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.
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.