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.