Saturday, April 29, 2023

Michael Johnston: It doesn't take academics to train teachers

Yesterday [27/4/23], the New Zealand Initiative launched a new report. Save Our Schools makes wide-ranging recommendations to rescue our failing school system.

One problem is a knowledge-poor curriculum. In NCEA, we have a qualifications system that often leads to disconnected and incomplete coverage of school subjects. We have no reliable measures of educational achievement to hold schools accountable for their performance. We do not train teachers in a way that adequately prepares them for the classroom.

If I could wave a wand and solve just one of these problems, it would be teacher training. High-quality teaching is the most important determinant of learning – and high-quality teaching depends on high-quality training.

Most teachers do the best they can with the training they had. They are not to blame for their inadequate preparation. It is the fault of a system that gives universities an effective monopoly on teacher training.

Nearly 20 years ago, specialist teachers’ colleges were merged with universities. Teachers’ college staff, mostly ex-teachers themselves, had to complete PhDs and become academics. Universities went on to develop postgraduate programmes in teacher education.

I recently visited one of very few non-university providers of initial teacher education, New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE). I saw there an exemplary model of how we should prepare new teachers for the profession.

Teachers-in-training at NZGSE spend the bulk of their time in classrooms, gaining practice at being teachers. NZGSE teacher educators observe them frequently, provide coaching and feedback, and assess them against a long list of things that competent teachers can do. When teachers-in-training can do all of those things to the required standard, fluently and consistently, they can graduate.

But providers like NZGSE have a problem. Postgraduate qualifications are desirable to prospective teachers. And it is difficult for non-university providers to have these qualifications approved. It is expected that postgraduate qualifications will be taught by research-active academics.

It does not take academics to train teachers. What it does take, are people who know how children learn, and can impart that knowledge to teachers-in-training. People like NZGSE’s teacher educators.

We should relieve university lecturers involved in teacher training from any expectation to be ‘research-active’. That would make it easier for institutions that don’t have research-active staff to have postgraduate teaching qualifications approved.

To improve the quality of teacher training, we must break the universities’ near-monopoly on initial teacher education and open the door to competition from providers like NZGSE.

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was published HERE


Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

I heartily endorse these sentiments.
I make the case in one of my books that so much time is spent on psychobabble during science teacher training that we (speaking globally, with important exceptions such as Japan) are producing 'lab-shy' teachers. This is also because many 'academics' in science education nowadays do not believe labs are important while at the same time going on about getting kids to 'think like scientists'. Codswallop one and all.
Lab-based teaching is also the perfect context for 'action research'. If I had my way, every trainee teacher would be doing a short course in action research as it enables teachers to improve on their performance as time goes on. See, you can have your cake and eat it too!
None of this is to say that there is no place for academics in the broad field of Education, which goes way beyond practical teacher training. The distinction needs to be emphasised in tertiary programmes.

Paul Hewson said...

As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I wholeheartedly agree. The training I received in 1991 at Division C of Teachers College in Dunedin was excellent. A combination of training from highly experienced teacher trainers, and considerable time spent in a variety of schools learning from experienced associate teachers, was very good preparation.

Jigsaw said...

I taught for 37 years - primary and secondary and I heartily endorse this article and the ideas within it. Nothing can replace or be more important than experience in the classroom and being able to watch and emulate the best features of experienced and successful teachers.
In many ways teaching is a craft. Watching a great teacher and being able to appreciate and look for the elements that make for that success is a vital part of the craft.
We are going to need some serious revision of our education system after October and views like this will be incredibly important.

Gaynor said...

Attending Christchurch Teacher's College in the '70s was a lively affair. While most of the staff, were experienced and traditionalist in their methods,some were not.One particular physics lecturer attempted to promote progressive ideas to the class of graduates,some with PhDs,who became mutinous and refused to accept any of it. For Example "a guide on the side",nonsense.
At the same time,friends at the Primary Teachers College, were annoyingly,very assertive in promoting their 'superior' progressive beliefs.
In the '90s, my mother had small classes of College of Education students visit her private school room with the ones from Massey encouraged by University staff to come, but the Wellington lot came secretly. They were all quite angry the colleges were giving them only theory and excited to be given real instruction in specifically phonics a then condemned topic.
The model training colleges you describe are ideal. However I believe all of society need educating on where things have gone wrong overall.

Robert Arthur said...

In the 1950s there was a drive to recruit adults for teaching. Persons came from the trades etc. I experienced some of these teachers; not outstanding but few were anyway. But they got us to a standard apparently exceptional today. (Two major differences; despite being a smallish country town, I can recall only two obviously maori, both prone to absenteeism, then hardly known. And there were very few who were clearly from unusually hard up families. It seems to me that more than old School Cert or UE pass level, much reinforced, should not suffice for a primary teacher. A subject requiring some teacher knowledge was "grammar", involving laborious dissection of sentences. A practise I could not handle then and cannot still. There was another huge difference; no time frittered on te reo and other maori twaddle. Limited to tales of Maui and Kupe, which struck me as farcical then and still do. There was of course that marvellous encourager of attention and good behaviour...the strap... And in the infants I recall being asked to assist a teacher wash a boy's mouth out with soap for swearing. Why I was chosen I have often wondered... I think my knowledge was limited to one b word. Compare with today. Would have to pour the saop into the ears to cleanse the mind.

Anonymous said...

My dear Mother had that craft that you talk of Jigsaw.
Upon noticing one student with a concern and he said "my ear's leaking Miss" Ok, she thought marching him to the Doctors'. Mr T called out from the other side of the quad, "Has he been misbehaving?" No he's always a good kid, (he's got glue ear) mouthed so only he could hear.

We say craft and others might say witchcraft as many of my friends who'd experienced her class. Oh we liked her he said "she made you laugh but you never misbehaved because then you'd know" My Mother said to me that you could put the unhappy kids next to my friend I mentioned as he'd always be able to cheer them up. I think they learnt their three Rs.for sure, at just 5 foot my mother was a formidable force. She did that for all her working life only stopping to have 4 children after training col.,
being a student teacher with her push bicycle with the basket in the front.

I remember watching the Vincent Ward movie State of Seige with her she told me she'd taught that boy. And my dear Mother had dimentia too. She had a remarkable life. I read many more books of Janet Frame.

I was around teachers most the time growing up most of them were quite eccentric they were clever and they had a great sense of humour too.

Robert Arthur said...

Er, in mine above, the "not" is misplaced. Should go before "more". At school, Before WPs, with the ability to move groups of words around, such errors did not occur.
Another feature of schools in older times was severe marking. Despite a very high standard my father's books are full of underlined errors, and mine also. Now such is avoided in case it discourages the little dears.