Here and now
Over the past 12 months, words like ‘lockdown’, ‘pandemic’ and ‘coronavirus’ have entered daily usage and we are now all too familiar with exponential curves tracing out the misery of lives and livelihoods endangered and tragically lost. It’s a similar story in most other countries around the world. It sometimes feels as though the strands of our pre-Covid lives are unravelling.
Yet strangely, in the midst of these dark days there’s also a sense of something releasing as we watch some of our familiar certainties and taken-for-granted assumptions working loose. Here’s an example. At the centre of the fierce debate about whether or not England’s schools should close due to the pandemic we witnessed three familiar edifices – policy, professional practice and research – jostling for power. It looked certain that policymakers would prevail and schools would remain open. Yet, finally, it was the virus which took the upper hand with its new, more transmissible variant, leaving school closure as the only option. As this scenario unfolded, it threw into sharp relief the tensions that lie at the heart of educational decision-making. With the dawning of wide-scale uncertainties about what actions to take, something new and more troubling emerged. It became increasingly clear that the overriding question facing us was: who should we entrust with our children’s lives and futures?
Surprisingly, in answering that question we have to begin by looking back in time to the Classical period of Ancient Greece and be inspired by the thoughts of the philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC). Aristotle spoke of three forms of knowledge that enable wise actions and good decision-making: episteme (formal, academic knowledge), techne (craft or practice knowledge) and phronesis (values-led practical wisdom). Episteme begins by asking questions about what things are and how they function, in order to establish general laws or theories. A drawback when we try to apply knowledge from general theories is that they tend to produce off-the-peg solutions that do not necessarily reflect the needs, values and priorities of particular settings and circumstances. Techne, with its roots in practice and craft, begins with the question of ‘what works?’ but its conclusions tend to be circumstantial and its implications may therefore be limited to one classroom or teacher’s practice. If neither techne nor epistemeoffer us reliable, pragmatic solutions, could phronesis (also known as practical wisdom) provide answers?
Phronesis is set apart from the other two forms of knowledge by its starting point – values. It begins with a fundamental question: what is the best course of action that can be taken in these circumstances? Right here, right now, what should we do to improve the situation we face? This pragmatic approach then turns to episteme and techne for advice, weighing up theoretical and research evidence with insights from experience and ‘craft’ knowledge derived from practice. In determining the right course of action, values play the key, decisive role. Let’s consider the question of online learning as an example for a moment. If you set out from a position where you hold clearly-articulated values – say, you subscribe to the value that education should ensure that all pupils have the right to achieve their full potential – then the choices you make must be steered towards achieving this objective, as far as possible. For instance, using local knowledge of your school’s setting, you might be aware of families in need of additional resources and you could direct funding appropriately. Another phronesis-driven strategy might involve extending teachers’ pedagogical knowledge of online teaching to support more effective learning for all pupils. In effect, phronesis acts magnetically in decision-making, using our values to draw together relevant theoretical, research and practice knowledge and directing our actions.
Applying phronesis in everyday practice may sound appealingly straightforward. In reality, of course, action and decisions in classrooms and schools are subject to a complex interplay of influences, many of which are outside the control of individual teachers. While the pragmatic rationality of a values-led professional approach informed by research and theory may seem irresistibly logical, putting practical wisdom into effect is often challenging. Nevertheless, whilst phronesis is not a panacea, it can steer us towards achieving our aims and there are ways to increase its chances of doing so. One way is to adopt a creative perspective, looking for workarounds to obstacles and constraints that lie in the path to achieving our goals. Returning to online teaching, for instance, we know that a lack of adequate resources and funding has been a serious concern, particularly for children and young people in socially-disadvantaged areas. In response to these problems, many schools have had to find creative solutions. Some have employed tremendous ingenuity and formidable tenacity in fundraising efforts and accessing resources to ensure that all children can access online learning. When values us lead towards decision-making and action that are unsupported by policy, it becomes necessary to look for spaces within or beyond the policy framework where creative opportunities can emerge. More examples of phronesis in action can be found in a recently published book, Sculpting New Creativities in Primary Education (2021) edited by Professor Pamela Burnard and primary head teacher, Michelle Loughrey. In this book, teacher and researcher authors present a series of case studies from classrooms and schools illustrating how practical wisdom is being used creatively to direct and inspire values-led, research-informed practices.
This sharing of professional experiences leads us towards another way in which the idea of phronesis catalyses change on a wider scale. The potential of practical wisdom is magnified through harnessing it to the power of collegiality. Collective phronesis facilitates the exchanging of professional knowledge, research, theory and values, enabling teachers to work collaboratively to reach their objectives as a profession, as well as individually. Working together releases some exciting possibilities. Building a recognised corpus of professional knowledge, for example, would provide support to the case for recognising teachers’ professional autonomy and strengthening public trust. Although referring to the medical profession, this argument for trust in the professions could apply equally to education:
Believing in professionalism means holding the conviction that medical professionals can come together to establish and enforce standards for competence and ethics, and that society is best served when health care is entrusted to these professionals…. Most fundamentally, therefore, professionalism requires that health professionals, as a group, be ready, willing and able to come together to define, debate, declare, distribute, and enforce the shared competency standards and ethical values that must govern medical work. (Wynia, Papadakis and Sullivan, 2014, p. 714).
Shared standards of competency and ethical values are workings from collective professional judgement. In the UK, long-established professional bodies hold responsibility for these workings within the legal and medical professions but teaching has struggled to gain similar levels of public recognition and professional autonomy. The implications of this have been sharply apparent over recent months. Whenever a politician is challenged about a pandemic decision, they claim to be ‘led by the science’ and ‘guided by expert opinion’. Tellingly, when questions about teaching and learning arose during lockdown, policymakers shunned the expertise of teachers. However, there are signs of change, evidenced by the swell of social media support for The Chartered College of Teaching. Throughout this pandemic chaos, the UK’s recently-established professional body and its members have shown how a strong, collective professional voice engenders resilience to the demands of challenging circumstances, unreasonable expectations and unprecedented demands.
Looking forward to future possibilities
Lengthening hours of daylight and rising Covid vaccination figures are beginning to brighten the outlook. Yet as we move forward with cautious optimism, we must remember the many lessons learnt from this pandemic’s tragic outcomes, not least in terms of lives lost of course, but also across every aspect of our fragile existence. We need to be ready to respond swiftly, wisely and decisively to worldwide dilemmas but when existing knowledge fails to find immediate answers, what can be taught? American philosopher, Richard Bernstein, offered a starting point to our search for answers, writing with prescience in 1983:
At a time when the threat of total annihilation no longer seems to be an abstract possibility but the most imminent and real potentiality, it becomes all the more imperative to try again and again to foster and nurture those forms of communal life in which dialogue, conversation, phronesis, practical discourse and judgment are concretely embodied in our everyday practices. (Bernstein, 1983, p. 229)
Phronesis – Aristotle’s practical wisdom – has stood ready for over two thousand years to guide our search for better ways of being, thinking and doing as individuals, as teachers and as a teaching profession. Releasing the future possibilities for teacher professionalism begins perhaps with a willingness amongst teachers to join this conversation and a determination to ‘…be ready, willing and able to come together’ as a profession dedicated to fulfilling the public’s trust (Wynia, Papadakis and Sullivan, 2014, p. 714).