5 features of poor teacher education

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.

The solution

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.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget


24 thoughts on “5 features of poor teacher education

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Maybe some will be offended by this post by Greg but I do think he raises some relevant points. Was glad to notice that the teacher training I’m involved is not too bad when looking at these 5 points. We do teach about Piaget more as a part of history and to explain how developmental research is conducted and how this evolved with thus mentioning all the flaws. But we also note that the idea of starting of in the concrete – in part inspired by Piaget – still is very important.

  2. Over 20 yrs ago, the behaviour management lectures I had were based on the premise ..ignore small behaviour problems and other mantra trotted out by the lecturer ( it is not fair to name him ). What concerned most students on the course was the fact that you had to buy his book and your evidence and essays had to lean heavily towards his mantra. We needed to pass this ‘module’ and so noone was going to rock the boat. This was true of the subject specialist time as well, eg why learn formal written methods when there are so many investigations with calculators. I summed it up to myself as ‘we (they) want to know what you think as long as you agree with us (them)’. The saving grace was that we were told (by a lecturer exhausted by our debates) that we would all end up teaching how we were taught or something like that, as if she had been trying to break the cycle of abuse. Also…we somehow did no Piaget etc. I learned about them many years later. But we did do stuff relevant to the era and location eg1 such as proving you weren’t racist in one integration module by making sure your essays criticised the word swamped. Eg 2 In the drugs lecture, making sure you could put various drugs that I would never encounter into an order of danger, and don’t forget to put alcohol and coffee in there!
    I don’t have a problem with these last two examples. The point is you have to jump through their hoops to get the qualification. Many of my friends spotted this well before me. I would be still having pointless debates with my maths lecturers. I wonder how my experience compares with today’s TT

  3. Gisbert van Ginkel says:

    1. I teach classroom management. In fact we start with it: working climate is a key condition for learning (though not enough in itself). And we frame it in terms of a research-based model of teaching skills in which creating a classroom climate and organising lessons efficiently are basic skills to learn.
    I also model good practice, up to the point of giving a student a time-out for being disruptive (no role play). Though that was a first this year.

    2. I teach it hands-on, with analysis of video examples, required reading, good-practice video’s, tasks to be completed during workplace learning, modeling good practice. AND with demands for USING theory, including Kounin. But I ALSO try to make students aware that different management theorists tend to start from very different assumptions/views, and therefore stimulate them to examine and explicate their own views.

    3. I actively debunk existing educational myths (most learning styles for instance), as well as idiosyncratic personal theories of some of our students (‘genius is destroyed by schools’, ‘it’s no use learning definitions’, ‘it’s not my task to teach learning strategies’, ‘there’s no need for teaching learning strategies in creative school subjects’).

    4. I teach effective teaching and learning strategies for remembering, comprehension and problem solving, including the research evidence (testing effect, spacing effect, mixed practice effect, fading, expertise-reversal etc). Though some students experience this as highly counter-intuitive (‘after you said that pupils learned best in a condition of spacing across months, I found that so hard to believe I started doubting everything in the lecture’ Well did you go and actually read Dunloskey then to check your assumptions? ‘No, not yet’ Time to read, son).

    5. Yes I do discuss the views behind certain practices and advice, AND how commercial products can be problematic (for instance, when there is no open examination of them, such as RTTI here in the netherlands that’s replacing Bloom and all other taxonomies for classifying learning goals and test items). Because students WILL be exposed to all kinds of advice that is unfounded, and they need to have a disposition of examining teaching critically, or their teaching and the learning of their pupils will suffer. And because good teacher education is based on a shared vision of practice, and we believe (at least I believe that my colleagues and I do so) students should be able to locate their personal views within broader perspectives and debates on teaching, learning and schooling. And because examining personal theories is a key component of effective teacher education. And yes, that derives from Darling-Hammond.

    And (hypothetically, if I had the time, imagine the luxury) in discussing a blogpost like this one with students, I would have them examine Ashman versus others on the subject of effective teacher education. Hopefully for them to conclude that avoiding such ‘mistakes’ does not a good teacher education program make. How to design (or for students: ride) a blue elephant is still more important than how to avoid thinking about a white one, unless you’re so hell bent on eradicating white elephants for trampling your garden that you need to get that out of your system first. Which happens with some of our students (getting all frustrated about our demands on them), but we’re not here to make it a comfortable ride. They need to learn to ride.

  4. Here is a bit of input from Dublin, Ireland.

    Last week I was talking to two second year primary school student teachers who were just about to begin a three week placement in our school. I asked them how much time of their course had been given over to the issue of how we should teach children to read? They looked at me and said not much really, maybe a lecture or two, but nothing intense.
    I asked them had their been much discussion of the various approaches to teaching reading including whole language and phonics? The answer was no.
    I gave them an extended alphabetic code chart and they hadn’t a breeze what it was.

    My advice to them was to go back and ask their lecturers how were they supposed to teach children to read. In fact I didn’t say ask, I said demand, as there is nothing more important in a primary school than teaching children to read, In addition I advised that on every placement they should ask teachers to outline their approach to literacy and what evidence they have to demonstrate its success.

    Next week I’ll ask them about the advice they have received in terms of classroom management, although I think I have a rough idea of the answer I will get.

  5. Tami Reis-Frankfort says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    This very much reminds me of my PGCE. Though, I did learn how to make potato prints and how to mount artwork on a double mount. It was really the most useless training for classroom teaching. Sadly, many teachers experiences the same.

  6. anthony says:

    I think it is completely wrong that 9/10 training sessions, CPD days, lectures are all death by powerpoint. It seems that any teacher training pulls the life out of most teachers through archaic methods of delivery by the “teaching expert”

  7. I have a distinctly limited perspective but I think all these points either are to some extent real problems or were real problems in the past but it’s worth thinking about why there isn’t a clear and uncontroversial core curriculum for ITE and where we are actually at now, and how we might move forward.

    It’s important to realise that giving schools much more clout in ITE hasn’t made much difference to course content (and has only increased time in the classroom a small amount since 120 days was already standard). So schools and universities are not way out of kilter.

    It’s also important to realise that whilst quite a few people in ITE have research interests most have a contract which is entirely teaching and tutoring (and total hours are comparable to teachers in school, so we’re busy) and almost all come from an 11-18 middle leadership background. This means that a lot of our work is based on our experience in schools. That may not be ideal but it’s a reflection of how things are set up and the high cost of ITE to universities. It would seem dead obvious that academics with research contracts would be feeding into ITE and doing the reading for us, in effect, but that fails to fully appreciate how academia is set up. Academics are mostly not generalists; this is worth reading for an insight into their position https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/workload-survival-guide-for-academics

    Also, a lot of the sort of thing you are quoting (Deans for Impact, IES practice guide, etc) is quite new. If you think how prominent Hattie was just a few years ago and then compare the Visible Learning narrative with Deans for Impact, that’s not an unambiguously clear message. Also something like Marzano, which seems to be very evidence-based and was prominent before Hattie, but then gets a hefty knocking in the NCTQ review of US teacher training textbooks. Also the evidence for AfL from KMOFAP was really strong but again is not a clear part of the same story although there are links to be made.

    So, one perspective is that there is unambiguous evidence about what works and ITE should be ditching other things and focusing on this and why are they being so crap about it, but it doesn’t feel quite that simple to me.

    Part of ITE is about passing on basic ideas about planning and teaching and feedback and then supporting trainee teachers through extended practice in the classroom, with both parts of this having an emphasis on sharing expertise and getting trainee teachers to work on their weaknesses. Perhaps we could tighten up the research evidence under-pinning this but it wouldn’t fundamentally change ideas about what works in the classroom (not on the course I work on, anyway). The other part is subject knowledge and how to teach it to children – misconceptions, useful models, worked examples, all that sort of thing. This subject-specific work is the bulk of the university-based part of the course; most of the refinement of practice comes in the 120 days in school with school mentors.

    It may be that more generic, practical behaviour management practice in the safety of training sessions would be helpful but we don’t have evidence for that being effective like we have evidence for retrieval practice being effective, and the challenges and instincts that trainee teachers have to deal with depend a lot on them, and the schools they train and work in so there’s an argument that it needs to be more personalised and context-driven (and therefore in school). I’m doing quite a bit of reading on research into teacher-effectiveness analysis linked back to training at the moment but it’s not very detailed about things like this. We need to try doing more and see what happens but just because it seems to be working for Doug Lemov doesn’t necessarily mean it will work everywhere for everyone (just as AfL hasn’t).

    Maybe Piaget should be ditched completely but I’ve heard strong opinions both ways (IIRC Oxford asked their Psychology School to review this and decided to keep him in but that memory may be dodgy) although it’s clear that the stages are a problem. Learning styles, yes, should be out. My experience is that at least 2/3rds of my trainees arrive with this misconception.

    I think you will see this as defensive, these points as excuses, but I’ve worked in secondary schools where the general opinion was that primary did a useless job because children’s writing and maths wasn’t bullet-proof, and post-16 where secondaries were berated for not teaching algebra and other mathematical failures as they started A-Level. Universities moan about UGs arriving unable to write/think/study/do calculus properly. Employers reckon schools and universities don’t teach basic employability skills. Maybe that doesn’t get your hackles up when you’re on the receiving end but it does for most teachers and that’s why the “ITE is poor” meme doesn’t get a very collaborative response either. I know your survey has a high proportion of teachers stating that their ITE experience wasn’t helpful but that’s not the internal or external feedback we get from NQTs (if it was, Ofsted would have us on a Grade 3 and effectively shut before you could blink). I can improve my work, ITE as a whole can improve too, as much as possible we should be trying to distill the best ideas about best practice and ideally we would have the time to do this properly (as would teachers in schools) but in the end we’re all just teachers trying to do the best job we can for our students.

    Best wishes

    • To me the most shocking aspect of ITT’s disregard for evidence is their decades of resistance to the extremely strong evidence for systematic phonics over whole language strategies in learning to read.

      The government effectively had to force them to chance their stance. When dogma overwhelms evidence to this extent, there is something very seriously wrong. A freedom of information request for the reading lists of ITTs in 2009 still showed a huge preponderance of whole language texts, and a depressing absence of the core texts providing the evidence for phonics. While one can hope things have changed significantly in the succeeding 6 years, it is quite difficult to find evidence for it.

      Also, you say

      I know your survey has a high proportion of teachers stating that their ITE experience wasn’t helpful but that’s not the internal or external feedback we get from NQTs

      But surely the point is that NQTs don’t yet have the experience to evaluate how useful their ITE experience was in the longer term. I’ve read/heard quite a few teachers saying that. Much better evidence of effectiveness would be to get evaluations 5 years on, although I appreciate there might be practical difficulties in that.

      I would just add that I have been very impressed by your thoughtful approach to this issue whenever I have read contributions from you. But in general, social media comments I see from ITE academics really make me despair in their hostility, arrogance and their illogical lack of understanding that with over 50 ITE providers, simply claiming that their particular institution doesn’t do something is not “proof” that their adversary is lying about their experiences.

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  9. (Here is another perspective from Ireland).

    I think this post poses some challenging questions and those in teacher education would do well to engage with it and challenge their own perspective and their motivations.

    Class management tutorials were the preserve of ‘struggling’ trainee teachers in my ITE. They were given extra support to help them manage classes while on placement in a school. This left other teachers out in the cold and it meant that you developed bad habits and ineffectual practices. The fact is, reading Bill Rogers until you’re blue in the face is not going to make you better at managing classes. I am of the opinion that you need to be taught it, shown it and you need to observe it.

    I read your book Greg and I found it very enjoyable (I’m even writing a review on it because I genuinely believe that orthodoxies should be challenged and it does this very effectively) but I was struck by one thing you said at the start of Chapter 2:

    “With hindsight, the course [teacher training] did not prepare me particularly well to start teaching. I wonder whether it is even possible to train for such a job in a single year. Yet there were significant gaps in my knowledge that could have been covered because they could have replaced other activities that I have drawn little from in the succeeding years.”

    I completed my teacher training in one year – an extremely intense year. After it, and while in my first teaching job, I asked myself the exact same question: it is even possible to train for such a job in a single year? I still don’t know the answer, but I do feel that such significant gaps in one’s subject knowledge are not helpful and perhaps should be filled (to the greatest extent possible) before employment.

    Last, I think there should be space in teacher training for things like sociology, philosophy and the history of education, but not at the expense of requisite subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. I think it is perfectly within in our remit to question prevailing political beliefs about education and we should be informed to do so, but the main focus at the beginning of one’s career should be to learn how to teach effectively.

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  12. When students don’t get good grades everyone blames student only for lack of hard work, but in reality a complete review of both students and teachers is must. Really important and nice topic. Keep posting more.

  13. neanderpal says:

    My teacher training 30 years ago lacked anything about behaviour management. Amazing and shocking that this can honestly be published in 2016 as if it were 1990. We were told that if our lessons were planned there would not be any problem. Of course it only takes one child who won’t behave to knock your plan for six. In teacher training often the trainee teachers have to role play being school students. You learn to be a student, not to be in charge, which is what you need to learn. The reason is that teacher training lecturers are people who got out of school teaching as soon as they could, did a PhD in “Education”, and got a cushy number in a university. At least in UK they have been teachers once upon however brief a time: in some countries you can be a teacher trainer without even having done the job yourself!

  14. Troy Davis says:

    I agree that it is time to rethink teacher education programs. Teachers value practical strategies and tools in the classroom. In other words, greater emphasis on the application of learning theory to the classroom. I have actually found Kohn’s impractical ideas quite helpful in managing a classroom. I think behaviour management is often construed as controlling learners rather than managing the classroom. That has its own set of problems, too.

  15. Tembo Mateo says:

    You made a number of excellent points in your post, plus I found myself nodding my head repeatedly as I thought back to the Master’s program I’d attended a few years ago (and to the 100-hour certification course I took right before that), along with how much I’ve studied on my own about education-related topics since then.

    That being said, there was just one point I took issue with (in item 3), namely Piaget’s four stages. For, according to what John Hattie wrote in “Visible Learning” (2009), programs that are based on his four stages have a very high effect size (the second-highest of all the approaches he discussed, actually [at d=1.28], though it’s somewhat lower for math [d=0.73] and reading [d=0.40]), thereby suggesting that there is something to what that psychologist wrote.

    But, aside from that, your post made a number of really good points, and, in my book, should be required reading for anyone in teacher training (students or faculty). Thanks for writing it.

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