Harvard Educational Review
  1. Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching

    Toward a Teacher's Creed

    By David Hansen

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. 240 pp. $46.00, $21.95 (paper).

    In his preface to Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching: Toward a Teacher's Creed, David Hansen states his central premise in compelling terms:

    Good teaching involves enriching, not impoverishing, students' understandings of self, others, and the world. It means expanding, not contracting, students' knowledge, insights, and interests. It means deepening, not rendering more shallow, students' ways of thinking and feeling. And it entails paying intellectual and moral attention as a teacher. (p. ix)

    In the eight chapters that follow, this educational philosopher explores and illustrates his conception of teaching as "a moral and intellectual practice with a rich tradition." The text is loosely divided into three sections. The first focuses on the person in the role of the teacher, the qualities that teachers should cultivate in the growing student, and their interaction with students in the learning environment. The second offers a concrete example of Rousseau's concept of teaching indirectly. The third addresses the place of both tradition and ideals in teaching. This carefully reasoned and clearly written text raises fundamental questions about who should teach, how, and why. Hansen's insights should resonate not only with scholars of Rousseau and Dewey, but also with aspiring teachers seeking a theoretical framework and moral foundation for their art and craft.

    Before introducing his own conception of teaching, Hansen reviews current activity-based and outcome-centered conceptions of teaching. The activity-based conception, he argues, focuses on the means of teaching, viewing teaching in one of three ways: as a "job whose tasks are clear cut and obvious" (p. 2); as an occupation with "an established and valued set of activities carried out by a group of people trained and perhaps licensed to perform it" (p. 3); or as a profession in which teachers presumably have "greater autonomy and voice in setting the terms of the work" (p. 3). In contrast, the outcome-centered conceptions focus on ends, such as "academic learning, socialization and acculturation, readiness for work, political agency and understanding, cultural identity and awareness, [or] religious faith and practice" (p. 4).

    However, Hansen claims that neither conception is sufficient:

    Activity-based conceptions can presume too rigid a view . . . and reduce the practice to a set of procedures. . . . Outcome-based views, on the other hand, can focus so heavily on results or ends that the means of their realization are treated in an instrumental manner . . . teachers are treated in an instrumental manner. (p. 5)

    Thus, both conceptions "can ignore, or even dismiss, the dynamic human element at the heart of teaching and learning" (p. 12). As an alternative, Hansen proposes his conception of teaching as a moral and intellectual practice "that pivots around the ideas of practice and tradition" (p. 2), terms that he explores in great depth later. In the opening chapter, Hansen introduces the idea of "practice" by emphasizing the importance of the individual person who takes on the role of teacher, in particular that person's "initiative and imagination," to shape the role by giving it "distinctive intellectual and moral substance" (p. 9). He describes tradition as "a dialogue across human generations" (p. 9), and argues that educators must develop a sense of tradition about the values of teaching in order to develop a richer perspective, giving teachers both the "critical distance" and the ability to "engage in self-scrutiny" (p. 7), which in turn will allow them to respond, rather than just react, to the challenging conditions of the work. Hansen shows his deep investment in a vision of teaching that honors both the current practice in classrooms and the "enduring terms" of teaching.

    This chapter also offers a clear overview of the organization of the book, with an excellent synopsis for scholars seeking an efficient way to preview this text. Readers can sense that Hansen takes seriously his responsibility as an author to define his terms and guide his readers clearly and carefully through his thinking. Particularly for a book about educational philosophy, the text is smooth, concise, and reader friendly.

    In chapter two, Hansen delves more deeply into the question of "who should teach and how they should teach" (p. 20) by discussing three central concepts: person, conduct, and sensibility. After a somewhat unwieldy analysis of what it means to be a person, Hansen focuses on the fact that "the teacher has a sense of agency, can fashion intentions, can act on them, can think about what he or she does, can feel things . . . can use imagination . . . can remember things pertinent of the work [and] is a social being" (p. 24). Many, Hansen notes, take these qualities for granted, since all teachers are people. Yet this personhood, he says, is what allows teachers to fulfill their central task, to "recognize and cultivate the emergence of personhood in the young" (p. 24), in ways machines or functionaries never could. In his discussion of conduct, Hansen emphasizes the teacher's aims and intentions as distinguished from thoughtless behavior. In discussing Dewey's description of our "permanent tendencies to act," Hansen embraces a view of teaching in which teachers recognize their agency not only over their own lives but also over their students' lives. He views teachers as people with great influence who must have a certain "moral sensibility to bring reason and emotion together" (p. 32). Offering anecdotes of teacher-student relationships to illustrate the moral dimensions of the teacher's role, he concludes, "To teach well implies, at one and the same time, cultivating a moral sensibility, enlarging one's person, and enriching one's conduct" (p. 40). This inspiring, albeit somewhat idealistic, vision of the teacher's role supports Hansen's view that teaching is "an opportunity rather than an intimidating burden" (p. 40). Aspiring teachers may feel that this clearly expressed vision is a helpful guide, and veterans may feel that Hansen's concepts serve as a valuable touchstone to help remind them why they became teachers. It is refreshing to find a scholar who emphasizes the social and humane dimensions of teaching, which are so often either assumed or overlooked.

    In chapter three, Hansen shifts his focus to explore the "image of the growing, educated person [that] might guide a teacher's work with students" (p. 17). Building on Dewey's work, Hansen defines and illustrates various qualities that he feels teachers should envision in their students: straightforwardness, simplicity, spontaneity, naiveté, open-mindedness and open-heartedness, integrity of purpose, responsibility, and seriousness. Although these descriptors feel reminiscent of the character values that many schools promote, Hansen goes beyond listing the terms to explore their philosophical roots in the works of Rousseau and Dewey. For example, when discussing responsibility, Hansen writes,

    In Dewey's terms, responsibility is the propensity "to see something through." It is the predilection "to consider in advance the probable consequences of any projected step and deliberately to accept them: to accept them in the sense of taking them into account, acknowledging them in action, not yielding to a mere verbal assent." (Dewey, quoted on p. 52)

    Hansen emphasizes both the moral and the intellectual dimensions of these qualities: "Such a person is becoming someone who can act in the world rather than merely being acted upon, . . . who not only can think and judge but who also connects or embeds thought and judgment into actual conduct" (p. 60). While acknowledging that this image of a growing person is neither complete nor inclusive, the author points out that the image still can serve as a starting point for teachers who truly seek to "broaden and deepen the persons [the students] are" (p. 57).

    In chapter four, Hansen continues to expand on the work of Rousseau and Dewey, addressing a common belief that "teachers educate through the intermediary of the environment" (p. 63), which they design, control, and regulate. Hansen outlines some of Rousseau's concrete recommendations - such as paying close attention to the physical setting and using time wisely - that any experienced teacher will recognize as being central to classroom management. He then examines how Dewey reconstructed Rousseau's concept of indirect teaching, explaining that the educational environment should be simplified (respecting students' capacities), purified (calling forth students' best thinking), balanced (promoting individual development and a social and moral consciousness), and steadying (helping students integrate their experiences at school, home, work, and play). Yet Hansen also clarifies that "the environment depends on the agency, intentions, and actions of individual persons" (p. 75). In ways reminiscent of David Hawkins' "three-term relationship" among teacher, student, and subject matter, Hansen explores the intricate connections between the person in the role of the teacher, the image of the growing person he or she is trying to cultivate, and the environment that will support this growth.

    Having laid the philosophical foundations, Hansen next includes a one-chapter section that offers readers a concrete example of indirect teaching: his own course for teacher candidates that he has taught at Columbia University. Although chapter five may seem oddly placed between the two more philosophical sections of the book, the specificity with which he describes his course, including study of Dewey's Democracy and Education, should hold great appeal for teacher educators, and for laymen seeking to ground Hansen's abstract concepts in real-world interactions between teachers and students. Hansen views his own class as a "model, or projection, of the spirit in which they [the teacher candidates] might teach in the future" (p. 109). He details his pedagogical approach, called focused discussion, built on Socratic dialogue. Although the basics - arranging chairs before class, designing small-group activities that encourage participation, promoting student leadership - may sound familiar, Hansen simultaneously discusses the moral foundations of these decisions and their effect on students. The course is not just an academic endeavor, but also one in which Hansen strives to promote "purposeful, trustworthy human relations" (p. 113).

    In the final three chapters, the author elaborates on the role of tradition in teaching as well as the place of ideals, in particular the ideal of tenacious humility - a stance with which teachers might strive to approach their work. He examines the living tradition of teaching, rather than the politicized sense of tradition, as either a conservative's dream or a progressive's nightmare, arguing that this vision of tradition "encourages a teacher to see her or himself as a being in time, as a person responsible for ensuring that things of value - knowledge, understandings, outlooks - endure in a dynamic way for future generations" (p. 115). Drawing on the work of Harold Bloom, Hansen discusses how a sense of tradition, as distinguished from just a knowledge of history, can both connect and distance one from those who came before, thus "animating a teacher's consciousness" (p. 124). He further asserts that a sense of tradition provides teachers with critical distance from contemporary conceptions of teaching and promotes healthy self-criticism, including of one's own traditions. In chapter seven he offers an in-depth exploration of Rebecca Bushnell's study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century educational practices in England in order to illustrate both her "respect for historical origins and precedents" (p. 146) and her willingness to "heed the past as well as to read it" (p. 147). He writes,

    The sense of tradition yields insight into . . . the opportunity, the privilege, the adventure and the moral and intellectual responsibility that accompany taking on the mantle of teacher. This standpoint enables teachers to talk productively across what may be perceived as different pedagogical traditions, or as differences about means and ends within the practice. . . . It opens the way to valuable criticism that keeps in view the long-term health of the practice. (p. 136)

    Readers will not be surprised, based on Hansen's emphasis on the moral dimensions of teaching, that his final chapter addresses the "promise and perils" (p. 158) of ideals in teaching. He states that ideals can "provide a source of guidance and courage" yet may also "override reason" or "have problematic results" (p. 160). In closing, Hansen revisits how tenacious humility - an active quality of staying the course while respecting reality - is an ideal to which teachers should aspire. He writes, "For teachers, the ideal aspect of tenacious humility gives an orientation to their thought and imagination, while the regulative aspect helps guide their concrete approach in the classroom" (p. 170). Making oneself a better person and teacher and promoting the same in one's students, Hansen says, is an ongoing journey: "It is an image of determination allied with openness, of a commitment to think and to question wedded to action . . . an increased attunement to other people and their individuality. . . . Tenacious humility creates conditions for teacher learning, for a 'deeper knowledge' of the 'necessities' entailed in 'good practice'" (p. 172).

    Hansen concludes that, "in the very best educational practice, the real and the ideal mutually 'inform' one another" (p. 164). In many respects, The Moral Heart of Teaching does exactly that: it strikes a balance between Hansen's philosophical vision of teaching and learning and the very specific explanations and concrete illustrations of how he and others have and might continue to realize those visions through thoughtful, deliberate, artful, and humane teaching.

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