Teachers must start talking about teaching, not learning, said Anthea Millett at the second TES Keele lecture. Neil Levis reports
The word pedagogy fascinates Anthea Millett. She's intrigued that we British can't talk about it. We even stumble over pronouncing the word - is that second g a hard or a soft one? It's a situation - our reluctance to talk about what goes on in the classroom - that she wants to change.
The chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency unveiled her cultural crusade to headteachers and academics at Keele University at the second TES-sponsored seminar for the Keele Improving Schools Network. Ms Millett sees pedagogy - the science, the art, the craft of teaching - as central to the issue of learning effectiveness and, therefore, a prerequisite for school improvement.
"I am always struck," she said, "by how difficult teachers find it to talk about teaching - or rather, about the nature of teaching - and how unwilling some of them are to talk about teaching at all. They prefer to talk about learning.
"By contrast, they can talk with great clarity about matters such as the curriculum, assessment and testing, classroom organisation, examination structures - almost anything except teaching itself."
The concept of pedagogy holds no fears on the continent where it forms the basis of how professionals discuss education.
But in Britain, said Ms Millett quoting David Reynolds, the Newcastle professor of education who will give the next lecture in the Keele series, we have no common instructional theory and hence no common pedagogic understandings.
Since 1944, she said, we have tackled most educational issues but ignored the most important one because of a British reluctance to tread on teachers' professional toes and because, to the expert teacher, certain kinds of knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities are internalised - "rather like a pianist trying to explain how they co-ordinate their fingers on the keys, their feet on the pedals and the vision in their heads".
"To improve teaching and disseminate good pedagogic practice, teachers must draw out and describe and, by implication, defend practice which has become second nature. Teaching methods I have not only become internalised, but form the assumptions which underpin so much else.
"And, because teaching is a task with many complex variables, every teacher has a heap of hidden assumptions which feed everything else into their teaching. But we must not assume that assumptions cannot be externalised."
Anthea Millet believes her agency has made a start by developing professional national standards in four areas: for newly qualified teachers, for special needs co-ordinators, for subject leaders and for headteachers. The new national curriculum that makes teachers concentrate on pedagogy while they are in training will bring about long-term improvement.
"Teachers of the future will only achieve full recognition for their talents if they are able to discuss and explain their teaching methods and improve on them by design rather than by trial and error," she said.
There's a new generation of teachers on the way, too. In the next 12 years the British teaching force will change from one dominated by the 45 to 55 age group to one where the majority of teachers will be aged 25 to 35. Most of these will have been trained under the new system with its emphasis on articulating pedagogy.
Ms Millett anticipated the criticisms of what she was advocating: that the Government is bent on establishing a narrow, competence-based approach to teaching and that the new emphasis on pedagogy would be seen as an attack on teachers' independence and professionalism.
"Changing our approach to pedagogy and developing that (shared instructional) theory would allow us to take the debate on improvement forward to where the action, the point of learning is or ought to be: the classroom. We need to remember that there are many excellent teachers whose practice provides a model of excellence for us all. School improvement must be about taking all our classroom practice, teaching and learning and improving its quality and standard.
"To do this, more heads must address with their staff the issues of pedagogy and competence, excellence and failure in teaching methods. This is vital in order to promote the new professionalism."
Professor Denis Gleeson, head of Keele's education department, said he was concerned at the emphasis Ms Millett was putting on a common instructional mode. His was not the only dissenting voice: the national curriculum avoided pedagogy, said one teacher. Today's culture is about not taking risks, which a confident classroom operator will do. And Margaret Maden, professor of school improvement at Keele, was anxious to challenge the idea that everything done up to now was inferior to the new professionalism. Such a notion would get up people's noses, she said.
ANTHEA MILLETT'S NEW JOBS FOR HEADS
Realise that an individual, intuitive pedagogy is not the way to ensure the best lessons - other than for exceptional teachers * Dispel the myth that any and every teaching strategy is equally valid * Challenge the stereotype of the classroom as the teacher's individual castle. Involve other staff, professionals and para-professionals to open the closed classroom and what goes on inside it * Establish a climate of enquiry and co-operation among staff based on good research * Encourage the use of all available resources, including new technology
THE KEELE SEMINARS. The Keele Improving Schools Network seminar programme
On The Highly Reliable Leader
on Managing to Lead
DAME PAT COLLARBONE
on Leading Leadership Centres