Imagine a medical school where the graduating students demonstrated little knowledge of anatomy. Now imagine that all medical schools were like this and the failure to adequately teach anatomy was an open secret. Picture a medical school professor who, when challenged, wrote largely empty tracts about how anatomy was an important part of medicine but that a key focus also had to be on ‘making healthy’.
Such medical schools would probably not produce the doctors that we need. We would see a decline in population health and particularly so amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged because they would lack the resources to make healthy choices for themselves or to seek paid help from alternative practitioners.
This is the situation as it stands in teacher education. The equivalent of doctors not learning about anatomy is teachers of early reading and writing not learning about basic linguistic constructs such as graphemes and phonemes. For instance, could you identify how many speech sounds there are in the word ‘box’? This is key to being able to teach phonemic awareness. Could you identify which of the following words has a soft ‘c’; Chicago, cat, chair, city? Do you know what a voiced consonant digraph is? Indeed, do you know the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics?
These were amongst a set of questions put to seventy-eight Prep teachers from schools across the Australian state of Victoria (Prep is the first year of formal schooling). The answers showed that knowledge of these ideas was ‘limited and highly variable’. Worse still, the teachers were asked to rate their own knowledge and ability to teach these concepts and yet these ratings had no relationship to the teachers’ performance on the knowledge questions. Interestingly, the longer a teacher had been teaching, the more likely he was to highly rate his ability to teach phonemic awareness and phonics.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is relevant here. We don’t know what we don’t know and so we may overestimate our abilities. Also, cognitive dissonance plays a part; it is hard to accept the idea that we might have been teaching something poorly for many years and so the better alternative is to assume that we have been teaching it well. The more years we have invested, the stronger the effect.
I do not blame teachers. Dunning-Kruger actually absolves them of much of the responsibility. You train to be a teacher and you assume that you are told the stuff that you need to know. If you’ve never heard of a diphthong then you won’t know that you haven’t heard of it.
And I don’t blame teacher educators. They probably know as little about these concepts as their students. Why would they know more given the culture in which they have built their careers? Once inducted into the guild, you start to see things through the guild’s eyes. Phonics is important blah, blah, blah, BUT there are other things that we need to focus on such as ‘making meaning’ – whatever that means – and other vague and general, good-sounding things.
The guild has its own answer for educational under-performance: You cannot make-up for poverty through education. Except that nobody is claiming that you can. It’s like the person whose job it is to install your new boiler claiming that she can’t make up for the fact that it’s winter. Nobody is asking teacher educators to end poverty but we are asking them to better prepare new teachers.
This idea is met with incredulity. The guild has its ritual enemy. Sporadically, it erupts into a two-minutes hate against neoliberalism or politicians who won’t commit more funding to schools. Education academics know that these demands are not politically possible and so, like a minor political party promising both tax breaks and extra spending, they can keep on advocating for Utopia whilst blaming the evil overlords for thwarting it. And all this without ever having to examine their own practices; their own part in the current state of affairs. The problem is caused by someone else.
I have argued previously for the disruption of teacher education. This is not because I believe that school-based training or the other alternatives will be any better. I am looking for a circuit-breaker; something that will jolt teacher educators out of their group-think of philosophical blather, make them take a hard look at what they are doing and start teaching the educational equivalent of basic anatomy. This is urgent.
But let us imagine for a moment that we simply decided to do this for ourselves, disruption or not. Imagine that we could improve teacher preparation from within the world of education; no government imposed targets, no tests. We could do that and we could claim those successes. Perhaps, in time, we would demonstrate that we don’t need harsh scrutiny or accountability measures. Education academics, having achieved real successes, might start to be listened to by the government and be given some rope to run policy without the mediating influence of think-tanks, columnists and irritating bloggers.