Products of the intellect

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Chris Holligan says research confirms the effectivenessof initial teacher education.

Does an intellectual attitude, fostered by engaging with the disciplines of psychology, philosophy and educational theory, help students to become good teachers? A difficult question. Answering it positively calls for wisdom in reforms of teacher education, especially partnerships between higher education and schools. According to Professor Stephen Ball of London University, educational studies in initial teacher education is on the way out. Many view its supposed utility with scepticism, even hostility.

The existence of school-based pathways into teaching in England suggests that quality teaching does not require academic underpinning. Defenders of the traditional status quo argue that without an academic grounding teaching will revert to craft status. Like all professions it must maintain a claim to unique knowledge and expertise. Professional autonomy depends upon the development of personal qualities and conceptual understanding.

During the past year, with the help of a Scottish Office research grant and the Open University, I discovered that many students found educational studies had prompted them to ask why. "Getting away from instinct and looking at things from a different perspective," one student remarked. Broader perspectives on assessment were acquired: "It made you aware of different ways you could assess, the potentials for each activity and child . . . It's not all cognitive assessment, social ability is important too." Knowledge empowered students: "It gave me the confidence to stand up there in front of children." Theoretical knowledge enabled students to framework their own ideas: "I became more aware of influences in groups and questioned other people's opinion of 'the baddy'. I learnt to value my own ideas."

A typical comment on understanding the individuality of children was: "You knew they differed, I've seen it with my own, but you weren't aware how much. " Self-awareness about matters of discipline was frequently mentioned: "They showed me how discipline problems can arise from your own methods. I was made aware of choices open to me." Mature students in particular rated educational studies as having a "highly significant" effect upon personal development: "It helped me to be more open-minded, not to be judgmental which as a parent you are." Perspectives imported from home to college were challenged: "The way I think and look at things is different. I've become a more rounded person. It's raised my awareness of how to make myself a better teacher."

Surprisingly, in view of the level-headed nature of students' perspectives on the utility of educational studies, "new right" critics claim doctrines preached through educational studies are subversive. An appreciation by students of the potential effects of socio-economic background on success in school are said to foster negative viewpoints: knowledge corrupts students' minds. The pristine like nature of students' personal qualities must not be impaired by "bias" in the teaching and selection of academic knowledge.

To maintain the integrity of the teaching profession use must instead be made of the "professional wisdom" of teachers accumulated over generations. Such critics claim that "people can become perfectly good teachers who have not undergone formal teacher training in a college or department of education".

Recent research on mentoring funded by the Scottish Office concluded that students did not outperform college-based "controls" in terms of quality classroom teaching. Are these findings pointing up the utility of academic knowledge encountered outside of Virtual High School in institutions of higher education? Or do they merely reflect the contingencies experienced by any trials of innovative approaches (students not hitting it off with their assigned mentors?) rather than structural flaws in the paradigm's assumptions about fostering professional competence? The progression of our understanding about the effectiveness of alternative ways of teaching student teachers to teach can be achieved by thinking about the utility of academic studies for students as learners.

Whether receptiveness to academic studies supports teaching effectiveness during initial training and beyond is contentious. Many fundamental issues raised by the 1971 James report and in Scotland in 1978 by Sneddon on teacher education remain unresolved. According to the authors of the James report, the BEd is party to a conflict of purposes. Thus "the colleges are required at one and the same time to extend for three years the personal education of the student and to train him as a teacher . . . Nobody would propose that personal education and professional training are logically incompatible, but their simultaneous coexistence as valid objectives for the whole course must be seriously questioned."

One might question, however the tenability of this distinction. Our teachers are remembered as people. They are role models for pupils. It is further asserted that "much of the theoretical study of education is irrelevant to students who have had, as yet, little practical experience of children or teaching." But one might instead argue that an appreciation of the potential meanings of practical experience (and a critical self-awareness of the validity of one's own professional reactions to classroom issues) requires that students utilise newly acquired theoretical concepts. According to Michael Eraut, the rationale for educational theory lies in its potential to "help students interpret and criticise their observations and experiences by underpinning how they perceive situations and think about their work". Professor Eraut claims that fostering theorising is one of the fundamental aims characterising higher education.

In Labour's policy document Investing in Quality (1991), the party argues that the effectiveness of educational studies should be evaluated on the basis of evidence as to how well it equips teachers to do their job. Our findings wholeheartedly endorsed Professor Eraut's views and moreover demand a radical rethink of theory's relationship with practice. We must look more closely into how students as learners personally reconstruct in unexpected ways their experience of initial teacher education, making it malleable to fit their starting points and priorities. We interviewed 40 final-year BEd students. Half had achieved consistently excellent grades for classroom teaching and the others average grades. All were deemed good student teachers. They were subdivided further into mature (aged 30 and over) and younger students (aged 20 and over). The more able students (in terms of classroom teaching grades) were also better academically: intellectually more able students as judged by course criteria make better teachers.

In short, if the positive experience of this sample of students is the norm in higher education why is there still a question mark over the need for the intellectual challenge of academic studies? Vocationally oriented courses remain true to their mission when they also acknowledge the personal needs of students. As lecturers in higher education we must remember too that we are role models for students hoping to become very good teachers. Educational studies is an important platform for ensuring they achieve their aspirations.

Dr Chris Holligan is a lecturer in educational studies in the faculty of education at Paisley University. He is currently on secondment to the Open University as staff tutor at the School of Education. The views expressed are personal. Copies of the report are available from the author at: Open University in Scotland, 10 Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh, EH3 7QJ.

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