Enhancing autonomy is vital

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Philip Robinson argues that teachers who want to learn will benefit their pupils the most. There are many contestants for the "heart of education", including the child, the curriculum, assessment and the school. At the centre of the educational process, the pivot for the future of UK education, is the teacher. The basic premise of education is the relationship between the teacher and the taught; a relationship between autonomous beings who at their best promote the imagination, bring insight and deepen understanding, and at their worst constrict and confuse individual development.

Of course, learning takes place independently from the teacher and there is no clear causal path between the achievement of learning and the practice of teaching. As surely as teachers can enhance learning they can also destroy and antagonise the learning process. Here are the extremes of professional competence. In order to enhance the positive, it is necessary to enhance the autonomy of the teacher. Autonomy is at the heart of professionalism. If education in the UK, or indeed anywhere, is to attract able and committed individuals as teachers, so the autonomy, and concomitant obligations, of the profession must be enhanced.

The history of educational reform is littered with well-intentioned initiatives that either ignore or marginalise the autonomy of the teacher. The imposition of a national curriculum in England and Wales is an example: set in a legal framework, over-prescriptive, and now doubly reformed to a point where the Government has announced a moratorium on change. The failure of this national curriculum is not to deny the need for a consensus about what children need to know, understand and demonstrate that they can accomplish. This obligation has long been recognised.

Her Majesty's Inspectors in England and Wales coined the phrase "entitlement curriculum" in the 1970s. The difference between that initiative and the national curriculum is that the former recognises the importance of the principles that inform the selection of knowledge, and the latter addresses the content of knowledge.

The enhancement of autonomy has three elements: subject competence, pedagogical skill and administrative support.

Much of what children learn is of necessity superficial - a child who leaves a topic curious, anxious to find out more, with unanswered questions, conflicts and debate, is indeed fortunate. That excitement of learning is itself the product of good teaching and flows from the autonomy that comes from the teacher being confident and fascinated by the matter to be taught. A mistake of the "child-centred" movement was to understate the importance of the teacher's own understanding. The ability to select appropriate examples, make links, or choose different images to explain to a five-year-old or 15-year-old is demanding of the teacher's grasp of the subject being communicated.

The autonomy of the child, fundamental to teaching, requires respect for the learner, an intense interest and enjoyment in the learner that promotes the confidence to learn. Learning is a risky business and effective teachers can generate the confidence whereby their pupils are allowed to make mistakes, recognise fallacies and profit from the experience.

But this respect also implies that the teacher is respected. The challenge is to enhance respect, not in deference but from the authority of subject competence. If the phrase "life-long learning" is relevant anywhere, then it is among the community of teachers. The creation of a personal learning plan, a series of goals and tasks through which understanding of the world can be enhanced, is as much an element in the teacher's profile as are the skills of assessment, question-setting or managing small group discussions. Both teacher and taught share the same quest.

Many years ago, the James Committee recognised the need for teachers to have regular periods for study and personal development and since 1972 there has been a significant growth of in-service training of teachers and professional development. But too much is linked to the instrumental tasks of the professions - how to be better managers, timekeepers, and organisers - compared with time to develop that which will be taught. Appraisal schemes concentrate on the efficiencies of classroom practice at the expense of personal growth.

Subject competence is the prerequisite for everything else, but autonomy is also enhanced through a rich repertoire of pedagogical techniques. The challenge of teaching is to select a method that is appropriate to the moment, in the knowledge that what is successful once will not necessarily have the same effect at a later date.

The excitement of teaching is the requirement to innovate, and innovation needs the support of colleagues and the development of a vocabulary through which pedagogical ideas are discussed and analysed. The much-derided theory of education, criticised more for what was excluded than included, underpinned by careful observation of classroom practice and documentation of children's achievements, feeds that vocabulary. The uncertainty of teaching, its unpredictability and its routines, demands collegiate support if the individual is to continue to engage in the quest for understanding of how classrooms operate, the intriguing relationship between teacher and taught.

The third element of autonomy is administrative, a framework that enables the teacher to exercise discretion, make judgments and adapt to the needs of the learner. Autonomy implies accountability, and the autonomous individual has also the obligation to account for actions to parents, children and colleagues in ways that recognise the idiosyncratic nature of the learner and concentrate on what it is possible for the individual to achieve.

Eventually, the teacher in society may fade into the background as autonomous learners take greater responsibility for their own learning. This is still some way off and in the interim the person with a central role in bringing about the "learning society" is the teacher- those who are learners, who are able to motivate and who, especially in the early years, engender confidence and a sense of wonder. No one can take the responsibility of learning for another. The teacher, however, is the prime facilitator, fired by intellectual curiosity, and excited by the prospect of sharing this enthusiasm. If UK education in the next millennium is staffed by learning teachers, then the infection of education will take hold.

Philip Robinson is senior Pro-Rector at the Roehampton Institute London.

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