Teachers are doing it for themselves

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In an ideal world, teacher training should be strongly informed by evidence, setting prospective teachers on the right course from the outset. It doesn’t work that way.

There is a stereotype about teacher trainers: They couldn’t cut it in the classroom and so they escaped to education schools. This explains why teacher education courses are light on behaviour management strategies – the instructors don’t know any and that’s why they left the classroom in the first place.

As with most stereotypes, it’s too harsh and simplistic. There are lots of excellent teacher educators out there. Although my own P.G.C.E. was grounded in constructivist teaching, a doctrine I now reject, my instructors where highly intelligent people who made the course interesting and who were clearly in it because they were motivated by conducting education research.

Nevertheless, the stereotype rings true for many teachers. It’s also clear that many teacher preparation courses are light on some of the key practical elements of teaching such as behaviour management, focusing instead on what’s probably best described as sociological theory. Any evidence of effectiveness is conveniently dismissed on the grounds that education is far too complicated to be analysed in this way, leaving the field free for the pursuit of politically motivated teaching methods such as critical pedagogy. You know when you’ve entered this territory because people start using words like ‘praxis’ and referencing French philosophers.

The current state of teacher education in Australia has led me to argue for its disruption in order to allow for a more diverse range of providers. I still think universities have the potential to deliver the best quality, most evidence-informed courses, but I believe they need more impetus to do this.

Such disruption has already occurred in the U.K. Not only do they have Teach First, a more successful incarnation of the model used by Teach for Australia, but they have opened up training to school-based routes. Now, academy chains may also become part of the mix by providing training in-house.

Yet the alternatives carry risks. If non-teachers get involved it can lead to all sorts of nonsense. Non-teachers with good intentions are perhaps even more likely to uncritically accept the fluffy or ideologically-driven stuff. After all, non-teachers have been drawn into the arena by a high moral purpose and yet have little sense of the practicalities of teaching. They will turn to education experts, assuming that the claims they make are as sound as experts in other fields when often they are not.

They may also be under the impression that teachers need motivating. You get a sense of that when you hear hype about teachers being miracle workers. It is easy to look at teacher recruitment and retention issues and conclude that the solution is a collective hug. But this is wrong. Teachers will only be momentarily encouraged, if at all, by such rhetoric. In order to stay in the profession long term, teachers need to be offered practical solutions to real problems. They need to be freed from school policies that insist on lots of pointless marking or that fail to address endemic classroom disruption. They need to be able to use the most effective and efficient teaching methods.

I apologise if this sounds bleak. It seems as if I have posed a problem, identified a potential solution and then debunked it. That’s not quite right. I don’t think teacher training is doomed. I think it has a bright future but there will be a few blind alleys along the way and we should expect that.

The fact is that we already have a more powerful way to counteract the effect of bad ideas in education. In previous generations, teachers only received information that was mediated by various gatekeepers such as their school leadership, local bureaucrats and consultants or the editors of the Times Educational Supplement and other papers. This is no longer the case. It may be true that only a small number of teachers are active on Twitter and in social media but we nevertheless seem to be having a disproportionate impact. Arguments are being won in some schools. Experienced teachers are sidling up to new recruits and pointing out a few home truths. Pressure has been applied to bodies such as England’s Ofsted inspectorate so that they no longer demand schools demonstrate practices that lack evidence; practices such as dialogic marking.

Of course, the old gatekeepers aren’t keen on this new state of affairs and this plays out sometimes on Twitter. Teachers are attacked for not having the credentials to speak or write about evidence – just imagine someone making such claims about doctors and you understand the current status of our profession. And there are darker stories about people being reported to their schools or threatened with legal action. But this is all to be expected. Few privileged groups have relinquished power without a fight.

And so it is over to you. If you are your school’s only portal into the online world then you might want to start sharing a few articles with colleagues (e.g. this or this). You might want to encourage them to sign up to Twitter themselves. If it’s safe to do so then you could start a blog, sharing some of the ideas you have learnt and testifying to your own experience.

The future of our profession depends on people like you.

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3 thoughts on “Teachers are doing it for themselves

  1. Just how soon all the nonsense spouted by the education academics (mostly failed teachers or ideological zealots) during teacher training goes out the window depends very much on one’s master teacher during the pracs, in my view. I was very lucky to have had an outstanding and fiercely realistic (not to mention extremely hard-working) master teacher, who remains a good friend to this day. She had no truck with all the child-centred/constructivist/critical pedagogy fluff, but she was by no means a troglodyte; she was ahead of her time, for instance, in incorporating appropriate technology into the classroom. Sadly, though, not all beginning teachers are so lucky.

    Teachers can question all the current dogmas on twitter and on blogs and it’s a good thing that they do, but ultimately if the culture is to change, it has to be through university education departments…and sadly, that will take at least a generation. A sort of Gramscian long march through the institutions in reverse!

  2. Also, An Effective Schools Checklist To Be Added ?

    Who am I to agree with you, Greg? But, I do. I’m a long-time parent advocate (from Canada) who despaired for better public schools, took teacher college certification in order to home educate (thought I needed it), now a grandparent and still despair for present schooling in much of the world. I have followed much of your evolution as a teacher over the past years.

    This essay I agree with substantially — problems of constructivist, critical pedagogy, etc. and with the direction you now propose, that is, teachers being informed by evidence-based research. The two papers you link, The Case for Fully Guided Instruction and Principles of Instruction, I agree, from my study of the field, are worth adopting by teachers of today.

    In addition, I would want today’s teachers to find themselves in a school that both respects their evidence-based background and provides the setting for implementation. 40 years ago Ron Edmonds, USA, defined the principles, where effective teaching flourishes, with a ten-point checklist. See my condensed version here: http://www.parentsteachingparents.net/2013/08/effective-schools-checklist/

    Furthermore, a few months ago when Tom Bennett produced his 76 pg UK report, Creating a Culture, I did a brief comparison and found a lot of what he recommends parallels Edmonds’ work. http://www.parentsteachingparents.net/2017/04/effective-schools-movement-40-yrs-ago/

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