Teaching is not a science, it is a culture of educative action

Teaching in Paris in the 14th century (Grandes Chroniques de France).

The recent establishment by the French government of a Scientific Council for Education has revived the public debate over the relationship between politics, science and education. More surprisingly, it also raises a question already asked in the scientific context during the 19th century, namely, is teaching a science at the disposal of teaching personnel?

Teaching is considered by Freud, in the same way as caring for others and governing, as one of the three “impossible” professions. No more than doctors, teachers do not consider their profession as an applied science. When it is a question of encouraging change in others, be they patients or learners, it is the activity of the individual as subject that ensures her/his own transformation, and not the activity of the intervener who, at best, creates the conditions that would favour this transformation

This is true of all professional involvements. As with values, knowledge cannot just be applied: at best it can affect the transformation of representations and emotions that accompany and energise educative actions.

Affirming that teaching is a science takes on a social role, echoing the logic of the act of governing, to avoid taking into account the relationships that human beings, as subjects, maintain between themselves in both educational and social situations. This is tantamount to legitimating the forms of violence that are based on the affirmation of “truths”.

In this light, the present text has three objectives:

  • To analyse what is at stake in an educative situation: our hypothesis is that this is a coupling of the activity of a subject-learner and the activity of an subject-intervener;

  • To identify teaching as a culture organising this coupling;

  • To situate teaching as a culture of educative action among others.

Educative action is an ordered organisation of activities around an enhancing transformation of activity habits

Beyond the diversity of its forms, education is an organisation of ordered activities around an intention, declared or enacted that contributes to the transformation of a subject. It is based on a hypothesis that the activities so organised are likely to produce the result expected. The education actors have in mind or express in words the transformations they are looking for; they have only a partial view of the effective transformations that exceed markedly the evaluation results. Like all professionals engaged in intervening in the activity of others, educators are more aware of what they are wanting to do than what they actually do.

Education intervenes in processes that are already ongoing. The construction of subjects takes places continuously starting from, in and through their activities. Education’s only ambition is to have some influence on them.

The specific task of education personnel, even if they only set out what is to be learned, is to “propose/impose” some space for the learners’ activity. Are these spaces actually invested by the learners’ activity, and in what conditions? That is the question. There is no education without the engagement of the learner-subject in the transformation of her/his own activity.

The learning experiences around which the education activities are organised are transformations that enhance activity habits. Very often the approach of the world of school to learning is to limit it to mental or discursive leaning when, in fact, “to have learned” means simply to do something differently and to find that that is better, whether that results from an activity that is mental, communicational or physical or, more often, all three at the same time. Such transformations are appreciated socially to the point of being recognised as learning. The approach to learning is an activity of evaluation and not one of science.

Teaching is an organising culture of educative actions, centred on the activity of the teacher

The highest number of actors of education activities show up in the systems of teaching that more than not tend to identify as “teachers” their strategic personnel, whatever their activities. This is true from primary schooling through to higher education, and including vocational training.

Even where it is advisable to not confuse a “teaching system” with a “teaching culture”, these educative actions have as their principal reference “teaching cultures”. Typically, these latter view education space as a space for making knowledge available, with the underlying hypothesis that this will appropriated by the “taught” and become part of their “personal knowledge”.

In these cultures, learning is expressed essentially in terms of knowledge/personal knowledge. Knowledge is to be “transmitted” by the teachers who “possess” it and who are remunerated according to the level at which this knowledge is socially recognized. Such knowledge is to be appropriated by the pupils/students. In the rhetoric of this culture, everything is centred on knowledge as such, on who possesses it, on its transmission and appropriation, on the transposition of referential knowledge into taught knowledge and on the relationship of different individuals to that knowledge.

The notions of space and education time are in keeping with a logic of communication: immediate or deferred, in a specialised place or in a “real” activity situation, requiring a presence or at a distance according to circumstances (for example: classroom based, tutoring, education resources, Internet). The supposed appropriation by the target groups of the transmitted knowledge depends essentially on an activity focused on this knowledge. The appropriation hypothesis is often not verified.

This communicational logic tends to privilege the teacher’s activity and her/his pedagogical programme planning. The professional culture proposed to the teacher tends to view the pupil as the object of the teacher’s activity, rather than see her/him as a subject interacting with the teacher.

Adding to this organisation of educative action any understanding that teachers may have of the students’ mental processes and of their “neural bases” changes nothing here. What counts is the activity of interpreting the mental and cognitive functioning of their students. One remains therefore in the same professional culture that ignores the specificity of the interactivity in play.

There are other cultures of educative action that construct differently the relation between ‘the activity of the leaner’ and ‘the activity of the intervener’, without being any more scientific

Other educative actions, that have become more appreciated recently, consider the activity of the educator/intervener as an organisation of learning situations, and the activity of the learner as a transformation of her/his own activity that can be transferred to other contexts. Here one is more likely to talk of cultures of “education and training”, for example: adult education, professional training and “pedagogical” spaces within the education system.

Education and training cultures tend to prioritise the notions of capacities or attitudes, identified, for example, in terms of “knowledge”, “skills” and “personal competencies”. They organise the educative space as a place for producing new skills or attitudes with a view to their transfer to situations other than those of the training context. They see themselves as centred on the “learning subjects” and accordingly priority is given to the notion of activity and to its frame of reference. This rhetoric does not consolidate greatly any science of training, but rather the planning and strategic development of training.

Yet other educative actions see the learner’s activity as inseparable from her/his “real life situation”, and the intervener’s activity as the creating of a plan of action aimed at transforming both the action and the actor.

In the last 30 years, the idea of “education and training as part of an activity” has come to the fore: notably, in work-place training, production based training, action based training, insertion by the economy, learning organisations, analysis of practice and practice related writing workshops. The notion of competence is used not just to designate a referential but to determine the object of the educative action itself.

These educative actions can be considered as the opening up of spaces conceived and organised around a dual intention of the production of goods and/or of services, and the development of competences invested in that production. The key hypothesis is that one can change at one and the same time the action and the actor. Those who occupy the place of trainers are identifies as “accompanying professionals” (sponsors, tutors, coaches); those who take the place of learners are designated as “operators” or “practitioners”.

These new modes of educative intervention reveal new semantic networks in which the notions of developing competence and of professionalization play a major role. The activity of learning is not distinguished from the activity of utility production. Whilst this may make such activities intelligible, it does not produce a scientific definition of competence, only a social definition, given that any criteria of competence are themselves also value judgements.

Cultures of teaching, of education and training and of the development of competencies

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Cultures of educative action and broader cultures of action

In order to understand the social dynamic of the cultures of educative action, it is useful to see them in relation to wider cultures of action:-

The vocabulary of teaching refers back to a semantic field of cultural values, rules and norms and more generally of statements that a society values and sanctions by an activity of transmission-communication. It is part of a global paradigm that distinguishes and ranks language, thought and action. It echoes modes of organising work and activity based on a social distinction between activities of leading and those of executing, on the specialisation of tasks and on their organisation into levels. It remains coherent with the management styles of social beings, distinguishing the world of school and the world of work.

The vocabulary of education and training refers back to a semantic field relating to the designation of qualities, skills and aptitudes acquired through the construction/abstraction of the relationships that the subjects have with their activities, and by the dissociation with their effective engagements in these same activities. It fits into a more general paradigm of thought and of action that one could characterise as articulating and distinguishing theory of the subject/theory of the activity. It echoes modes of organising work and activity based on appreciating both the action and its management, on the distinguishing of fields of activities relatively autonomous and on their articulation, for example, in notions of professions and qualifications. It is coherent with some models of production and management of social beings that explicitly articulate moments of construction and moments of mobilisation of human subjects, for example, in the model of lifelong learning or that of sandwich courses.

The vocabulary of the development of competence refers back to a semantic field where human subjects are designated according to their involvement in the action for example, in notions of professionalism, expertise, being active learners. It fits into a paradigm of thought and action that integrates theory of the subject/theory of the activity: the constructivist paradigm. It is coherent with demand-led organisational modes that favour service economy and flexibility in activities of production. It is also coherent with models of production and management of social beings that tend to integrate explicitly the construction and mobilisation of social beings, for example, in favouring competence as an integral tool for training, careers guidance, the management of both human and production resources, injunction of subjectivity, appeal to creativity, favouring of talents, “people management”.

‘In order to transmit, one must inspire’

What does it mean to say that teaching is a science? Scientific language thrives on being univocal and not on the polysemy of social discourse.

Used in the singular, the term science is a qualification of research results to which one seeks to give a status of epistemic truth and social authority. In the plural, it designates social modes organising the production and transmission of knowledge in academic institutions. Any action is itself a particular organisation of activities aimed at transforming the world. There is a culture of action in a form that evolves and is shared by several subjects, and of the organisation of the construction of meaning starting from, about and related to the activities in which they are engaged.

Does one wish to say that the activities, interactivities and interactions of education actors should become the focus of research activities? If so, that should be said clearly. It is evident that such research is already contributing to the improvement of educative actions and to the development of the competencies of the actors involved. It would be advisable to further develop such research.

However, such research is essentially a “social science” that has as its objective the work that a society produces about itself; it is a scientific activity that starts from the material of the acts and from the meaning that the actors accord to their acts and that develops a fourfold movement of subjectification, objectification, analysis and interpretation.

This work draws upon epistemological positions that go beyond linear causality, integrating the taking into account of the correlations of transformations or of conjoint transformations (subject/activities/environments). It embraces the phenomena of plasticity, including neuronal plasticity.

William James, who was very critical about the confusion between psychology and education, deemed that the first quality required of teachers is “tact”, in other words a managing activity by teachers of their interactions with those learning.

Is not the first competence required of teachers that they propose activities that allow for the construction by the learners of meaning, in the fullest sense of the word (personal, social, epistemic, etc.) that is likely have an effect on their engagement of their activity?

Our contemporary, the chef Thierry Marx, is concerned to transmit both his art and “what he is”. Is he saying anything different when he says “In order to transmit, one must inspire”? (France Culture, January 23, 2018)


This article was translated from the original French by Paul Taylor, professor at the Université de Rennes. Translator’s notes:
Although the word “savoir” connotes the totality of what one knows and has a collective, all-encompassing meaning, it has become acceptable in current French to use the plural form, “savoirs”. I have preferred to translate both the singular and plural forms as “knowledge” – the facts, feeling or experiences known by an individual or group.
As in Spanish (“saberes”, “conocimientos”), both “savoirs” and “connaissances” can be translated into English as “knowledge”. I have recognised this distinction in French by translating “connaissances” as “personal knowledge” or as “understanding”.
In French educational contexts, “formation” is a key word that applies to all professions and occupations that has no single equivalent in English. Translated here as “education and training”.

This article was originally published in French

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