We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part IIPosted: December 19, 2015
In Part I, I gave an extended example of the way that the ostensibly prosaic goal of training teachers can become the test-bed for bizarre ideologies such as post-structuralism. Anyone hoping that research into education would compare the relative effectiveness of different teaching methods might be disappointed to learn that the best methods are already known. And they are known by how well they fit the ideology rather than by any measure of effectiveness. Thinking critically about approved teaching methods is not possible within such a mindset.
This is not an isolated example. Evidence is accumulating from across the English-speaking world that the traditional, university-based approach to teacher education is deeply flawed. For instance, the recent Carter review for the UK government stated that:
“We have identified what appear to be potentially significant gaps in a range of courses in areas such as subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). We believe there may be a case for a better shared understanding of what the essential elements of good ITT content look like.”
Notice the concern with a lack of subject knowledge development and training in areas such as classroom management. It is not hard to see how an emphasis on teaching prospective primary school teachers about the need for inquiry learning in maths might displace the teaching of actual maths and the methods and approaches that teachers both need to master and be able to explain.
A similar review into teacher training in Australia included the following findings:
“Australians are not confident that all entrants to initial teacher education are the best fit for teaching. This includes the balance of academic skills and personal characteristics needed to be suitable for teaching… Not all initial teacher education programs are equipping graduates with the content knowledge, evidence-based teaching strategies and skills they need to respond to different student learning needs.”
Note that similar concerns about teacher training span continents and are widely known. This should give us the clue that there is something systemically wrong with the way that we train teachers.
Teacher educators are not held accountable for the quality of teaching that their students go on to supply to the education system. It would be difficult to suggest any way in which they could be. Instead, career progression in education academia follows the same logic of academia in general; publish or perish. Add to this the ubiquity of teacher training courses and the need to find a supply of teacher educators and you’ve got a lot of folks looking to publish education research.
This creates the incentive to pursue topics that are the most likely to be approved by peer-review. In this case, affectations around complicated-sounding theories such as post-structuralism provide something of a memetic peacock’s tail: “Look at me,” the author is effectively saying, “I am a particularly talented individual because I can grapple with these complicated-sounding words and phrases.” There is no mechanism to trim away at these excesses because the quality of the end-product – teachers – is so far removed from its producer. There is no incentive to explain these ideas to the public because their very mysteriousness serves a purpose (hence no Brian Cox of post-structuralism). Compare the motivation that a primary teacher educator would feel to teach her students to be better at maths with the motivation to produce a conference paper on something fashionable and esoteric.
This means that our systems for training teachers need disrupting. I take a humanist view of disruption; it is not intrinsically good but rather a tool to be deployed when required. This is not a right-wing ideal. In my view, those on the right are often keen to call for the disruption of working class industries – think of coal versus gas in 1980s Britain or Uber versus taxi-drivers in Australia today – but somewhat less inclined to take-on the vested interests that stitch-up banking, the law, utilities and so on. In my view, wherever a group of toads squat on an area of the social realm, eating-up all the flies in a way that disadvantages the public at large, we need disruption.
There is already a model for disruption in teacher training in the UK. Courses that allow students to train directly in schools have expanded. I think we should be encouraging such courses. Initially, they will not necessarily offer greater quality but the competitive pressure they introduce should lead to greater quality in the long term, increasing the quality of subsequent university provision. I also think that the new English and maths tests in Australia will help to break the teaching-faculty-as-university-cash-cow model that been allowed to develop.
I would also like to encourage what might be described as a “Melbourne Model” of teacher training. Melbourne University has introduced a system of university education where students have to study one of a limited number of general degrees before specialising. For instance, you cannot start an undergraduate medicine degree at Melbourne. Instead, you must study biomedicine first.
I think it would be a good idea to reduce the number of straight education degrees, particularly in the primary sector. Instead, prospective teachers would be expected to study an arts or science degree. They would then follow this with a one or two year teaching course that could be provided wholly within the university sector, wholly within certain accredited schools or a mixture of both.
This would enable students to build their critical faculties prior to being exposed to education academics, if at all. It would also help meet calls for increased specialisation within the primary sector. The competitive pressure that this would introduce would, I believe, lead to an increase in quality. Far from being the death-knell of university education faculties, I believe that this would lead to a renaissance in quality and a focus on educational research that is genuinely in the public interest.