The Moral Qualities of Teaching

A few years ago, my colleague Rogers Hall and I looked at how biostatisticians and epidemiologists’ workplace conversations compared with those of instructional coaches and teachers. (We both study how people learn at work.)

As we compared our methods for analyzing workplace learning, we had a few great a-ha! moments. Rogers focuses a lot on epistemic communities in his analysis — that is, how different professions collectively agree about what qualifies as knowledge. The architects, etymologists and epidemiologists he has studied all have different standards for saying that something is “known.” Sharing analytic methods benefited me: the idea of epistemic community helped me describe how different teachers take different tacks on what counts as knowing in teaching.

My work informed his in a different way. In my studies, I examine how teachers justify instructional decisions. Oftentimes, they provide affective reasons for what they do  (“I am skipping this lesson because I don’t like it.” “I am going to do this activity because the kids love it.”)  Sometimes, they ground their choices in technical knowledge (“We need to give kids more time on subtracting integers. Those are hard ideas, and they need to see them lots of different examples.”) In addition, teachers will invoke moral reasons (“I am doing re-takes because every kid needs a chance to learn this. I don’t care who your 8th grade teacher was, you are going to learn in my class.”)

Through the comparison, Rogers saw that morality played in epidemiologists’ decisions too. For instance, in one observation, a scientist and a biostatistician debated how to sample a population to look for relationships between HIV and HPV –– whether to do fewer numbers of a better HPV screening or to get more statistical power by using a less expensive HPV test. If quality data were the only consideration, the need for statistical power would prevail. However, the epidemiologist had a had a strong moral commitment to improving the lives of poor women being recruited in the study and wanted to make sure they got the best screening available. This consideration played into his research design. Even supposedly “objective” scientists have reasons to weigh moral and ethical issues in their research.

Why do I bring up the role of morality in teaching? At the moment, I have intellectual and personal reasons.

Intellectually, I need to push back on how the cognitive revolution impacts how we think about teacher knowledge. Lee Shulman had a critical insight: good teachers have a special kind of content knowledge — what he called “pedagogical content knowledge”:

Pedagogical content knowledge (or PCK) includes: (a) knowledge of how to structure and represent academic content for direct teaching to students; (b) knowledge of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that students encounter when learning particular content; and (c) knowledge of the specific teaching strategies that can be used to address students’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances.

By acknowledging the specialized kinds of understanding that good teaching demands, Shulman did his part to elevate the teaching profession, opening entire programs of research that specify different facets of PCK.

Yet, somewhere in the years that followed, the moral element of teaching has too often been devalued. In our quest to professionalize teaching by defining its specialized knowledge, we have downplayed that teaching, at its best, is a deeply moral act.

For example, the PCK construct says nothing of what Rochelle Gutierréz calls “the political knowledge” teachers need to have truly equitable and inclusive classrooms. For instance, teachers need to understand the often biased structures of schooling and work deliberately against them. Recognizing bias and working against it is inherently moral: it acknowledges the inequities built into schooling, from unequal resources to cultural bias to curricular marginalization.

On the personal level, I have a child who has struggled in school. This child’s school experience has vastly improved when teachers are morally invested, sometimes beyond what would be sensible. I am fortunate because this year, my child’s teacher deeply understands the nature of these struggles.

When we first met, we discussed the history and nature of what has gone on. She shared that she had a child with similar challenges. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “So when I say I get your child” –– she tapped her hand to her heart –– “I get your child.

Since then, she has told me that she finds my kid an “interesting challenge” and a “delight.” I have heard her talk to other parents as well and can attest that this teacher has a strong commitment to find a way to connect with and reach every student in her classroom.

Calling her commitment a form of knowledge does not do justice to the deep place it comes from: from her heart, from her very purpose as a teacher. And I know that has made all the difference.