‘If I were education secretary…’ | A Schools Week article with more red herrings than a fishmonger’s shop!

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Robert Peal, a history teacher at the West London Free School, makes a series of unsupported allegations, red herrings in fact, about what actually goes on in teacher training and how those who work in teacher education are feeding trainees on a diet of nonsense.

I’m pleased that new teachers are up for shaking the apple tree to see what falls out, and challenging the status quo, but that needs to be done with evidence and not anecdote.

This is how his Opinion piece in the new publication Schools Week begins:

“Over the past few years, there has been a grassroots professional rejection of bogus ideas within education, coupled with a wellspring of enthusiasm for more credible alternatives. New ideas — such as direct instruction, spaced and massed practice, curriculum sequencing, and mastery learning — are gaining popularity amongst certain teachers and schools. However, the 65 universities that provide English teacher training are slow to catch on.”

You can read the full article here.

‘If I were education secretary…’ | Schools Week.

My response is somewhat longer than his article.

I’m aware that this is an ‘opinion’ piece rather than a well-researched professional article. That said, editors of newspapers do have a duty to try and help potential contributors not put their foot in it and appear silly. As many scientists would say, this is so bad it’s ‘not even wrong’!

It starts well. Yes there has been a grassroots professional rejection of bogus ideas from Brain gym to Learning Styles – but the roots of the grass, far from being day to day teachers, are often the training providers. When I started in initial teacher education, after 12 years of school-based teaching in 3 very different schools, I was aware of many ‘consultants’ and training agencies pushing mad ideas as ‘scientific’ ways to improve teaching and learning. As a scientist I needed to order extra NaCl n my department to satisfy staff who needed a pinch of it every time we had another in-house CPD session led by a flash consultant.

I ‘caught on’ nearly 20 years ago and have never pushed brain gym, NLP, learning styles etc. in my work as a teacher educator. Interestingly most times it has been practising teachers who have recommended to me things like NLP, VAK etc. not the other way around. In my considerable experience, working in two providers, external examining across 4 others, working in partnership locally with at least 5 more, along with meeting many, many colleagues I can say that the final sentence of the first paragraph is simply untrue. I do not discount the fact that a few providers may still deliver bogus ideas, but to simply say all 65 are ‘slow to catch’ on is an insult.

But what about these ‘new ideas’? These are not ‘new ideas’ and form a core of teacher education for many providers.

Mastery learning dates back to the late 1960s and was then seen as ‘progressive teaching’, much railed against by ‘traditionalists’, though I doubt Mr Peal would describe himself as a ‘progressive teacher’. Bloom’s model for mastery teaching is well known in ITT and while many may not spetifically call it ‘mastery teaching’, it will be common along with other interesting theoretical perspectives on teaching and learning and is delivered in modified forms by many practitioners that I know.

Direct instruction? Yes. Been there, done that (probably was doing it before the writer was even born), still in fact doing that with both children and undergraduates. Along with many others I see it as fundamental to teaching. It is NOT the be all and end all, it is not the only pedagogy that should be deployed, but it is core to helping children learn new ideas, concepts and skills.

Curriculum sequencing – that’s new? When I devised and wrote schemes of work in schools, does Mr Peal seriously think that curriculum sequencing was not important? Along with two colleagues I wrote one of the most successful KS3 science textbook series 15 years ago. Believe it or not curriculum sequencing was what we had to do to make sense of the then government scheme of work. Our first curriculum assignment for the Sussex PGCE is specifically aimed at good curriculum sequencing!

Spaced or Massed Practice? Again, not new. We have all been through things like the ‘spiral curriculum’, one form of spaced practice that revisits concepts at later dates in new and different environments. Sometimes we build skills across sequences of lessons bit by bit (spaced practice again) when and what depends on the subject, teacher and pupils. Massed practice? Yes, also done that as well in getting pupils to master a technique in a single block. All these things are part of the variety of teaching skills trainees must learn.

But, and here is a key point, Mr Peal says that our failings in ITE is because we are all ‘detached from the classroom’. Yes and no. Many ITE tutors are recent classroom experts, some split their time between teaching children and teaching teachers, others have sabbatical periods in ITE. I will openly admit that regular teaching of children is not on my timetable. I lead professional studies, but my colleagues taking subject groups are regularly in schools, teaching, sometimes co-teaching, observing, learning, reflecting and across more schools in an average year than many teachers experience in their whole career.

My own wife is one of those curriculum tutors who loves going into the schools and teaching science alongside her primary trainees. Even I teach groups of children from time to time in real schools. All of us will have close contacts with our partner schools and spend many hours in schools. Not all of us are career academics who see children as data.

We do not now, nor have we ever really had, a ‘hold’ on teacher training. We have to deliver the teacher training that the various governments and agencies (currently the NCTL) tell us to deliver. We have been subject to delivering everything from competencies which turned into 33 standards which have now been turned into the current standards. We are inspected on what we deliver and how, we are held responsible, not schools, where the bulk of training takes place, usually 24 out of 36 weeks.

We do not hold any monopoly over teaching practices. Teachers are responsible for their teaching practices not us. We deliver the academic aspect of teaching and learning and we encourage our trainees to be critical of the ideas they see in practice, in the textbooks and in the research literature. We do not, despite popular myths, wish to indoctrinate our trainees or support badly evidenced practices.

Yes we have exclusivity to award PGCEs as these are high level academic qualifications. A PGCE does not qualify anyone to teach, QTS is the professional qualification that makes a teacher qualified. If academy chains or Teach First wish to become awarding bodies then please make the case. We have private universities that make awards so there is a process. I would be very happy to see the new College of Teaching become an award bearing institution, though many are critical of this stating that it will just make it into some form of professional club.

Mr Peal also states that “The only exam I had to take to become a history teacher was the QTS skills test.” (I hope he passed more than one otherwise his qualification would be revoked). The skills test is not an exam, it is a test of key skills, as the name suggests. This statement also implies that, unlike many PGCE students, he did not have to produce any high quality written assignments looking at verifying his intellectual engagement with the theory and practice of teaching and learning. I know many Teach First candidates do this I wonder why he did not. These are academic assessments of ability, so the majority of trainees do in fact ‘take exams’ in order to qualify to teach. In addition subject knowledge is regularly audited and tested.

As for the idea of chartered status, Mr Peal may be surprised to learn that this also exists for serving science teachers. It is Chartered Science Teacher Status (CSciTeach) it is related to Chartered Scientist Status (CSci) and is overseen by the Science Council. I received Chartered Science Teacher Status in 2008 and must provide a record of activity and work in order to renew my status each year. I also hold professional Fellowships with three scientific institutions, the Society of Biology, the Linnean Society and the Geological Society of London.

As I read this article, I’m afraid that it got ‘progressively worse’. By all means, Mr Peal, raise valid and sustainable criticisms of the staus quo, but please do so with evidence, not anecdotal, misinformed prejudice.

And by the way, I know a red herring when I see one. My father was a fishmonger and produced lovely ones.


One thought on “‘If I were education secretary…’ | A Schools Week article with more red herrings than a fishmonger’s shop!

    Brian said:
    April 29, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    Your analysis seems spot on to me James, but please remember this is Academies Week and incisive reflection is not their strongpoint.

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