The classroom should be a place of learning – but not for teachers

17 April 2011
The Observer
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Michael Gove’s plans to move teacher training out of universities will provoke protest at teachers’ conferences

No article on matters educational is complete without a disquisition on standards. So here’s one, right at the top. The coalition’s plans to replace teacher-training at university with on-the-job learning will mean that standards – standards in teaching, that is –will almost certainly decline. And, ultimately, our children’s education will suffer.

I’ve been a teacher in various comprehensives for more than 20 years and have come to appreciate just how crucial it is that the majority of our teachers are trained at university. Currently, more than 33,000 are trained this way, usually studying for a postgraduate certificates in education (PGCE). Those I’ve watched coming through this route in the last decade have been highly able and, perhaps more importantly, confident, independent thinkers. Contrary to the stereotype of the hapless, ill-informed student teachers who struggle with rioting classes, they have, for the most part, been great subject specialists and maintained formidable discipline.

There are huge advantages to training within an academic environment. First, universities are ideal places for teachers to improve and develop their subject knowledge. Universities, unlike schools, can offer the trainee real experts in the field and can top up a trainee’s expertise with relative ease.

Second, a teacher needs to understand in a systematic fashion just how children learn. Great strides have been made in this area and the trainee can examine in depth the ways in which children acquire language, how they learn by using gesture and how they develop their social skills by particular work in groups. In this way, the trainee benefits from the latest academic thinking. For example, praising children for their attainment can be counterproductive, while praising them for effort can be much more useful. It is vital that trainees have the time to explore these areas before they dive into the classroom.

Third, universities are best set up to give trainees experience of a wide range of schools. Trainees benefit from two major placements, usually in two very different schools. But they will also have the chance to observe in a number of others. What’s more, they can reflect upon their practice between placements. This doesn’t happen in a systematic fashion with on-the-job learning.

All the advantages of the university-led approach find their complementary downsides in on-the-job training. Usually, for instance, there just isn’t the time for trainees to top up their subject knowledge if they find it deficient. They are already inside the classroom before any subject-specific problems are addressed. Any on-hand experts tend to be too busy teaching to provide lectures in a particular field.

There is also no time to investigate the ways in which children learn in any meaningful academic fashion. Instead, this is meant to be covered by that grand catch-all – observation.

Observation is seldom enough. Without a strong theoretical framework with which to understand how children learn, the trainee is often left floundering and can jump to counterproductive conclusions. For example, the trainee may feel that because a teacher he is observing has great control of a classroom and is able to deliver lectures to a silent class, this is the best method. Alas it is not, but I have seen too many on-the-job trainees become obsessed with controlling classrooms and delivering lectures rather than devising the activities which generate real learning.

On-the-job training can also give trainees a very narrow experience of what schools are like. The coalition is proposing that it will be the outstanding schools which will become the teacher-training centres. Since most of such schools are in relatively well-off areas, trainees at such institutions may glean a very closeted notion of how schools work.

Having taught both in inner-city schools and those in more prosperous areas, I know that just because you might be a good teacher in one type of school doesn’t mean you’ll be effective in all.

The truth is that too often the poor on-the-job trainee can be neglected in a school setting. This is not because experienced teachers are deliberately cruel but because they’re so incredibly busy. I was a head of department for six years and I still feel bad about the way I treated some of the trainees.

They desperately needed more guidance. But I was so busy making sure all the pupils in the school were on track, monitoring my “real” staff and dealing with the constant changes in government policy that I never felt they got the attention they needed or deserved. In contrast, the university-based trainees always seemed more confident because they had the back-up of an academic tutor, who would observe their lessons and offer support.

Some on-the-job trainees find the strain too much. I found one crying in my cupboard. He confessed that he was really struggling with a particular class. I helped him, but I couldn’t help thinking that PGCE students wouldn’t have been found bent double in tears; before it got to that stage, they would probably talked to their university tutor.

Ultimately, I’ve found that PGCE students are much more positive because they feel part of a profession, the importance of which cannot be overstated. After a thorough grounding in theory, proper reflection upon their practice and experience of a variety of schools, they leave the course with an often deserved confidence.

In contrast, the on-the-job trainee learns the craft of teaching – the surface techniques that gives one a start – but might never acquire the in-depth knowledge that allows him to improvise. When education secretary Michael Gove speaks of teaching trainees the craft of teaching, he highlights the central problem with his plans: he appears to over-value this “surface” learning.

Ofsted’s last annual report noted that the best teacher training happened at universities. Central to its praise is the recognition that the best education systems in the world, such as in Finland, forge close links between schools and universities and that most of our education experts are based at university. I have certainly benefited by returning to further studies – a PhD in education at Goldsmiths College – where I have been amazed by the skills of the education lecturers. Also, and against received wisdom, they’ve all been actively engaged with schools, conducting vital research which all teachers could gain from as well as contributing significantly to their top-class PGCE courses.

One argument that might have checked Gove’s proposals in this time of cost-cutting is that on-the-job training must be expensive. This is partly because if schools want experts to speak to trainees they must buy them in. At university, they are concentrated in one place.

All told, the government’s plans to reduce university-based teacher-training is a disaster in the making. set to undermine the most effective way of producing teachers. Where’s the logic in that?

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