Why teach?

why teach

It feels as if it is getting harder to answer this. Year on year we fail to hit teacher training recruitment targets and lose more and more teachers to private family lives and other professions.

As the number of children in our schools rises, alarm feels increasingly like panic.

There are many reasons for this. The familiar culprits of poor behaviour, crude accountability measures, falling wages and inflexible working conditions have probably all played a part.

But there are more fundamental questions to answer too. This talk will outline four common consequentialist justifications for teaching as a profession, explore their flaws and limitations, then explain why, irrespective of all these, teaching is still profoundly moral and worthwhile.

Before beginning properly, I’d like to begin by roughly defining what I mean by consequentialist justification. Put really simply, I mean that very often attempts to justify education are done on the basis of what happens because of it. For education to be consequentially justified, we would need to prove that it has measurable, positive outcomes. When I gave this talk previously, someone politely suggested a better word for what I mean might be instrumentalist, given that I do believe there are positive consequences to education, but that these are found within learning itself. I have no particular objection to this, so if you prefer to think of this as an anti-instrumentalist rather than an anti-consequentialist argument, please be my guest and go ahead.

Do teachers make society more equal?

Fifteen years ago I was drawn into teaching by a lie.

I was told, and believed, because teachers were directly responsible for the grades of their pupils in public examinations, good teachers working in poor areas were helping redress societal inequality. I thought better teaching in poorer areas led to better grades for poorer children, which led to them going to better universities, which meant they got better jobs, earned more money and became more influential.

The outcome of my work was poorer children becoming richer adults as gradually the system I worked in constructed a true meritocracy.

This argument, particularly attractive to the young often in a rush to change the world, is as persistent as ever.

Well-meaning teacher training programmes, particularly those working in areas of disadvantage, still use the gap between the richer and poorer sections of society as a way of signing up new recruits. We see this in adverts in which poor pupils talk enthusiastically about the impact a teacher made in setting them on the way to high-flying, influential careers and we see it when England’s Department of Education proudly crows any suggestion of narrowing attainment gaps between poorer and richer children.

Such messages are compelling. All of us want to feel our lives have mattered. Righting the wrongs of life’s injustices seems a noble way to live and find meaning.

Unfortunately we have little evidence the gap between rich and poor people in Britain has narrowed or will narrow in the future. In fact, more evidence suggests the opposite. If we acknowledge this but persist in believing the main reason for public education and teaching is to narrow differences in wealth, then we must accept we have failed in the past, are failing now, and in all likelihood will continue to fail in the future. Recent surveys suggest that our younger generations are fast wising up to this and increasingly cynical – or actually realistic – about the idea of social mobility.

This should not come as much of a shock given the nature of our public examination system, which effectively caps the number of top grades that can be achieved each year based on attainment in tests children take at ten or eleven. Everyone involved in the care of a child, and of course the child itself, is incentivised to use every advantage they have to outcompete other children of the same age. Those with more advantage will usually outcompete those with less, and go on to more prestigious university courses and better paid careers. If the whole cohort improves, then those in a position to do so will make sure the children they care most about improve more than others. Once again, it is the most advantaged who are in the best position to do this. While it might be a stretch to say things have been set up this way deliberately the effect is the same, as divisions in educational attainment are maintained or even widened. Even abolishing cohort referencing altogether would be unlikely to make much difference as all this would mean is universities and employers raising entry requirements.

This makes us dishonest when we say to all our pupils “work hard and you will get a good grade and if you get good grades you will rise in society”, because the limited number of grades and exclusive opportunities means that not everyone can. Those blessed with advantage be it affluence or higher intelligence are always likely to do better than those less fortunate. The worst consequence of all this might be that by tying the value of what we teach to a test score, we imply that those who do not get a high grade have been wasting their time. This is particularly alarming when we remind ourselves that the whole way examinations are set up makes it simply impossible for all pupils to reach the top of the ladder.

More evidence of this can be seen in admission figures to the best universities, which show that while more young people are going on to university, there has been little if any improvement in the proportion of poorer children going to Oxbridge and Russel Group institutions. This is important. While the number of high paid, prestigious jobs remain the same (and may even decline if our economy contracts after Brexit), then it would be entirely illogical to assume that the act of going to university, particularly if it is less prestigious, will lead to greater affluence.

Perhaps we could treat the justification of education as driving social mobility more seriously if those that made it had plans to make richer pupils perform worse in order to make space at life’s top table. This is an absurd and silly suggestion. No sane government would ever introduce a law making it illegal for parents to pay for private tuition for their child or banning them from reading to their children before bedtime to help them with literacy.

Life is competitive. For some pupils to do better others have to do worse.

The playing field is not level. If we teach to reduce social inequality then we are failures.

Do teachers make society happier?

Even if we were to accept our work does not narrow divisions it might still be possible to form an argument it is consequentially justified if we could prove that society in its entirety was becoming more educated and happier as a result of our collective work.

Superficially this argument does carry some weight. While we should at least nod at the dangers of correlation-causation, educated societies do, on the whole, seem to be more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous. It is not a huge stretch to extend this to the belief that should we improve the overall level of education – effectively shoving the bell curve right – then the work of teachers would, overall, lead to the general betterment of society even if the divisions within it remain as acute as ever. This echoes the classic capitalist argument, in its belief that competition between individuals and groups results in an overall improvement from which everyone, eventually, benefits even if inequalities are never ironed out.

To decide whether or not this works as a reason to teach we need to look at whether England is actually becoming more educated over time, then work out if this is because of schools, before considering whether or not any rise has increased general happiness.

David Didau has done good work on this. In a sequence of blog posts and in his new book, he has demonstrated that if we take IQ as a measure of intelligence, and I do realise this is disputed, then our children do, as a whole, seem to be getting cleverer.

The problem here is that it isn’t at all clear this has been the result of schooling. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is important to remember that children actually spend a very small proportion of their lives in lessons. It is just as likely that rises in IQ test scores, which assess ability to think in the abstract, are attributable to an increasingly complicated world that requires its inhabitants to think in an abstract fashion. This seems borne out by bigger increases in IQ scores in developing countries which are undergoing very rapid technological and industrial changes than in developed societies which went through these changes longer ago. While David Didau has good reason to disagree with this, citing evidence which tracks differences in increases in IQ between pupils of different ages in the same year, I still don’t think there’s enough evidence for us to say with absolute confidence that England is becoming any cleverer as a result of the work of its teachers.

While there is evidence that IQ has risen over recent years, and while schools probably have contributed to this, the many economic and societal changes that have happened in the same period means we cannot be sure that this has been only or perhaps even mainly the result of the work of schools. What’s more, depressingly and alarmingly, it appears that literacy and numeracy rates may now actually be declining. We are the only OECD country in which literacy levels of those aged between 16 and 24 are lower than those of aged 55 and over, which suggests our society may actually be becoming less rather than more educated.

It is at least possible that our recent preoccupation with examination outcomes as proxies of education may well have worsened the overall quality of education in England. Brutal, unsophisticated and high-stakes accountability incentivised schools to game play with low value qualifications and to teach to tests. What may have worked for individual schools may well have failed the collective if the overall aim was a better educated society. Encouragingly, it does seem that Ofsted, England’s school inspectorate, is acknowledging this as a risk with its latest framework, but it is far too early to tell how successful they are likely to be.

Even if we put all this aside and could prove that our children are getting cleverer, will continue to become cleverer and that this is because of our schools then it would still be impossible to say whether this has benefited society. This is because we can’t say whether people in the past were any happier than we are today. While we can make judgements based upon our own values, the inherent bias in making such judgements invalidates them. While we may look at the life of a medieval peasant and shudder their pain and suffering, our shudders are because we are imagining ourselves as them. What we fail to get is if we were them we wouldn’t be us. We don’t know what it was like to be illiterate in a culture in which nearly everyone was. We also don’t know what it was like to have a certainty of faith that meant we knew when we died our souls would still exist for eternity. This is not to say that men and women in the past were happier than us, but it does mean we just can’t make an accurate assessment as to whether or not being better educated, however we define this, leads to greater happiness.

It would be unfair to move on before acknowledging the correlation between higher IQs and greater happiness in individuals, and how this might lead some teachers to argue teaching can still be consequentially justified if the result of a teachers work is cleverer and therefore happier children. The problem here is it is not clear higher intelligence in itself is the cause of greater happiness, even if those with higher intelligence do tend to be happier. As I’ve already pointed out, life is largely a zero sum game, with greater opportunities afforded to those who win. It is entirely possible, even likely, it is greater opportunities which are the source of any greater happiness, not intelligence in of itself. This means if teaching did make children cleverer, unless this resulted in greater opportunity, which is something entirely different, then it is unlikely people as a whole will end up any more content than they are now. I saw what I think to be an example of this when I worked in Ethiopia at a time when the government was rapidly expanding higher education provision. This expansion happened too fast for graduate opportunities to keep up, which may have led to increased dissatisfaction, migration out of the country and potentially political unrest.

Finally, it is worth thinking about how happy so called child geniuses end up where the picture is, at best, very mixed.

So no. The argument that teaching leads to a cleverer, more educated and therefore happier society is not one robust enough to use as a justification for why teachers do what they do.

Do teachers make society better?

Some teachers believe the most important purpose of education is to make our world a morally better place. Proponents of this might say the world is unfair and this unfairness is the result of flaws in the people who have constructed the societies in which they live. Children in school offer a fresh start. If we can teach them to be less prejudiced, more honest and selfless, then the world they create when they grow up should be better than the world we live in now.

Perhaps if we could eliminate negative influences then humans will not behave so badly and the world will be better for everyone.

Alternatively, others claim that children are naturally selfish and will behave badly without corrective influences. They may argue that it is possible to create a better society by rewarding pupils for good behaviour and punishing them for bad. If we do this well then children will eventually internalise good values, which will lead to a better society.

There are lots of problems with both these approaches. The first of these is how we define what a ‘better’ society looks like. There is no consensus. For some people this might mean the withering away of the state and the final realisation of Marx’s communist dream. For others it may mean an orderly, traditional societal structure in which rigid hierarchies provide stability and security. If we cannot agree on the ideal society then it is impossible for us ever to achieve a result that satisfies everyone. One person’s dream is another’s dystopian nightmare. Teaching in a way designed to create a specific type of society means teaching children that those with alternative views are misguided or wicked.

Even if we could all agree on what kind of society we want to create, there is little reason to think schools could deliver it. In a typical year children spend only about 10% of their time in front of their teachers, meaning most of the time they are exposed to influences beyond their schools. This means that any child’s views are far more likely to be the result of their parents, friends and those they admire than they are the work of their teachers. While some countries, including Nazi Germany in the past and North Korea today, have tried hard to drastically increase the influence of schools to create the sort of society they deem desirable, most of us would not feel comfortable with their methods.

Do teachers make society more productive?

Every day in England a pupils interrupts their lesson to ask “why do we need to learn this?”

What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too and this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and you don’t have a calculator, or a phone, and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy. If you remember it. Which given you only learned it to pass an exam, you almost certainly won’t.”

Worse, by indulging this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer, Angelou and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?

No consequentialist argument is strong enough to work as a justification for educating our children. As much as we might want to, we cannot say “we teach children in schools so that X will happen”, because we can’t agree what we want, can’t prove anything we want to happen does, and even if we could all agree that a change that had happened was desirable it would still be impossible to prove we were responsible for it.

Accepting this means facing something of an existentialist crisis.

If nothing good comes of our work then why bother doing it at all?

This story might be a helpful way of concentrating the argument.

Not very long ago I heard about a senior leader who had a meeting with a Teaching Assistant assigned to work with a pupil suffering from a progressive disease, which meant he used a wheelchair and was not expected to live beyond his early twenties. The meeting was called because of concerns the pupil wasn’t getting proper support, with the TA often appearing to be disinterested and bored. In the meeting the assistant accepted she had not been effectively supporting the young person and told the leader that she would prefer to prepare small groups of gifted pupils for Oxford and Cambridge University instead When the senior leader asked them why they didn’t want to work with the disabled pupil they’d been directed to help, they were horrified to hear the reply “it’s not like there’s any point. It’s not like he’s ever going to do anything.”

Never going to do anything.

Upsetting. But if we derive our sense of purpose as teachers from consequentialism what right do we have to be upset? Whatever grades this young man ended up with, he almost certainly would not go to university. He was even less likely to ever have a job. His early death means in the big scheme of things how well educated he ends up is irrelevant to the general education level of society. Lastly he would play no part in the future because he would not be part of it so what does it matter whether or not school equips him with the personal qualities or skills needed to impact on the world?

If we accept consequentialism then there is no point in educating young people like him at all, which makes the Teaching Assistant right.

What nonsense.

She was wrong and we know it.

The story makes us uneasy because we know the true value of education is not found in any outcomes we hope will be a result of it.

The true value of education is in the inherent worth of what pupils learn and their entitlement to it regardless of anything that might or might not happen to them in the future.

While justifying education in this way may feel unfamiliar it is not actually new at all. Our obsession with consequentialism is quite recent. For hundreds of years people have believed an important reason for education was because what was taught was thought to have great inherent value. All that was taught was something precious to be passed down through the generations. This has perhaps been most famously expressed by poet and inspector of schools Matthew Arnold who wrote in 1869 that the purpose of education should be for young people to know “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. Those tempted to dismiss this as the privileged witterings of a Victorian man with a Messiah complex may be interested to remember precisely the same sentiment was expressed by his socialist contemporary Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he argued that:

“What we call civilization – the accumulation of knowledge which has come to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil.. it is by right the common heritage of all.”

Robert Tressell

This offers us a way forward.

In making the point of what we do the value of what we teach our children, and letting go of the idea we need something else to happen as a result of it we can find real and robust purpose.

We cannot shake consequentialism completely. If we are to make the reason for what we do the things we teach we have to believe that the children we are responsible for have the capacity to recognise the inherent value of what they learn. While this is of course still consequentialist it is much less so than believing learning Hamlet will result in a measurable outcome in a completely different domain. It is far more realistic for a teacher to say “I hope that by learning Hamlet’s soliloquy pupils will see that people often struggle with feelings of pointlessness” than it is for them to say we teach Shakespeare because it will make them richer. While there will an always should be argument over what we should teach, we can have more confidence in pupils recognising the inherent value of “the best that has been thought and said in the world” if what we teach has been recognised as of great worth by many people over a long period of time. This is why teaching children the Odyssey is better than teaching Harry Potter or Holes. It is why we do pupils a disservice if we teach them the history of football instead of the Magna Carta. It is why a geography teacher is right to focus on glaciation and wrong to allow their pupils to spend valuable lesson time colouring in and labelling blank maps.

I think we might push past Arnold’s narrow view of what is considered academic in the strictest sense too, expanding ‘the best that has been thought and said’ to ‘the best that has been made, cooked, danced and so on’. Deciding whether pupils will learn to cook a Rogan Josh or a Chicken Tikka Masala, or whether a dovetail joint is a better use of time than a mortoise and tenon should be just as important as deciding whether or not pupils should learn about the Napoleonic wars. There will never be agreement, but the most important debates we have in schools should be over what exactly we should teach our children based on intrinsic and inherent worth. On a subject of such importance there will never be agreement, which is why we should be talking about it more than anything else.

We should be arguing about whether we include Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko on our curriculum. We should be arguing about exactly which Gothic novel should be taught, and whether pupils are better served by this or a unit on Grace Nichols.

Schools should not adapt what pupils learn based on what they think they will become as they are right now. Instead they should teach children to alter themselves in order to become part of something greater. We all have voices but we sing as part of a choir. Our curriculum should whisper to our children “you belong. You did not come from nowhere. You are one of us. All this came before you, and one day you too might add to it.”

This, the antithesis to the way in which child centred education has been understood and interpreted in many English schools in recent years, may sit uncomfortably with those who feel it should be teachers making changes in response to whoever they find in front of them. Those feeling uneasy might want to think about how transformative and liberating it is to utterly lose yourself in a mathematical equation, poem, painting or piece of music. Curriculum is a powerful alchemy takes a person out of their own limited experience and connects them to something so much larger. This is the real treasure. To allow our pupils to do this we must first help them shake off the intrusive egos that push all of us into imposing ourselves on what we encounter whether in school or elsewhere.

This idea was developed in Simone Weil’s 1942 essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, which expresses the view the primary purpose of schools should be to teach pupils to pay proper attention to what they are taught. While she sees the ultimate purpose to be an increase in the capacity for prayer, we do not need to go this far to see better attention as a worthwhile end. If we teach pupils to see the value in subsuming their own egos and individual characteristics to what they are learning and free them from the oppressive belief that what they do in their classrooms is only worth the bother if they are materially rewarded for it, we create an inclusive sense of meaning achievable for everyone, from future astrophysicists to people like my daughter who may always struggle to learn new things as quickly as most others.

This provide schools and the teachers in them with a powerful sense of purpose that enables us to throw off the existentialist horror in realising that we cannot be sure anything we do ever leads to anything else.

It also presents us with a great responsibility.

If none of our actions leads to the outcomes we once thought they did, and the only value of what we teach is in the intrinsic worth of the material itself, then what and how well we teach assumes immeasurable significance.

In this we are saved.

We do not teach because by doing so we can eradicate the differences between rich and poor. We do not teach to educate society, or to create a better one. We do not educate our children so that they have skills that will make them more productive workers. Our responsibility is more profound. We teach because, as Tressell has said, our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations. How important then is what we teach and how well we do it? There is so much to learn and so little, little time. When we make decisions about curriculum we do so as part of a great, grave tradition. For hundreds of years, societies have been taking the baton of knowledge and passed it down through their generations, and by doing so shown their children that they are valued, important and part of something so much more enormous than they are.

If you are a teacher and now or in years to come find yourself data-befuddled tired and listless, doubting whether what you do has real purpose then get up early and stand beside almost any road in England. Watch the buses, silly uniforms and striped ties go by. Smile at the important, ritualistic frivolity. Think of the schools that breath in our children in the morning and exhale them in the afternoon. Think about how little these children knew when they started school, and how much they know now, and how much they will know in the future. Think about how barren their lives would be if there were no schools or teachers and they were never taught anything at all and didn’t know anything beyond what they’d directly experienced themselves.

Think about how poor they would be in the most important sense if there were no schools and no teachers.

Think about this and allow yourself to feel the privilege and enormous weight of responsibility you carry, a weight that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Picture yourself as a link in the only chain that really matters, a runner with a flaming torch you are thrusting into the hands of younger athletes so it won’t matter that one day, sooner than anyone ever thinks they will, your legs will fail. Remember that even if one of your young athletes does fall they had the same right to run as their luckier compatriots.

Remember we are all of us part of a race in which the aim is not to win but just to keep going.

We are the links in the chain.

We are the runners in the race.

We are the bearers of the torch.

And this is why we teach.

“Academic work is one of those fields, which contains a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.”

Simone Weil


25 thoughts on “Why teach?

  1. If you have never read Neil Postman’s books “Teaching as a Subversive Activity’ and that later ‘Teaching as a Conserving Activity’ you would find much in these that links to your thoughts.


  2. Janita Cunnington says:

    I have heard the attitude you’re criticising called “instrumentalism” and think that this term captures the idea better, for surely the consequences of what we do are always of crucial importance.


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  5. Scott Draper says:

    You can’t ask a teacher the purpose of education, because it’s not for you to say; it’s for all of us who spend two decades sending our children to your care. And yes, it’s all about consequentialism. We educate our children because it enables them to become self-sufficient in the world. If I thought you didn’t share that goal, then I would question whether you’re the right person to decide what the curriculum should be.

    I find it very discouraging that teachers hold romantic notions of what education is about and it certainly lowers my trust in your expertise.


    • Thank you for engaging, Scott. I have a few issues with what your concerns.
      1. What do you mean by self-sufficiency? Am I right in thinking you see schools as bring primarily about preparing pupils for the world of work?
      2. Are you aware that your view isn’t shared by many others with interests in education? Do you feel your views should have primacy over theirs?
      Would be curious as to your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Tom Burkard says:

    I’ve quoted Matthew Arnold and Robert Tressell on occasion, and I went so far as to homeschool my son from the age of 8 after I realised how far his highly-regarded primary school fell short of their ideals. It would be more accurate to say that these ideals weren’t even on their agenda. Even in the distant days when I was in school, the teachers who themselves cherished the best that had been thought and said were a small minority; now, they’re an endangered species.

    I don’t think it likely that anyone could restore the thirst for knowledge that created all of the self-help educational activities that flourished in the working classes during the 19th century. The 1870 Forster Act set in train a Gresham’s law of schools that continues its inexorable working to this day. Blair’s massive increase in education spending spawned a cancerous growth of a management elite with post-graduate degrees in Education–and education colleges are the last place you’ll hear Tressell quoted. This has cemented instrumentalism so firmly in place that it’s all but impossible to imagine how it can be shifted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tom. Depressingly I agree with almost all of what you’ve written and am so sorry you felt you had no choice but to homeschool your own child. I think one of the worst things that’s happened is the creation of a landscape in which people feel if you aren’t good at something, then it doesn’t ‘belong’ to you. This to me is so sad.
      You can be assured that while we are very aware of the challenges, there are schools and I’m proud to work in one, which are doing their best to help pupils understand the value of what they learn isn’t measurable by a grade, as useful as that grade might be.


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  14. As I’ve said, I think this is a beautiful piece of writing, it’s wise and uplifting. Thank you.

    As a maths teacher, I can see fairly clearly what I’d want out of a History curriculum, but I think sometimes I’m too close to maths to see what I’d want out of a maths curriculum.

    What do you, as a Humanities man, see as a good maths curriculum?



  16. Rebecca Baker says:

    I find this deeply moving and important, thank you Ben! I have saved this and read through again every few months and each time it gives me a renewed sense of purpose! I am compiling a list of articles for teachers at my school to read, would you mind if I printed this off and shared it? Is there a better way for me to do this?

    Thank you again!


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  18. mccormickcol says:

    What a fantastic blog. ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone.’ This crystallised a lot of the obfuscation I have endured over the years surrounding the purpose of education. I long held the belief that social mobility and narrowing the wealth inequality gap was the purpose. My ‘Rust Belt’ upbringing left a massive impression on me. The docks were a ghost town, seedy and obsolete even if I have a very nostalgic view of days gone by. No one I knew had a degree but class lines were we’re beginning to “Blair” as old industry was dying. Jobs aplenty no longer existed like the 60’s/70’s so consequentialism seemed natural. Sadly, if anything the opposite has happened. This is a deeply thoughtful, enlightening blog. Thank you Ben


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