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.