Why is teacher education doing such a bad job?

I recently discovered a new Aussie blogger named Anthony Sibillin. Pleased as I am that a new voice has joined the community, I am dismayed by what he had to say about his recent experience of teacher education.

Anthony was not taught anything much about classroom management. And when it came to the teaching of reading:

“Reading was mentioned, of course, but more as a sort of a mysterious bug that children caught through “language experiences” (a.k.a. being read to), “visual cues” (looking at pictures) and “reading strategies” (like using the first and last letter of a word to “predict” what it says).”

This is twelve years after the Australian government report on the most effective way to teach reading recommended an explicit approach that uses systematic synthetic phonics.

And the teaching of reading is pretty basic. By ‘basic’ I mean fundamental to future academic performance. If kids don’t learn to read then they are in major trouble. I certainly do not think that the teaching of reading is a simple thing. It requires a great deal of knowledge and skill, none of which was apparently taught to Anthony.

As soon as I posted a link to Anthony’s blog on Twitter, others started to reply and claim that this was also their experience of teacher education. So what’s going on?

The short answer is that I don’t really know. I find it puzzling but I do think there are a couple of interlinked potential causes.

Firstly, I don’t think teacher educators are bad or lazy. There’s no big money in education and so I usually work from the principal that most people involved in it are doing so out of a sense of public service and a desire to make the world a better place.

Instead, the entire education community is held in the grip of bad ideas. We can get a hint of this by looking at the programme for last year’s Australian Assiciation of Research in Education (AARE) conference. Unfortunately, you’ll have to take my word for it because the AARE site is currently down, but the programme is full of ‘theory‘ and teaching approaches such as inquiry based learning that are at odds with what we know from cognitive science. Phonics gets a mention but I suspect the presenter is not a fan.

Politics also seems to have a role to play. Teacher educators, like academics more generally, tend to be from the left of the political spectrum. I have no problem with this and am on the political left myself. Yet they seem to conflate these political beliefs with teaching practices. It’s as if a certain political outlook requires a particular teaching style.

For instance, there is a theory of English teaching known as ‘Critical Literacy’ that is, itself, a part of ‘Critical Pedagogy’. This, in turn, arose from the work of Paolo Freire in 1960s South America. Freire based his ideas in Marxism and was concerned with developing a way of educating peasants such that they would foment and prepare for the coming revolution. He looked approvingly on Mao’s cultural revolution and the education that was being developed to support it.

I find this a bizarre set of ideas on which to base a teaching approach. Instead, we should be looking at what is most effective using all the means at our disposal and acknowledging that none of them are perfect.

Until this becomes the focus of teacher education, I don’t see how it can improve.

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10 Comments on “Why is teacher education doing such a bad job?”

  1. Samantha Hornery says:

    I regularly interview new and early scheme teachers for educational support work with students with learning difficulties and this is entirely my experience too. Many of the new teachers know they will use reading groups in their classroom and have been taught this will teach reading. Others completing online programs have only encountered reading in a subject asking them to compare different reading methodologies with little input from the academics about the research supporting them. It is truly disheartening.

  2. Alison says:

    This issue is sometimes not what is taught but the programme context in which it is taught. I have taught literacy in ITE and developed the material for many courses in literacy or reading specifically. All are research-informed and use the simple view of reading as the foundation stone of understanding the what and how to teach reading (in New Zealand). But, the programme is strongly constructivist and led by colleagues who believe that children can ‘catch’ reading. As a result, literacy is relegated (with math) to only one of the curriculum areas with separate courses, taught by others, on pedagogy. The programme leaders have no idea that literacy is more than guided reading, so we don’t need time to teach both teacher knowledge of language and applying that to teaching reading. All in all it leads to confused student teachers who simply copy what they see in classes during their practical components, which usually doesn’t include anything they were taught in my courses.

  3. I’m surprised you’re surprised, Greg. On our phonics courses, there is barely a single, newly qualified teacher who has been taught anything about the teaching of reading and writing, much less anything about how children learn most effectively. And it’s been like that ever since we ran our first course in 2003. So prepare for a long, uphill struggle!

  4. Alex says:

    Until I learned how to use Twitter to educate myself (after eight years of full-time secondary English teaching) I assumed theories like Bloom’s Taxonomy and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development were grounded in strong science. I took my Master of Teaching at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at Melb. Uni, and still believe this was one of the best courses (of a bad bunch), which isn’t saying much. Bill Rogers gave us a fun talk, otherwise no classroom management. No cognitive science. Not even sample scripts and rubric marking (flawed, I know – I now prefer Comparative Marking for Arts subjects, but HSC is Standards-references 😦 ).

    I am watching my wife labour through a distance Dip. Ed. and am horrified by the presentation of theory as fact and general lack of experience many of her course conveners have. Admittedly, her Maths, Science and English courses were at least useful – her other subjects have been a wash of bad organisation, bad theory and invalid assessment processes (responding to forum posts and needing to reply to another poster REGARDLESS of the strength of their refutation or rebuttal!).

    Initial Teacher Training in NSW/VIC seems broken; it might just be the ‘rigour’ of the Social Sciences in general.

  5. Greg I agree with you that teacher educators are well-meaning. To add to your point about the conflation of political outlook and teaching approach, I think the problem also roots in a certain conception of childhood. The conception is Romantic (in the philosophical sense) and idealises childhood. This makes these teacher educators reluctant to instruct children directly, lest it derail the unfolding on the child’s unique personality. There are many objections to this conception of childhood but, to your blog, a big one is that it leads to teaching approaches, especially in reading, that involve too little teaching.

  6. Stan says:

    “There’s no big money in education and so I usually work from the principal that most people involved in it are doing so out of a sense of public service and a desire to make the world a better place.”

    This is an extremely charitable take on it.

    You are pointing out that the people in these jobs don’t have to be competent, no one seems to worry about the quality of what they are doing and you add that the pay is low. If what you say about their former students think is the normal reaction then the job can’t get much positive feedback either.

    So you have a low paying, low competency, job with most people having a low opinion of what they do for others.

    Maybe some aspect attracts idealists but it will also attract people unable to find anything better and that won’t make for an environment where the competent idealists have much fun.

  7. Mike says:

    Admittedly I was in the secondary teaching rather than the primary teaching “stream” in my DipEd course (and admittedly it was almost twenty years ago now), but back then the assumption seemed to be “don’t worry about that unimportant stuff like the actual conveying of knowledge, or classroom management, that’s for your prac – your master teacher(s) can show you how to do that.” I was lucky enough to have a wonderful master teacher who did give me an awful lot of help, although my first year in the classroom was still a bit of a nightmare from a classroom management point of view!

    The basic problem back then seemed to be that most of the academics, and especially the failed-teacher academics, treated these fundamental aspects of education as simply beneath them.

  8. […] education has been a recurring topic on the education-blog circuit as […]


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