Here’s a rough outline of the talk I gave at ResearchED 2016, on Saturday 10th September.
As I move further into teacher education, I feel it behoves me to know something of its history. To that end I’ve begun a tentative foray into its story, and although I don’t know enough yet to speak about it with the same degree of confidence that I would my usual subjects, there are a few points that have informed or even surprised me, and I would like to share them now to see if we can’t get a sense of where we’ve been, which explains where we are, and informs where we need to go next.
Here are some of the books and papers that I’ll be referring to. The dominant ‘narrative’ I’m relaying is provided by Elizabeth Green – with a little of my own thoughts and feelings mapped onto it. Many of the points I make or the quotes I use are referenced in her work.
First, I might argue that the perspective of a trainee teacher today looks a little like this:
We have no codified body of knowledge for trainees to study, and instead we place them in front of a few dozen people with experience or even expertise, who them proceed to dispense with bits and pieces of accrued wisdom. Disjointed, and unrelated. The result is noise.
I would suggest we need to structure our work better so that the experience of the trainee looks a little more like this, where a structure to the ‘bits and pieces’ can be seen, along with a relationship between them. This can be studied and developed systematically, over time.
ITE as it should be
Next, here are a few quotes that tell a certain story.
“No-one can really tell you how to teach… you have to figure it out for yourself.”
This one is from my own training, and it might be familiar to you. Perhaps it was said to you; perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.
“I’m so happy I don’t have to work with those dumb-ass teachers!”
This one is taken from the early 80s, and probably won’t be familiar to you.
We’ll come back to that one later.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
This is over a century old now.
We can thank Bernard Shaw for that. And of course we’ve seen modified to:
“Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”
And what I see here, is a running theme of disdain. Disdain for teaching, for teachers, and for those who associate themselves with the work. This will be important in understanding how on Earth we come to where we are after a hundred years of universal education.
If we go back to the early 18th century, we will find that there are no schools. Not really, not as we understand them, at least. There may be a handful of church run institutions concerned with instruction in the Bible, but serious education was the preserve of a wealthy elite, usually delivered through one to one tuition. This is important, because of course if you’re drafted in to teach the children of the wealthy, they are probably of above average intellect. Furthermore, in a one to one setting you can directly interrogate what the pupil has and has not apprehended, question them, engage in discussion, much of which will likely be Socratic.
Of course, when you’re attempting to teach every child, and you’re now attempting to do it in batches of 20-50, suddenly those same simple methods cannot work, and its necessary to think deeply about how to manage that group environment and about how to deliver instruction such that every child has a high probability of correctly understanding your meaning, immediately. Strategies must also then be in place for assessing a mass of pupils, and responding to a potential range of misconceptions.
As we progress across the 19th century we build an increasingly universal system of education, one thus requiring inquiry into the above.
Fast forward to 1948, and enter Nathaniel Gage. Nate Gage is described as a man of charm and charisma, that seems to evaporate the moment he tries to teach. Wishing to rectify this, and reasonably assuming that after half a century of study the literature must have something to say about effective teaching, he looks at the existing research.
Nathaniel Gage (1917 – 2008)
What he discovers, is a hodgepodge of work that says little at all about good teaching. Instead, it tries desperately to draw correlations between good teachers and their personal characteristics. Good teachers might be, for example:
- Interested in their subject
- Emotionally sensitive
- Worryingly suspicious…
Alternatively, we could look at:
- Eye colour
- Clothing style
- Strength of grip…
Is strength of grip important to good teaching…?
Conclusions, if they existed at all, were often completely contradictory (sound familiar…) or vague and unhelpful.
One paper, for example, concluded that teachers must be:
“Friendly, cheerful, sympathetic and morally virtuous…”
And if you’re worried that that doesn’t offer much advice, worry no more, its authors clarify:
“…rather than cruel, depressed, unsympathetic and morally depraved.”
My favourite, however, concluded that the best teachers exhibit:
See here for a quote from Herbert Simon criticising this kind of circular reasoning.
So this is the world Nate Gage found himself in. In his words:
“The simple matter of fact is that, after 40 years of research on teacher effectiveness during which a vast number of studies have been carried out, one can point to few outcomes that a superintendent of schools can safely employ in hiring a teacher or granting him tenure, that an agency can employ in certifying teachers, or that a teacher-education faculty can employ in planning or improving teacher-education programmes.”
Why? Why had all this work so supremely failed?
One suggestion Green makes is to look back to the origins of educational psychology. There, we see the roots of that disdain I mentioned earlier.
William James (1842-1910), for example is quote as saying:
“Educational psychology? I think there are about six weeks of it.”
William James (1842 – 1910)
While his student, Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) is quoted as saying:
“The bane of my life is the practice school they stuck me with.”
Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949)
These were men who didn’t seem to take school teaching seriously at all. They were working at a time when experimental psychology was still struggling to have itself taken seriously as a science, and I can only assume the last thing they felt they needed was to be associated with low-level school teaching! It’s fascinating, as Thorndike is otherwise considered one of the earliest thinkers in human learning, even creating ‘the law of disuse‘ that Robert Bjork has much more recently co-opted into the far more powerful ‘New Theory of Disuse.’ (Try this for something far more accessible.)
So, these serious psychologists struggling to be taken seriously had no interest in really researching and working with school teachers. To them, it was a chore to be stuck with a school; they wanted to get on with the serious business of psychological research.
This left Gage with the task of figuring this teaching stuff out for himself, and to understand what happened next, we need to take a quick look at his lineage.
Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, Gage. Nate was a behaviourist. Behaviourism held that to be an objective science, psychology could only seek to measure that which was objectively measurable. It could observe inputs (stimuli) and outputs (behaviours) and correlate the two, but the ‘mind’ was a black box, impervious to observation. While later behaviourists such as Skinner did allow for a concept of mind, it was viewed only as a convenient fiction to help understand the correlations, not as a real object of study in its own right.
This means that Gage’s approach was to assemble a team, record good teachers teaching, and then analyse hundreds of hours of footage looking for common behaviours.
Just like Doug Lemov.
Here we get to my first surprise. How could it be that Lemov found himself needing to 60 year old work of Nathaniel Gage…?!
Even worse, as I watch Lemov’s detractors argue that the approach is ‘behaviourist,’ or ‘shallow,’ or that we cannot write ‘a simple formula’ for teachers to follow; and I think of my own experience and just how much Lemov’s work supported and developed me as a teacher, and all the great teachers I’ve seen who are where they are thanks to Lemov; as I consider just how clearly necessary this work is, and then I consider that we are replicating forgotten work, decades on… I cannot help but feel anger and pity towards those who would see it brushed aside, again! We made this mistake once – are we really going to make it again, and wait another half century for someone to realise how important it is?
Why did we forget it?
Enter Lee Shulman.
Lee Shulman (1938 – Present)
To Shulman, Gage’s work is almost passé. Behaviourism… really? Shulman is at the forefront of what becomes known as The Cognitive Revolution. Dismissive at first, he would later work with Gage in developing his own ideas about teacher expertise, but from a very different perspective.
The Cognitivists believed that not only was it possible to measure and map the structure of the human mind, but that it was indeed essential in order to understand human behaviour; trying to understand behaviour without understanding the mind was naive. In this case, you would only be observing the surface structure, the output, and failing to understand the historic inputs that allowed a teacher to behave in the way we observe. It’s equivalent to a Cargo Cult analysis.
Shulman started out interested in decision making. He began by analysing the decision making processes of doctors, and was fascinated to discover that they didn’t match the supposed decision-making process set forth in flow charts in the medical texts.
When he was given the chance to work with teachers, he saw it as a great opportunity; after all, teachers had to make quick decisions under extreme pressure. Through his work, he found that the decision making processes of teachers were even more complex than those of doctors.
If you’ve never heard of Gage, you may have heard of Shulman. I’ve seen Shulman cited in more modern academic work, but never Gage. Shulman’s enduring legacy is the invention of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). It’s Shulman who first suggests that teachers of mathematics, or history, have knowledge that other expert mathematicians and historians don’t: how to teach it. It’s Shulman who brings an end to the idea of ‘mere expert’ as teacher. Now, the teacher must be both expert and pedagogue.
As I tell this story, in my mind the narrative swings from one focus to another:
Before Gage, there was only Mindset. That’s a word I often use, but you can call it whatever you want: qualities, characteristics, beliefs.
Gage moves us on to look more scientifically at Craft.
And Shulman refocuses our attention on Knowledge.
Yet something else has gone wrong in this history. In 1982, this paper was published by Harry Judge, an Oxford professor visiting American schools of education.
Judge found that the supposed professors of educational psychology were publishing papers with titles like:
- The history of the family
- The role of the media in the formation of public opinion
- The structure of higher education
- The changing shape of macro-economics
- The evolution of organisational theory
How is any of this of use to a teacher?! And this doesn’t feel all that too dissimilar to the kinds of papers I was asked to read for my PGCE. What on Earth was going wrong?
As hinted at in Thorndike’s quote above, the teacher education system used to operate through ‘practice schools.’ Slowly, this changed. The universities set up schools of education and began to train teachers. Why? Money. It was lucrative business. And how ironic, I thought, upon reading this. Here we are today with critics of academies and free schools pointing the finger and crying ‘profiteering,’ when, naturally, the academic establishments are not immune to the siren cry of money.
So the universities would set up ed schools, and then stock them with begrudging academics who had little love or time for such trifles. Judge parodied the process in writing about a fictitious college, Waterend:
“The dominant tactic was to make a foray into the disciplines, to track down a scholar of achieved distinction or of sparkling promise, and to carry him triumphantly through the gates of Waterend. Thereafter, the professor would be careful to explain that this was the first appointment he had ever held in a school of education, that he was unsullied by contact with the lower worlds of educational practice, that he was first and foremost a Waterend Professor – with at least a courtesy appointment in another department as well.”
And there again is that thread of disdain. And they did it en mass, with dozens of academics. It’s from this paper that the quote about working with ‘dumb-ass teachers’ comes.
Worse still, where people did care about education, and about making great teachers, their incentives were directly aligned in opposition to that goal. As Green writes, a member of the school could be a brilliant teacher trainer, but if she didn’t have something like ‘Sex stereotypes of secondary school teaching subjects‘ on her CV, she wasn’t going to find herself a post-doctorate appointment anywhere.
Finally on knowledge, Shulman was at the forefront of the Cognitive Revolution, and yet, where is all the cognitive psychology in teacher education…? There is none! I’m not entirely sure how, yet, but we somehow switched tracks and got lumbered with a fetid diet of nothing but Developmental Psychology. Piaget, Vygotsky et al. I can only speculate that this happened when the pedagogic conclusions derived by some fit neatly with the ideological aspirations of many. As much as I too would love discovery learning to work, it doesn’t, and we just have to accept that and move on.
Then enter what Green calls ‘The Entrepreneurs.’ The Entrepreneurs include Lemov, and much of the KIPP, TFA and the wider charter school movement in the US. Where do they focus? Back to Craft.
Here now in the UK I know many schools, MATs and even some training institutions that are beginning to do great things in the instruction of teaching Craft, or Practice, often making use of the Instructional Leadership model. But even in these places I again, still, see a dearth of Knowledge! Where is the commitment to teachers as experts in their subject, rather than being interchangeable between subjects? Where is Sweller and Cognitive Load Theory? Engelmann and Theory of Instruction? Baddeley’s models of cognition? Bjork and Long Term Memory? Hirsch and Core Knowledge? Young and Powerful Knowledge?
Until we have all three, mindset, craft and knowledge, we will never have a system that fully develops teachers, and we will keep fighting and swinging from one pillar to the next post.
A more comprehensive model of teacher education
(the many acronyms at the bottom are taken from Deborah Ball’s work)
I’ve borrowed a story from Green, and through it highlighted what I see as a shifting back and forth between important features in teacher development, which has made little progress in over a century due in part to an historic disdain for the work, amongst those who were responsible for it.
So my call to action is two-fold:
- Let’s take the act of teaching, and therefore training teachers, seriously
- Let’s start to train teachers in all three necessary components
Many people today already do take teaching seriously of course, within and without the universities. Let’s be sure we’re holding everyone to account on this.
On point 2, though, I know of very few places that might be making any headway