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Teaching as a Profession or Trade and How Research is Used

Teaching as a Profession or Trade and How Research is Used

Dr. Daniel Laitsch writes about the use of research in teaching, whether a profession or trade. This blog focuses on research use by teachers as they conceptualize what they do as a trade or profession. 

As far back as 1896 education theorists were debating whether education was a profession or a trade (Schurman, 1896). Fast forward 120 years and authors are still arguing about the same issue (Ingersoll & Merrill, 2011) as well as whether teaching is a science or an art.

Part of the confusion stems from the overlapping definitions of the terms profession and trade; art and science. As a former teacher of English, when a definitive definition of terms is needed, I tend to look in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines these terms (in part) as follows:

An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

…a skilled manual occupation, esp. one requiring an apprenticeship or other training, as that of a builder, plumber, electrician, etc.

A practical pursuit or trade of a skilled nature, a craft; an activity that can be achieved or mastered by the application of specialist skills.

A discipline, field of study, or activity concerned with theory rather than method, or requiring the knowledge and systematic application of principles, rather than relying on traditional rules, acquired skill, or intuition.

Definitions of Terms from Oxford English Dictionary

In a profession, specific knowledge or theory is applied, while in a trade, a particular skill or skill set is applied. In focusing on the difference between knowledge application and skill application, the terms art and science come in to play, with art referring to application of special skills while science is based in theory and the application of principles, eschewing traditional rules and skills.

If teaching is a trade then, it is conceptualized as a knowledge-based occupation concerned with the application of skills, whereas if teaching is a profession, it is best conceptualized as a theory-based occupation concerned with the application of principles.

Teaching as a Trade
Teaching conceptualized as a trade would be an occupation based on knowledge and exercised through application of learned skills (literacy and numeracy or classroom management and assessment, for example). In this view of teaching, research plays an important role in identifying the knowledge from which specific skills are developed and learned. Research guides the work of teachers, whose responsibility rests in the careful application of the skills required to apply that knowledge. In this model, teaching succeeds when we carefully apply the skills we’ve been taught and fails when we don’t (or when we lack knowledge of the necessary skills). In this view research, and the knowledge gained from research, guides practice and directs the choices educators make.

Teaching as a Profession
Teaching conceptualized as a profession is based on theories of instruction (pedagogy), child development, and learning (for example), and exercised through the application in practice of the underlying principles related to these theories. Because it is not constrained by extant rules or application of specific skills, research in this view helps teachers refine their understanding of theory and ways to apply in practice the underlying principles identified in existing research. Rather than guiding practice, research serves to inform it and empower the professional choices educators make.

Teachers as Researchers
In both models, teachers learn from research and apply what they learn in their practice. The difference is in the extent to which research restricts, or empowers, the instructional decisions teachers make. The role of teachers as researchers is also guided by our conceptualization of teaching. Within the trades view, teachers as researchers would be focused on examining the application of skills and the outcomes that result. Within the professional view of teaching, teachers as researchers would be looking at how the specific principles or theories play out within the context of their practice. A trades model then is more outcomes based, while the professional model more context based.

Trade or Profession?
It would be nice to think of education as a trade supported by a discrete set of skills that could be taught and applied across contexts with similar results; however, walk into any classroom in the country and you are likely to see great diversity in the instructors, the individual student context, the classroom context across the school, and the school context across communities. The sheer diversity and complexity of the human condition suggest that no specific set of skills will generate the same results for all students, except at potentially the most basic definition of learning. If we hope to educate our students beyond just a basic level of learning, we need to move beyond the trades model of teaching and fully embrace the concept of teaching as a profession. Doing so has important implications for both policy and practice and for educators and researchers.

Teachers as professionals must take time to learn about relevant theories of teaching and learning from which they can draw principles to guide their practice. They must be able to apply those principles across a wide diversity of student and instructional contexts. Their engagement with theory must be ongoing as new knowledge becomes available. When looking at the application of these principles in their practice, they must be able to engage in research to examine the way in which these principles play out in their practice, and they must share those results with their colleagues to continue to refine our understanding of teaching and learning.

Schurman, J. G. (1896, April). TEACHING,–A TRADE OR A PROFESSION? Forum (1886-1930). pp. 171-185. 

Ingersoll, R.M. and Merrill, E. (2011). The Status of Teaching as a Profession. In J. Ballantine and J. Spade (Eds.), Schools and Society: A Sociological Approach to Education. (p. 185-189) 4th Ed. CA: Pine Forge Press/Sage Publications.

About the author:
Daniel Laitsch (@Laitsch) is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Surrey British Columbia, Canada and the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy.  He is interested in the concept of research utilization, particularly in its application to research to inform policy and practice.  He can be reached at dlaitsch@sfu.ca.   

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