I read two pieces yesterday which frustrated me, though for different reasons. The first was Tom Bennett’s angry post where he reported that he had heard that an undergraduate student had been asked to observe a lesson for examples of ‘visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning’. In his blog, Tom (rightly) criticised getting student teachers to waste time doing something based on intellectual bankruptcy. The fact that this is still happening is frustrating.
The second piece was Nick Gibb’s attack on universities as enemies of promise, holding back improvements to our education system by a commitment to a progressive ideology. The idea that a Tory former minister was trying to whip up union support against universities would surely have been laughable a few years ago, yet I think he wrote his piece in the Guardian with mischief in mind rather than irony.
Gibb’s article takes us to a dark place. It is not wrong, of course, in stating that universities, or at least some universities (or at least some people in some universities), are part of the problem: Tom’s blog post just goes to show what mountains we still have to climb. No, what frustrated me was what might flow from Gibb’s conclusions. If universities are part of the problem, then, if we sweep the universities out of the way, our problems will be resolved, or, at least, we can begin to take steps in that direction.
What is it, though, that is the problem? Ideology is certainly a problem, and it is right and proper that ideological positions on all sides should be challenged and held to account. My hunch, however, is that ignorance is the greater problem. Ideology can flourish where ignorance is endemic. We challenge ignorance, of course, not with rhetoric, but with knowledge, and I would struggle to find a single university that did not see the production and reproduction of knowledge as its primary reason for existence. This is why I think universities have to be part of the solution.
One possible conclusion from Gibb’s argument is that if we take universities, or at least their education faculties, out of the equation, then things will begin to improve. I am not convinced of this at all. Gibb would probably argue that teachers can best learn from their colleagues what they need to know. This troubles me. I first heard about the merits of Brain Gym from another teacher who was trying to help me control a difficult class. I first heard about ‘visual, audio and kinaesthetic learning’ not from a university tutor, but from a helpful Year 10 form tutor. I first heard about the merits of ‘thunks’ and ‘thinking hats’ from a headteacher-turned-consultant at a training day. If Gibb thinks that schools represent a paradise of common sense, then he really needs to see more of them.
So how do we move on? How do we help knowledge triumph over ignorance? We should not be looking to reinvent the wheel. We have institutions that should be champions of knowledge, and they are the universities. I have said before that my university-based teacher education (a PGCE and MEd, as well as subsequent training as a mentor) were excellent. The PGCE History handbook that I was given at the start of my course was 160 pages long and every page of it useful. Most of it was an annotated guide to the research base that I had to learn in order to teach well. Over the course of the year I worked through that research – with my tutor and with my in-school mentors – and I must have read well over a hundred studies in that time. I was introduced to the principles of research and – particularly in the MEd of which my PGCE was part – I learned how to be a consumer of research as a professional.
From what I gather online, however, my experience was not necessarily common. I know of several excellent university tutors – particularly within my own subject, but more widely as well – but the comments I have read on blogs and Twitter suggest that this is not always the case. I want to conclude this post by thinking a little about what holds universities back from being the knowledge hubs that they need to be in education. I offer these not as excuses: rather, these are issues that need to be resolved if we are serious about building the knowledge base of the profession.
There is, first, a matter of time. Teaching a PGCE course (and usually a Masters course or two with it) is enormously time consuming – if a tutor has twenty trainees and visits each one in school twice, then that’s already two months’ worth of working days gone, before we even get to the actual teaching sessions. Academics in other faculties regularly complain about teaching workloads (I do actually sympathise) but teaching an undergraduate or postgraduate degree course is nothing on the intensity of a PGCE. I suspect most PGCE tutors would agree that the first thing to be lost under this pressure is research: time to read the latest papers, to expand one’s own knowledge of an incredibly complex interdisciplinary field and – yes – to produce one’s own research.
There is then a matter of research expertise. Quite understandably, most novice teachers want their university tutor to be an experienced and successful classroom teacher, and many are quick to criticise tutors who ‘haven’t been in the classroom for years’. Yet an experienced and successful classroom teacher is highly unlikely to have developed an extensive research reputation. I pushed on with a PhD in history education for four years while teaching and it was hell. The result of this is that many PGCE tutors are often what might be termed early-career researchers (at best). They are certainly unlikely to be recognised experts in their field when they take up their university posts.
Then we get to the fact that education is not a discipline: it’s an interdisciplinary field. In addition to one’s own subject discipline, there is a need to master the research output of other academics including psychologists, sociologists and philosophers. Universities these days are hot on ‘knowledge transfer’, but this does not always happen as readily as it should, and academics in other disciplines do not always communicate their findings well to the field of education. Your Dan Willinghams are the exception rather than the rule.
All of these issues can be addressed, though addressing them is not easy. Universities need to ensure that their PGCE tutors are not swamped by teaching, and have time to build their own knowledge, both of their own field and others related to it. Cambridge is fortunate in being able to give its senior academic staff a term of sabbatical research leave every few years. Universities need to work with schools to ensure that they are developing a new generation of research-trained teachers who can take on teacher education roles in the future. Currently schools reward management progression, not knowledge progression, and this is something which both schools and universities need to take seriously. It is not unusual in medicine for a practising doctor to complete a PhD, and it should not be unusual in education either. Non-education academics need to grasp the fact that one of the best ways in which they can show ‘impact’ from their research is by engaging with those working in education; interdisciplinary work is terribly exciting, but it has to be recognised that its very existence is predicated on the multiple disciplines, and these all have to be brought together to give novice teachers the knowledge they need.
None of this removes the role played by ideology. Ideology, however, cannot be challenged without knowledge, and knowledge is best produced, sustained and expanded in universities. This is what is distinctive, what universities can offer that few others can. If a university cannot offer knowledge to novice teachers, then it should not be in the business. Where universities place their emphasis on developing teacher knowledge, however, they are peculiarly well placed to be the answer to the problems that we face in education today.