What we need to remember under any new model of teacher education

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I’m not going to fool myself: Teacher education is pretty much the same as it ever was. Knowing people who have gone through the process recently, if anything, theirs has been more of a Progressive Education experience than mine was 21 years ago.

However, I also know of people who are either involved in teacher education already, or who are making moves into that area, who take a more evidence-informed approach (if that’s you then why not order a free review copy of my new book?).  I have a word of warning for anyone looking to run an evidence-informed model – when discussing competing educational philosophies, you must present the best possible version of progressivism.

Why?

One enduring motif in experienced teachers’ complaints about their own teacher education is the pejorative way in which explicit forms of teaching were dismissed. If explicit teaching was not rejected outright then it was only considered useful for basic memorisation tasks. Once this idea was established, ‘rote’ memorisation of facts was then questioned as a legitimate educational goal.

When these teachers started to read what the evidence actually says about explicit teaching, either by being exposed to the cognitive science argument or teacher effectiveness research, they realised that they were misled. And this called into question other aspects of their training.

Any new approach should avoid making a similar mistake. It is important to acknowledge that many of the motivations of educational progressivism are legitimate and the practices progressivism implies are often appropriate. If we do not do this then teachers trained under a new model of teacher education may also feel misled when they later discover this for themselves.

Progressivism, for instance, focuses on intrinsic motivation. I believe that we have the best chance of developing long-term motivation for a subject by teaching it well so that students sense their own increasing mastery, and that explicit approaches are the most effective method for achieving this. However, the goal of intrinsic motivation is sound. There is no doubt that children benefit from a range of experiences and that variety should form part of any school programme. It may be true, for instance, that students will learn more about rivers from an explicit geography lesson than by visiting a river, but there should always be a place for the latter provided that such trips and events don’t start taking over the curriculum. Not only does experiential learning add to the warp and weft of the school year, it can act as a memorable anchor point that may be referred to in later teaching. The problem arises when we erroneously assume that students will learn more from such an experience than from explicit teaching, when the likelihood is that they will learn less.

It is also true that as students progress from novices to relative experts in any particular area of learning, we should gradually reduce the level of guidance and require them to generate more strategies for themselves. At the extreme end of this pathway, this will be indistinguishable the kind of open-ended problem-solving that progressivism promotes. So it is not a case of the evidence being for or against such a strategy in absolute terms, it is more that the evidence provides us with an understanding of when such a strategy is appropriate.

Similarly, the goals of movements such as critical pedagogy have validity. Just as it is wrong to argue there is no objective truth and everything is socially constructed, it is also wrong to imply that the truth is easy to establish and that the facts in the curriculum are beyond doubt. The contents of the school curriculum should be a source of ongoing debate and teachers need to model scepticism as they teach it. This is the dispositional aspect of critical thinking – we have to give students overt permission to question sources, authorities, selections, ideas and concepts, whether that involves challenging the foundations of capitalism or the foundations of identity politics.

A rounded teacher education, just like a rounded education more generally, allows for the exploration of different perspectives without necessarily requiring students to commit to one or another. There is a difference between learning about something and being indoctrinated into that something. And there are plenty of ideas out there that are worth learning about.

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8 thoughts on “What we need to remember under any new model of teacher education

  1. This advice is wise ethically as well as tactically. It promotes fairness, open-mindedness and the humility to acknowledge that nobody has a monopoly on truth.

  2. I’m afraid I can’t be quite so charitable about progressive doctrine. Although I’m willing to grant that whole-language advocates were no better or worse than anyone else, what they believed caused untold misery for a very sizable percentage of children in Anglophone schools, and similar anguish for their parents. Even now, in the face of overwhelming evidence that phonological skills are far more effectively and reliably learnt when they are explicitly and systematically taught, we still have a sizable rump of children’s authors and teacher trainers who are still banging the same old drum. Failure rates are still much higher than they need be.

    1. Tom. Perhaps charity doesn’t have to be deserved to be worthwhile. Giving others the benefit of the doubt and being generous when engaging in discussion if nothing else makes you look good. But I suggest it does more than that. We can only raise the level of our own discussion that either leads to a clearer distinction from those that won’t do this or it pulls them along.

      1. Sorry, Stan, I just don’t believe that either children or adults are naturally good, nor do I believe that the diehards will listen to us if we’re nice to them. It’s one thing to be civil, but expecting any kind of reciprocation is futile.

        Let’s just take one example: when I started a charity to help other parents whose children were being failed by their schools (this was in 1990), they were being told by their teachers that their children weren’t ‘ready’ to read and that their anxiety was only making matters worse. In other words, they were being blamed for their teachers’ failure. When we had our first organisational meeting, I cited research which found that children who were behind in reading at age 8 had no more than a one-in-eight chance of catching up later. Parents broke down and cried when they found they weren’t alone in the madhouse.

        Granted, teachers were parroting the excuses they’d been trained to give. Yet this was small comfort to parent or child. I don’t think you quite appreciate how awful it is to watch you child’s confidence evaporate in the face of taunts of ‘thicko’–at least my son had parents who knew how to fight back. To be honest, the primary sector needed a big jolt. Six years later I was recruited by the local comp to teach literacy skills to their SEN pupils, and this was entirely a result of angry parents whose children we had already rescued–and the fact that the teachers at this comp were fed up with differentiating lessons for perfectly intelligent kids who could barely read or write. Had we not been able to mobilise this anger, I doubt that our feeder schools would have had the slightest inclination to raise their game.

      2. Tom,
        I am asking you to believe there are people between your view and those who will never change their minds who are trying to see who is being reasonable. So civility and generosity are worthwhile even if you can’t get through to everyone.
        Not to say anger and disdain are not legitimate expressions but particularly online they can be worse than saying nothing.

  3. Stan,
    One of Greg’s more powerful posts recently involved taking the EEF to task over Metacognition and Self-Regulation. He left the reader with very little option but to conclude that the EEF was either incompetent or dishonest, and that there is a consistent bias in the EEF’s meta-analyses. It was pretty strong stuff, but I can’t imagine that it would offend anyone other than committed progressives. On the other hand, if we pull our punches, as it were, we run the risk of not putting our arguments as forcefully and convincingly as possible. When I was delivering INSET for our Wave 3 literacy intervention, I found that most teachers had a lot of sympathy for my rather outspoken views. And there are certain people–like Sir Michael Barber, who wrecked so much damage with his ill-conceived targets–who deserve to be named. This said, I agree that we should be understanding of the pressures people are under, and accept that the vast majority of people in education really are doing what they think is best for our children.

    1. You missed Stan’s point. You are offering free ammunition to the other side. Make calm reasoned arguments so that when people are ready to listen they will be able to find the information they need. If you serve it with a side of hyperbole moderates, as well as those diametrically opposed, will switch off. The only advantage is that it plays well to the choir.

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