The Death of Educational Theory: Teacher Training

This post was written by Jacob on September 27, 2009
Posted Under: Education,Employment

The left are keen on talking about theory and praxis. And often we end up talking about them in such general terms that what we say can become meaningless. The concepts of both theory and praxis are used as if we are talking about completely nebulous objects, or we talk in such abstraction that associating our critiques of society and of understanding society seem disconnected with social reality. For this reason, over the coming weeks I will be writing a number of pieces on how educational theory has been systematically removed from the practice of education over the last decades, aiming to look at the gap that has been left, and how it has been filled by policy that in turn tries at every moment to dissociate itself from theory, from ideology, instead providing administration and management. This week I will be looking at teacher training, but in future weeks I will be writing on curriculum and exams, management of schools, disciplinarity, and finally academies and PFI.

In today’s training of teachers, the practice education is taught as a set of skills. Whether it be classroom management, lesson-planning, or organising a scheme of work, the means by which teachers are expected to imbue children with knowledge is set out for them like some kind of administrative task. But of course the task of education is not that easy. The twentieth century has seen a great development in literature on pedagogy, and it is deeply concerning that the endpoint of this theorising may be some kind of textbook. This is echoed in teacher training where it is now only those people who take either bachelors degrees in education or continue their studies further beyond PGCE level who get a proper training in educational theory. A typical PGCE student will spend only 8-9 weeks actually in university studying across the whole year (including time for writing up coursework, and time spent in university concurrently with school placements.) Even worse is the Teach First programme, aimed at getting high-achievers into teaching who train in an intensive six-week period in the summer before going into schools.

The problem is that students simply are not given the time necessary to read around, to get to grips with competing theories in pedagogy, and are instead sent almost immediately into the field to gain practical experience. Of course this experience is massively useful, and important too, but it cannot replace time spent thinking critically about issues in education, and brings with it the danger that we are simply training teachers to maintain systems that already exist rather than to be instrumental in transforming them. This is particularly exacerbated in today’s society when, during a recession, more people than ever are returning to training such as PGCE.

I am not denying that there are many skills to learn in becoming a teacher, or that there may be good reasons for higher education institutions wishing to increase the amount of time students spend in school, but the fact is that we are producing a generation of teachers who measure their success on exam results, on maintaining the status quo, and on achieving targets rather than what they can put a strong argument for being good and useful education. It may be the case that a year simply isn’t long enough to do both the practical and theoretical groundwork necessary to become a teacher, but we should not simply accept that educational theory can be cynically removed from training.

We cannot afford for our teachers to remain unreflective or distanced from the critical discourses of education. Instead we must be fighting for an informed teaching population, one who sees education properly as a social interaction rather than an administrative task in which one applies skills and churns out results. But for this to ever happen, we must also fight for educational policy that has a real interest in children rather than seeing them simply as a potential workforce. It is only in effecting the child-centred stance on schooling, that has been argued for so forcefully by many educationalists, that we will be able to show what has disappeared from teacher training courses over the last twenty years.

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Reader Comments

Great read, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. I think it’s a contemporary problem, less thinking about how to do something properly and more mistakes made by just getting on with it. Specifically, it seems to affect social and welfare services; education as you mentioned, but also childcare services and the national health service have been badly tarnished by what I see as exactly what you have identified. Our society idolises doers, but not thinkers but these are the people that are really changing the world. I await the rest of the posts with anticipation.

Written By Drew Shapter on September 28th, 2009 @ 8:10 am

As a teacher for the last 18 years I think this is absolutely right, but how many teachers, especially in the primary sector can say “as a teacher for the last 18 years”? One of the points of reducing the theory and practice of educating to an administrative/training model of delivery is that recent successive governments whether New Labour or Tory are not committed to creating educationalists who stay in education and work their way up to the top of the pay scale. Rather, they want a revolving door of teachers who stay at the lower end of the scale and then go on to careers outside of education. Paulo Freire talked about education being conceived as a knowledge factory as children pass along the conveyor belt. The teachers are passing on a conveyer belt too.

Written By DavidR on September 28th, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

The key statement in your piece is: “The problem is that students simply are not given the time necessary to read around, to get to grips with competing theories in pedagogy, and are instead sent almost immediately into the field to gain practical experience.” This is deliberate and ideological. The whole notion of competing theories — or even theories — is antithetical to an education system which imposes a limited, prescriptive and proscriptive “national curriculum” on every child from Shetland to Shepherds Bush and then checks the efficacy of the operators (sorry, teachers) by measuring “outcomes”. This is more than a conveyor belt, it’s a massive industry which is making nice money for construction, publishing, consultancy and many other businesses. Trainee teachers are simply being taught how to run the machines.

Written By julia on September 28th, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

I read this article and the management of schools article yesterday morning and they stayed with me the whole day. Perhaps at this point I should say that what I was doing the whole day was attending lectures and seminars for my Primary PGCE. My first lecture was about early children’s writing, and was split roughly 50% educational theory about early writing, 20% children’s examples of early writing and research projects that back up/disprove the theory and 30% on how his might effect our practice as teachers. I then went to a seminar in which we talked about ‘professionalism’ which I thought I was going to hate but it turned out the point of it was to highlight that we are not skilled technicians delivering the curriculum but we need to be flexible as teachers, responding to new educational insights and constatly re-evaluating ourselves and challenging policy from above to make sure we are serving the children in our classroom properly. And the day went on. Perhaps I chose a day that was particularly highlights my point, or perhaps my HEI puts more of an emphasis on a mixture between theory, research and practice, but my experience of teacher education is completely at odds with these comments.
Throughout the whole of the course (admittedly only 7 weeks) we have been told that the theory should be the foundation of our teaching. We have been told we need to find out what we believe in as teachers before we can become the best teacher possible. We have been given lectures, essays and time to explore this before all else. I completely disagree that there isn’t enough time to develop this fully in one year, which is why we are encouraged to continue our research and interests beyond the PGCE (although if it was 2 years I wouldn’t be complaining.)
I’d also like to argue that the time spent in schools is so important to seeing the theory in action. I spend half my course in a school setting and half at university. The university side teaches me both content and theory, the placements show me these in practice. I might know everything there is to know about how about educational policy (my area of interest) or child development etc. but what I need practice in is working out whether the ‘National Reading Strategy’ works in practice and why not. You can only get this in a classroom. Which is why most educational policy that comes out now-a-days is full of rubbish – they don’t ask the people in the classroom what works and what doesn’t.
I assumed the PGCE would be tips and skills for teaching, which is why in my head I planned to do an MEd one day. Turns out there’s enough theory there to keep me going for a while.

Written By Andrea on October 20th, 2009 @ 7:45 am

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