Teacher training ready for an overhaul

4th December 2009 at 00:00

I welcome Fiona Hyslop's recent announcement on an overhaul of teacher training in Scotland. Critics of the review see it as a Trojan horse to address the flagging Curriculum for Excellence reforms. But, regardless of any hidden agenda, she was right to say that the time is ripe for a thorough rethink.

Providers of initial teacher education (ITE) are strangely edgy when their programmes are examined. When I've dared to initiate debate on this, it's caused full-scale whingeing with some protagonists cleaning their pistols as they prepare to fight their case. I am, therefore, delighted that the Donaldson review will be "open and inclusive (with no) pre-judged conclusions".

The providers of ITE must be glad we are all under scrutiny, as Mr Donaldson is tasked with considering the full range of teacher education in Scotland - including the financially-bereft continuing professional development programme.

The senior chief inspector of education is well placed to carry out this work. It is evident to HMIE where there is good practice in schools. Its reports are now bland, but inspectors observe some excellent teaching. Is the quality of that teaching being shown and exemplified in the training institutions?

The best lessons take account of pace, time management, brain research, learning styles, content, varied delivery strategies, emotional and multiple intelligences and, of course, social skills in the context of forming and maintaining relationships of mutual respect.

Who is teaching these best lessons? Let them be the role models for student teachers. The theory of pedagogy is far removed from the practice of it, as any reflective practitioner knows. I am certain good work is being done in some areas of initial teacher education. Many first-class teachers are being delivered to schools and colleges. Undoubtedly, the quality of ITE is much better than it was when I did my postgraduate year. But there are problems for this inquiry. The process of selecting candidates for teacher training courses is still not rigorous enough. Schools sometimes experience student teachers who are not up to the mark. Maybe this is understandable - no selection system can be perfect.

What is disturbing, though, is that some ITE institutions put pressure on schools to pass these failing students. Why? Does it reflect negatively on the institutions if people have to be thrown off the courses? Hopefully, schools will state in public to Donaldson what they feel privately about this.

I wonder if the tick-box mentality has gradually eroded our awareness of that extra oomph or wow factor. An inspiring lesson is much more than the sum of its components, just as the rendition of deeply-stirring music is much more than playing the notes correctly. Could it be that our fervour for using performance indicators is overriding our capacity to judge who the failing teachers are?

There are no obvious answers. There are still incompetent teachers in Scottish schools who are over-protected by the system. The quality of CPD is hugely variable: many of us have sat through hours of mind-numbing boredom, and teachers are too polite to stand up and walk out. Wishful thinking that things might improve and our sense of responsibility to our pupils make us unchallenging recipients of poor CPD sessions.

One thing is for sure. I hope there are high-performing classroom practitioners on Mr Donaldson's inquiry team. Otherwise, his report will have no credibility.

Chatroom, page 31

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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