The future must focus on the 'who' and 'how' of teaching

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
The profession must raise the bar for entry requirements and ongoing professional growth

Teachers Matter" would probably be seen by pupils, parents and teachers as a statement of the blindingly obvious. Yet the fact that it needed to be the subject of a report by the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development in 2005 suggests that teachers had not hitherto been the main focus of education policy.

Much education policy has emphasised governance, parental choice and effectiveness; less attention has been given to the "who" and "how" of teaching and learning. Governments the world over now seem to be rediscovering the importance of teachers, but that in turn begs questions about what exactly it means to be the kind of teacher our young people need in the 21st century.

The answer is not as simple as it might at first appear. It requires us to be very clear about the purpose and nature of education, if we are to be clear about the kind of teachers our children need. We must also anticipate the ways in which schools are likely to develop over the course of a teaching career, remembering that the young people entering the profession today are likely still to be teaching well into the second half of this century.

Although we cannot predict the precise nature of future schooling, or indeed if there is a future for schools in their present form, we can be confident that significant and continuing change in the context for learning is certain to be a feature of that future.

Different jurisdictions across the world are, either explicitly or implicitly, building policy around their view of teaching and the teacher. At one extreme, the view prevails of a teacher as a "deliverer" of a curriculum or an "implementer" of programmes which are determined elsewhere. What kind of teacher does this view imply? Indeed, in this view are teachers necessary at all? Richard Pring, in a recent lecture at Edinburgh University titled "Bring Back Teaching", cited a claim by Rupert Murdoch that the use of technology could in time reduce the need for around half of the current teaching force.

Alternatively, teaching and learning are seen as a highly sophisticated and complex process. In this context, the teacher is an expert practitioner who does not simply "implement" but has both practical and theoretical expertise in classroom practice, curriculum development, assessment, the nature of effective learning and of barriers to that learning, and the "signature pedagogies" which are associated with different forms of knowledge.

So, crudely, teaching can be seen as the skilled application by an appropriate person of tried and tested recipes, a craft which is best learnt in the classroom, or as a complex set of processes which require a teacher to have versatility and a depth of expertise in areas which go well beyond delivering a curriculum.

In Scotland, we have nailed our colours firmly to the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) mast: this emphatically implies a view of teachers which lies towards the deep-professional-learning end of the spectrum. Teaching Scotland's Future attempted to tease out the implications of CfE for teacher education and reasserted the importance of "extended professionalism" if Scotland is to realise the full potential of its ambitious reform programme.

In terms of entry to the profession, the report reinforces the importance of rigorous selection, to identify those who are best equipped for the demanding expectations which extended professionalism implies. The teaching profession should guard fiercely the conditions for entry to its ranks. GTCS standards provide much of the necessary reassurance about the skills, knowledge and attitudes required of a teacher in Scotland. These standards rightly set high expectations.

The harder it is to enter a profession, the more likely you are to attract strong candidates - quality attracts quality. We need, therefore, to invest greater effort in the initial selection process and to apply the standards rigorously. That means setting a high academic threshold, but also probing the kind of values, capacities and qualities which are associated with successful teachers now and in the future. That is why I am advocating a much broader approach to selection, using a wide range of techniques which have proven predictive validity.

While selection is vital, it is equally vital that we have a profession which is committed to its own professional growth. It is not enough to respond to external demands for improvement; we need teachers who want to grow and develop throughout their careers and are supported in that aspiration. A profession which is dedicated to the promotion of learning should be the very embodiment of career-long learning.

GTCS standards already embody an ongoing professional commitment to reflection and learning. However, they need to be buttressed by an approach to professional review and personal development (PRPD) which has high credibility and is inextricably linked to each teacher's own professional needs and aspirations.

Results of a survey during my review of teacher education painted a worrying picture both about the practice of PRPD and the extent to which it was valued by everyone involved. We need an approach which is conducted professionally, which is based upon standards that expect professional growth, and which uses impact on young people's learning as evidence of a teacher's own development. In that way, professional learning can become the engine of educational renewal.

There can be no doubt that teachers matter. Skilled, versatile, flexible and reflective teachers are the future. The challenge facing us all is to create the conditions and establish the culture which makes this a reality across Scotland's schools.

Graham Donaldson, Professor of education, is a former senior chief inspector of HMIE and author of `Teaching Scotland's Future'.

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