Price of ignorance

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Starved of funds, curriculum development and creativity have been shut out, say Di Bentley and Mick Nott, who call for investment in training.

In-service Education and Training - INSET - has a Seventies flavour, synonymous with short, sharp and ineffective shocks of remediation, relaxation or reflection. Continuing Professional Development (CPD), on the other hand, promises to be a programme of formal and informal experiences that teachers encounter at work. Such a programme will assist teachers in their drive towards better practice, through a mix of work-based and open learning, and courses with the opportunity for accreditation. This accreditation could be used for academic or professional credit. Teachers will have a right to be involved in the programme and a responsibility to take part. Is this cherished ideal near realisation? Most teachers would probably snort at such a dream.

Organisational, ideological and funding changes mean that CPD is thinly spread. Science curriculum development and dissemination through local education authorities has disappeared. Inspection is divorced from development; accountability has replaced responsibility. In these managerial, national curriculum days, teachers rarely get time to think about and evaluate the curriculum.

Curriculum development has been taken over by publishers and linked to a curriculum product or scheme. The devolution of budgets to schools means that the sum for development per individual science teacher is about Pounds 100 - less than the cost of a day course, if teacher cover is included.

The Association for Science Education offers the only forum where teachers can share and learn from each other's practice. However, only proactive people get involved. CPD for all is not seen as either a right or a responsibility. Most teachers fund themselves and schools do not allow them time to do it. GEST money follows school inspections. This often means that schools engage consultants to solve one-off problems. The value of any CPD emerging out of this is uncertain. What is certain is that it is mostly aimed at remediation of those science departments which are "sound" but not first on the list of resources.

We believe that consultancies operated with a department lead to losses of economies of scale in terms of using expertise and sharing good practice among schools. For example, in primary science, GEST courses once funded for 20 days may now run for 5. In secondary schools, there is no curriculum-dedicated funding, yet teachers' needs have not diminished.

Having erected the Eighties edifice called the national curriculum, the fabric needs to be maintained, altered and refurbished. Declaring it "listed" by assuming it does all that needs to be done for science is insulting to teachers' creativity and dangerous for pupils. Where the curriculum is explored, the time for science is used for administrative tasks and strategic planning. Little curriculum development is systematic or informed. One of the reasons is the national curriculum itself. As delivery has replaced teaching, so teachers' responsibilities have changed from development to compliance.

Teachers are also largely isolated in schools and cannot easily meet others to hear their ideas nor can they interact with research and scholarship about effective science teaching. The only CPD that seems to be widely supported - or sought - for career purposes, is managerial and generic. Since 1988, the managerial culture change in education has been dramatic. It seems that many professionals have forgotten that the core business of science education is teaching and learning, through the curriculum. Starved of funds, curriculum development, creativity and innovation have shut up shop.

The Teacher Training Agency has signalled that professional qualifications will be developed on a competency model. We are not against competences as measures of abilities, but this is too minimalist. Competences do not describe or entail capability. Capability is about understanding not only how to teach and be a teacher, but also how knowledge is constructed in a subject, why and how that subject is in the school curriculum, and interacting with the research that underpins learning.

A radical shift in thinking is needed. Funding bodies must recognise that motivated pupils must be taught by motivated teachers. If we are perplexed by the failure of children to stick with science, then we should look to the enthusiasm of the teachers. Science teachers must be more than competent; they must be supported so that their subject knowledge and their enthusiasm for teaching it develops.

Importance must be given to development of knowledge and the curriculum in each subject. The TTA recognises this to some extent. Alongside the calls for national standards for newly qualified and serving teachers, the importance of educational research in informing good teaching and learning practices is accepted. The TTA identifies the problem with educational research as that little of it seems to be applicable in practice. The proposed solution is for the TTA to fund research by teachers and ensure that it is disseminated.

This laudable aim is not supported by a sophisticated view of the social structure of research. Some teachers do engage in research; they do it on accredited courses in universities and colleges in their own time and from their funds. They do it because research is not just picking up a tool and applying it, it is also about a broad knowledge of previous research and a deep knowledge of a particular area. This takes time to develop. Findings must be reliable and validated by peers and published. Research is most effectively done in and supported by communities of other researchers, such as in higher education.

Competences and the idea of "teacher as researcher" are fine as guiding principles. The competency model can be developed for CPD in technical knowledge and skill. However, CPD must also include times when teachers concentrate on reading research methods and findings and show they understand them before they can go on to do their own. CPD must include the development of the curriculum and evaluation. Universities and colleges may have to change their ideas of what experiences and outcomes can get academic credit. Providers of this CPD might be LEAs, training and enterprise councils, professional associations and schools. If it is going to be of any value, it must be properly kite-marked. As well as more funds, this requires changes in conditions of service. Research shows that if you want to change a teacher's practice the stages of exposition, modelling, feedback, coaching, practice and evaluation are essential. Investment is vital. Becoming a researcher needs guidance, practice and criticism. Knowledge is not cheap, but what's the price of ignorance?

Mick Nott edits the ASE magazine Science Teacher Education. All subscription enquiries to Sharon Rolland, ASE. Fax: 01707 266532

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