Is it possible that a new teacher education course will be able to teach, in just twelve days, content that regular courses struggle to find time for in a year? This is exactly what a new programme offered by the BPP private university in the U.K. promises to do. To be clear, it is intended to be a top-up to a larger school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) course, so nobody is claiming to be able to fully train teachers in six days. SCITT courses are a U.K. alternative to traditional university-based courses and my view is that Australia would benefit from new routes into teaching similar to these.
What’s the issue?
Currently, there is one dominant ideology in our education system and this is reflected in teacher education. This ideology has been described as student- or child-centred, constructivist or progressive education, although all of these labels are disputed. The key theme that emerges is that teaching should primarily be about initiating students into particular habits of mind; thinking critically, thinking like an historian and so on; something that is primarily achieved through doing (in the same way we acquire skills such as speaking and listening). These habits of mind are seen as at least partially independent of any particular content. Therefore, a mathematics lesson should be about students solving problems, the exact nature of which is less important than the act of problem-solving. Reading is about developing generic comprehension skills which can be applied to a range of texts. Indeed, the concept of a text (and literacy itself) is often expanded to incorporate everything from watching movies to surfing the internet. Sometimes, habits of mind take on a more political agenda, where teachers seek to encourage their students to challenge the establishment.
I have no problem with this ideology being taught to teacher education students. It is a legitimate if – in my view – flawed way of thinking about teaching. My issue is that it is presented as a consensus position as if there are no alternatives and as if it is supported by scientific evidence.
In reality, there are other ideologies, many of which may lay claim to a stronger evidence base. There is traditionalism, with its focus on academic subjects, the importance of knowledge and the transmission of this knowledge to students. There is behaviourism; the application of positive and negative external contingencies. Behaviourism is supported by strong evidence in the field of classroom management (even if the theory does not restrict itself to this). And there is the study of cognitive science with its roots in relatively small, randomised experiments that offer insight in to how we learn.
I don’t think these ideologies are deliberately ignored in teacher education. Instead, I believe that those involved simply don’t know what they don’t know. For instance, Project Follow Through was the largest experiment in the history of education and yet I have encountered many teacher educators who have not heard of it. Why? There are two reasons why it doesn’t fit; it was a large piece of empirical work, when teacher education tends to favour sociological theory, and it gave the wrong results.
What currently happens in teacher education is that conventional ways of thinking are simply reproduced. New teachers emerge unaware that there is a debate. When some of these mature into teacher educators themselves, they perpetuate these conventional ways of thinking. This is the pipeline.
What do alternative routes offer?
There is no reason to think that alternative routes into teaching will be any higher quality than traditional courses and it is quite possible that they might be worse. Programmes are going to have to draw from the pipeline in order to recruit tutors and design courses. Yet without the experience that universities possess in regulating such courses, we might see some of the worst excesses played out at scale. We may create a breeding-ground for learning styles theories and tech-fetishism.
We already have a number of alternatives in place such as Teach for Australia and, from all accounts, Teach for Australia is firmly situated within the dominant constructivist ideology.
So why bother trying to set up alternative routes? Because I see no other way out of the current thoughtworld. Teacher educators will not be persuaded by a few bloggers to take a broader and more inclusive approach to teacher education. Would this even be desirable? Should a course attempt to please everyone or should we have different, competing routes based in different ideologies? Given the limits to the amount of time available in teacher education, I think a good approach would be to plan for diversity.
Alternative routes at least offer the possibility of difference and change. There are enough people – just – in Australia to run perhaps one or two courses with a quite different take on teaching than the traditional models. In isolation, such courses will make little impact but they will open a discussion. Traditional routes may start to examine some of their a priori assumptions and respond through their own offerings, particularly in the localities where these alternative providers establish themselves.
The main barrier to alternative models in Australia is excessive bureaucracy. Teacher education courses need to demonstrate that they deliver on the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, a woolly set of standards with a bias towards constructivist education that alternative ideologies would struggle to work with. Writing on the AARE blog, Susan Davis, Deputy Dean of Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University notes that:
“While in the current version of national standards developed by AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) used in Australia there are 7 professional standards, underneath that are 37 focus areas and teacher education students must demonstrate evidence collected across all of these.
To be able to offer teacher education courses, teacher education providers must likewise provide evidence across a set of similarly numbered program standards.
In fact the instructions of what needs to be included takes up 42 pages in a guidelines document, which also emphasises that once a program is accredited no changes can be made to that progam. This type of approach encourages a compliance and tick box mentality.
It also means enormous energies and person power are devoted towards generating mountains of paperwork and which other poor reviewers must then wade their way through. While a so-called ‘light touch’ regulatory model was to be used for the re-accreditation of programs, one university education faculty recently reported that their accreditation submission amounted to over 1000 pages of documentation.”
It is unlikely that an Australian equivalent of BPP would wish to take this on. So those Australian teacher educators who took public offence at the BPP program can relax for now. Those of us who wish to see a change are going to have to wait a while longer.