The means are the end


Philosophically, if that does not sound too pretentious, it has been a challenging year for me. Until a few months ago, I derived my sense of purpose from a belief that my work as a teacher changed lives and contributed to social mobility. My thinking went that by teaching poorer children better than someone else might, I would get them better grades. This would lead to them having more opportunities so they would get ‘better’ jobs and move up the social hierarchy. My reading, research and thinking was, as a consequence, predominantly orientated towards how to help my students perform better in examinations. I believed my value as a teacher could be measured by the outcomes of my students and that these were the result of my work; if grades went up I was doing a good job, if they went down I was not.

Such beliefs are not idiosyncratic. Indeed it can feel as if our whole education system is built on them. Schools are held accountable by Ofsted for results and , in turn, Head Teachers hold their teachers accountable for the results of the children they teach. Great teachers, as everyone knows, make a difference and, rightly or wrongly, we use examination results to measure this difference.

I now believe things are not as clear as this. Richard Selfridge’s writing (@Jack_Marwood), among others, has convinced me that I have probably greatly overstated my contribution to the results of my students. Children have enormously complicated, varied lives and their eventual results simply cannot be explained by any one factor. Believing that by teaching three hours of history per week I can override all other influences is egotistical and naïve, especially as this is also based on the belief I must be more effective than talented colleagues who work just as hard.

The dominant drivers of educational success and failure are not teachers or schools. Parental income and education, along with many other factors, have more influence.

Even if teachers and schools could become dominant drivers it is far from certain this would lead to social mobility anyway. As Martin Robinson pointed out in his wise, kind talk at London ResearchED on Growth Mindset, exam grades and social mobility are zero sum games; there are a finite number of top grades, a finite number of places at ‘elite’ universities and a finite number of high-earning, high status jobs. For poorer children to get into these, some richer children have to miss out. Evidence that this is happening any more than it did in the past is scant. So, depressingly, it appears that I had also overstated the link between educational success and upwards social mobility.

Michael Merrick’s thinking on what social mobility actually means has also, in the best possible way, troubled me. This year Michael said explicitly what I had sort of thought (in a half-formed, vague way) for a while but never dared allow myself to explore, let alone voice; when we talk about social mobility we are usually talking about a sort of social engineering. We are, in effect, trying to make poorer children less like their parents and more like ‘us’. I am not certain that this is always wrong in every circumstance, but it does make me very uneasy. If we are to do this we must think carefully and intentionally about whether this is ethical, and at the moment I worry that we haven’t spent nearly enough time doing this.

This line of thinking cast me, for a while, into a sort of mini-existential crisis. If the means do not lead to the ends, what is the point in them? If great classroom teaching does not result in positive social change is there any point in teaching at all? If the means are morally suspect then how can I be sure I am not inadvertently doing harm?

The search for answers to these questions, in effect a search for meaning, turned me towards philosophy. Here I have been helped by Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) whose post on fideism has probably been the blog that has most influenced me this year. I now have a renewed sense of purpose, found in the belief that teaching is a moral duty, regardless of the outcome of it. Instead of teaching history so my students will be rewarded by top marks I should teach it because, in itself, it is right they learn it. While exam results, of course, are important these should not be the only purpose of education because if we make them so, beyond being the low-water mark against which the success of cleverer children is measured, educating those who fail becomes pointless and this would be immoral.

By over-emphasising the result we devalue the process, which should actually be the whole point.

While letting go of our egos means we can no longer reward ourselves for the achievements of the children we teach, it also frees us from the pointless and often paralysing guilt we feel when they do not do as well. Accepting the influence of our roles is limited frees us from an exhausting cycle of self-congratulation and self-flagellation on things over which we have little control because it, quite rightly, subordinates results to our moral obligation to teach as well as we can regardless of apparent success or failure.

To use this as an excuse for fatalism or passivity would be very wrong. Viewing teaching as a moral rather than just a professional duty actually makes it a much more serious, profound responsibility. It makes ignoring research on the most effective ways to teach a moral error rather than just a professional one. It makes giving up on a child because we know they will fail the exam, or because they ‘don’t count’ on P8 figures or because they are unpleasant, actual ethical failures. It means the moral implications of a three year KS4 must be discussed as well as what this will do to results. It means accepting that regardless of how small or large our influence and how successful or unsuccessful we are, our moral obligation remains a constant that cannot be ignored.

With this new sense of responsibility comes a renewed sense of privilege. While teaching has many frustrations, some inevitable and some infuriatingly unnecessary, being engaged in this important work should fill those of us engaged in it with great pride. While we may argue about the best way to do it, or what it is fundamentally for, we agree that is right to educate children in schools. While sometimes we will enjoy it more than others, and we may doubt our ability, or understandably decide the personal sacrifices are too much and leave the profession, we will never reach the end of our working lives and wonder whether the time we spent teaching was wasted on something that did not really matter. In almost every country in the world, schools breathe in children in the morning and breathe them out in the afternoon hoping that between the bells they will have learned to be more.

Being a part of this noble enterprise is a wonderful thing.

So, while it has been a challenging year it has also been one in which I think I have grown. In January I am back in a classroom again and can hardly wait. As always I will be doing my absolute best for each child in front of me but it will not be because I expect to be rewarded if they do well or to avoid punishment if they do not.

It will be because it is the right thing to do.

Happy Christmas everybody. Enjoy the holidays. See you here in the new year.


8 thoughts on “The means are the end

  1. Ursula Diamond says:

    How lucky are those kids you will teach in the new year. I enjoy reading your blogs, really liked this one. Have a lovely Christmas.


  2. It not even the subject. We are part of the influence whilst the kids are ‘growing up’, we model attitudes, values and behaviours. We are all raindrops in the shower of learning at a vital time. We also help with reading, numeracy and developing personal discipline. I have never been valued by my pupils for their results; they knew that was mostly due to them, it was the guidance of how to use their potential and our humanity. Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So refreshing to read this.
    The teachers who have had the most influence on me valued my intrinsic worth more than they valued my exam results. I got the exams (far more than I needed) but the respect, skills and critical thinking they taught me and my peers haved served us better in life.


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