Are you an ethical teacher?


Dr Joe Smith
Dr Joe Smith
Professor Gert Biesta
Professor Gert Biesta

In a recent ethics roundtable, educational professionals discussed the provocations of Professor Gert Biesta of the University of Edinburgh and Dr Joe Smith from the University of Stirling

For Dr Joe Smith, access to knowledge is an ethical question. “Ultimately it’s about teachers being able to look at themselves in the mirror… have they acted with integrity in making sure they’ve given children access to the knowledge about the world that they need? If the answer is no, then I think that’s unethical.” He argues that learners should be taught to become independent free thinkers and that teachers have a responsibility to do this.

His view was supported by many roundtable participants. One said: “An ethical teacher will take account of the lives children are living, as well as the world they are being prepared and supported to enter into.”

Joe’s argument is that outcomes – such as attainment, and ‘skills for learning life and work’ – are now seen as ‘the purpose’ of education, and that a sense of education as a human endeavour has been lost. This assertion was supported by many attendees, one of whom commented: “I think the knowledge versus skills debate has been a particular problem. It struck many chords with me. I think we have lost our way and lost sight of the purpose of education in Scotland in many regards. I think it has come through in the OECD report and the Muir Review. I think we have to have a significant discussion within Scottish education about the purpose. What are we trying to do for and with learners?”

The practicality, however, of how to achieve this was questioned: “How do we ensure that we are getting the balance right for our young people and are equipping them for a world which we don’t know looks like?”, with another attendee commenting: “We need to ensure that we are supporting teachers to understand the purpose of education / the curriculum and supporting them to have agency.”

"Central in such values is the concern for your students’ future as subjects of their own life"

Joe argued that measurement in education had become an end in itself. Another teacher asked if “all measurements are bad for education or do they highlight what knowledge has precedence over others?”

Professor Gert Biesta felt that the word “knowledge” could be misleading, preferring the word “understanding” instead. “Knowledge becomes, very quickly, something abstract and then it becomes a list, but if you say we teach for understanding then it becomes educationally meaningful.”

Indeed, Gert argued that something much more is needed and that being an ethical teacher does not mean you are a good teacher. Not only do you need technical skill, he said, teachers also need to work with educational values: “And central in such values is the concern for your students’ future as subjects of their own life; a concern, in other words, for their freedom.”

What is CfE looking to achieve?

Video call participants

A discussion about the purpose of education inevitably led to Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), with one teacher commenting: “I agree with Joe’s [critical view of system] accountability and looking more deeply at the purpose of education. What are we trying to do and achieve? CfE, why did it come in and what is it for? We need to think about these issues.” Another attendee asked if the system let teachers down by expecting them to develop the curriculum without equipping them with the knowledge skills and agency to do so?

“The system doesn’t have agency, it’s not a thing with a mind, it’s not conscious,” Joe responded. “A better way of phrasing this is: does CfE require a more fundamental re-evaluation of the system? Of stakeholders in the system, of hierarchies in the system and where power is in the system? Of teachers’ roles, teachers’ time and expectations of teachers… Do all these things need to be reformed in order to align better with the curriculum? Yes, I think teachers needed more help than they got. In order to make CfE work – if that’s what we’re aspiring to – there needs to be fundamental root and branch change to a lot of shibboleths.”

One teacher felt that feeling knowledgeable and confidence in understanding and enactment of the curriculum was key: “Professional learning is important here, so that teachers have the opportunity to question and understand the curriculum themselves. This questioning slows down and stops after [initial teacher education] ITE.”