Powerful lessons of the past

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg enjoys a historically informed analysis of of what makes good teacher training

Power to Teach: learning through practice By Wendy Robinson Routledge Falmer pound;24.99

Is teaching an art, a science, a craft, or a bit of all three? Wendy Robinson's exploration of the notion of "power to teach" attempts to address this kind of question in historical and contemporary contexts. It is a challenging assignment and she makes an impressive attempt at illuminating and clarifying what has often been a diffuse concept.

The book contains a substantial account of the history of teacher training, with particular reference to practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anyone wanting a thorough and well researched account of the period would be hard-pressed to better this one.

Teacher training institutions have often been kicked around like political footballs. In 19th-century France they were closed down, being regarded as hotbeds of radicalism - young recruits often want to challenge orthodoxy, change the world and rescue humanity, so it is easy for their tutors to feed this revolutionary spirit by questioning governments, policies, and society generally, putting the wind up politicians.

This opens up a debate about where training should take place, which is a recurring theme in the book. In a chapter on the teacher as trainer, the author rightly points out that the mentoring role of teachers has been understated over the years. She traces the history of the pupil teacher system, its uses and abuses, and the divorce between schools and training institutions when pupil teachers were phased out in 1907. Twenty years later, there were calls for a better partnership, and the same kind of debate has ebbed and flowed since.

There was, of course, a dilemma. Practical, on-the-job training was, in principle, a decent idea, but pupil teachers were often exploited by heads, who used them as dogsbodies and gave them no proper training; this was criticised in formal reports. A century ago these novices were apprenticed to the head. At its worst, the experience was like being made to stack shelves in a supermarket, instead of acquiring a high degree of professional skill.

Today's school-based mentors are knowledgeable and sophisticated teachers, with a successful track record. Hence the contemporary and, from time to time, historic emphasis on partnership. Teachers have rich first-hand experience of their classroom, but may be limited in their knowledge of educational theory, or of what goes on in other schools.

Teacher trainers based in institutions, by contrast, can visit many schools, and have usually acquired a good grasp of matters such as lesson analysis and theories of teaching and learning, but they may have few opportunities to do the daily job of a classroom teacher. In these circumstances a harmonious partnership, capitalising on the two sets of strengths, makes sense, and the author describes its cadences over several decades.

Despite the richness of historical exemplars, I was surprised there was no reference to the huge impact of David Stow, whose Glasgow Normal Seminary was established in the 1830s, as he was light years ahead of his time and very influential through the 19th century and beyond. Many of the pioneers of teacher training in English colleges, such as Homerton and St Luke's, made pilgrimages to Scotland to see his schoolcollege. He developed his own psychology of teaching and established the adventure playground and the "gallery lesson", where students had to teach in front of tutors, teachers and their fellows. His approach raises many of the issues so assiduously elucidated and exemplified here.

Early in the book, Robinson makes a good attempt to deconstruct the concept of "power to teach". She creates a four-dimensional model: power in key teaching skills, such as questioning, explaining, empathising with pupils; power in managing children, holding their attention and keeping order; intellectual and academic power; and personal power, to do with character and command. It is not easy to achieve clarity. Some of her categories seem repetitive, such as "disciplinary power", "powers of control" and "power of command", the last of which appears in a different dimension of her schema from the first two.

The most difficult assignment in any historical and contemporary analysis is to make a convincing link between past and present. The author usually tries to do this towards the end of chapters: sometimes successfully; occasionally less so. One of the weakest arguments is that the assessment agenda for student teachers in recent years, laid down by the Teacher Training Agency and executed by Ofsted, has what the author calls "a high degree of consistency" with historical categories of appraisal.

This underplays massive differences. Such elements as "class management" and "relationships with children" are present in contemporary artefacts, as they were in the past, for how could they be omitted? But these are purely generic today. There are significant differences, only some of which the author mentions. The TTA criteria have been drawn up and imposed by an agency, not by those directly involved in the assessment of student teachers. They are remote from the reality and feasibility of daily training needs, so junior and middle school teachers, for example, are required to meet 851 separate criteria, a ludicrous situation, with no close parallel in our history. HMI powers are now such that inspectors can, on the basis of as little as one lesson observation, override the combined judgment of teacher and tutor, even though these might have been agreed after several months of observation and supervision.

Robinson concludes that today's regime "does not preclude creativity, imagination and personal influence". Maybe not, but today's student teachers lament the stranglehold of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work in schools, as well as TTA box-ticking. It is possible to be imaginative, but trainees, like teachers, have to swim against the flow.

I enjoyed this book for its historical interest and for some of its contemporary insights, but I would prefer a modern critique by someone like Professor Nate Gage of Stanford University, of what he calls "the scientific basis of the art of teaching". Robinson's account of yesterday is more sure-footed than her analysis of today.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

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