Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Teaching: Craft, Trade, or Profession?

While at West Point I learned that there is an "art of war" as well as a "military science". I accepted that I was a member of the profession of arms, a profession that was part science and part art. It was science in that it could be studied, be analyzed, and have lessons applied. It was an art in that applying the science didn't guarantee a replicable outcome, and some people (think Robert E. Lee or George Patton) just have a flair for it. To quote from The West Point Military History Series: Definitions and Doctrine of the Military Art, "Physical components, such as the size of armies and the relative lethality of weapons, were known to be important. In addition, intangible components, such as methods, morale, and leadership, were recognized as potentially decisive factors...." Science and art.

Is teaching a profession or a skill? Are we professionals or skilled laborers?

The question is non-trivial. The knee-jerk reaction is to say that of course teachers are professionals. But why? What exactly is a professional? What divides professionals from skilled laborers? I thought it might be instructive to list some fields that most everyone should agree are professions, and some that most everyone should agree are skilled labor, and a gray area, and see if that helps.

Clearly professional
-elevated clergy
-military officer/NCO corps

Clearly skilled labor
-computer programmers
-day-care providers

Gray area? Up for grabs
-law enforcement
-airline pilots
-business owner
-news anchor/reporter

Are there clearly identifiable components in these categories? What is it that makes doctors clearly professionals, mechanics clearly skilled laborers, but puts chefs and teachers in limbo? Unions exist in all three categories, as do specific training/education and licensing requirements. There's good (and not-so-good) money to be made in each of these categories. Clearly, money, unions, and education are not the sole determiners. Is a professional artist truly in a profession, or a craft? What is the difference?

Joanne links here to an article comparing teachers to salespeople. Is sales a profession, a skilled position, a craft, or a trade? I'm not sure. Is Bill Gates a professional? By what standard? Michael Jordan? Michael Jackson? Jennifer Aniston? How about Sir Ian McKellan? or Sir Paul McCartney? or Lady Margaret Thatcher? or the current and previous six US presidents, all of whom were either governors or vice presidents? Was Sam Walton a professional? Why or why not? My dictionary defines "profession" as "an occupation or vocation requiring training in the liberal arts or the sciences and advanced study in a specialized field". Does that mean there's no such thing, semantically speaking, as a professional athlete?

And what about "the oldest profession"? :-)

I'm beginning to wonder if the difference between a profession and a skilled labor position (or a craft or trade) is merely the esteem in which we hold the field. How important is the work, how arduous are the barriers to entry, how much sacrifice is required? How much do we respect the people in the field as a group?

By my ramblings it's clear that I don't have a definitive answer. Therefore, I can't tell you for sure where teachers fall. I'm open to comments, suggestions, and insight.


Anonymous said...

The problem here, I think, is a matter of definition. What is a professional? What is skilled labor? Are the two mutually exclusive? I think to answer your question you need to define your terms, then it might be easier to classify any job that you can define, not just name.

Personally, I think that there is both science and art in nearly every position, especially if you define science as that which can be written as a law (fact, predictible, dictated by rules or laws) and art as that which cannot be written as a law (situational, unpredictable, at the workers discretion, depending on the workers ability).

As an illustration from teaching. Science - you must attempt to keep all of the students attention for 50 minutes. Art - how you keep their attention.

David Foster said...

A lot of it is simply a matter of perceived social status. Why is a dentist any more a 'professional' than a tool-and-die maker?

Concerning management, Peter Drucker has argued that management is *not* a profession and that it is harmful to think of it as one...he prefers to call it a "practice."

In general, I think the desire on the part of people to be called 'professionals' can be translated into: 'pay us a lot, treat what we say as gospel, and don't dare to question our decisions or actions if you are a member of the unwashed multitude.'


Darren said...

David, I fear what you say is true. That's part of why I wrote this post.

Wyerbyter, do you like the Webster's definition I quoted? If not, what's wrong with it?

Anonymous said...

You might be surprised to learn how much of computer programming is art and not science. Well known studies show a ten to one difference in productivity between individual programmers with the same experience and education. The difference between a professional and a skilled laborer is the impact that the individual can bring to the work.

What puts a trucker in your skilled labor category? Lack of individual impact.

The problem is that systems of rewards don't always recognize the difference in individual ability. It would seem to violate a sense of fairness to pay one programmer ten times more than another. In programming shops, everyone knows who the best guys are and who the duds are. While there may not be a big pay differential, there are usually other rewards for the best, they can make their own schedule, work naked, or otherwise do things that the duds know better than to even try. How does the reward system for teachers reward the impact of the individual?

What is the impact of a teacher with a "flair for teaching"?

See Software Craftsmanship

Darren said...

Jeff, you silly man, you. *All* teachers are exactly the same. There are none that are better than the others. None deserves merit pay because in reality, *all* deserve merit pay. Just ask the unions :-)