The Profession of Education: Responsibilities, Ethics and Pedagogic Experimentation 

Shannon Kincaid, Ph.D.

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

The art of teaching is to teach, to teach well and to teach even better.

Chapter: I . Introduction

What are the professional and ethical obligations of educators?  What, if anything, governs their professional conduct?  Must educators continually attempt to improve upon what they do?  Do they have any obligations to conduct research, even experimentation, into the effectiveness of their teaching?  Are there any ethical rules governing pedagogic research?  Do these obligations and rules exist at all levels of education?  How are teachers/educators to be expected to know about and fulfill their obligations particularly for conducting research and performing experiments?  What are the responsibilities of educational institutions? What if institutions do not fulfill their obligations to their faculty? Are there collective responsibilities that faculty are obliged to exercise? These are some questions that are addressed in this work.

Teachers within educational institutions of all sorts have expressed a range of concerns and gripes and described problems so often as to have created a traditional litany of complaints and often without a receptive audience.   Concerns over class size, lack of preparedness of the students, class time, lack of adequate support for the instructional staff and on and on  fall on deaf ears, if on any ears at all beyond those reciting the "canon" of concerns.  Why is it that those concerns have become "perennial" matters?  Why is it that they persist seemingly without solution when they are related to the very heart of what educators do?  In this work there is presented a way to understand the recurring nature of these problems as well as a path to their solution.  That path lies through an awakening, in some cases, of the identity of teachers with being professional educators.  That path leads through an acceptance of what appears to be an off putting and daunting set of responsibilities as professionals towards students, colleagues and society.  But it is through that path that educators will arrive at the awareness and acceptance of the collective responsibilities as professional educators that serve as the base for a far more effective way to understand and adequately address and successfully remedy the problems in the standard litany.  So we have a situation in which educators by realizing that they have responsibilities additional to what they previously conceived will be able to serve their own self interests as educators where those interests are the solutions for problems included in the canon of concerns.  Faculty are responsible to teach and teach well and teach even better but they are not and can not be expected to achieve that progression within an institutional setting acting alone as individuals.  It is only as a member of a collective of professionals that measures can be effectuated to address and remedy concerns of professional educators.  This should be regarded as "good news" that there is a possible way to bring about solutions to heretofore seemingly intractable problems.  The realization of the collective and its authority and power is but one of the benefits of the acceptance of the identity of a professional educator with its incumbent sets of responsibilities.

There is perhaps no more important concern for educators, particularly in higher education, than that of academic freedom.  In examining both the nature of that freedom and its threats as well as a the most effective mechanisms for its defense it is not possible to proceed without noting the importance of the action of the collective of educators in the assertion of all those components and consequences of academic freedom along with their defense and maintenance.  It is for members of the profession of education to realize their identity as professional educators as a necessary condition for their taking collective action as educators to make the case, and unfortunately to make it repeatedly, that academic freedom is a necessity for education and for the academy and that it is a value for society as it is through the exercise of that freedom that knowledge and truth is pursued and benefits for society are produced.  This work will not focus on matters of academic freedom but will note its relatedness to several of the issues of concern herein.

In this work we are philosophers and teachers looking at teaching a bit philosophically.  We are premising this work on an examination and presentation of education as a profession and what that entails both in fact and of necessity.  This work presents a conceptual framework within which and perspective with which teaching faculty are enabled to ground important decisions as to what a professional educator ought to do in a wide variety of situations.  Most of the current discourse concerning teaching and responsibilities for conducting pedagogic research is ungrounded in any language that could support claims of obligations.  The narrative concerning what teaching is and what the profession involves is lacking in some fundamental manner that is demonstrated in so many educators being seemingly unaware of their professional responsibilities.  In this work the notions of individual, collective and institutional responsibility and their interrelationship are introduced and fleshed out and it is they that provide the basis for determining obligations and duties towards learners or students and for determining how those responsibilities might be fulfilled.  The approach adopted herein with its conceptual framework, perspective and basic notions affords a reasonable manner for decision making by individual educators and collectives of educators, teaching faculties.

Recent Literature in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

There has been a recent surge of literature relating to contemporary educational practice and pedagogical research, and there has been much discussion on the importance of pedagogical best practices.  This is a good thing.  But where there has been a virtual explosion of literature relating to pedagogy, there has been (with a few significant exceptions) very little discussion of education as a profession, and the responsibilities and obligations of professional educators.  There has been relatively little discussion on the ethics of pedagogic research and experimentation, and even less about the ethical issues related to the practice of the profession.

Throughout human history, education has been recognized and duly reflected upon as an essential component of human society and culture.  As a major social institution, education is seen as a necessary condition for human development, and its impact on both individuals and societies has been widely studied.  Since at least Plato, whose Republic emphasized the relationship between schooling, society, and politics, education has been recognized as a major component of political institutions and movements.  In the midst of all of this change, the social role of the educator has evolved as well.  Recognizing the fundamental importance of education, the teacher is seen as a member of a profession, one which carries significant obligations and expectations.  And fairly or not, society expects “more” from teachers than they do many other professions, holding them to standards and expectations not shared by other professionals.   

Further, there has been much thought and discussion concerning the content and process of teaching and learning, and a good deal of contemporary pedagogical dialogue has involved the both formal and informal pedagogic research and experimentation.  Yet against this background there has been precious little expressed about the professional responsibility of educators to conduct such research, and even less about the ethical concerns related to pedagogic experimentation.   In that relatively small emerging discourse on ethical concerns in education, there has been precious little contribution from individuals with extensive formal training and experience in ethics and ethical decision-making.   And because of this, much of the current literature tends to describe the types of ethical issues faced by educators and researchers, but there is very little discussion about how to address these issues, and so most of the contemporary literature is absent normative discourse. Indeed, some theorists even express disdain for or opposition to normative language.  Yet in ignoring the normative implications of pedagogical ethics, educators are often left in the dark with regards to addressing the very real and significant ethical issues they face on a daily basis.  This work attempts to address and remedy that situation.   

The method adopted here is to proceed philosophically, establishing the conceptual foundations upon which and the schema within which normative discourse in pedagogy is not only possible, but also both appropriate and needed. We begin this task by first arguing that, as a member of a profession, educators have professional responsibilities and in particular they bear a professional responsibility to conduct pedagogical research and experimentation in the continuing effort to improve their teaching.   Next, the discussion focuses on the structure of the relationship between educators and students, and highlights the obligations and responsibilities generated within the context of these relationships.  After setting out some of the givens in the way in which educators view their relationship with students we outline the basis upon which ethical principles applicable to educators rest and the relationship of educator to student that is most cognizant of ethical obligations.  The  additional obligations placed on educators by society are also noted as well as the responsibilities incurred by educators as members of a profession.  The behavioral norms for professional educators are presented as reflecting and both generated by and supported by the norms of society itself. 

The ethical issues that arise within the basic relationship of educator to student are given attention.  In particular the basic issue of the right and the obligation of professional educators to address and to change the beliefs of students and their methods for establishing their beliefs, their habits of mind.

Highlighted by this work are the ethical concerns related to research and experimentation with human subjects in the institution of education, and the ethical responsibilities of educators in the context of pedagogic experimentation, responsibilities that result from their position as professionals, voluntarily assumed, and their duties as human beings, universally acknowledged.  At bottom, this work is an attempt to argue that education is a profession, and as such, educators have a set of professional responsibilities, and that those responsibilities include doing pedagogic research in order to improve the efficacy of instruction.  In conducting such research there are ethical considerations that must be exercised.                    

There are a number of questions that receive too little attention in the recent literature concerning education and more significantly what is termed the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” or SOTL.  Among them are:  What are the responsibilities of an educator as an educator and in particular what are those responsibilities at the level of post secondary education?  What are the bases for those responsibilities and in particular the responsibility to conduct pedagogic research with human subjects? What are the ethical issues involved with the conduct of such research?  How are the moral dilemmas and ethical issues in these situations to be approached, analyzed, and effectively resolved?  These are at the same time interesting and difficult questions to address and to answer. Hence the need for a systematic, philosophical approach in the attempt to address these vitally important issues, and in offering effective analyses of the context in which the issues and dilemmas arise.

It is not expected that this work will cause a moral epiphany in educators who read it.  Nor is it expected that a single work would or could cause changes in the behavior of individual instructors, particularly those not interested or concerned with the issue addressed in this work or with their identities as professional educators.   What then is the expectation?  It is hoped that those educators who are concerned about the ethical issues raised in this work will have a framework within which they can better address the concerns that they do have and that they will have increased their intellectual resources with which to effectively resolve dilemmas and deal with situations.  Their intellectual resources would now include concepts of professionalism and moral responsibilities consequent thereto along with concepts of individual, collective and institutional responsibilities.

It is the aim of this work not so much to change teachers as to change a bit about what teaching is thought to involve.  It is thinking about teaching itself or the consideration of education as a profession which is the object of change herein: bringing about a greater acceptance of education as a profession and along with that its incumbent responsibilities for individuals, faculties and institutions.

What should emerge as the arguments are presented herein is that a solution to how to effectively address the canon of concerns of educators in institutional settings can be obtained through the widespread acceptance of educators of their identities as professional and the responsibilities incumbent thereto and the emergence there from of the collective exercise of responsibilities that should bring a response from those institutions adequate to remedy the problems oft times besetting educators. The under preparedness of learners, class size, support for faculty and students are better addressed through the acceptance of the identity of professional educator  and operating from the conceptual framework that will be developed herein than through the often tried and proven ineffective methods currently extant.

This presentation should not and will not proceed without making clear the most basic notions that are operative within. Here at the outset will be a brief indication of the view of education that is held by the authors of this work.

What is Education?

John Dewey defined education in many ways or one way but with many variations as to how best to describe it.  Perhaps his most succinct definition of education was “growth.”  

If at whatever period we choose to take a person, he is still in the process of growth, then education is not, save as a by product, a preparation for something coming later.  Getting from the present the degree and kind of growth there is in it is education. --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 184-185. 

 For Dewey, as for most educators, education is  

“...the formation of mind by setting up certain associations or connections of content by means of a subject matter presented from without.”—John Dewey ( Democracy and Education, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1916, p.75)  

…[T]he educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end.  --John Dewey

Democracy and Education (1916) 

When compared with education, all other human endeavor shrinks into insignificance.  Without education, human beings could not exist.  John Dewey famously argued that …[w]hat nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life.” (Dewey, 1916; p. 12)   

As far as the importance of education for human existence there is possibly no other social institution or form of human interaction that is as important as education.  It is through education that humans acquire those characteristics that most uniquely set off the species from others.   Intellect enables humanness but education actualizes those potentialities that typically mark the human as human.  Social groups enable formal education but it is education that actualizes the attainments of any society.   Education is a necessary condition of civilization, culture, science, finance, art, business, and any other worthwhile activity.  Without education, medicine is impossible, and so are baseball, cooking, parenting, and almost every other significant human activity.   Without education there is no language passed from one to another and without language where are humans?  How dependent are humans on language for thought? 

This being the case it is unavoidable that humans educate other humans.  They do so formally and informally.  They do so for better or for worse in so far as passing from one to another abilities and skills for the entire range of human actions and the motivations and desires for any number of human experiences and possessions. 

Education is a fundamental obligation of humans if there is any sort of fundamental moral obligation for humans to avoid harming other humans without sufficient cause as would be generally found accepted in practice and codified in law and an obligation to benefit others as is in either the individual or common interest.  And so Education is a fundamental moral obligation of each and every member of the human community to the degree to which any human is possessed of that which can be communicated and transferred to others that serves the development of individual growth and the progress of society.   Humans are harmed when denied education because they cannot realize their humaneness without it and humans are not benefited if they are denied education because they cannot grow as well intellectually without education and thus cannot continue to expand on that of which humanness will most uniquely consist.  

 All human activity qua human depends on social interaction.  Even the hermit and recluse have been educated in self-maintenance.  The lone survivalist with the cache of weapons and food depends upon others to fabricate their weapons.  The self-reliant exemplar of “rugged individualism” is, and always will be, a myth.    Humans are zoon politikon and can not and do not exist as human out of some social context that produces its humanizing effect on the member of homo sapiens sapiens.   All humans interact with and educate others through that interaction.   

The heart of the sociality of man is in education. --John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920, Boston: Beacon Press, 1952,p. 185. 

All social interaction depends upon education.  Every person must learn and refine their behaviors so as to exist, grow and prosper in the warp and woof of social life.  These behaviors are of every type and order.  Humans must learn how to obtain the basics needed for physical survival while existing amidst other humans.  Humans must learn how to communicate with and survive amidst other humans.  Humans thus must learn craft or profession, as well as life in general.   

Humans keep growing and keep expanding upon the very notion of what it is that makes any human human.  There are no fixed essences that define and confine the concept and experience of the human.  As the humaneness of the human is given in and through the social context, then the social context is as well growing and permitting and nurturing and spurring and enticing the ever so slowly evolving forms of human expression and human self definition.  No human can be human in the fullness of that humanness in isolation from other humans.  There is no human thought without human language and no human language in individuals alone. A human who lives amongst others long enough to acquire those basic characteristics of the species and its humanness who goes off as recluse or hermit and lives in isolation from other humans cannot continue to manifest the basic feature of human life that urges it forward into the transforming experiences that produce new expressions of humanness.  The recluse fails to exhibit one of the most significant characteristics of the human: the growth that comes from and through and for the enrichment of interaction with others. The recluse who remains such also fails to exhibit another characteristic of the human and that is as educator of other humans.  Humans educate others even if only through the learner's witnessing the behavior of the other, the "teacher".

The next chapter will present a case that those who deliver education in formal settings and institutions constitute a profession.

@copyright 2004 by S. Kincaid and P. Pecorino

Go to next Chapter                                                                        Return to Table of Contents