Pedagogy by any other name should smell as sweet

I was chided the other day by two Australian visitors for referring to "teacher training". Surely I meant "teacher education" they said, the correctness of which had been impressed upon them in the other departments they had seen.

I was pretty sure that it was training that I had in mind, but it set me thinking. Why is educationtraining an issue in this context?

We can talk quite happily about the training of surgeons, solicitors and many other professionals. When we do, we mean something like the teaching and practice provided to bring them up to the required level of performance. Why should teaching be any different?

Perhaps it harks back to the time when there were not enough university places to go round and teacher training came to be regarded as an alternative form of higher education. Or it could have something to do with the fierce independence of teachers, evident once more in the generally unenthusiastic reception of the Government's proposals for a national teacher-training curriculum.

But the explanation may be more prosaic. It may be that we do not exactly know how to train teachers. "Education" may be an altogether safer word for the collection of subject and curriculum studies, intermingled with teaching practice, that we hope will somehow enable successful teachers to emerge.

What seems to be missing from many of the university education departments in this country is what our European neighbours call pedagogy, the science of teaching. With a developed pedagogy, teacher training becomes a systematic introduction to a programme of activities designed to give the maximum number of children the best chace of reaching the desired levels of learning.

It sounds as if it could be unduly prescriptive, but in fact, it frees up the teacher to concentrate on the children's learning. In Hungary, for example, as our new numeracy and literacy centres will soon be seeing, everthing is carefully worked out year by year.

In kindergarten, the children begin by "learning how to learn". Often an empty phrase, it really means something here. Among the various play and socialising activities, there is a period of about 30 minutes each day when the children are specifically taught how to interact with the teacher and classmates - among other things, to sit quietly, to listen attentively, to respond to questions, and to come to the front to demonstrate to others. The teachers are trained in what to offer, what to look for, and how to keep all children moving ahead together.

Because young children find it hard to sit still for any length of time (pedagogy incorporates child development), short spells of sitting and interacting are alternated with exercises and songs through which the children learn fundamental concepts such as "above" and "below", and "in front of" and "behind". In this way, secure foundations are put in place for future learning.

By contrast, in this country, there seems little attempt to anticipate later learning, and teachers often seem to go from topic to topic recycling the same material in different guises in the hope it will sink in. Although Hungarian children do not begin kindergarten till they are six, within a year they have overtaken ours.

A science of teaching would address the concerns with numeracy and literacy which are continually surfacing. Take subtraction as an example. As I understand it, there are about half a dozen errors that children routinely make. Some, for instance, cannot at first see how it is possible to take nine from 18 since the nine is bigger than the eight. It should not be difficult to find ways of enabling teachers to diagnose which error or errors a particular child is making, and to devise effective methods for remedying the situation.

Similarly with reading, it should not be impossible to discover which are the most effective ways of enabling children to learn how to do it. These would not be simplistic generalisations, but what worked for particular children, bearing in mind, among other things, ability, stage of development and home factors. We might call them "particularisations".

A science of teaching as the underpinning for teacher training only becomes possible when there is consensus as to what children should learn and to what levels. Now, not without some difficulty, we have a national curriculum, there is the opportunity for it to take off. The experience and expertise that is scattered through university education departments could be brought together in a coherent body of theory and practice to be continually tested against reality (which is what would make it a science).

The only problem is what to call it. "Pedagogy" is not particularly attractive and sounds arcane, faintly obscene, even. "Curriculum studies" is too loose a term to fit the bill. "Teacher-training curriculum" carries overtones of politicians telling teachers how to teach. "Methods" sounds as if the intention is to reduce teachers to technicians.

On the contrary, a science of teaching is a profound and liberating prospect. It would provide teachers with the tools through which they and their pupils could express their imagination and creativity. It would provide the basis for high quality teacher training.

It would give focus to the somewhat disparate activities of university education departments.

But we still need a word for it, and another for the training it implies. Is there any advance on "pedagogy" for the science itself, and "teacher training" for learning how to put it into practice?

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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Alan Smithers

Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham