Teaching is an intellectual activity – so teachers need high-quality training to do the job properly

Janet Downs's picture
The chances are you’ve never heard of Winifred Mercier (1874-1934). I hadn’t until I read Teacher Education through Active Engagement*. Mercier had been Vice Principal of the City of Leeds Training College when she clashed with the College management over her enlightened ideas for teacher training. She resigned in 1915 and nine women colleagues gave notice in protest. Mercier went on to head Whitelands College (now part of Roehampton University).

Nearly one hundred years later and teacher education is under threat from those who would degrade teaching to a “craft” which can be practised by someone with a degree and a few tricks who picks it up on-the-job.

But the many contributors to this book argue that teachers need a solid intellectual foundation in education and social theory followed by continued professional development. Teaching is an academic activity – a teacher is a scholar as well as being a teacher of scholars. And scholarly engagement continues throughout a teacher’s career. It encourages analysis, reflection and evaluation. It demands collaboration and deep thinking about what teachers are doing and how they are doing it. Teaching is a complex activity.

The book analyses the threats facing not just teacher education but education itself: how data can give a false impression of a school’s effectiveness; how pursuit of “good” data distorts what is taught; how the purpose of education is moving from children’s interests to the interests of “business, enterprise and wealth creation”; and how a focus on outcomes diverts attention from the process. Assessment, the book argues, is formative as well as summative – it informs teaching and encourages pupil engagement.

Teachers need conviction; they need passion; they need to be creative, this book argues. Yet teacher education in England appears to be aimed at producing teacher “clones” – identikit technicians who “deliver” the same curriculum using the same (government approved) methods. This isn’t just true in teaching schools which “grow their own” and produce teachers who could lack the skills to teach in different types of schools but for English schools as a whole. In theory, academies and free schools can opt out of the national curriculum. In practice, the Government makes it clear what type of curriculum (the “knowledge- rich” curriculum inspired by E D Hirsch and rehashed for the UK) should be offered in “good” schools and that this curriculum should be taught using “traditional” teaching not the much-misrepresented “progressive” methods reviled by ill-informed, non-expert politicians.

Worse, academies and free schools don’t have to employ trained teachers and are under no obligation to require these de-professionalised staff to undertake any training. But, in the words of Winifred Mercier:

“A teacher who cannot or who does not wish to go on learning, will become a hindrance to the progress of education and a danger to the intellectual development of hundreds of children.”

If you take just one message from this book, it is these words.

*ed Beckett, Lori, Teacher Education through Active Engagement:Raising the professional voice, 2013, Routledge

NOTES: For a potted history of Mercier’s life listen to Germaine Greer at the annual Winifred Mercier Public Lecture in May 2010. It begins about 31 minutes into the speech.

Lori Beckett, who edited Teacher Education through Active Engagement, is The Winifred Mercier Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Metropolitan University.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 12:44

Thank you Janet for those wide words and for the example. which is also new to me.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 14:33

'wise' words even - sorry

Arthur Harada's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 13:58

Janet quite rightly used the phrase teacher education rather than the still popular descriptor " teacher training". The latter category was mentioned in the 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education mentioned ( page 107) the training colleges of England and Wales and the colleges of Education in Scotland alike feel themselves to be only doubtfully recognised as part of the system of higher education and yet have attained standards of work and characteristic ethos that justify their claim to an appropriate place in it.
Both in England and Wales and in Scotland about 40% of students who enter have satisfied minimum university entry requirments." ( on a personal level I was accepted by Chester College for 2 years teacher training for the Univ of Liverpool Certificate in Education) having passed just 6 O levels in 3 sittings).
The history of teacher training in England shows that from the beginnings of pupil teachers prior through to 1921 ( when training colleges were affiliated to the Schools of Education of local universities) training colleges were self validating. Many of these colleges were supported by the C of E or the R C dioceses and on completion students were able to obtain a certificate in teaching religion. The case for being regarded as undertaking teacher education rather than training was weakened by the introduction circa 1950s one year emergency trained teachers. Men who had recently come out of the armed forces but had not matriculated i.e. met the minimum entry requirments of 2 A levels to enter university.
Teacher training colleges were eventually awarded TDAP ( taught degree awarding powers) by 2000 and soon after many gained the status of university. Especially when several former training colleges amalgamated with their peers in order to bulk up joint student numbers.
I making this comment I should have spent more time mentioning R S Peters and P. Hirst et al dissecting the semantics of the concept of "training" versus "educating". Though Janet above has more than done justice to the way in which "training" and "educating" are used with little differentiation by those at e.g. the DfE who should know better but then some cynics would claim by using "training" equates with unskilled work.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 15:34

Arthur - I think that "training" is used deliberately instead of "education". It implies teaching is just a collection of techniques which can be picked up from practising teachers or from a "Teaching for Dummies" style book. This low-level activity requires no intellectual foundation.

"Trained" teachers rather than educated ones have advantages (although not to children). This deliberate dumbing-down of teaching to a "craft" results in teachers who will follow central diktats unquestioningly.

"Trained" instead of educated teachers are cheap to train and cheap to employ (an important point if the academy chain is an edu-business).

"Trained" instead of educated teachers can be fast-tracked into schools and if they leave after a couple of years (as many Teach Firsters do) then it doesn't matter because there's another batch ready to take their place. Commitment is not valued; continuity is not valued. "Trained" teachers are less likely to view teaching as a vocation but rather like an extended gap year - useful for the CV before moving to more lucrative employment.

Arthur Harada's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 17:29

Yes, Janet and further "unskilled " teachers receive "unskillled" wages as we all know.
What worries me re Teach First is that the mentors themselves received very little, if any, education in child development in all its manifestations. Mention Piaget and some will respond with " a good watch manufacturer" The name Bruner many mistake for the comedian and Taba "isn't that short for tablet?" Likewise Vygotsky wasn't he a friend of Stalin?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 30/07/2014 - 06:40

Arthur - I confess - Bruner was a new one for me. But he's now been added to my "must-read" list (the pile is getting ever longer). When I was preparing for my Cert Ed, we used to say Piaget was next to God but didn't learn so much about Vygotsky.

My Cert Ed took three years (B Ed took four, but I didn't stay for that). PGCE crams it into one (including classroom experience). I suspect school-based "training" focuses on what (subject), how (tips for teachers) but not on why.

Not enough - we should follow Finland's example: two Masters in subject and pedagogy over several years. Expensive - yes, but more thorough and teachers trained in this way are more likely to be devote their working life to the profession, so better value-for-money in the long run.

PS Isn't Taba a holiday resort in Egypt?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 30/07/2014 - 08:24

I live near one of England's last shipbuilding towns. The main product now is submarines. Would anyone trust a submarine or a ship designed by a team that did not thoroughly understand the counter-intuitive Principle of Archimedes?

The science and psychology of how children learn is also profoundly counter-intuitive. It is bad enough if pupils, parents and politicians are misled by 'common-sense' fallacies. If teachers and their educators are becoming ever more similarly misguided then the education system is in a very bad place indeed.

See my post


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