At teacher training institutions around the country, committed, intelligent people who have chosen to teach are being taught by committed, intelligent teacher trainers.
Perhaps they’re clustered around A1 sheets of sugar paper making mind-maps about ‘what makes a good teacher’, or they’re being modelled an exciting teaching technique in which one uses Plasticine to teach Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps they’re watching some of their peers pretend to be students, acting out a scenario where the characters of The Tempest are on Jeremy Kyle. They might be trying out a ‘tunnel of consciousness’, or be sitting back-to-back as one describes a photograph of a room, whilst the other attempts to draw it. They might be being told about learning styles and making ‘VAK bobbins’, or chuckling at a list of completely invented ‘rules for teachers from 1914.’ They might be nodding along to an RSC video of one of Ken Robinson’s TED talks, or watching the ‘Shift Happens’ video. Some will be engaged and inspired by these activities, and other less so.
They’re all wasting their time.
I recently read Daisy Christodoulou’s Spectator article (thanks Webs of Substance) in which she describes her anger at realising that there already exists a body of evidence and cognitive science on how students learn best, and that none of it was even hinted at during her teacher training.
As a recently qualified teacher myself who has trained with, worked with and spoken to many, many NQTs and trainees, I commonly hear the complaint that on ITT course fundamental topics such as behaviour are dealt with summarily (if at all), and that the many hours discussing Vygotsky, Piaget, Taxonomies and ‘VAK learning’ seem to have no practical relevance to life in the classroom.
Whilst I was training, and before I’d actually had to take charge of a class, the aspect of our training I found most useful was learning ‘how to teach.’ We learnt about, and practiced, a myriad of fun, child-centred activities such as the ‘ambassador’ activity, or the ‘relay’ activity. We listened, impressed, as we were told about Socratic Circles (especially when the trainer told us that she’d been observed by Ofsted several times using this technique and it had never failed to bag her an Outstanding).
This was incredibly reassuring. All you needed to do to become an outstanding teacher was successfully run one of these creative activities, deliver it with personality and aplomb, and all would be just gravy. We spent relatively little time on behaviour and were told to give students little jobs to keep them occupied, like monitoring the ‘noise dial’ in the classroom. I was told by various sources that students would behave as long as the lesson was fast-paced enough, or as long as I was in a good mood myself, and (and this advice was absolute Kryptonite) that I shouldn’t begin my first lesson with The Rules because the kids would have had this a thousand times and I should just crack on with the lesson because it would show I meant business.
If you were to delve into the mind of many trainees (and practicing teachers who have been through this system) to find their mental picture of an incredible teacher, you’d probably draw out an image of someone prancing entertainingly around the classroom setting off smoke bombs and throwing tennis balls around as the children hula-hoop whilst singing a song about fractions. This impression is one which is encouraged (or perhaps created) by the fact that whilst training you are told that lessons need to have pizazz, or fizz, and that above all they must be engaging.
I emerged into the classroom brimming with ideas, and sure that I’d be able to get kids to buy into my lessons by the force of my personality and the sheer fun of what I’d planned.
It was a disaster.
In my first lesson I tried to teach some of the context of Of Mice and Men using ‘The Relay’ activity. I tried to teach my Year 8s war poetry by getting them to act out the events of Dulce et Decorum est. I hadn’t given them “The Rules” talk. I hadn’t shown them I was an authority figure to be respected. The ensuing results were exactly as you’d imagine.
Whenever I now come across a PGCE student on school placement heading enthusiastically into the classroom with an armful of Diamond 9 cards, a washing line and Plasticine, my heart sinks. Later on I know that they’ll beat themselves up for not being good enough, not being engaging enough, and not being able to control the class.
So, what should teacher training institutions be doing?
Firstly, they should be focussing on the basics, and the basics only. Nobody who hasn’t yet attained a teaching qualification should be worrying at night about having to perform pedagogical acrobatics in the classroom.
There should be a huge focus on behaviour. I wouldn’t talk about anything else for the first few weeks. As David Didau notes, behaviour is the key. If you can’t control the room, it doesn’t matter how good the lesson you’ve planned is.
Observations should be purely formative and focus only on the behaviour and progress of students and the quality of work which is produced. Training institutions should tell partner schools that if they assign a grade to any ITT lessons they observe, then they won’t be partner schools any more.
Trainees should learn what quality marking and feedback look like, and why they should demand the highest quality in students’ written and verbal responses.
Trainees should know about the big debates taking place in the educational sphere, about developments in educational policy in the UK and around the world, and about the history of our education system. Trainees should know about what cognitive evidence thinks about how we learn, and know that they should have the confidence to teach in a way which most suits them – it’s the outcome, not the method which is key.
Luckily, I joined Twitter, read blogs, and happened to be placed in a school which has a principal who is plugged into the educational zeitgeist and who introduced staff to Willingham, Christodoulou and the knowledge debate.
But if I hadn’t, and only had my PGCE studies to go on, I wouldn’t know that there was a debate taking place around knowledge education. I wouldn’t know that learning styles have been discredited. I wouldn’t know that the primacy of child-centred learning and Vygotskian theory were fallible. I wouldn’t know that there has been a teacher-driven wave of pressure which has helped to convince Ofsted (and by extension many school SLTs) to abandon a requirement to teach in a certain way. I wouldn’t have thought to question The Gods of the three-part lesson with an ‘AFL opportunity’ every twenty minutes. I’m incredibly grateful (and lucky) to have stumbled upon the Learning Spy and Hunting English blogs in the Spring term of 2013, and from them to have found my way to Andrew Old, Tom Bennett, Webs of Substance and then Joe Kirby’s and Daisy Christodoulou’s blogs.
I learnt about the knowledge/skills debate, the fact that Daniel Willingham exists, the content of recent DFE and Ofsted reforms, how to design a knowledge scheme of work, practicable ways to manage behaviour, get students to write well and what effective marking looks like from the internet. That shouldn’t have been the case.
Here I’ll try to re-blog what people are saying about teacher training.
Teacher training is focussing on the wrong things and it needs to be reformed.