Scepticism not cynicism: what made my teacher training so good?

Having poked my head into the world of blogs and Twitter over this last year the thing that has surprised me most is how negative many teachers are about their initial training. Regardless of route, whether it be Teach First, SCITT or PGCE, I have heard many repeat their anger at the ‘lies’ they were taught on their training. The reason this surprised me was that my experience of training was quite the opposite, and this has caused me to reflect on what it was about my training that differed from what I hear elsewhere. In this post I want to tease out some things that made my training so good, and offer these as a counterpoint to the otherwise seemingly endless tirade of abuse that teacher training courses seem to receive.

(1) It was subject specific

Most of the time when we were not in school was spent in ‘subject studies’ and in these sessions we considered everything explicitly and unashamedly from the position of subject specialists. It is very difficult, I think, to discuss ‘assessment’ unless you are at the same instant discussing what you are assessing. Assessing maths is very different to assessing art and both are different to assessing history. We did not learn about ‘differentiation’ in a generic sense, but rather how history as a subject might be made sufficiently accessible or challenging for different groups of pupils. Our focus on literacy was entirely concerned with developing historical literacy, both in terms of extended reading and extended writing. It was, I think, because our discussions of assessment, differentiation, literacy and so on were grounded in our subject discipline that we (generally) managed to avoid whimsical or highly decontextualized discussions in our sessions: if ever we seemed to go in this direction, our tutor or someone in the group would intervene with the question ‘what about the history?’

(2) It was critical

Let’s face it: educational fashions and fads abound. Every year seems to bring us another, whether it be PLTS, flipped learning or interactive whiteboards. It worries me enormously when I hear of trainees attending sessions where they are told ‘this is the way to do it’ because, once a fashion has passed, one is left either clinging to a defunct theory or bitter for being duped by a proselytising tutor. In my training, I was not taught ‘this is the way to do it’. I was taught to be critical. Nothing was sacred. Everything was to be subject to scrutiny. We were deliberately set readings with contrasting views which we then had to discuss. We had a session on ‘active learning’ which then involved a discussion about whether or not such activities were appropriate. I wrote one essay on setting and yes, I read the Boaler et al article, but this was preceded by a talk for the whole cohort about how to write a critical review of the literature that picked to pieces the arguments on all sides. We looked at why simplistic empathy exercises became popular, and then we read the literature which panned this. In a subsequent year the tutor invited in an expert on early Islamic history to give a 40-minute talk, then handed out the school textbook that she had written and told the students to work out what was wrong with the textbook. I suspect teaching a bunch of historians to be critical was never going to be that difficult. It meant that when we were in school (over two thirds of the time) we were equipped with the knowledge and conceptual tools we needed in order to negotiate the fashions and the fads. I listened politely to someone talk about learning styles in school, and then joined in a discussion where the trainees slowly picked to pieces the model that had been proposed. I came out of my PGCE (apologies to Rachel and Jamie here) not as a passive receiver of ideas, but as a constructive reader who could engage with the arguments. More importantly, I came out sceptical, but not cynical, something to my mind that all teachers need to be.

(3) The mentors were brilliant

Of course I would say that: I went on to be one. Cambridge is, perhaps, rather fortunate to have a steady and secure team of mentors who between them, and in collaboration with the subject lecturer, direct the PGCE. One mentor (and my future head of department) suggested that it would be a good idea for mentors and trainees to have an opportunity to read together a work of historical scholarship, and from my year on all trainees swapped a book or article with their mentor and then discussed the pieces the following week. The mentors on the course knew the debates; they encouraged scepticism and critical reading, but combined this with a strong focus on ‘so just what are you going to do with 8K tomorrow?’ Frequently I messed up: I got so wrapped up in the debates that I could not quite put a coherent lesson together and then spent the next six years watching trainees doing exactly the same. The pain here was, however, the point: telling trainees ‘you must do it this way’ might be a short-term fix, but it would not create the kind of thinking teachers that we need in schools, the type who can take what they know about their subject and the way it can be structured for the classroom and deploy it based on what the context demands. In the deepest darkest days of February I remember asking my mentor for help: I asked ‘what would you normally do?’ ‘That’s not the point’, she said. ‘Go away, read this, think a bit more.’ For a short time I felt angry: I taught the lesson, it was rubbish, but the clinical dissection she gave afterwards and the discussion that followed meant I understood what had gone wrong. Those six minutes of mentor resentment later metamorphosed into six years of grateful respect.

(4) We were ‘plugged in’ to our subject community

In the time that I have been blogging and on Twitter I have come to see the value these have as a means by which teachers can share and communicate. If they were to disappear tomorrow in some digital apocalypse, however, I would not feel too upset. In contrast, I could not live professionally without the history subject community. Those of you who have been at Ian Dawson’s Saturday-night plenary at the SHP conference in Leeds know exactly what I am talking about. Not all history teachers engage in the community, maybe not even a majority, but the minority who do are loud, enthusiastic and dogged in their commitment to ensuring that history gets taught properly to as many pupils as possible. This is not to say we agree about what ‘properly’ means – I have yet to meet two history teachers who would go about teaching the same period in the exact same way. Do I approach this bit chronologically or thematically? Do I begin here with the overview or the depth? Do I reveal the question at the beginning or the end of this lesson? What matters is that we have a professional frame of reference, grounded in our subject discipline, that makes it possible for us to have these discussions. My PGCE was not an indoctrination: it was an induction. I became part of a community of history teachers; I read what its members had written in Teaching History; I listened as they ran sessions for us, referring all the time to ideas they had stolen from someone else. Sometimes I disagreed with what people said, and sometimes they disagreed with me, though always in a manner that was, in the end, most agreeable.

(5) We were told to change the world

My PGCE is not unique in this: Teach First does this arguably better than anyone. Without exception, however, we were told, right from the moment when we were interviewed, that our training was all about taking something that was not sufficiently good and making it better. We were given ambition: most of the trainees I know from that course went on to become heads of department in a few short years, often in challenging schools. We were told to write articles, to publish our work, to attend conferences, to pursue higher degrees and always to keep reading critically.

I could go on. This blog post is long, but then it needs to be long to convey just why I think that my training was of such high quality, and why it angers me to hear that not everyone receives the same. I offer this account, however, not for the purposes of rose-tinted sentimentalism, but to show that teacher training, at its very best, can be exceptional. Most important of all I think, and something which plenty of people on the Internet might reflect on a little, is that scepticism, and not cynicism, is the value we should be instilling in future generations of teachers. That’s the truth my teacher training taught me.

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3 Comments on Scepticism not cynicism: what made my teacher training so good?

  1. Great post. As a PGCE tutor some might say I’m biased towards university routes but the complimentary partnerships between schools and universities do lead to critical and challenging teachers – just what the profession needs.
    Also, the idea about critical debate around subject research/ articles is a great one – thank you

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