‘Can you teach well without a sound knowledge of educational theory? The answer is no’

The structure of teacher training needs a radical overhaul, argues one leading education academic

Janet Orchard

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On what evidence did George Bernard Shaw base his infamous slur "Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach"?

In the case of teaching teachers, this simply isn’t my experience. Excellent classroom teachers take up teacher education positions in universities as a positive mid-career choice. It enables them to focus on developing teaching and the curriculum within their chosen subject specialism to a very high level. Teacher training offers them a high degree of professional autonomy in return and is intrinsically rewarding. This is just as well, because it is poorly paid compared with comparable positions in school leadership. Why, then, do negative views of teacher educators in England persist?

In a published pamphlet, Professor Chris Winch and I argue that the structure of teacher training may be contributing to teacher education’s image problem, so it needs a radical rethink. We are not particularly concerned with the practical aspects of training, as these seem to be well-established already within existing arrangements. Broadly speaking, most trainee teachers undertake a form of internship or unpaid teaching practice for a total of 120 days in two contrasting schools, during a 36-week postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). A few are in effect "higher grade apprentices", so that in the case of Teach First, for example, new teachers balance university-based learning with paid employment.

Instead, we are concerned that teachers also need to know and understand educational theory if they are to teach well, and this aspect of their professional knowledge is insufficiently developed at present. Teachers need to be able to plan successful lessons independently, and distinguish clear and legitimate aims from unclear and questionable ones. Teachers need to be able to communicate what they are doing clearly and coherently to parents and other stakeholders, justifying their professional judgements with legitimate and contextually relevant reasons. Solicitors are required to study law for three years (or undertake a conversion qualification) followed by further training for at least two years, undertaken on the job. Why are the same conventions not in place for teachers?

Teachers need to know and understand established theories that have stood the test of time about how children learn, and apply them successfully to their practice. They use this knowledge to distinguish new insights into learning, as they are identified by educational researchers, from unsound ones. Those former teachers who have become teacher educators in universities are best placed to lead trainee teachers’ engagement with theory of this kind. They develop expertise in how to mediate theory to trainees appropriately, becoming, in effect, bilingual through the process, and well-versed in the language of both university and classroom culture. 

There are serious defects in the argument that the university-based element of teachers’ professional formation is unnecessary. In particular, the idea that teaching can be done without an understanding of education’s underlying principles and practices is profoundly mistaken. The quality of practical judgement necessary to good teaching combines sophisticated theoretical understanding with practical expertise. Really good teachers are wise people, able to judge time and again the right thing to do in the right way at the right time. Yet, current programmes in England (unlike other jurisdictions) are simply not long enough to do this careful balance justice.

We support the mixed economy of internship and higher grade apprenticeships in teacher education, which are emerging through recent reforms to the sector. However, we urge greater clarity and coherence with regard to the distinctive advantages, as well as limitations, of each respective approach. Furthermore, we do not accept that either approach on its own is sufficient to guarantee quality in the next generation of classroom teachers. We advocate the introduction of an initial licensure for teachers to recognise the contribution these established programmes offer, whether through bachelor degrees with qualified teacher status, PGCEs, or the small number of employment-based routes into teaching.

We believe an additional period of further licensure is needed – leading to full licensure after a three- to five-year period – to prepare teachers adequately for a fully fledged career in teaching, and to support them through the trials and tribulations that are likely in the early years. As well as practical support from skilled mentors in schools, teachers should be entitled to further subject-specific training, with flexible opportunities to work with experts in other schools as well as universities, who hold the keys to developing research-informed, subject-specific professional learning communities. Teachers need grounding in recent research in this extended period of professional theory underpinning their classroom practice, as well as time to reflect on how that theory and personal practice may be integrated.

The schools minister, Nick Gibb, responding to a parliamentary question in the House of Commons earlier this month, assured us there is no "crisis" in the supply of teachers in England. However, such assurances ring hollow to those of us engaged closely with trainee teachers and teaching on the ground. Too many are leaving the profession and too few are coming in to replace them.

This is so sad. Teaching at its best is a brilliant job, whether it involves adults in universities or pupils in schools, and the very best classroom teachers in action are an inspiration. The best teachers love what they do and understand their work as a vocation. They want to be left alone to get on with their work, without interference from policymakers or overly directive school leaders and managers. However, to earn that autonomy teachers need to know, understand and be able to apply the theory of education, so they have a clear and legitimate basis on which to distinguish good ideas from bad ones.

‘What training do teachers need? Why teachers need theory’ is to be published by the Philosophy of Education Society in Great Britain on Monday 30 November 2015

Dr Janet Orchard is senior lecturer and co-director of the secondary PGCE programme at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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