A clinical approach to cure the profession

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

As Graham Donaldson's review of teacher education powers up, it may be time to start seriously considering the future professional education of teachers.

Last time this was attempted (let's not forget it was only a few years ago), very little of enduring worth resulted. There was a flurry of rhetoric about partnership, placement co-ordinators were appointed and local authorities assumed responsibility for the provision of the requisite school places for students. But not much changed.

This time, it must be different: if we are to make real progress, we must improve the quality of our support and provision for ongoing teacher education. Given that this major re-think is taking place in a period of heavily-constrained public finances, there will no doubt be some temptation in government circles to look for savings in the system.

Such a temptation should be resisted. If Education Secretary Michael Russell has learned anything from his trip to Finland last month, it is that good teachers cost money. There, teaching is the profession of choice for high-flying students, because teachers are held in high public esteem.

So what kind of teacher education might do the trick? Given that medicine tends to be regarded as the favoured profession for aspiring and able young women and men, we might learn a thing or two from medics' professional development, most especially in the relationship between universities and teaching hospitals. Central to this partnership is the placement in hospitals of university-employed clinical lecturers, who bring to bear a certain consistency in student experience. Inconsistency on placement is a common theme of concern for students.

Like medical education, teacher education requires two complementary activities: the development of craftsskills and a strong grasp of the normative and political purposes of education. These should be accompanied by an ability to engage with and deploy insights from scholarship into the social psychology of learning. It would be too easy to disassociate these elements and leave craft development to schools, with a smattering of the scholarship retained in universities.

Such a disassociation would be a mistake, because craft and pedagogy must be shaped by a thoughtful engagement with scholarship. While they may be disaggregated, they should not be dissociated. Rather, we should place university teachers in schools (probably clusters) on a permanent basis so that they might work with groups of students and teachers on improving pedagogy by drawing on the research community. They remain university employees but their day-to-day work is, so to speak, "clinical".

The schools, or clusters, would be designated "teaching schools", where we would move away from individual performance and towards working in groups to engage in understanding, diagnosis, prescription and action.

Such university "clinicians" would act as a two-way conduit for school and university developments. On the one hand, they would be able to communicate significant changes to the landscape of practice and, on the other, explore with professionals in schools the practical implications of developments in research and scholarship.

A useful offshoot is likely to be the emergence of more subtle and systematic approaches to professionalism.

This approach would, I believe, enhance the professional status of teachers, bring school and university partnerships into a more robust alignment and improve the lives of school children. It is unlikely to be cheaper than current models, but it is likely to be more effective.

Next, we need a new structure for pre-service teacher education - but that's for a subsequent reflection.

James Conroy is dean of education at Glasgow University.

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