Saturday, February 22, 2014

When things make you go Hmmm - Post Graduate Teacher Training

A good friend and outstanding educator posted a link today that made me a bit cross, and gave rise to some internal grumblings.

It was an opinion piece about teacher training and in particular training at at a post graduate level by Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flynn.  From where I sit, as someone who employs graduates and as someone who has them come and complete practicums (where they work in classes as a trainee), there were a few things in the article that were not only generalisations, but statements that left me uncomfortable.

I did a bit more digging - because until I had read that article, I did not realise that the Universities were looking to turning teacher training into a 'fast track one year only' post graduate course, and phasing out the longer diploma.  I found a Massey University article from 2012 that had been published in the Dominion and, despite it being from nearly 2 years ago, was again struck by the generalisations.

The quality of teacher training has been something that has been bothering me for sometime.  I have had students complete practicums in my schools from 3 different main cities, and from a wide range of training providers.  They do not come prepared on an even footing.  The moment we sold out and deregulated, allowing competition to enter the training space, and allowed universities on their own and many non specialist providers to start training our teacher stock, we started to, in my opinion, water down the quality of our teaching force.  (I can hear the collective gasping from all the academics - and I ask that you contain your gasp until you read more)

A quick history:

Teachers colleges were established in NZ with the first being in Dunedin in 1876, then Christchurch in 1877.  Wellington and Auckland soon followed suit.  Long story short, these were the first and they were held accountable by the Education Department.  Issues of competency, training, certification and quality were consistent.  Teacher training colleges for the most part continued to hold the responsibility for training.  If we look at the passage of primary teacher training (my area of interest), training evolved from the pupil/teacher system, normal schools, teachers colleges, to colleges of education.  By the time deregulation and competition came to teacher training in the 1990s, teachers colleges were scrambling for the funding that comes with chasing student numbers.  We then saw, more recently, a merger of sorts between the colleges and the universities.   (Coles notes at best, read here if you want a more in-depth history)

Though out this whole historical period universities have always held themselves aloft as a superior alternative.  There has always been an uneasy marriage, I believe, between university and colleges.  The difference between (in a very simplistic way) the two, has been said to be due to two opposing philosophies/models of education.  One where the practicalities of teaching are at the forefront, the other who believes it needs to be more theoretical and academic.  Herein lies the rub re todays angst, because both articles are espousing why post graduate will be the 'be all and end all' of training, the next 'mecca' and the way forward.  I have grave misgivings and I don't agree.

Let me start off by being very clear.  I have no issue with further education, like working towards a post graduate masters or a doctorate in education.  In fact, I applaud and support that.  I also support having a highly qualified teaching force, and just a diploma is not enough.  But let me be very clear, I am not a big fan of the pressure cooker one year course for primary teacher graduates.  This is where I have concerns that we have swung to far to the academic side, and lost the practicalities actually needed in a classroom.

What exactly about the original article concerned me?

Postgraduate initial teacher education (ITE) will ensure new teachers are more mature, more widely experienced and taught to a higher standard.

More mature?  In what way - in theory they are a similar age to those who do the 4 years, and now days quite a number of trainees are from all walks of life and of all age groups.  A definition of mature would be helpful here.

As it is, almost all primary and early childhood teacher trainees leave school and go directly into a teacher education programme.

That has not been my experience of all students.  Many are now people who have had jobs outside of the profession and are looking for a change.  They have come to teaching later in their career and bring a richness of world experiences with them.  As for what is wrong with young people entering training, by the time they finish 4 years, they are like any graduate, but unlike a post grad student with only one year in a school, they will have had many opportunities to experience classrooms.  As far as I am concerned, this is a distinct advantage.

Usually, in this, they have no contact with the wider university; instead, they proceed as a cohort through a programme taught almost exclusively by teacher-training staff, themselves mostly former teachers, and in premises that are usually a sub-campus peripheral to the mainstream university.

Let me take this apart bit by bit.  The students who are doing their BEd degrees have many opportunities where they do actually interact with the wider university.  I loved my time at Uni, but let me be clear about this - university is a strange little place full of academics who want you to be academic little clones just like them.  That is not what I want to employ to teach 5 year olds.

I believe, for a teaching graduate, it is a good mix to have students learning about the importance of life long education and research within the hallowed halls of the university by highly qualified academics.  But it is as equally important for teaching graduates to learn about classroom practice from within spaces that are akin to an actual classroom, and by practitioners who know first hand what teaching is.  A university lecturer who can spout off truck loads of research and paper based best practice but has never actually taught a real live child, can never, ever impart the important things about being a teacher.  I believe you need both, and most importantly, you need a practitioner to be the person who guides students through how to make the theory and pedagogy applicable within a busy classroom context.

For me, the people who made the biggest difference to who I am now as a leader and teacher, are not the academics.  I can tell you all about the theories and meta analysis behind what makes a difference in a classroom and what improves leadership.  I can spout off from the work of Hattie, Robertson, Sergiovanni, Spinks and a multitude of others.   But, and this is a big but, what is important here is not the theory but how it is applied in practice and for that, my heroes have been the amazing people I learnt from over the years.

I first met these practitioners at College.  Then in classrooms teaching beside me, and then as leaders.  Leaders, past and present, that I have walked beside.  So, if it is 'almost exclusively' that these graduates are being trained by excellent classroom and leadership practitioners - then that is the best thing we could have.  I would rather employ a graduate who has the richness of good practice 'theory' behind them from experienced ex teachers and principals,  than a whole load of academic theories that actually don't work in a classroom without a practitioner first making them apply.  All it does is confuse a graduate and set them up for failure.

As many will have come from families of teachers, their perspectives must necessarily be narrow.

This has to be one of the biggest generalisations of them all.  To be honest, I'm quite surprised by this comment because academics  (at least the ones I know) do not usually make such sweeping comments without evidence, evidence often referenced and in triplicate.  (I will confess it does seem like I just made a generalisation…the sarcastic comment about referencing was intentional)

Whilst I concede that there are a number of graduates with a family member who have been in teaching, it did not apply to me, and to most of the people I have employed.   I would go further to ask, why does it matter?  If anything, it is possibly an advantage to know what you are getting yourself in for, and what the work load is.

I have often wondered what it would be like to have a member of my own family I could discuss education with, that did not revolve around busting myths and stereotypes.  Sometimes, we need to see what are the perceived weaknesses in a new light and see what the strength is behind them.  I am guessing it is my 'practitioner' head that knows to do this - it is second nature as a teacher to look for things to build upon.  Perhaps academics are not as well versed in this, because theory without application remains just a theory.  

The requirement to obtain a first degree will act as a useful external check on education departments' and colleges' admission standards, which, inevitably, will be raised, since entry into a university master's programme requires a much higher level of achievement than a bare pass.

I agree high standards are a good thing to strive for.  I expect high standards of teaching from my staff and I expect the best for our children.  I do however ask this - who are we training these graduates for?    If we are training them to enter a 'university masters programme', then by all mean turn them into the academic clones I mentioned above.  But we are not churning out professors of science, english or history, to go and teach other budding academics.  No, we are creating teachers.  I would be wary of using a set of marks as the only perquisites for this training.  You cannot teach personality and all those wonderful qualities we need to have in our teaching force.  An academic clone who has known nothing but study at such an in-depth level is little use to an abused 8year old who needs a person who can relate to them.

Such an approach would ensure that a student already has a good degree with which to develop an alternative career should teaching not prove to be as attractive as they had hoped, or to switch to secondary teaching should that be their later preferred path.

This reads as if primary is not that important.  A real, 'don't worry love, if its not very attractive - its just an option'.  Teaching is not an option.  The best teachers are those who come to it from the perspective that it is what they need to do to make a difference and to give back.  Its not an 'option'.  Some of them have done other things in their life and it has led them to it, others just know.  Those - in my experience - who thought it was a 'good enough' option, rarely stayed.  The job is too hard to just be 'an option'.

the new proposals are far, far better and are in line with best international practice and in step with the decisive actions that Michael Gove is driving in Britain.

WOW!  Here is where we see where the Associate Professor really lies in terms of educational policy.  The moment she uses 'best international practice' with the name Michael Gove, then we know we are heading into right wing conservative territory.  Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flynn has just laid her cards out on the table.   It is here that, for me, I begin to get concerned.  Is she lecturing to these graduates about Gove policies and pushing this right wing agenda, and by doing so brainwashing a whole generation of new educationalists with policies counter intuitive to our whole education system?  This scares me.  In case you are unaware of who Michael Gove is, he is the secretary for state education in the UK, and behind a number of controversial policies.

Existing teachers, too, I imagine, will be cautious of a cohort entering the profession with much higher qualifications than theirs.

I wonder where her evidence for this statement is.  I say 'rubbish' to this.  What kind of schools do you think we are running these days?

Dr Sexton and others worry that important attributes of intending teachers, such as empathy, enthusiasm and the ability to communicate, might be lost.
There is no reason why this should be so, and procedures to ensure prospective candidates possess such qualities are already well established in other professions.
I wonder which professions she is speaking of?
When it comes to employing a teacher, I want passion, the ability to adapt, an undefinable 'something' that will light the fire of learning and inspire students to be everything they can be and more!  I have my own procedures for looking for these things, but I expect these people to be in training already.  I talked above about the things you cannot teach.  Often it is these qualities, and they are critical in front of children.

'Book smarts' are all very well and good, and they will assist you with further study, but let me be clear, if you are the kind of 'triple A plus, with distinction' student who expects the world - and by world I mean children - to be as ordered, structured and tidy as a text - you won't make it in my world and it would take some convincing for me to hire you.  Kids are messy.  They don't fit nice neat ordered and prescribed models of education that the 'academics' who live in ivory towers analysing research and meticulously theorising about classroom practice, like to place children in.  

it seems most desirable that fewer would-be teachers be recruited and only the best, those capable of postgraduate study, be exposed to a higher-quality curriculum and hands-on best practice.

I agree that we can train fewer, but better quality teachers.  I don't agree that the ability to do post grad is all they require, and furthermore, what 'higher quality curriculum' does she talk about?  They will have less time in a one year 'learn to be a teacher' crash course than their 3-4 year counterparts, and they won't have access to the outstanding ex classroom teachers as their lecturers - only academics with their meta analysis, and as for hands on practice!!  Cue ominous music!

There is less 'hands on' when you have the one year pressure cooker.  Its at this point that the academics talk about the next two years teaching in a school undergoing the advice and guidance mentor programme that then allows you to become registered.  Its talked about in the Massey article and its eluded to here.  Let me address this rather big elephant in the room.

THIS IS NOT NEW people.  Its what ALL teacher graduates must go through.  I went through it, the teachers in my school went through it (in one shape or form) and all current graduates go through it.  To say that is the 'hands on' stage is simply not good enough.  It is hard work employing one of these graduates.  I know.  They require more support, more time and more money from schools to be spent on them in order for them to be effective in a classroom.  I am aware that this post is getting long so I will save my graduate teachers post for another day.  Suffice to say, using it for the argument that a post grad one year programme is better, is null and void.  In fact, it strengthens the argument that a 3 -4 year programme is better because they have more hands on and are better prepared.


Attracting quality students to teacher education is important.  The future of our little people require it.  I remain unconvinced that the post graduate teacher training is the way to go.  What I would like to see is the happy marriage of practical and academic.

I want well qualified people who understand that the theory has a practical basis, and I want a graduate who can think outside the square, question and inquire into their practice and use research as a tool.

Most importantly, I want them to set the world of learning on fire for students.  I want them to inspire, to embolden and to engage our children.  Finally, I want them to be able to question and to lead the profession forward.  To innovate and do what we have been doing for years - lead the world in creative, successful educational practice.

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