Teaching with moral purpose

Written by: Jim Mepham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What is the purpose of education? As retirement approaches headteacher Jim Mepham is more convinced than ever that we want children who know things, can apply this knowledge, but who also understand themselves, others, and the world around them

As I approach the end of my years as a primary headteacher, I have been reflecting on what I have learnt about teaching and learning, pedagogy and the purpose of education.

I do this from a standpoint of having enjoyed immensely both the successes and the challenges of my career.

Over the years, I have seen many different initiatives introduced into primary education. These have included strategies to develop the curriculum, changing approaches to classroom pedagogy, changes to the classroom environment and behaviour, all of which have been rooted in research.

I am not disparaging about these changes, as they all have something to offer. However, sometimes changes or new approaches are held up as a “holy grail” and they are imposed on the profession with little discussion.

One set of practices are adopted, then followed shortly by another. We obsess about Bloom’s Taxonomy, then the skills-based curriculum, then Rosenshine’s principles, then the knowledge-based curriculum…

The reality of my experience is that the thesis that one model of pedagogy is universally better than any other model is clearly not supported in research.

This is because classrooms are highly complex environments in which there are an increasing range of pupil need, a wide range of interactions, and teachers with a range of different styles of teaching and different character traits.

You simply cannot drop a principle into a classroom and expect it to transform pupil learning. Learning does not function this way or operate in an empty vacuum.

For Gary Keogh, in his book Pedagogy of Purpose (John Catt Educational, 2021) the current thinking about education is dominated by what he calls the “mechanist” approach. This is based on strategies, systems, measurement, and box-ticking. All these are designed to improve and accelerate rates of progress.

Attempts to improve teaching through inspections, incentives or performance management often lead to a focus on “performance” rather than on “learning”.

What seems to be missing from this “mechanist” model is that classroom learning has a huge social and moral component, and that none of these strategies addresses the question of the purpose of learning.

As a headteacher, when I have appointed teachers I have prioritised two things. First, the candidates need to have a clear vision and values – i.e. they can articulate why they want to teach. Second, I look for teachers who can form strong relationships with pupils and motivate them.

It is my contention that skills and competencies can be learnt, but “teaching that is only grounded in subject knowledge and skills does not capture the real meaning of the occupation” (Jubilee Centre, 2015). It is the character of the teacher that is absolutely key.

Strong teachers establish good relationships with pupils, they have clear expectations, they develop trust with children and understand their pupils’ needs. They have good intra and inter-personal skills.

The research analyses in the Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit show that the most powerful element of learning is feedback. Effective feedback occurs in classrooms where there is a high level of trust between the teacher and pupils and between pupils – positive social relationships and classroom climate are key.

The Statement on teacher education and character education from the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham states that “the single most powerful tool that (teachers) have to impact on a student’s character is (their) own character”.

Professor David Carr says in the same document: “It is often that we remember teachers as much for the kind of people they were (as) for anything they may have taught, and some kinds of professional expertise may be understood as qualities of character.”

Education cannot simply be about “filling empty vessels with knowledge and information” (Socrates). Teachers today have to respond to the complexity of classrooms with a bewildering range of needs – attachment, autism, ADHD, speech and language difficulties, and mental health concerns…

Teachers need to have the character traits that equip them to be resilient, empathetic and forge relationships that will support and motivate learners. Teaching is about navigating complex interactions that are social, emotional, moral and, sometimes, conflictual.

For Ofsted, the purpose of education is “to make an alteration to long-term memory”. This seems a shallow and one-dimensional definition. The aim of education has to go beyond the acquisition of knowledge and Ofsted judgements.

It has to link to education for happiness and wellbeing. The teacher has a key role in exemplifying values and getting children to reflect on the values that will help them become future citizens.

As well as knowledge, children need to develop courage and compassion, fairness and tolerance. Schools have an important role to play in fostering children’s characters to equip them with traits that will help them to be resilient in later life.

Of course, it is important that children develop knowledge, understanding and skills across the curriculum. However, they also need to develop key social and moral dispositions before they can learn. If children cannot self-regulate, concentrate or take turns, if they have no resilience or lack empathy, if they have no feeling of self-worth or do not respect others, they will struggle in school and in adult life.

On a “mechanist view”, South Korea has one of the most successful education programmes in the world, but the country has the highest suicide rate of all OECD countries. Pupils and staff are pressurised and drilled to perform.

We want children who know things and can apply this knowledge, but we also want children who understand themselves, others and the world they live in.

I have come to believe that the purpose of education cannot simply be about academic success. We have a duty to see learning in schools as a moral enterprise.

  • Jim Mepham has been a primary school headteacher for 12 years and has worked in education for 30 years.

Further information & reading

  • Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues: Statement on teacher education and character education, University of Birmingham, 2015: https://bit.ly/3wUMX9L
  • Mepham: What school leaders can learn from Stoic philosophy, Headteacher Update, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3bOcGbK
  • Mepham: A culture of ethical leadership: Five approaches, Headteacher Update, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3OMyTpl

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