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.


5 thoughts on “The Moral Qualities of Teaching

  1. This post resonates so deeply for me, so I thank you for blogging about what I really needed to hear. Right now I am struggling with this with some of my Algebra 1 students in our very driven and hyper-motivated school culture. Over the past week, I’ve had a number of students come up to me after class to say, “You know… Dr. S — this is all pretty basic material we have seen before. You really could go a little faster.”

    This makes me feel a little blip of shame and embarrassment. I am boring them, I worry. I need to pick up the pace.

    And yet, I am also the adult in the room — the one who is scoring their assessments and who is coming face to face with their gaps and misconceptions in what they consider to be the most basic and elementary knowledge.

    The problem seems to be that what they BELIEVE they’ve been learning all along was not, in fact, genuine, deep, or durable learning. Once again, I am reminded that just because someone has driven you PAST certain topics does not mean that you have learned them — or that you can apply them in meaningful or appropriate ways.

    And so as I’m scoring their tests from this past week, I am surprised by the disconnect between what some students know and what they THINK they know — and by how many of the most vocal and confident students drove themselves straight into the most obvious and avoidable conceptual ditches.

    Yet… here we are.

    So I’m feeling a certain moral imperative to slow down and to require THEM to slow down too, so they can learn — probably for the first time in their high-achieving academic lives — how to know whether or not what they’ve been doing is actual learning.

    I’ve been a bit in denial for a few days now about the fact that some are going to be horrified at how poorly they have done on this first assessment. There may be tears. They are used to being academic superstars in their middle schools, but now we are lifting up the rocks and seeing all the creepy crawlies that scoot out when we do so.

    But isn’t this part of the moral aspect of teaching too? Don’t I have a responsibility to help them get aligned with reality and to see clearly where they have gaps they need to work with so that they can achieve genuine understanding?

    Thanks for helping me struggle through these half-formed questions.

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)


    • I like so much about this example, Elizabeth. In terms of my own thinking about PCK and morality, this example shows the way your technical knowledge of mathematics learning –– your knowledge of what it means for students to understand versus their own sense of understanding –– works together with a moral imperative to shepherd them into deeper mathematics, despite their own sense of their knowledge. But part of the complexity comes from your empathy for them, not wanting them to shut down or reject your way of teaching because your assessment poses a threat to their sense of competence. To me, this is a perfect example of why your professional judgment entails so much more than technical knowledge of how to teach. I am glad my post was helpful and I thank you for sharing.


  2. Thank you for posting this. I have said repeatedly to my classes at the college level (and in the interview to get the job, now that I think about it) “I teach people the subject of math, I don’t teach math”. As I read your post, I found myself thinking, “Oh, this is what I meant when I said that.” You brought forth the meaning that I wasn’t or couldn’t explicate.

    Thank you so much for that.


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  4. As a current (preservice) student in an education course taught by Rochelle Gutierrez, I with my classmates have had the privilege of being introduced to the various facets of mathematics education that we perhaps previously had limited to the narrow categories of content knowledge and pedagogy. We once discussed in class how Shulman’s PCK model should actually be a subset of the total knowledge that teachers need in order to be effective in their profession. What the PCK framework lacks but is included in that total body of knowledge is the sociocultural-political insight that broadens a teacher’s considerations for both making instructional decisions and deciding what moral compass to hold to. This broader perspective includes a familiarity with the sociocultural factors that compose the context of education for the teacher, the students, and the educational system at large. As mentioned in your post and Glenn’s comment, the teacher is teaching students who are unique human beings with their own identity and cultural history, thus requiring the teacher to make meaningful connections with students where they are at before anything can be “taught.”

    This broader perspective also includes a lucid understanding of the political game that teaching mathematics truly is–who the stakeholders are, who gets to define what mathematics is, who calls the shots about what’s being taught and how it should be taught, and what rules based on those decisions get set in place for teachers to abide by. This political arena has come to the forefront especially in our era of CCSS, high-stakes testing, and edTPA. The game is in place, and Dr. Gutierrez has exhorted us to know the rules and to establish our own moral standards in relation to them, so that we could “play the game” but ultimately and collectively “change the game.”

    Did I know what I was getting into when I decided to become a “math teacher”? Definitely not!


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