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Who should teach the teachers?

Now kids, I call this the applied science theory. Shutterstock

Who should teach the teachers? The answer seems obvious. The best teachers should teach the teachers in the way that the best cooks teach the cooks.

That’s the apprenticeship, the craft or “sitting with Nellie” model of teacher training. But there are other models, each setting out a specific group of people who should teach the teachers.

There is the applied science model, which requires teachers to be taught by specialists in how to understand and apply various theories in their practice. Another popular model says that teachers need to be “reflective practitioners” and must be taught by experts in “professionalism”. And then there is the competency model, getting teachers to mechanically meet standards set by the state.

All four of these models exist in eclectic ways in teacher training. The one thing that is missing is “theory”. But in teacher training this is mostly outdated left-wing politics in disguise or pseudo-psychology full of snake oil, such as emotional literacy, learning to learn, learning styles and, increasingly, what the philosopher Ray Tallis nicely labels “neurotrash” – wild claims about what neuroscience can tell us about learning.

Crisis of meaning

Some time ago when I was editing In Defence of Teacher Education for the UK charity Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT), I realised that we cannot offer a simple “defence” of teacher education. There was no agreed meaning about the language of education.

Education itself, and conceptually related terms such as teaching, knowledge, subjects, disciplines, even training, skills and learning, are all undergoing what you can only call a crisis of meaning. It is this crisis that leaves schools inspectorate Ofsted floundering and demanding that teacher trainees look smart rather than bothering about what’s in their heads.

Simply put, unless we can start a real debate about what we mean by education, we can’t begin to know what teaching is, and we have no chance to answer the question on how to teach the teachers.

We should ask ourselves a parallel question: “what are we doing in our schools?” We no longer know. This is the legacy of New Labour, which saw schools as the site for the resolution of social problems and even took the word education out of the title of the department that oversaw them, which is indicative of the confusion they created.

As a consequence, even the best teachers will now just cook up whatever they fancy. That’s why we can’t leave teaching to the best teachers, or teaching the teachers to the best teacher trainers.

The training teachers get today reveals this loss of meaning. Take the models set out above. The craft model just lets anything happen according to the whims of teachers. The applied sciences model is no longer about theory – the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of education – but edutainment and gimmicks.

The professional model just embodies the crisis and makes teachers worry unnecessarily about what they are doing. Finally, the competency or standards model just tries to control behaviour bringing not rhyme nor reason, but lots of worries. It expresses the confusion and fear in the minds of politicians, and those who run various quangos, of giving teachers any autonomy.

A real debate needed

What we need today is a cultural debate about the meaning of education. What we do not need is a narrow professional debate about what education is and what schools are for. The crisis of meaning exists at a cultural level and cannot be resolved by teachers and academics alone. The opportunities for a real cultural debate are few.

The Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum has been organising discussions for a decade and has made a significant contribution by engaging with a wider audience on cultural issues. Most other events organised about education are eclectic showcases for education’s celebrities with little time for serious discussion with the audience. This is true of the best and biggest of them, the Sunday Times Festival of Education, the London Festival of Education and, most recently, the Mayor’s Education Conference. Although they can at least raise awareness of a need for a cultural debate.

As a contribution to that debate, I want to end by saying that we need first to regain the idea of the school as a special place: place outside of everyday life, and everyday problems, where children can learn the best that has been known and thought.

The past chair of SCETT, Rania Hafez, is Lebanese and she tells me that during the civil war teachers used to greet pupils at the school door with a carrier bag. They would say to the children: “We know you are worried about the bombs and your families, but for now put all your worries in this bags and leave them outside the door and come inside and learn something.”

Unless we can regain this belief in the uniqueness of schooling in wider society, it does not matter who teaches the teachers. And it will then be an accident as to whether children get an education rather than social training or, worse still, some snake oil intended to make them happy.

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