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In defence of theory

If you haven't listened during "professional studies" because you thought it was all so boring, you've got it completely wrong. James Williams explains why

The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" became an anthem for me and many of my peers when we started training to be teachers - especially when every Monday morning we had to listen to another of those seemingly pointless education theory-psychology lectures.

Like today's trainees, I was impatient, wanting to get stuck in and not bother with theory. I wonder whether current trainees view my lectures as pointless.

Certainly, the TES website forum for student teachers suggests that attitudes haven't changed. It has an interesting thread called "The PGCE is Rubbish", questioning the value of lectures that students have to endure during the initial weeks of their training. The odd teacher-trainer pops up to defend, but just as in my training days, the consensus seems to be that theory is pointless. So why persist in providing what is commonly known as "professional studies"? It is time for me to defend the well-thought-out theoretical perspectives and explain why theory is important.

To begin with, I object to the term "initial teacher training". I prefer "initial teacher education". I want my 189 students, and the GTPs (graduate teacher programme students) who join them, not just to receive a basic training but to become educated professionals.

But I must differentiate between training and education. I reckon I could "train" someone to look like a teacher, behave like a teacher, walk like a teacher and talk like a teacher in a few weeks - after all, this was the premise of the Channel 4 series Faking It, where some people, after a few weeks' training, fooled the experts. But these "trained" people would not be teachers. They would be like the actors in the TV series Casualty, who look like doctors, sound like doctors and behave like doctors - but would you let them operate on you? They don't know why they are doing the things they have been "trained" to do by the off-screen expert, they just do them.

In contrast, a real teacher has been "educated" to understand how pupils learn, why the different pedagogies work and when they are appropriate. It is the key to being a professional.

Contrary to popular belief, the theories of education are not rubbish.

There are alternative viewpoints and competing theories. Education in this respect is no different from any other academic subject. There are conflicting theories for the mechanisms of evolution and competing interpretations of historical events, but that doesn't mean we should ditch the theories in science and history and act merely on gut instinct.

So, what useful "stuff" do we teach trainee teachers? Well, three core areas are theories of child development, theories of learning and preferred learning styles. An oft-quoted name in lectures on child development is Jean Piaget, but he is just one theorist. Essentially, we can divide child development into three camps, the maturationists (for example, Arnold Gessell), environmentalists (such as BF Skinner), and constructivists (such as Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and J Bruner. See right).

We also teach about how children learn. Again, there is more than one view.

Theories about children's learning are so numerous that they can be divided into behavioural, cognitive, humanistic and motivational groups.

Take, for example, preferred learning styles. The simplest theories divide us into three categories: visual (learn by seeing), kinaesthetic (learn by doing) and audio (learn by listening). But children, and adults, are not one or the other, they are mixtures and blends and may have more than one dominant style.

How does that help us as teachers? Well, if we understand something about learning styles, we can plan our lessons to take them into account, making sure that when we communicate important information it is presented in a variety of ways.

It also explains the behaviour of some children who prefer to watch a demonstration of a science concept rather than read about it or listen to it. If children have a basic understanding of their preferred learning style it can help them be better learners and to adopt other styles.

Reading through the TES forum, I admit that if the experiences recounted by some are accurate, I wonder about the usefulness of a number of theory classes for day-to-day teaching. One contributor recounts having to act as beans - broad, runner and baked - in front of a group of strangers. A few contributors have spent lots of time cutting and glueing, and one has learned about the importance of colour in classrooms. You do have to wonder what was going on, though I'm sure there was a point behind each activity.

For example, the issue of colour affecting pupil behaviour is neither new nor revolutionary.

Music is another area that can affect working patterns and behaviour. A news item recently about research into restaurants who play classical music to their customers, showing that they serve more starters, extras and desserts than restaurants that play upbeat music. It's to do with the music changing our mood. With classical music playing, we eat more slowly and eat more. Different types of music, when played in the classroom, also affect the behaviour, learning and mood of pupils .

It's tempting to "rubbish" the theory and state that only the experience is valuable. I'm reminded of a statement made by a prospective PGCE candidate at his interview a few years ago. He was the head of physics at an independent school, a successful teacher who got good results and glowing testimonies from his employer, but didn't have qualified teacher status (QTS).

When, at interview, he was told that he could get QTS in about 12 weeks, with no PGCE, no need to cover the "theory bits", he looked disappointed.

He had applied, he said, because he always felt that he had missed something of the theoretical perspective compared to those who had completed a PGCE.

He knew he was a good teacher but he wanted to know why. For those who cry that good teaching is common sense, I argue that learning and understanding the theory makes your life easier as a teacher.

Why find out the hard way what works and doesn't work by trial and error? If you plan on the basis of sound theoretical perspectives, you won't have to reinvent the wheel. Understand the "why" of teaching so that you benefit from the "how".

Now, what about green for the office and some Mozart in the backgroundI I can already hear the trainee feet beating a path to my door to wonder why we're making them do all this PGCE theory rubbish.

James Williams is the PGCE programme leader at Sussex University. His latest book, 'Professional Leadership in Schools: Effective Middle Management and Subject Leadership', (Kogan Page, pound;18.99), is a mix of theory and tips for managers of teachers


THEORY GROUP:Maturationists

MAIN THEORISTS: Arnold Gessell

SUMMARY:Primary belief is that development is a biological process that occurs automatically in predictable, sequential stages over time. This can lead to assumptions that young children will acquire knowledge naturally and automatically as they grow physically and become older, provided that they are healthy.

THEORY GROUP:Environmentalists

MAIN THEORISTS:John Watson BF Skinner Albert Bandura

SUMMARY:Primary belief is that the child's environment shapes learning and behaviour. Human behaviour, development, and learning are thought of as reactions to the environment. This can lead to assumptions that young children develop and acquire new knowledge by reacting to their surroundings.

THEORY GROUP:Constructivists

MAIN THEORISTS:Jean Piaget Maria Montessori J Bruner Lev Vygotsky

SUMMARY:Although their work varies greatly, each describes a similar context of learning and development. They are consistent in their belief that learning and development occur when young children interact with the environment and people around them. Constructivists view young children as active participants in the learning process. In addition, constructivists believe young children initiate most of the activities required for learning and development.


THEORY GROUP:Behavioural

MAIN THEORISTS:Ivan Pavlov BF Skinner E L Thorndyke J B Watson

SUMMARY:Behaviourism implies that the teacher is the dominant force in the classroom and that modification of a child's behaviour is possible. The classic example is that of Pavlov, who found that ringing a bell can induce salivation in dogs - even when no food is present - if the bell is always associated with food during training.


MAIN THEORISTS:M Donaldson W Kohler amp; K Koffka Jean Piaget George Kelly

SUMMARY:Cognitive theories are interested in how people understand. The emphasis is on the importance of experience and the development of insights. Cognitive theories are the foundation of constructivism, that is, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in.


MAIN THEORISTS:Carl Rogers John Holt Abraham Maslow

SUMMARY:Humanistic "theories" of learning are often value-driven. They are based on the premise that people have an in-built desire to learn. It promotes the idea that teachers are learning facilitators.

THEORY GROUP:Motivational

MAIN THEORISTS:Abraham Maslow F Herzberg

SUMMARY:The motivation for learning can come in two basic forms, either doing something for its own sake (intrinsic), or doing something for some other reason (extrinsic).


PREFERRED LEARNING STYLES:Kolb's experiential learning cycle


SUMMARY:Kolb has four modes of experiential learning based on the cycle running between active experimentation and reflective observation and between abstract conceptualisation and concrete experience. This is used to identify four different types of learners: converger, accommodator, diverger, and assimilator.


MAIN THEORIST:Howard Gardener

SUMMARY:Each individual has seven distinct areas of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily kinaesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Gardener believes that an individual's abilities will differ in each area, as will their learning style.

PREFERRED LEARNING STYLES:Instructional preference

MAIN THEORIST:Dunn amp; Dunn

SUMMARY:The learning style reflects how five basic stimuli affect an individual's ability to perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment. The five stimuli are: environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological.

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