Put theory into practice

29th October 2004 at 01:00
It's more important than ever for trainee teachers to learn the history of education, says Gary McCulloch

Secondary education has for more than half a century been undergoing a serious crisis which has by no means reached its conclusion. Everybody feels that it cannot remain as it is, without having any clear idea about what it needs to become."

No, that isn't Tony Blair speaking, nor is it an attack on comprehensive schools. It is in fact Emile Durkheim, the great French sociologist, in his famous course on the history of education in France which he began at the University of Paris exactly 100 years ago.

Durkheim argued that the crisis of secondary education was reflected in a succession of reforms that often contradicted one another. The reforms were not addressing the basic problem, but were a symptom of it. At the heart of this crisis, said Durkheim, was the disorientation of secondary education between a past that was dying and a future that was still undecided.

Because of this, it lacked the vigour and vitality that it once possessed.

So, for example, the old faith in the value of the classics had been badly shaken, but no new faith had yet appeared to replace that one that was disappearing.

Durkheim prescribed greater attention to secondary education as a unity, to understand the problems of secondary school culture in its entirety, rather than the separate study of individual subjects. The only way to face the crisis, he urged, was to keep the ends and aims of secondary education constantly in view. To do this you needed to understand how they had changed over time.

Why should we bother with the views of Durkheim, spoken so long ago and in another country? It's tempting to say, first, that his prognosis can be applied to the problems we face in our own time. We too have been trying to face up to a historical crisis in the character of our education system over the past 30 years since the onset of the so-called Great Debate in the 1970s. And yet this has very rarely been addressed in its full measure, with reforms too often a symptom of the crisis rather than a cure. We can learn a lot from Durkheim, who insisted that it is only through a careful study of the past that we can come to anticipate the future and to understand the present.

And Durkheim should also matter to us because of his conviction that teachers need to be acquainted with educational theory during their training. Durkheim's lectures on the history of education were part of a compulsory training course for those intending to be teachers. He pointed out that it was the teachers who had to put policies into practice in the schools, and to do this they needed to be able to understand them properly.

"Only if they themselves live it will they be able to bring it to life," he declared.

He insisted that it was not enough to prescribe to teachers in precise detail what they would have to do. They must themselves be in a position to assess and appreciate these prescriptions, to see the point of them and the needs they meet. In brief, he concluded, they must be familiar with the problems involved in the education for which they would be responsible, just as much as with the methods with which they are supposed to solve them, so that they can make up their own minds with a knowledge of the issues involved. By contrast, in Britain over the past 20 years the history of education has been virtually expunged from teacher education.

The outcome has been that student teachers have had little or no opportunity to understand the history of educational organisations and aims, at a time of major and continuing reforms that they are expected to put into practice. They have even been left unable to engage with the history of their own profession.

This is especially amazing, as there is currently a wave of important new research which shows how and why teachers and teaching have changed over the years.

Recently the prescriptive control of the early national curriculum has given way to a view that teachers should be encouraged to understand the implications of educational changes in the schools. "Informed professionalism" is the big new idea.

Surely it is time for teacher training to catch up with this and give greater scope for future teachers to know something about the history of schooling and of their own profession? Or, as Emile Durkheim himself might have put it: "I'm a teacher - get me back into here!"

Gary McCulloch is Brian Simon professor of the history of education at the institute of education, University of London

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