Complexities that won't go away

28th June 1996 at 01:00
John Furlong examines views on the practical and moral difficulties involved in teaching and teacher development.

Back to Good Teaching; Diversity Within Tradition By John Halliday Cassell Education Pounds 13.99. Essential Mentoring Skills: A Practical Handbook for School-based Teacher Educators. By Paul Stephens Stanley Thornes Pounds 10. 99. Mentors in Schools: Developing the Profession of Teaching Edited by Donald McIntyre and Hazel Hagger David Fulton Pounds 13.99. Developing Reflective Practice: Learning about Teaching and Learning Through Modelling By John Loughran Falmer Press Pounds 13.95. Developing Competent Teachers: Approaches to Professional Competence in Teacher Education Edited by David Hustler and Donald McIntyre David Fulton Pounds 15.99. On the surface, each of these five books on teacher education is rather different: a philosophical plea for the reassertion of "practical reasoning" in teaching and teacher education; a handbook for school-based "mentors"; a series of essays on research into mentoring; a study of the promotion of "reflection" among his students by a higher education tutor; and another series of essays on the role of competences in teacher education. Yet, despite these differences, there is an important thread running through them all - that is the concern to recognise the practical as well as the moral complexities involved in teaching and teacher development.

The concern with the moral dimension of teaching is most explicitly explored by Halliday in his Back to Good Teaching. He is concerned with challenging technicist approaches to teaching and learning, including those within teacher education. The idea that good teaching can be ensured by attempting to standardise practice is, he argues, fundamentally flawed and runs the risk of doing the opposite.

In recent years, he suggests, government intervention has meant that the language used to explain goodness of teaching has shifted from commitment and responsibility to efficiency and effectiveness of method. "Moral and ethical concerns have been marginalised through the language of quality into a separate curriculum component as if values and facts were unrelated." As a result, he suggests that the past 40 years may be characterised by the phrase "from goodness to quality". Halliday wants to reverse the order in that phrase: "from quality to goodness".

Interestingly, Halliday sees some hope for the reassertion of "good" teaching in the development of school-based teacher education. If school-based mentors work alongside those from higher education, this could, he argues, be a bulwark against technicism. Two books which focus on the development of school-based programmes share this optimism.

Stephens's Essential Mentoring Skills is a practical handbook for secondary school teachers who are subject mentors in new school-based schemes. As books of this kind need to be, it is very well written. It is short, practical, and down to earth. But its main strength is that it manages to do all of these things without trivialising the complexities involved in supporting students in the process of learning to teach.

If I have one quibble with the book it is with the title - Essential Mentoring Skills - it is clearly much more than this. While Stephens does include sections on effective observation, planning and feedback, he also addresses the more complex issue of the "curriculum" of mentoring. For example, he gives advice on how to address the issues of subject knowledge,classroom management and pupil assessment. Even more significant, echoing Halliday, Stephens also offers advice on how to support students in the critical issue of the development of judgment and values. This book deserves to be widely read.

McIntyre and Hagger's Mentors in Schools also focuses on school-based teacher education but from a research perspective. The book's essays report the findings from six empirical studies of mentoring funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust. Each essay explores a specific aspect of mentoring such as the impact of school culture on mentoring practice, the difficulties involved in mentoring subject knowledge in primary schools and the role of mentoring in supporting further professional development.

Collectively, these essays bring home the complexity involved in school-based professional education. School-based training, whatever the Teacher Training Agency's managerialist intentions, stubbornly refuses to be subjected to technical control.

In a useful final commentary on these essays, McIntyre and Hagger note the "silence" of many of their contributors on the role of higher education in teacher education. In a book about school-based mentoring this is perhaps unsurprising but this silence is more than made up for in Loughran's Developing Reflective Practice, which focuses entirely on higher education's role in initial teacher education.

Loughran is a university lecturer and his book is an exploration of the impact of his own teaching on the development of his students as reflective practitioners. For his definition of reflection, Loughran goes back to Dewey - seeing it as a "deliberate and purposeful act of thinking which centres on ways of responding to problems set in terms of teaching and learning". As such he suggests that it involves a number of steps: "suggestions, problems, hypothesis, reasoning and testing".

Loughran's aims are laudable: "to encourage student teachers to develop pedagogical habits, skills and attitudes necessary for self-directed growth and in so doing better understand the development of their reflective practice".

His strategy is to model the approach by "thinking aloud" about his own teaching and learning and sharing his reflective journal with his students.It seems a success: "One of the most heartening aspects of this modelling is how it encourages my students to be comfortable with similar struggles with their own pedagogy."

Yet, despite the evident good practice, one is left wondering how much is achieved. Because he has defined reflection entirely as a process, he has sidestepped the more complex but fundamental problem raised by Halliday in his book concerning what "good teaching" actually is. Is all reflection worthwhile? If not, how can we differentiate the good from the bad or the significant from the trivial?

With his emphasis on the importance of reflection, Loughran would probably be among those suspicious of the development of competences in teacher education. Certainly many teacher educators have been, as Hustler and McIntyre point out in their introduction to Developing Competent Teachers. This collection arose out of a series of seminars, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, designed to explore the developing role of competences in teacher education.

The book is usefully organised as a series of case studies: of how competences have been integrated into different initial teacher education programmes; of how competences have been used outside England and Wales - in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Australia; of how competences have been used to support further professional development and of how they have been used within other professions (nursing, the police, social work). Overall, the essays challenge, and are intended to challenge, a simplistic interpretation of competences. (Both the Northern Ireland and Australian competency frameworks for example, explicitly recognise the centrality of ethics in teaching.) In a challenge to those who criticise competences, Stronach et al argue that many such criticisms are the result of binary and polarised thinking where "professional" and "technicist" approaches to teacher education are counter-posed. Such an approach, they say, "may obscure messier realities".

The evidence, from all five books, is that teacher education is indeed a more complex process than current policy initiatives would have us believe.Partnership check-lists, quality assurance procedures, career entry profiles - all these technicist strategies suppress and obscure these complexities. These books, like many others that continue to be written and published, tell a different story. The question is whether those responsible for national policy will actually read them. I hope they do.

John Furlong is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol

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