Practice makes imperfect

10th January 2003 at 00:00
The way new teachers are trained gives them plenty of skills, writes Shirley Lawes. But what they need to become real professionals is a solid grounding in theory

The idea that the teacher's role is to inspire, to create a thirst for knowledge and to promote independent, critical thought has been lost. The accusing finger could point to the prescriptiveness of the national curriculum, the obsession with league tables, and the burden of inspections, but the real problem is the way student teachers are prepared for the job.

That preparation is no longer a question of education involving an academic as well as practical initiation into the profession, but a question of training. The shift towards a competence-based model makes for a homogenised, compliant, conformist army of technicians whose job is more concerned with social control than education.

Competence-based training requires students to be intellectually passive but very busy. On PGCE courses, students gain only a superficial knowledge of educational theory, be it pedagogical, psychological, sociological or historical. Philosophy of education has been sacrificed to citizenship education, curriculum theory has become learning how to "deliver" the national curriculum.

Teacher trainers have gone along with this, often arguing that time does not permit much other than the immediately relevant or functional during the intensive nine-month period which, of necessity, has to focus on the achievement of the standards required for qualified teacher status. And yet, it is only through theory that real professionalism is possible.

Theoretical understanding may not offer much in the way of tips for teachers, but there is a more important outcome: sound theoretical knowledge ultimately improves the quality of practice and leads to the transformation of subjective experience.

The reduction of teaching to skills lowers the status of the profession and thereby diminishes its appeal to good graduates with a passion to share their knowledge with future generations of learners. This is a diminished form of professional preparation that produces practitioners who have little understanding of what they are doing.

What lies behind today's drive to regulate and control initial teacher education? Compliant and passive teacher training is an expression of a lack of confidence that is commonplace in the academy and that reflects a more general political mood of uncertainty in society. At the level of government and policy-making, the lack of confidence is often expressed by their fear of things being out of their control, particularly in the independent spheres of knowledge-creation in universities, colleges and schools. They are,therefore, keen to regulate and control what is left to them.

Education is an easy target. Draconian inspections and a national curriculum for teacher training are examples of the lack of trust on the part of policy-makers in teachers to educate future generations and in teacher educators to train good teachers.

However, such initiatives are more indicative of their uncertainty about their own policies than of the quality or lack of it in education. Nevertheless, such lack of trust and confidence has had a damaging effect at all levels of education.

Today's society is characterised by compliance, caution, conservatism and conformity. We live in a time where a strongly anti-theoretical climate abounds, where a sceptical view of ideas and progress is prevalent. The demand for theoretical explanation and understanding at a social and political level has been marginalised and this has impacted on educational theory. In this context, educational thinking has become more oriented towards attitudes rather than knowledge. Teacher trainers are to blame for going along with this.

It is time to mount a new defence of teacher education and to reintroduce a more liberal programme including all aspects of educational and applied theory, alongside the teaching of practical skills. The latter has now been, more or less, refined. Teachers who have been well grounded in theory and who have risen to this theoretical challenge throughout their initiation into teaching, will have confidence in knowledge, a vision of education, more commitment to the profession, and certainty about the value of their professional knowledge as well as their practical skills. Without such teachers, education will just mean social training.

Shirley Lawes is finishing her PhD on the death of theory in teacher training at the Institute of Education, London

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