Friday, September 29, 2006

Teacher training – some questions

What, exactly, do they teach young teachers in teacher training colleges? That isn’t a rhetorical question, however Victor Meldrewish it may sound: I’d really like to know. Because I don’t know about other subjects, I’ll stick to my own – English – because it’s in English teaching that I’ve become aware of some of the horrors.

I’ll come clean right away and admit that my own recollections of my PGSE course (not that we called it that – I can’t recall that we had a name for it) are hazy. I remember some apparently despair-crushed lecturer telling us that it was a good idea when confronted with a wildly unruly class to “exhaust the response”. I also remember that at the time we found that hilarious. The reality, of course, is far from hilarious, and with hindsight I know what he meant. But I want to talk today about the actual subject-teaching content of these courses.

This is the scenario: a new teacher (male, youngish); a supposedly Credit S4 class. Many of the people in the class have already had two such teachers in their school career to date; both have moved on. They are still doing Standard Grade, so five months from now they will have to submit a folio of their best work, according to tightly specified guidelines. Ideally at this stage they would already be in possession of such a folio, requiring only to upgrade and/or replace pieces that they can improve upon. But this is not the case – for it takes someone who really knows what they are doing to ensure that they have accomplished this in S3.

They need to know exactly what they are doing, and why. At this stage, it is not ideal to dabble in randomly-chosen pieces of literature, doing a vaguely-targeted critical appraisal of this and that, not really having it assessed, not really being told how to improve it, not actually knowing if this could be a folio piece or not – and if not, why not. And yet I know for a fact that I am describing a real situation, one which will affect the future paths of many bright students.

So what should be happening? The teacher needs to be very clear in his own mind at this stage what exactly he is trying to do. He has two tasks: (1) to prepare his pupils for an exam and (2) to encourage them to widen their horizons while at the same time equipping them to deal with any text they will come across. This will, in time, include tax returns and passport applications, financial documents and their wills – we’re not just talking Shakespeare here.

I realise I could go on about this – and may well, in a later post - but I want to come back to my original point. Are student teachers told clearly what they must do at different stages in a school? How specific are the lectures they attend? I know from my own recent experience that students are encouraged to be innovative (at least in some quarters) – but what about the clear vision of what a teacher of English is actually trying to do? And then how to do it? And what to avoid? Perhaps then we wouldn’t have the pitiful spectacle of bright kids with a pathetic bundle of inadequate work and no sense of direction – and by that I mean not actually knowing if they have to finish a piece of work or if it will ever be assessed.

From what I have seen on the blogs of student teachers, there is a tendency to high-flown academic language about texts and teaching. I think there is a real need for telling it like it is – and equipping young teachers with the tools they will need when the future of 100 or so kids will depend on their abilities. We don’t expect our young doctors to mess up for the first year or so of solo work – we expect them not to kill us as they learn. Is teaching less important?

After all, you may have an aspiring brain surgeon in your class ….

5 comments:

  1. kimberly7:47 PM

    I wonder if part of the problem is that teacher training is very focused on delivery and not planning. There are relatively short placements. The student teacher has to fit into what it already happening. The energy goes into doing lessons well rather than determining what the building blocks should be.

    That might be unfair -- I trained in a different system with different goals, so I floundered when I began to teach in Britain. But I will never forget horror of marking mock GSCEs and realising that I had to award obedience to criteria more highly than understanding. Two students: one parroted the teacher's words, but had so little understanding that he mixed the quotations that belonged in the second paragraph with the analysis that began in the third. The other wrote fluidly and showed deep knowledge of the text -- but paraphrased more often than she quoted. My department head told me the first student deserved a B because he used direct quotations. The other student deserved a C because she didn't. That was the day I decided I didn't want to teach GCSE English.

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  2. Liz O'Neill8:42 PM

    If the probationers I've worked beside are anything to go by, one area where their training is superior to mine (as far as I can remember it) is in addressing the AiFL focus of 'what students will learn'. They seem to be getting a lot more on the process of setting lesson intentions and success criteria.
    Where they seem to be lacking is in the same area I fell down in when I returned to teaching; judging what skills are supposed to be taught at each stage, and appreciating the wider picture of what they will be examined on.

    Teaching to the exam has one advantage,it focuses your mind on where you and your pupils will need to be by May of next year. On the other hand, teaching to the exam, especially I feel in the area of close reading, can really stifle that kind of writing kimberly describes being produced by the student who 'wrote fluidly and showed deep knowledge of the text'.
    Preparing folios or writing critical essays would seem to be a good way of balancing that tension between the two tasks you mention, Chris, of imparting exam skills and 'widening their horizons'.
    But what I've observed is that it is only the more experienced teachers who seem to really know how to negotiate and manage that tension well.

    Chris, are you saying that the process of knowing what should be done at each stage should be set out with a lot more clarity by English departments? Because if you are I am completely in agreement with you. I think my department is great, but everyone, probationers included, seems to be 're-inventing the wheel'. Eventually most of us are getting
    there. But you are right, the pupils we 'practice on' do suffer in the meantime.
    Not good. What do you suggest?

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  3. It's always frustrating when you know a pupil has understood but hasn't jumped through the required hoops - but if it's a bright pupil then the hoops aren't actually a problem for them and it's simply a matter of reminding them. If they blow an exam this way, they'll not do it again, in my experience.
    Liz: too late to attempt an answer tonight, but I'll post more of my thoughts soon (she threatened!)

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  4. I fully intended to comment on this post (and on some of your subsequent posts) but I was concerned that, working for a Teacher Education Institute (TEI), I would be unable to be entirely objective. However, if you are looking for entirely objective, blogs are probably a bad place to go looking. :-) I decided I would reply but somehow never got around to it. I noticed that this message had now slipped off your front page, so I decided it was now or never.

    First a disclaimer, these are my opinions. I don't speak for Jordanhill or the PGDE(S) course management team. Opinions expressed in this reply are not necessarily those of the University of Strathclyde. (...Although, perhaps they should be!)

    You ask: "What, exactly, do they teach young teachers in teacher training colleges?" Good question, but one that is tricky to answer definitively. I can only really speak of my own experience with the Computing students and some of the common elements of the course. I'll add some comments from this perspective below.

    "I remember some apparently despair-crushed lecturer telling us that it was a good idea when confronted with a wildly unruly class to “exhaust the response”... with hindsight I know what he meant." It seems to me this is a major problem with any teacher education course. Almost inevitably, some of what we do will only make sense with hindsight. Does that mean we should avoid these areas? Leave them to be learned on the job or picked up in Continuing Professional Development sessions? I don't think so, a) because it is some people need it sooner rather than later and b) by the time you do understand it, it could be argued that the earlier input can help you make sense of and deal with the situation in which you find yourself.

    "it takes someone who really knows what they are doing to ensure that they have accomplished this in S3" Yes, but almost by definition the Newly Qualified Teacher does not fully know what they are doing - they are still learning and developing. This is formally recognised during the probationary year but all teachers will continue to learn and make mistakes throughout their career. Inexperienced teachers will make more mistakes than experienced. This is where it is important to be in a good department with supportive colleagues and an experienced principle teacher. "The teacher needs to be very clear in his own mind at this stage what exactly he is trying to do." Yes, and surely it is the role of school management, especially the subject head, to help keep the inexperienced teacher on track and focused. This must be especially true in the situation you describe where there has been a succession of temporary teachers. Without the continuity of a single teacher, who is keeping an eye on pupil progression? I would suggest that this would be a problem regardless of the experience level of the teachers involved. The difference would be that someone like yourself would at least know that a problem existed and kick up a fuss about the lack of folio evidence.

    "I want to come back to my original point. Are student teachers told clearly what they must do at different stages in a school? If you mean does the TEI tell them everything they need to know, the answer is of course not! Well I'll qualify that... I certainly try to tell the Computing students about the broad shape of the course, e.g. the major sections, what is internally assessed, what is externally assessed, what the assessment looks like and the kind of evidence they have to collect/look for. I can't, and don't, give an exact timetable of when this will all happen because there is so much variation from school to school. For example, I mentioned last week that typically schools will start the projects (issued by the SQA but internally assessed) with the third years in the term after Christmas. However, some schools may do a practice project before Christmas and others may delay starting the projects until after a particular unit is completed. I can say that the SQA set a deadline by which time these internal grades should be submitted, but most schools will set an internal deadline some time ahead of this date. So are they told "clearly"? Well they should know the outline of what is expected, but I would argue it is up to the departments in schools to clearly set out the staging posts for staff and pupils. (See what I mean about objectivity? My standard response is to blame the teachers!)

    "a tendency to high-flown academic language about texts and teaching. (*Sarcasm alert!*) Academic language in an institution of learning! Surely not. You certainly don't get any of that nonsense in schools. :-)

    "We don’t expect our young doctors to mess up for the first year or so of solo work – we expect them not to kill us as they learn. Unfortunately the evidence is they do! Apparently the worst time to be admitted to hospital is the weekend. The most experienced doctors have the weekend off and the most inexperienced ones, with minimal supervision, are left in charge. So if you are going to get ill - try not to be ill on a Friday night!

    Kimberly said: "I wonder if part of the problem is that teacher training is very focused on delivery and not planning. There are relatively short placements. The student teacher has to fit into what it already happening. The energy goes into doing lessons well rather than determining what the building blocks should be." This is a major problem and despite our best efforts it is almost impossible to get students to look beyond the teaching of individual lessons.

    Liz acknowledges that we do something reasonably well (although I suspect not all my students would agree with her!) However, she picks up a similar concern to Kimberly: "Where they seem to be lacking is in the same area I fell down in when I returned to teaching; judging what skills are supposed to be taught at each stage, and appreciating the wider picture of what they will be examined on." Perhaps it is not surprising that inexperienced teachers will focus on the short term goals - can I survive to the end of the period - until they find their feet a bit. Hopefully once they have settled, some of the things they learned from the TEI and their placement schools will make more sense.

    I suspect I should read this response over carefully before hitting send, but I have already spent more time on it than I have. I home my thoughts are good enough for you to criticise and I haven't been too ranty and defensive.

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  5. David - first of all, thank you for taking the (considerable) time to respond. I was aware when writing the original that I knew and respected people responsible for PGCSE courses, but thought I would ask my questions anyway and hope for the kind of reasoned dialogue that in fact has occured.

    "It seems to me this is a major problem with any teacher education course" ... Any chance of importing battle-stained teachers for a day's input? Might make an impression?

    "This is where it is important to be in a good department with supportive colleagues and an experienced principal teacher." ...Amen!


    "Surely it is the role of school management, especially the subject head, to help keep the inexperienced teacher on track and focused."...I think this was one of the things bugging me. Apart from the patchy quality of PTs, they appear to be a dying breed as faculty heads take over - a disaster, to my mind.
    "My standard response is to blame the teachers!)" ... sometimes with perfect justification!

    I suspect you and I are actually singing from the same hymnsheet, only I've been performing without the music copy for a long time! Perhaps some of the problems could only be addressed sensibly if schools and colleges worked together more fluidly, instead of seeming like different planets (for that's how Jordanhill seemed to me after I'd started teaching) I know that some departments/schools won't take students because they're too much like hard work; surely it'd be worthwhile to make that work more possible instead of its being simply another burden in a loaded timetable?

    Thanks for your rant - I didn't find it defensive, merely interesting and illuminating. Don't forget - it's been 38 years since I was at Jordnahill!

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