewey/Montessori Einstein/James Joyce/Derrida/Foucault/ Judith Butler/Norman Denzin
Elitism/colonialism Democracy/Multiculturalism Plurality/Endless power struggles/Competing discourses/post-colonialism


  1. I can’t help thinking that these categories are based more on literary theory rather than philosophy. Rousseau’s literature may be considered to be part of Romanticism, but his philosophy was pure enlightenment thinking, as, in his own way, was Dewey’s. A lot of what you list in the enlightenment column could be regarded as pre-enlightenment thought, particularly the views on authority. I’m also not sure about the whole category of the postmodern teacher. In my experience teachers who appeal to post-modernism are just as likely to appeal to romanticism – simply as a critique of authority rather than a constructive view in itself.

    from oldandrew
  2. Your points are taken. I acknowledge that they are rather contentious labels, but what I was after was more the general approach than worrying too much about labels. So for me, enlightenment= positivist in approach, romantic = child-centred, post-modern=a pragmatic, relativistic approach which cherrypicks whatever is to hand…If you could think of better labels for these categories that would be great. I will think too!

    from francisgilbert
  3. You are all correct. If we cherry pick as a philosophy, rather than in support of a philosophy (or pragmatic goal), then how can we determine the criteria for cherry picking?

    from Martin

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