'Unite to resist the inspectors' plea

15th July 2011 at 01:00
At a major four-day international conference on teacher education, educators were urged to stand up for a more innovative and exploratory style

Teachers must use their collective power to stand up to centralised control of education, a major gathering of international educators heard in Glasgow this week.

John MacBeath, emeritus professor of education at Cambridge University, urged teachers to avoid the mistakes of past generations by letting children explore and enjoy their learning.

Change could come from school leaders and teachers who were not intimidated by outside pressures, he explained, but followed their professional instincts and were innovative.

Teachers should not allow themselves to become "isolated, out on a limb and hacked off", Professor MacBeath said.

Their power as a group would make it difficult to be "picked off" by organisations such Ofsted or HMIE, which this month merged with Learning and Teaching Scotland to form Education Scotland.

Pressure on teachers had increased in recent years to meet targets, adhere to policy and cover the curriculum, he told the 55th World Assembly of the International Council on Education for Teaching, at Glasgow University.

The anxiety teachers felt as a result had worked against any sense of "pedagogy in which children have freedom to explore". Due to the tightness of the curriculum there were fewer "magic moments" when learning occurred spontaneously as a result of teachers being able to build on what children were interested in.

"This is the paradox, that the more intense the drive within the classrooms, the less opportunity for children to be able to enjoy and explore their learning," Professor MacBeath said.

He cited a South American proverb - "Traveller, there is no path, we create the path by walking" - to embolden teachers with the message that "if there is a group of you in the school that are trying to do things differently, it will pay off".

Professor MacBeath recalled, in the course of research, discovering a young teacher in Govan who had a sign on his classroom wall telling children that "if at first you fail, try again, fail better".

The teacher was going against the grain of discouraging wrong answers in the classroom. Department heads started visiting his classroom for inspiration, and the school was the most improved of hundreds involved in a three-year project undertaken by Professor MacBeath.

One crucial way to enrich children's experiences was to provide them with opportunities to learn outside the classroom, added the former director of Strathclyde University's Quality in Education Centre.

His research had shown that the confidence of children in countries such as Hong Kong, where a set percentage of learning has to take place in alternative learning environments, benefited immensely from these experiences.

There was "no need to have control, no need to have sanctions, no need to have targets". Instead, "it was just teachers and children together, enjoying themselves, learning".



The most divergent teacher education systems in the UK are those in Scotland and England, Glasgow University professor of teacher education Ian Menter told the conference.

The definition of teaching as a craft in England was "not seen as sufficient" in Scotland where the emphasis was on professionalism, as espoused in the Donaldson report.

There was an English trend, advanced by Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove, to move towards on-the-job training - even though there was "no direct evidence that more training in schools makes better teachers".

Even Ofsted, the English inspectorate, highlighted in its most recent annual report that more outstanding initial teacher education was emerging from partnerships with higher education than from school-centred routes.

Professor Menter, who has trawled through hundreds of research papers on teacher education, added that policy-makers in Scotland were more likely to listen to research findings than in England.

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