Better teachers, better learning, better performance

11th November 2005 at 00:00
David Henderson and Neil Munro report from the eighth Edinburgh Conference, organised by the City of Edinburgh Council and sponsored by The TES Scotland

The key to giving teachers more respect is to enhance their training, one of the experts from Finland told a discussion session.

The country was well ahead of Scotland in transferring teacher education to the universities in 1971, and teaching there requires a minimum five-year degree.

Hannele Niemi, vice-chancellor of Helsinki University, stressed the importance of making students "research-oriented" as they prepare for life in the classroom. This exposes them to the latest research about how something can be taught and learnt - as well as ensuring they have "a profound knowledge of recent advances in the subject they teach".

Teachers in Finland were "very open-minded and ready to learn new methods", Professor Niemi said. They saw teaching as "an intellectually, socially and morally challenging career".

In Finland, teacher education was not marginalised, as it was in many other countries. "If teacher education is based on high-level knowledge and research, as it is with other disciplines, it will improve teachers'

status," she said. "The aim should be to integrate research-based knowledge with their own professional behaviour."

Professor Niemi, who chairs the national parents' association in Finland, called for teachers to think in terms of their school and locality, "not just about the last lesson in the classroom, although that is important because education is about relationships".

In his speech to the conference earlier, Peter Peacock, Education Minister, lauded Finland as the best-performing education system among first world countries. Professor Niemi attributed part of its success to the fact that it took a totally comprehensive approach, with no private schools at all.

One result was that Finland had the smallest differences between schools of any country.

Another consequence was that teaching was one of the top three most popular options for students going into higher education, along with the law and medicine. Professor Niemi said: "Teachers are therefore seen as very important in keeping society at the top level."

The importance of boosting respect for teachers was underlined in another conference session led by Isabella Lind, headteacher of Ravenscraig primary in Greenock. Ms Lind dated the deprofessionalising of teachers to the advent of the 5-14 guidelines which, she argued, soon turned into requirements.

"It took a very brave person to stand up to that," she said.

There was now a move towards restoring autonomy to teachers. "I wouldn't wish to revert to the situation in the 1970s when I could have been teaching anything and nobody would have bothered," Ms Lind said.

She also called on teachers to see themselves as learners and not worry about how their pupils might react. "How can you lead a learning community if you are not a learner yourself?" she asked.

"Learning, apart from anything else, gives you an empathy with young people and makes you realise how difficult it can be and that things are not always clear."

Teachers should not be averse to calling in their pupils to help if, for example, they had a problem with a computer or mobile phone. "Learning shouldn't be seen as a one-way street," Ms Lind said.

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