Criticism of teacher education is not criticism of teachers
It is unhelpful spin
On Monday night, I was in Sydney, speaking alongside maths teaching phenomenon, Eddie Woo, about the challenges of maths teaching in Australia.
I made a point that I often make — teachers are badly served by their training. In most cases, I would rather be able to take students straight from a science, maths or arts undergraduate degree and train them in the mechanics of teaching on the job, than have them go through the process of two years of initial teacher education.
Just as some dogs have three legs, some people working in teacher education are excellent. However, the vast majority of courses appear to convey a disdain for explicit teaching and effective classroom management, coupled with a focus on inquiry learning, differentiation, voguish social justice causes and other abstract stuff, none of which is supported by a strong body of evidence showing it is likely to improve educational outcomes.
And if we raise this point, we are as likely as not to obtain the response that drawing on evidence is not appropriate for a project as complex and beautiful as education. There’s even a pejorative name for valuing scientific evidence — ‘positivism’ — which seems to be based upon the misconception that scientific evidence is certain and deterministic rather than probabilistic.
The problem is structural. Teacher trainers have no incentive to develop effective classroom teachers. Even if a feedback loop were created from outcomes back to education faculties, the effects would be so delayed and distanced from the original training as to be impossible to interpret.
Instead, the incentive is to signal cleverness and virtue to peers also involved in the teacher training business. This is why there is a focus on French philosophers and not so much on those mundane ‘pick, pick, picky details’ beloved of Zig Engelmann, the father of the Direct Instruction programmes that demonstrated effectiveness in Project Follow Through.
As if to prove my point, after the talk, I was approached by someone currently completing teacher training who told me about their negative experience and how explicit teaching was only ever mentioned in order to be criticised. My questioner wondered what would happen if they challenged this in an essay. I advised against it. “Complete your training, get registered and then put that behind you,” I said.
Rightly, both the main parties contesting Saturday’s Australian federal election have raised the issue of teacher training. Whether they can do anything about the problem remains to be seen.
Now for the spin. Writing in The Conversation, David Roy, a lecturer in education, suggests that:
Both [main parties] are looking at initial teacher education and thus the quality of teachers to improve results (which is highly denigrating to current teachers and does not support the current system).
Why would ‘looking at initial teacher education’ be ‘highly denigrating to current teachers’? If we are to draw an implied criticism from the parties’ focus on teacher education, then that is a criticism of those who train teacher, not of teachers themselves.
In Australia, it is possible to train teachers without ever having taught a class in your life. So some of the people this criticism is leveled at have never been teachers, not even failed ones.
And this leads to an even more fundamental issue.
A key difference between teaching and fields like engineering or medicine is the way they are structured and it is this difference in structure that calls into question whether teaching is a profession. Teachers interpret ‘autonomy’ as the right to go into a classroom and do pretty much whatever they want. Engineers do not interpret autonomy in such a way — there are clear principles involved in building a bridge that if ignored, will be considered malpractice. Instead, true professions interpret autonomy to mean that practitioners are in charge of regulating the profession and training newcomers. It is engineers who determine which principles must be followed when building a bridge.
In teaching, we are told what to do by a whole industry of academics and bureaucrats, half of whom have absolutely no idea what they are doing and very few of whom are practising teachers.
I did everything I could in my teacher training to convey my appreciation for explicit instruction without getting dinged for it.
I’m sure my prior profession and training (engineering, systems development for USAF), and likely my gender and ethnicity deterred any criticism.
I teach into a teacher training course and I can confirm that the pedagogy to teach teachers is nothing compared to what I do in a classroom at school. You don't need a qualification in teaching to teach at university! Universities are not ranked on their teaching ability, or at least the most famous ranking systems are based on research output, not teaching. Then university education faculties have the temerity to lecture schools on how they should teach! I fully support the idea of teacher training being an apprenticeship. When I went to my first placement after about 10 minutes I was like, "Oh, okay so I can basically ignore all the overly theoretical stuff we're being taught at uni."