Teaching - An Academic Career?

An exploration of the concept of the 'academic' in education, and a look at whether it is still an appropriate term to apply to teachers and teaching.


  1. As someone who writes a blog intended in the main for teachers, I come across the word 'academic' in a variety of contexts - including the profiles of many of those I follow on Twitter. This set me to seeking out the perceptions which people had of the term 'academic', to discover whether teachers actually saw themselves as 'academics' and whether indeed they would want to if they had the opportunity. The initial responses suggested that the term has gathered negative connotations in recent times, many associating it with elitism, closed communities and people who have lost touch with reality (the original meaning of 'academic', in the sense of 'of no practical importance' has of course in some common parlance come to mean 'irrelevant' or even 'useless'). 
  2. Many of the responses suggested that while the term 'academic' was not one with which teachers would wish to be associated, the notion of the 'teacher as learner' or as one who continues to develop through reading and study was very much alive and well, and if anything was gaining currency. However, while some argued that the acquisition of formal qualifications were a necessary recognition of that extra effort, other were strongly of the opinion that it was the engagement in learning or professional enquiry itself which mattered most.
  3. Interestingly, the most recent review of initial teacher education in Scotland, while advocating that teachers should be more responsible for their own professional development, draws a clear line between what the report describes as 'academics' and 'practitioners', thereby appearing to perpetuate the earlier perceived hierarchy of importance between those working and teaching in schools and those working in universities:-
  4. "..........the most successful education systems do more than seek to attain particular standards of competence and to achieve change through prescription. They invest in developing their teachers as reflective, accomplished and enquiring professionals who have the capacity to engage fully with the complexities of education and to be key actors in shaping and leading educational change.

    This view implies that teacher education must build throughout a career and go well beyond recreating the best of past or even current practice. It must help to develop a teaching profession which, like other major professions, is not driven largely by external forces of change but which sees its members as prime agents in that change process. Within that culture, leadership qualities and skills are developed and practised throughout.

    The Review affirms this more proactive view of teacher education, and the implications for all stages are very significant. It requires a more integrated relationship between theory and practice, between the academic and the practitioner, between the provider of teacher education and the school. The capacity of the teacher should be built not just through extensive ‘teaching practice’ but through reflecting on and learning from the experience of supporting children’s learning with all the complexities which characterise twenty-first century childhood. The ‘craft’ components of teaching must be based upon and informed by fresh insights into how best to meet the increasingly fast pace of change in the world which our children inhabit. Simply advocating more time in the classroom as a means of preparing teachers for their role is therefore not the answer to creating better teachers. The nature and quality of that practical experience must be carefully planned and evaluated and used to develop understanding of how learning can best be promoted in sometimes very complex and challenging circumstances.

    There is an urgent need to challenge the narrow interpretations of the teacher’s role which have created unhelpful philosophical and structural divides, and have led to sharp separations of function amongst teachers, teacher educators and researchers. There is currently an over-emphasis on preparation for the first post and less focus upon the potential of the initial and early period of a teacher’s career to develop the values, skills and understandings which will provide the basis of career-long growth and in so doing create a broader and deeper leadership pool. The Review’s recommendations aim to entrench the interconnections between schools, universities and other agencies, and between theory and practice. Teachers should see themselves as educators not just of the young people in their charge but of their colleagues locally, nationally and internationally. The implications of this ‘extended professionalism’
    are taken forward throughout the report in relation to a teacher’s developing career."


    Teaching Scotland's Future, Report of a Review of Teacher Education in Scotland, December 2010

  5. The response to my tweets from teacher educators was minimal (thanks Amanda!) but did suggest that Donaldson was already having an impact on Scottish university faculties of education, and on the undergraduate experience.  
  6. On the other hand, it could be inferred from the text of the Donaldson report that the 'more integrated relationship' between theory and practice is to be achieved through a better relationship between professionals with clearly distinct roles, rather than a more integrated relationship between the dual roles of the individual, a significant change from of one of the key proposals of the Scottish Executive's 2005 Review of Initial Teacher Education, which was to have 'local authorities and universities engaging in more interchange of teachers and lecturers'.  For me, the clear implication of that recommendation was that experienced teachers would have the opportunity to teach in the education faculties of universities, and university teachers/lecturers would refresh their skills and perhaps put their research to the test by re-engaging with young people in primary and secondary classrooms.  Would that arrangement, had it been implemented, have led to a more 'academic' profession all round? I guess we'll never know.