Traversing the field by thinking about ‘practice’

We often talk about the ‘practice’ of teaching, which can be a helpful term because it invokes the sense of ‘doing’ the job often involves, be that instruction in the classroom, enacting behaviour management policies, leading professional development or any of the myriad of things that go on in schools. 

But there are other aspects of ‘practice’ that we ought to consider too, particularly the notion of practice as being the shared (and sometimes contested) knowledge and ways of knowing that underpin the profession.

Let me illustrate what I mean. If we look in the Cambridge dictionary we see several meanings of ‘practice’, including:

  • Action rather than thought or ideas. Eg ‘How do you put these proposals into practice?’
  • Description of what really happens as opposed to what you think will happen. Eg ‘It seemed like a good idea before we started, but in practice…”
  • Something that is usually or regularly done, often as a habit, tradition, or custom. Eg ‘It is common/standard practice.’

The first two speak to the sense of ‘doing’ I mentioned above but it’s the last meaning I want to focus on here because it reminds us that practice also speaks to the knowledge that is held between groups of people; it is also the knowledge and ways of knowing that can exist as habits, traditions and customs, as well as how we think and act – both individually and collectively – as professionals. This reminds us that as educators what we know, what it is to ‘be’ and what we do are not necessarily arbitrary; they are shaped by something, or someone. 

But who and what shape the practice of teaching? This is the question that I’ve been grappling with and I’ll be honest – there isn’t a single answer. And whatever answer that might exist is quite complex. But this complexity needn’t stop us from addressing the question. Indeed, you might say that it’s precisely because of its complexity that we need to grapple with the problem. 

Fortunately, there are others with much greater intellect than me who have plotted something of a path we might follow if we’re to try to address this question. Among others, I tip my hat to Bourdieu, Bernstein and Maton. In their own particular way, each has theorised that practices, such as teaching, can be thought of as existing as ‘fields of practice’. That is to say that there are, similar to sporting fields perhaps, players, rules and means of succeeding. These things shape what ‘counts’ in the field, or in our specific case what ‘counts’ in teaching.

This might seem like intellectual navel-gazing, but I think it has important implications. For example, it goes to the heart of thinking on the curriculum. Important books like Ruth Ashbee’s ‘Curriculum’ lay open for analysis how school subjects as fields are constructed. She illustrates how subject disciplinary knowledge helps us to work our way through truth claims within subjects, and explores how this works differently in subjects. The headline is that by knowing how the subject works teachers and leaders are better able to design meaningful curricula that are appropriately faithful to the parent discipline (although not the same thing). 

But what lies beyond the curriculum? How does a leader who is, for example, designing a school or Trust’s CPD programme work out what to include, and what not to include, from the many thinkers, books and approaches that might be drawn upon? How does the leader work out ‘what counts’ in relation to, say, behaviour management or instruction?

And what about leadership development? How does the field of practice affect the way schools and training providers select and structure training, and how do we identify the ‘better’ knowledge and who are the legitimate knowers?

My suggestion is that by conceiving of teaching as a field of practice we get closer to at least asking these questions, if not perhaps always answering them easily. But I think it matters for another reason too: it reminds us that we’re in this with other people. And that opens the door for us to build knowledge together. We can situate ourselves as part of a wider field of practice and by doing so bring ourselves into relation with other knowledge and other knowers. 

This, I believe, is essential in the area of school improvement – something educators talk about a lot but perhaps don’t always appropriately theorise. The result is that we can sometimes focus on activities (the first part of our definition of practice, above) as disconnected ‘strategies’ and ‘interventions’. They become disembodied from their origins, or vexed by poor proxies, and perhaps evade scrutiny in some ways.  

My argument is that, just as with curriculum, we have to situate our ‘practice’ within the field so we more explicitly consider what is legitimate knowledge in relation to school improvement, and what is not. Of course, this isn’t necessarily simple but while there may not be a easy answers (eduction is complex), this needn’t stop us from engaging with the problem.

If we think about school improvement as a field of practice we unlock powerful questions. For example:

  • What is the ‘better’ knowledge about school improvement? On what basis is this agreed/contested within the field?
  • Who are the legitimate school knowers about school improvement? On what basis?

And most importantly, how does this affect what we do in the name of school improvement? For example:

  • Which external speakers do we use and on what basis?
  • Which courses do we send colleagues on and on what basis?
  • Which schools and Trusts do we visit and on what basis?
  • What do we need to know about X, and on what basis would we deem that to be ‘better’ knowledge?

I’ve got more to say on this and will be publishing next week a CST paper exploring the underlying theory in more detail. For now though, I hope I might have piqued your interest in the notion of school improvement as a field of practice. 

Odds are that if you’re reading this blog, whether you realise it or not, you’re part of that field in some way. I wonder, as you see it, what counts?

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating blog, Stephen. Makes me wonder how these meta-educational theories relate to the wider epistemological questions of what it is possible to know (and by extension, learn). Who would you recommend I read on this?

    Please connect me to your paper when published.


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