'University-based teacher training is a damn sight better than it is being credited for'

21st February 2016 at 18:00
teacher training
University-based teacher training has come under so much criticism lately that one senior lecturer feels compelled to fight back

When I was a trainee teacher, I couldn’t wait to leave. I counted down the terms, months, assignments, hoops until I could finally take the stabilisers off and be in my own classroom. I doubt that you will find many trainees who feel differently. 

Is this because their Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is so excruciatingly poor? If you believe recent criticisms, then that must be the case. But in reality? It’s more likely it is because they started the course with a purpose: to teach.

As a senior lecturer in ITE, I often recall to my students my third-year fantasies of building post-graduation bonfires of my endless files, assignments, readings. Then, I tell them how foolish I would have been to do that. 

Foundation training

Those files took pride of place in my inaugural teacher cupboard. When I came across the classic NQT planning block, or wanted to double check a particularly growly piece of grammar, where did I go? My files. In fact, reflecting more deeply on it now, I returned to my training. I thought about what I learned, how I had learned it and what I needed to do. 

My first school was judged requires improvement. I vividly remember the pop-fizz excitement of waiting excitedly for the teacher to hand over the details of my shiny new students. It was not to be. I got lumped with a mass of paperwork, I got told how unruly the class were, how they were generally uncooperative and how they would never make progress. 

I am not ashamed to say that I went home and bawled my eyes out. It was like a pin being put into a balloon. 

But then I returned to my training. I thought about pre-conceptions, about the self-perpetuating myths that had been unpicked, analysed and debunked as part of my time at university. I remembered I could do this.

And so I get angry when I see how ITE is receiving a real battering at the moment, whether that be from the government or the press – even from colleagues on social media. Is teaching beginning to turn on itself?

Inaccurate perceptions

As someone who is still relatively new to ITE, I am startled by the apparent bullseye on the back of what people have decided are “the tweed-wearing brigade living in their ivory towers of academia” that run ITE. I’ve heard everything from "ITE is for those who can’t teach or those who don’t enjoy it”, to the urban myth that VAK is somehow still the pillar of teacher training, to ITE being the ‘dementor’ of creative and innovative practice in classrooms. 

I can tell you this:  ITE isn’t perfect – nor are schools – but we are a damn sight better than we are being credited for.

It was crystal clear to me once I joined an ITE institution that classroom practice – a close, continuing and rich relationship with the ‘real world’ – was of paramount importance. My experiences and ideas as a recent classroom practitioner were critically explored, harnessed and put into practice. I was encouraged to keep close to the classroom, to the point that I continued to teach in a local school for a day a week. A foot in both camps gave me the ability to challenge, critique and explore what we were delivering to our trainees. 

If everything that should be learned about teaching could be learned from a journal article or seminal text, then we wouldn’t exist. But can everything be learned from a classroom?

Schools can become insular, the ‘echo chamber’ can quickly take hold and stifle innovation, creativity and change. For me, university-based ITE can prevent that.

The job of ITE is not to create an army of role-filling robots dedicated to a clinical curriculum and a military-like classroom: I would be much more comfortable in producing ‘feather rufflers’, future teachers who want to challenge practice, to question the seminal theories of pedagogy. Teachers who can critically look at education and decide for themselves, indeed for their children, who they want to be as a teacher. 

Yes, we talk about theory. Why shouldn’t we? I would much prefer to have a teacher who has wrestled with concepts from Friere and drawn their own conclusions from Montessori than one who hasn’t. I firmly believe a strong academic grounding should be at the heart of teacher education.

I am not disputing that didactic, stuffy sessions still exist. They do. Some of them are necessary. But when mixed with trainees being immersed in everything from den building and museum visits to cultural experiences and widespread community events, they are put into context. 

Aiming for balance

The purpose of ITE is not ‘tips for teachers’, it’s not three years of Inset and it is certainly not about ticking the Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky boxes.  It’s about balance.  It’s about creating a culture where education is seen as the multifaceted, ever-changing creature that it is.

It seems to me that education is becoming a swirling vortex of negativity within which blame is thrown around like a tennis ball on a playground. How is this propitious for any of us?

There needs to be a joined-up approach. I see incredible partnerships between schools and universities, where both parties engage in real critical thinking to improve standards. Isn’t that what it should be all about?

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University 

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