What do we want? Education. When do we want it? Always

18th May 2018 at 00:00
Opting for fast-track ‘teacher training’ over in-depth ‘teacher education’ is a false economy when staff play a pivotal role in promoting a free and equal society

If you want to make a room full of education lecturers in Scotland wince – and I know you do – start talking about teacher “training”. We don’t do “teacher training” in Scotland.

What does it matter what we call it? And are we just being difficult besoms, with a bit too much time on our hands for semantics? (Yes, we can be difficult – back to that in a moment – and, no, we have no time at all.) What we do in Scotland is called teacher “education”. Not teacher training but “initial teacher education” (ITE). I would like to explain exactly why this matters so much to those involved, and why it should matter to everyone. But first, a little historical excursion.

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies entered Germany and took over all functions of the state, including education. Planning for different scenarios in the nation’s schools had been underway for years, and what they found in 1945 was at the extreme end of what they had anticipated. There were no Weimar Republic textbooks left and the seriously depleted teaching profession was entirely Nazified. What to do?

Closing schools would endanger the children and affect the adult workforce, so the Allies embarked on a project of de-Nazifying the existing teaching profession. This is a fascinating history in itself – if you are interested in pursuing it, I suggest James Tent’s 1982 book Mission on the Rhine: re-education and denazification in American-occupied Germany.

The lesson from this little digression is this: a compliant teaching profession is a danger to society. There is ultimately only one defence against bad government and bad ideas generally: independent people who can think for themselves. We cannot afford to risk ending up with a profession that does not understand the ethical and political significance of what it does, and does not take responsibility for its actions, because a teaching profession that is a malleable, technocratic machine for implementing other people’s ideas is the most powerful weapon a bad government can have.

‘Never again Auschwitz’

Theodor Adorno (1903-69), a German Jewish philosopher and public intellectual who was a central figure in the reconstruction of post-war Germany, famously said: “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again ... Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz. It was the barbarism all education strives against … and barbarism continues as long as the fundamental conditions that favoured that relapse continue largely unchanged. That is the whole horror.” (Education after Auschwitz, 1967.)

The education that Adorno (pictured, inset) advocated was directed at developing a capacity for “critical self-reflection”. What exactly that means is probably a matter for a separate article, but I can say what it does not mean. Critical self-reflection is not a capacity developed through training. Training is rather about the transmission of information and the teaching of skills. When student teachers embark on ITE, they are trained in pedagogical knowledge and in the craft of being a class teacher. Content knowledge comes largely from their undergraduate degree (for secondary teachers). So training is a part of what we do in partnership with the schools where our students are placed, but education goes further than that. Training can only replicate but education can transform. Training is about the efficient execution of a task; education opens up the possibility of saying “no” to the task. Being difficult is good.

One of the sessions most valued by our PGDE students is run by the very talented Graeme Ross, of LGBT Youth Scotland. Participants are given information about legislation, about professional standards, about what we know of the experiences and challenges LGBT children and young people face. But the session is also part of a continuing programme in which our students are given the opportunity to think about personal values and professional roles, about the purpose of education, human rights, equality and diversity. At the end, everyone knows a good deal more about the topic, but many also engage in that critical self-reflection that Adorno advocated as the bulwark against another Auschwitz.

The opportunity to think ethically and politically about the role of the teacher is of the utmost importance.

We have no idea what social and political changes teachers qualifying this summer will face in the course of their careers over the next half century. I hope that they will have smooth careers in a prosperous and peaceful country under a benevolent government. But, just in case, I want them to have the opportunity to think and to develop the confidence to be recalcitrant when necessary or to seize a chance to make a remarkable difference. And the little things matter, too. The “small places, close to home” – to borrow from Eleanor Roosevelt’s well-known description of human rights – is where it all begins.

Education takes time and the results are uncertain. In a time where efficiency is everything, the idea of quicker routes into teaching is very alluring for government. If Scotland succumbs to “fast-track”, on-the-job training programmes such as Teach First, it is inevitable that opportunities for deep, values-based guided reflection will be diminished. When this happens, we will be letting go of the idea of teacher education and opening the door to compliant technicians. Frankly, this is a dangerous false economy.

Dr Sharon Jessop is a lecturer and equality and diversity advocate at the University of Strathclyde’s School of Education

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