So you are training to be a teacher or you know somebody who is. How can you tell if your teacher education course is any good? Here are a few things that should cause you to be concerned.
1. Classroom management is neglected.
You can’t teach students anything if they are not paying attention or, worse, if they are actively disrupting the lesson. This is the main fear of most people who start training to be teachers and yet many teacher education courses give it scant attention:
“In our discussions with ITT providers, we have found some reluctance towards practical approaches to training in behaviour management. We feel that in all programmes there is a need for more practical and specific advice on managing behaviour.” Carter Review.
There is an implicit theory that if you teach lessons that are engaging then behaviour problems will be solved. Thus, if you have behaviour problems then it’s because you are a boring teacher. I suspect many teacher educators find behaviour management distasteful – they think it is coercive or antidemocratic. This unhelpful and impractical stance is probably best expressed by Alfie Kohn.
2. They won’t actually teach you anything.
Despite your institution’s disregard for classroom management, you notice that there is a session on the subject on Thursday afternoon. “Great,” you think, “Finally I will get some practical advice that I can use at my placement school”. You enter a seminar room where the tables are grouped with a set of scenarios placed on each table. Your task is to discuss each scenario with the equally uniformed members of your group and maybe make some kind of a poster. A lecturer then facilitates a discussion where these unrefined and frankly contradictory ideas are surfaced and shared with the whole room. That’s your classroom management training. Of course it is.
3. Defunct theories are presented as useful.
Hopefully, any educator with internet access will be aware that learning styles and multiple intelligences have no basis in reality, at least in any sense that they have implications for the classroom. Yet some teacher education courses still mention them.
This is, however, just the tip of a very large iceberg. For instance, Piaget’s stage theories were presented to me as if they represented a settled view amongst psychologists. This is far from the case . Actual psychologists moved on a long time ago. The best advice I can offer is to be sceptical about pretty much any theory that is presented to you. Look it up independently, discuss it online or ask Twitter.
4. Strategies with lots of supporting evidence are hardly mentioned.
When I challenge teacher education programs, I attract the criticism (usually from teacher educators) that I have no evidence to support my views. This is despite referring to reports such as the Carter Review or the Action Now report from Australia. The suggestion is that I can’t know about every course and some courses might be really good. And it’s difficult to tell course quality from published programs and unit descriptions.
Perhaps another way to look at the issue is to review reference materials intended for trainee teachers. This is exactly what a group of distinguished educational psychologists did in the U. S. with teacher education textbooks:
“This report contends that textbooks used in this coursework neglect to teach what we know about how students learn despite its central importance in training. Compelling cognitive research that meets scientific standards about how to teach for understanding and retention barely gets a mention in many texts, while anecdotal information is dressed up as science. Theories du jour and debunked notions are being passed on to new teachers as knowledge and best practice.”
The authors identified six teaching strategies that they view as having the strongest evidence base: Pairing graphics with words; Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations; Posing probing questions; Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve; Distributing practice; and Assessing to boost retention. They found:
“None of the textbooks used in the sample accurately describes all six fundamental instructional strategies. At most, only two of the six strategies are covered in any particular text.”
Posing probing questions was the only one that came up frequently.
5. Your lecturers aren’t really interested in teaching
As a trainee, you want to learn how to teach. However, your lecturers might be more interested in denouncing neoliberalism, campaigning against testing and so on. Rather than dealing with an educational perspective directly, they may be more interested in looking at it as a ‘discourse’ and analysing the sort of people who might make such a claim and why they might be motivated to do so. It doesn’t matter what somebody says, it matters who is funding them etc.
I have stated before that I believe teacher education needs to be disrupted. This is not because I think universities should be excluded from the process. I believe that universities can become excellent centres for teacher education. Perhaps some are already. The problem is that, at the moment, there are too many poor teacher education courses. It will be interesting to see how things turn out in the U.K. with its new routes into teaching. Perhaps it will make the universities raise their game.