We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part II

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.


18 thoughts on “We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part II

  1. Angela Gault says:

    There is so much that is incorrect here about university teacher training in England. The greatest error is the claim that teacher educators are not accountable for the quality of their future teachers. As a minimum read the ITE Ofsted framework and some recent reports. Come and find out what really goes on in ITE.
    This article serves to perpetuate politically motivated myths about teacher education. All systems need to be continually evaluated and improved – in this case the future quality of our children’s education is at stake. Grouping together all members of the university teacher education profession and calling them toads serves to diminish this serious subject. There are the seeds of some good ideas in this article – it’s a pity that there are swamped by inaccuracies and emotive positioning. It is a great pity if these are the peacock feathers necessary for this type of publication.

  2. Like Angela above I would encourage readers of this blog to do some more serious looking into the curricula or university training courses. The selective plucking of a few “choir phrases” from a research paper (Part I) and then generalising this into “this is what teacher education is about” is the poorest of scholarship and the most facile of arguments.

    A few of the errors are:

    (i) The accountability measures (ITE is accountable for its trainees)
    (ii) The nature of most teacher education (most do have an undergraduate subject degree)
    (iii) The international situation (most countries use a university rooted model)
    (iv) The notion that teacher education is a “cash cow”
    (v) The intimation that “university based” entirely takes place in university (only about 40% of the time is in the university)

    The chaotic and mostly poorly planned move into school led training in the UK has led to the greatest crisis in teacher supply in a long time, the school led routes have failed to meet their recruitment targets every year yet their allocations have been increased. Most teacher educators are in fact very experienced teachers who have moved into developing the next generation of teachers – most professional follow this model where the best practitioners are expected to develop the next generation.

    Then you quote Andrew Carter who as head of a teaching school and ITT lead on the Teaching Schools Council – hardly an independent voice and the panel appointed for the review of ITT were equally biased towards one section.

  3. JP says:

    I have worked in university ITT and am now in school based ITT. I totally agree with the comments left above, this blog is just packed with inaccuracies. I can assure you that secondary training in schools has much more generic content than that in University because subject training is just so expensive. The numbers just will not add up (and believe me I have tried to make them). All ITT lives with the judgement of Ofsted and the idea that teacher educators are not ‘held accountable’ is just wrong. I was/am judged on my recruitment, retention, final grading, employment figures, quality of my teaching, quality of their teaching (both in their training year and now in their NQT year) in both HEI training and school based training. In both routes the judgements of the trainees are made by their school based mentors (and moderated by the core team).
    Many TEs in university are not required to publish because they are employed as teacher fellows rather than academics (on a lower salary) and if they do publish it is frequently about practice because that is where it is possible to collect data when you work around the school academic year rather than the HEI one it is very hard to find time to write anything.

      • For many it is not career that drives them per se. I know many in HE who have taken significant pay cuts to go into the TE sector. Many were heads or senior managers in schools and wanted a change of direction and an opportunity to be involved in research or teaching the next generation. There is a also a route for excellent teaching and scholarship in universities as well as research and publication.

  4. Chester Draws says:

    The chaotic and mostly poorly planned move into school led training in the UK has led to the greatest crisis in teacher supply in a long time,

    Unlikely. We have the same issue in New Zealand and we haven’t changed our training route. I think you’ll find most of the English speaking world now struggles to recruit good teachers in many key subjects.

    And yet we have a ridiculous over-supply of certain teachers — PE, English, History etc — because the Teachers Colleges accept any entrant, regardless of demand. Their funding depends on how many they train, not whether there are any jobs for them.

    The recruitment issue, for me, is that teaching modern classrooms doesn’t seem like much fun to most people, worried about modern fads and worried that they might not be able to control students in the absence of old-fashioned discipline. When you talk to people about teaching, that is what they cite. There isn’t a big set of potential trainees who really want to teach Maths or Physics but have missed out because the training scheme is a touch haphazard.

    Most teacher educators are in fact very experienced teachers who have moved into developing the next generation of teachers

    If they really loved teaching and are good at it why did they leave? Even my ambitious teaching friends think of potentially moving up to Deputy or Principal, but want to stay in schools. Good teachers who enjoy teaching stay teachers.

    Even if a very experienced teacher (say twenty years) turns up for a College position, they aren’t going to compete in the sort of academic paper writing nonsense Greg points to. They will generally lose to enthusiastic, theory-led younger competition.

    Do you think the people appointing to Teacher College posts go and watch the applicants in the classroom? Do they look at their results, compared to like students elsewhere, perhaps? Do they prefer experienced teachers who use a mix of styles, based on rule of thumb heuristics and trial and error experience? Or do they go for those who can articulate a pretty line of research based on some trendy theory?

    We suspected at my College that more than a couple of the lecturers had left active teaching because their little pet theories of teaching did not work as well in the classroom as they did in the laboratory, or because teaching like they suggested would quickly lead to burn-out (cough D*n M***r cough).

    • I obviously cannot comment on the teacher supply in NZ but having done reseach on supply and recruitment across the english speaking world there are long term problems in STEM areas more than other areas. However in England the move to school based has exacerbated the problem. Last year the HEIs recruited to 95% of their target numbers whilst the school based system only to about 65% this has led to the shortage as those numbers could not be vired across systems due to the political ideology.

      In response to your rather pointed comment about “loving teaching why did they leave it”, they did not. Those working in teacher education are still teaching – they are teaching the next generation of teachers – and yes these are general the people in the UK who are appointed to teacher education departments (which often work alongside education studies). The mix between the research and the experienced practice is a very positive model whcih most of the world recognises as the most positive model for future development – a professional development model not an apprenticeship model.

      • Chester Draws says:

        Lecturers in Teacher Education do how many hours in front of a class each week? With respect, a very light load in front of adults isn’t quite the same as trying to introduce Year 9s to the delights of Algebra or Year 11s to Shakespeare!

        And maybe at your Teacher Colleges they teach, but in mine half was (literally) lectures, most of the rest large tutorials, and only a tiny bit of actual one-on-one teaching. No-one works at Teachers College for the buzz of teaching!

        An amusing twist for my cohort was being lectured on the importance of discovery learning. Then going out and teaching ourselves in a classroom and discovering that there are significant (not to say unfixable) errors with that process. Of course once back in College we were told that what we had learned the hard way was actually not authentic, and that discovery learning was still the way forward, despite what we had witnessed. At that point most of my cohort stopped listening actively and just wrote down whatever would get us the diploma.

  5. Stan says:

    I think the defenders of teacher ed have to address the example in the first part. If teacher ed is well run and outcome driven there would not be examples of useless or worse than useless lectures that persistent once identified. Simply pointing out some big obvious waste of time would lead everyone to quickly condemn it rather than spend time arguing it is just an anecdote.

    Those are real students spending time on that course and it is real money paying for it.

    Compare the responses to what happened when U of Toronto was discovered delivering anti-vax lectures to medical students.


    That’s what happens when a university cares about its reputation.

    • I do not know what you mean by “address the example” this is a research paper which is not the same as lectures or teaching or indeed the many day to day conversations? Is it not a good thing that trainee teachers are exposed to research and theory alongside the practice in schools (which in England is about 60% of the time in most programmes).

      • Stan says:

        My assumption was exactly that trainee teachers are exposed to what passes as research in the example given. In any faculty that cared about its reputation that would not get past a reviewer and the author would not be allowed near students.

        What I object to is the critics of Greg’s piece are not objecting to what passes as research but instead Greg’s generalizing from an example.

        As Greg pointed out you can generalize from an example of what passes the reviewers of papers because that tells you how low the standards are for papers. Sure it doesn’t say anything about how much good stuff there is.

        Read the full paper and imagine walking it over to a respectable psychology journal. Forget that it is mostly over complicated words for straightforward ideas. The conclusion of the research seems to be based on the authors summary of the positive comments on a class chat group. There is no data presented, no control experiment and no complete analysis of any result. It is obvious from ten thousand miles away that the people involved in writing and reviewing that paper don’t care about scientific rigor.

  6. This might help to shed some light on how ITE providers in England and Wales are held to account for the quality of teachers graduating from their courses https://dodiscimus.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/a-little-meeting-with-ofsted/.

    The other basic difference between UK and antipodean ITE appears to be that there are national targets for each secondary subject, and for primary, in the UK, so numbers in popular subjects are centrally controlled and there is no significant oversupply.

    The issue about education research and ITE is less simple, but certainly at my university nearly all the PGCE tutors are employed as Senior Teaching Fellows and have no research element to our contracts. We are under no pressure to publish anything; our primary responsibility is to get trainee teachers started, deliver subject-specific training, and then to co-ordinate the 120+ days they spend in schools, supporting them and their school mentors, so they make the greatest possible progress in their teaching. I need to update this but more detail on the pros and cons of different training routes is here https://dodiscimus.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/the-carter-review-and-the-future-of-itt/

    Best wishes

  7. Tempe says:

    My partner started, and abandoned, a Grad. Dip in Ed. last year. He said that the course was terrible and did nothing to prepare teachers for their job. He learnt an awful lot about pedagogy; ie inquiry and problem based learning (nothing on Direct or explicit instruction) and nothing on how to dealing with behavioral issues. He said there was no content in relation to what they were expected to teach (he was high school English & ICT).

    We also noticed that there were a lot of articles in the press saying there was a definite over supply of teachers. No teacher would get a job here in a major city and would have to move to the back of beyond. Over supply definitely seems to be a problem in Australia and the Universities need to be held accountable.

  8. Tempe says:

    Also, we have two nephews who completed their teacher training. One is a maths teacher and currently doing a degree in mathematics. He is also finding it difficult to find work in Brisbane.

  9. Pingback: We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part III | Filling the pail

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