All that matters is that little bit of paper

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Sixty students are sitting in a hot, overcrowded room, their deskchairs crammed together, with a restricted view of the projection screen. The lecture is illustrated with dozens of transparencies: whole pages copied from unidentified textbooks in type too small to read, or bullet-pointed summaries full of spelling and punctuation mistakes.

The lecturer faces the screen, rattles the change in his pockets, and goes on talking for 80 minutes. He talks about the inefficiency of lectures as a teaching method.

Unfortunately, this is not a jokey demonstration of how not to do it, but a real scene from the first week of a PGCE (FE) course at a large university in London.

I started the course last year, and left after eight weeks. Blatant contradictions between theory and practice run right throughout the course, making me question exactly what it was intended to achieve.

There are only 10 hours over the whole year that deal specifically with the issues and methodology of the teacher's chosen subject. The rest of the course is general and, not being applied to any subject in particular, often appears relevant to none.

The traditional theoretical content (linguistics, methodology, psychology) has been almost eliminated, reduced to name-checks and a few simple maxims of "practical advice", and so the course is described as practical. However, this is talk about practice, not practice itself. There is a world of difference between someone who knows a lot of light-bulb jokes and someone who knows what to do with a light bulb and a ladder.

What should a teacher-training course contain? A body of knowledge, or practical experience? Theory and practice are meaningless if separated. Moreover, their combination is what defines a professional. But in the Age of Assessment, professional qualities such as knowledge, understanding, and judgment are described as "unobservable" and therefore "unmeasurable".

Only the ancillary skills of operating an overhead projector or producing computer-generated hand-outs can be ticked off a yesno list.

In preparation for, and assessment of, a trainee's 20-minute "micro-teach" lesson (their only chance to practise before the placement in a college), these skills are emphasised above all else. The de-professionalisation of teaching starts early.

Cutting through the arguments about the content and proportions of a teacher-training syllabus, there is one essential element: teachers should provide a model of the good practice they advocate.

When most people - even successful students in tertiary education - think about education, they remember long stretches of unsociable boredom, irritation, anxiety or confusion. A good learning experience transforms the very idea of education.

As a trainee on a one-month course for teaching EFL, I participated in a variety of communicative activities. I had read about, but would never have dared to try, this approach. It certainly wasn't the way I had been taught. My subjective experience - is this enjoyable, embarrassing, useful? - determined whether I used an activity, and how I used it.

Without that practical understanding, I would have resorted to the methods by which I was taught. In the first weeks of the PGCE, we simply received endless lists of teaching methods, redundant for those who had taught before, meaningless for those who hadn't.

The drilling of new teachers with educational maxims, taken out of any theoretical or empirical context, seems consistent with an irrational belief that change can be "magicked" with special words.

Saying "learning objectives" instead of "teaching points" automatically shifts our emphasis from teacher to student. Renaming them "learning outcomes" ensures that our goals are always achieved. But the passive acceptance of a set of abstract guidelines does not guarantee good practice, nor even that those guidelines will be followed.

It is hardly surprising that students regard these phrases as mere jargon to parrot in the classroom and parody in the coffee bar, since the theories just didn't seem to apply to us, as learners. It was a case of "do as I say, not as I do". For example, "Treat adult learners as adults".

But when we asked for information (about our teaching practice placements, about writing up observations), we were told "don't worry about that now" or, in more offended tones, "the person responsible for that unit hasn't even told me yet".

In lectures, we heard the highly motivating refrains: "We're overloading you, but don't worry, you'll hear it all again", and, "Don't worry about taking notes - you can read all this in your handbook." The handbooks were a dozen pre-digested collections of quotations and summaries from textbooks: with no index, no argument, no author.

Equipped with these, we had no reason to complain that the library held only eight copies of a recommended text for a course of 360 students. After all, the bibliographies were only indicative: no one expected us to actually read the books.

"Help students to share their previous experience." Students in my group had: taught English as a foreign language, taught drama on BTEC course, provided information technology support in a college, run the NVQ programme in a large company, managed businesses, worked as artists-in-residence in schools, and more.

We sat in lethargic silence, because there was no assessment of our previous learning, no tailoring of the course to our needs, no framework for sharing our knowledge. The course was aimed at the lowest level.

"The market has been largely beneficial for FE." Customers get what they want. Yet the fear of under-recruiting and thus losing funding meant that the university was still advertising for students in late September, and ended up with 360 students on a course intended for 300. The "hot-seat" system maximises use of one building, and minimises contact hours: just four hours per week on site (in the first term). Two hours of teaching a week are "delivered" by a local FE college.

When I complained about the teaching - we had spent an hour assembling Kinder Egg toys in the science labs for a class on assessment - I was told that the university had no control over "franchised out" courses. This is not an argument anyone would accept as a customer in a burger-bar franchise.

There was a sense of hollowness about the whole exercise. The destructive cynicism was not just institutional, but explicit. Teacher-trainers referred to us as if we were all time-servers, waiting for our "bit of paper" at the end of the year to get a job. Indeed, most students felt that although they were frustrated and disappointed with the course, they couldn't afford to drop out.

More disturbingly, their previous experience of higher education left them feeling there was no point in complaining. What kind of experience will we be passing on to the next generation? Our future students deserve to have teachers who have learnt more than just cynicism. We learn that soon enough in the staffroom.

Eleanor Margolies is an English language lecturer from south London, currently teaching in Marseille.

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