Review by Kris Boulton

7 Dec 2014, 19:00

Edition 11

RR-intro

Toby Marshall argues that the government’s move of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) from universities and into schools is a mistake. Principally, he says, the direct to school training routes lacks teaching of educational theory, instead focusing on the “narrow, practical and overly managerial” development of “key teaching skills”. Too much emphasis is given to the training of new teachers “and not enough to their education”.

He demonstrates his point by outlining one theory of education provided by 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and then outlining what new teachers could take from the study of Durkheim’s educational theory. For example: ” . . . an engagement with Durkheim’s theory might encourage new teachers to see themselves as both responsible and active agents within a deeply seriously social enterprise”. He adopts Michael Young’s language of “powerful knowledge”, and argues that such knowledge “can deepen new teachers’ commitment to their future role by providing an explanation of their future responsibilities”, that it “can provide an important mechanism for building new teacher’s identification with their professional role and develop in teachers an energising esprit de corps” [author’s emphasis].

More generally, Marshall points outs that “educational theory also supports new teachers in becoming more autonomous in their work by providing them with powerful ways of understanding and framing their individual teaching experiences… it offers, as Young suggests, ‘reliable explanations’.”

I agree with much of what Marshall said. Does theory offer reliable explanations? Unequivocally yes. Should it be included as an important part of teacher training? Probably. Is it actually being removed? I’m not sure. In fact, many direct to school routes still offer a PGCE qualification in which as much time is given to study of theory and writing of critical essays as is in the university-based PGCE.

There is then a more important question about precisely what theory will be useful to new teachers, and how. I found it interesting to read about Durkheim’s ideas and, as I did, I fitted them to the philosophies of discipline that I’ve known certain schools or headteachers to espouse. Are those headteachers the unwitting slaves to some defunct economist? But then, do or should I care at the start of my teaching career?

It often seems to me the case that those furthest removed from the first weeks of teaching, and especially so those who are less familiar with teaching in schools in challenging circumstances, fail to acknowledge the fear and anxiety that grips new teachers. While it’s cosy to pontificate on sociological theory about the authority of the teacher from the comfort of a university seminar room, all those intellectual conversations disintegrate in the crucible of early life in school.

Rather than “lending a sense of solidarity or esprit de corps, uniting teachers behind a common higher calling”, its flimsy solace quickly gives way first to frustration, and then often, sadly, genuine anger. Why did we waste time studying these abstract theories, when what I need to know is how to manage a classroom, or… teach!

In the end I share Marshall’s concerns and I admire his efforts to moderate an increasingly polarised debate. I could see the virtue in studying Durkheim and others alongside case studies of schools that have adopted different approaches to discipline, laying bare that defunct economist for all to see; raising awareness of how we might be in his thralls. There’s a real question of precisely “when” this would be appropriate study, however, and this is left unanswered; I don’t believe Marshall has yet outlined anything visionary enough to warrant priority to such abstracted sociological theories of education.

Rather, if we are to take education, teaching and teacher training seriously, then we will in time need to look upon teacher development beyond ITT and beyond the pet ideas that we would each include. As I watch the debate continue in the wake of significant disruption to traditional routes of recruitment and training, I wonder might we be slowly approaching a necessary tipping point in teaching; the creating of a profession.

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  1. When I was a school librarian, I regarded part of my role as the support of teachers’ professional development.

    With some schools failing to employ professional librarians, and with many local authorities closing specialist School Library Services, and with many local public libraries being closed or deprived of professional librarians, will teachers find it easy to access guidance on relevant educational research? Will they have ready access to books and articles on educational theory and practice? Sure, they’ll be better provided (via the educational press and online sources) than the teachers I served in the 1970s to 1990s, but then professional librarians are harder to come by than they were then.

    Has any decision maker considered this? Does anybody care?