Are education faculties out of touch?
Statues in Cambridge and maths in Australia
Paulo Freire was a Brazilian education theorist. He is probably best known for his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed which, although only loosely connected to school education, appears at the top of many graduate school education course reading lists. Pedagogy of the Oppressed effectively founded the field of Critical Pedagogy, an attempt to apply the tenets of Critical Theory to education. I reviewed Pedagogy of the Oppressed on my old blog site and found it to be underwhelming. Setting aside a jarring footnote that appears to praise Mao’s cultural revolution, the book repeatedly presents us with false choices - we must either adopt Freire’s ‘problem posing’ version of education or assume students’ absolute ignorance - and it is written almost entirely on some abstract, mezzanine level of reality. Perhaps this is part of the appeal.
And so it takes some imagination to begin to understand what academics at Cambridge University’s education faculty thought installing a statue of Paulo Freire would achieve. According to a BBC report, it is an attempt to fend off, ‘far-right attacks on education,’ from people who think education academics are, ‘distant and out of touch.’
You can imagine the meeting. ‘Comrades, we must defend ourselves against attacks by far-right figures such as mainstream politicians and science of reading advocates who are consciously making the case that we spend too much time focusing on ideology and not enough time training teachers for the practical challenges of the classroom. We need a statue of Paulo Freire!’
A sardonically amusing thought experiment, perhaps.
Just yesterday, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) published a report demonstrating that Australian courses are not adequately preparing trainees for teaching mathematics. Authors Glenn Fahey, Jordan O’Sullivan and Jared Bussell highlight that of the 90 Mathematics units from Australian primary education courses they reviewed, there was hardly any mention of explicit teaching, despite there being plenty of evidence for its effectiveness, a significant proportion of which comes from randomised controlled trials that often use maths teaching as a context. Instead, Australian courses heavily emphasise constructivist methods that lack evidence and are at odds with basic principles of cognitive science.
Why do teacher training courses take such a perverse and stubborn stance? Well, one reason may be that explicit teaching is at odds with the ideology of theorists like Freire. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire stereotypes explicit teaching as a ‘banking model’, suggesting it is rigid, authoritarian and disrespectful towards students. Evidence of effectiveness does not feature in his argument.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that criticisms levelled by a CIS report will have any influence on education faculties in Australia. The CIS is right-leaning and so can easily be dismissed as ‘far-right’ in academic circles. And all the CIS were able to do was review course outlines. Academics could argue that these do not necessarily reflect the totality of what is taught on their courses.
Conversely, if education faculties did feel pressure to provide evidence that they teach trainees about explicit teaching, they could always write more about it in course outlines and immunise themselves against this kind of research, without necessarily changing much of what is actually delivered to students.
This is why I agree with the authors of the CIS report that an inspection system may be the only method we have of ensuring that Australian tax dollars are spent exclusively to support education courses that pay attention to all of the relevant research evidence.