Sunday, 24 November 2013

Teachers and the cult of amateurism: enthusiasm isn’t enough


Would you want your child to be taught by the person appointed to this post?  If not, why not?

The coalition government has removed the basic requirement that teachers should be qualified for many state-funded schools and for all institutional providers in the Further Education sector.  An opposition motion that teachers in state-funded schools and colleges should have to be qualified or working towards qualification, was debated three weeks ago in the Commons, and defeated by about 40.   ‘What next’, asks Mark Steel in the Independent, ’surgeons and submarine commanders?’

 Of course all teachers need training, just as plumbers or brain surgeons do, for the protection of the public if for nothing else.  Teachers are brain surgeons, for goodness sake, the only difference is that, for better or worse, they operate on everyone, not just people who are ill.  To argue against the need for training is to argue for teachers to be cowboy traders, when actually more than ever we need them to be professionals, trusted as a body to set their own entry criteria and standards for working in the field, in the same way that doctors, lawyers, physiotherapists, plumbers, and the police now do.   To argue against the mild and practical motion debated in the Commons three weeks ago is to resurrect the Victorian cult of amateurism, which has many virtues, but which doesn’t cut the mustard in occupations as critical to an advanced 21st century economy and society, as teaching. Competitor economies such as Germany, China and South Korea recognise the importance of nurturing innovation, which requires critical and collaborative thinking, creativity, team-working and research skills as well as knowledge.   The effective development of these capacities depends, for better or worse, on teachers.  
As well as subject knowledge, teachers in any setting need ‘know-how’ about the application of that knowledge, and also ‘practical wisdom’  a term used by Aristotle 2500 years ago to mean expertise in managing the vagaries of human behaviour and motivation for the benefit of the individuals and of the community.   Without ‘practical wisdom’ teachers will be less able or interested in inspiring and motivating learners, or encouraging and supporting them through difficulties: they will miss insights and unexpected ‘teaching moments’ that bring about learning breakthroughs, because they won’t be looking for them.  Their emphasis and focus will be on the content rather than the process and purposes of learning, on the subject rather than on the learner, on the shortterm, narrowly defined outcome rather than on learning for the future. 

Good teaching is not just a matter of knowing stuff, and then following a checklist of simple rules.  What works in one situation may well not work in another, because one group of learners is not the same as another group.  OFSTED regularly amends its list of quality criteria, and no doubt it will do so again, because they are trying to pin down something which cannot be pinned down.  Teachers so glibly described as ‘brilliant’ by one politician after another, cannot be certain they will do well on the day they are observed by inspectors, because teachers are like navigators – however good their subject knowledge, they can and do find themselves steering a leaky boat through a storm.    Teaching is an inherently complex business, requiring not just expert subject knowledge and technical knowledge about pedagogical practices, but knowledge of the world of work and of people, empathy, superb communication skills, and an unpredictable range of different kinds of knowhow.

As Aristotle recognised, it is also an essentially ethical business, aiming to support good outcomes for learners, communities, and society as a whole.  Its practitioners need the capacity to make judgement calls as they work, which bring into play each teacher’s individual dispositions and character, as well as their previous experience, and of course, their knowledge and skills.  This is because a key part of the teacher’s task is not just to know about, but to model appropriate roles: as an adult, as a citizen, as a more experienced practitioner.  Initial training helps start and focus the process by which teachers develop these capacities, skills and dispositions.

In further education there have always been teachers who started work unqualified, coming into FE as experts in various vocational or creative industries.  Most of them appreciate that training has helped them to present their experience and knowledge of practice and of the world of work more effectively than enthusiasm on its own could do.   Teaching is a very serious business: the days when it could be left to amateurs, however enthusiastic and well-meaning, are long gone.

Photo: Hubble
Toni Fazaeli from the Institute for Learning has made similar arguments in a recent Guardian blog-post, whose title echoes mine: Bring back FE teacher qualifications: learners deserve more than pot luck.  Her article responds to another by Ian Pryce, Principal of Bedford College, who argues the opposite.  I think he's wrong: his college's students, like those of many other colleges over many years, have benefitted from the freedom they have had to use vocational and industrial experts who have not been trained as teachers, and there is no suggestion that this should change, though it is being suggested that these people should be supported to develop their teaching skills. 
What is really needed for the post-compulsory, lifelong, or further education sector, whatever you want to call it, is a discussion about what professional development all teachers need at all stages in their careers, and what infrastructure is needed to support it properly.  Ian Pryce admits that even good teachers can improve.  He denies that there is any danger of employers exploiting learners using government funds, and suggests that quality assurance can be left to OFSTED: 'Many people fear that if qualifications are optional then colleges will simply replace qualified staff with unskilled, lower-cost people. But colleges deliver state-funded education and are accountable to the government and Ofsted.'  The trouble with this is firstly that the advert at the top of this post demonstrates that it is likely that some employers in the newly deregulated sector will all too readily take the chance to draw down government funds to pay for second rate educational opportunities for students who can't afford to go to the high quality college in their town; and secondly, that relying on OFSTED for quality assurance is no more than shutting the door after the horse has bolted.  They can close down a low quality provider, but not before hundreds or perhaps thousands of students have been sold short, not to mention the tax-payer.
Ian Pryce also suggests that the present teaching qualification is a one-size fits all model: this is absolutely not the case, or at least, it doesn't need to be.  The programme I work on serves the enormously complex and diverse post-compulsory sector in London - it couldn't do this effectively if it consisted of one size fits all.  The issue isn't how the training is organised, at what point in the teacher's career it takes place, or the content of it: all those things can and should be updated continuously to reflect the needs of the local and regional sector, local and regional employers, and its students.  His argument brings us back to Mark Steel's question: if teachers don't need training, what about plumbers, police officers (who as a matter of fact have a new Police College), and paediatric nurses?  Where does this argument end?  What next, volunteer teachers?  There are already an alarming number of internships being used to provide teachers in classrooms, in front of real students.  This seems to me an inevitable consequence of deregulation.  Professional standards aren't just about knowledge, but about behaving as a professional and a responsible person, as I argue above.
It is absolutely essential that we have a professional teaching and support staff workforce so that public funds are spent as productively as possible.  All the international evidence supports the view that high educational attainment at a national level is associated with highly-trained teachers who enjoy high status culturally and in their communities.  



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