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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Teachers Teaching Teachers

Teacher training isn’t working.

‘On an afternoon Pascal showed me how to build a six-inch tall house… he planted upright twigs in the dirt… he built the twigs into walls with a sturdy basket weave of shredded bark… He spat in the dirt to make red mud…
It struck me what a wide world of difference there was between our sort of games – ‘Mother May I?’, ‘Hide and Seek’ – and his: ‘Find Food’, ‘Recognise Poisonwood’, and ‘Build a House’. And here was a boy no older than eight or nine…
…I bit my lip and laboured on my own small house under the guava tree, but beside  the perfect talents of Pascal, my own hands lumbered like pale flippers on a walrus out of its element. My embarrassment ran scarlet and deep’
– Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

Victoria University’s graduate diploma in primary teaching is under scrutiny from inside and out. It is struggling to reconcile the more prescriptive requirements of the Education Ministry with current theory regarding best teaching practice. This is a problem: we need well trained teachers now more than ever.

The teachers’ union knows there is a problem with our education system—they protested until blue in the face over National Standards last year. Yet I would argue that the potential for enhancing the quality of education does not lie in the antagonism between the union and the Ministry. Nor does it lie in the capacity for individual school teachers to go above and beyond an already demanding call of duty. Our biggest opportunity to enhance the quality of mainstream primary education lies in teacher training. Victoria’s education faculty harbours the potential for a pioneering graduate programme, if only it would marry policy and theory in its design, rather than pit them against one another.

On paper, the programme design prioritises national standards subjects and policy. Yet the content delivered emphasises best practice theory: teaching through strong relationships, the local community and environment, for creativity, relevance, conceptual understanding, health and innovation. The result is that throughout the year, trainees are crowded into boxy rooms listening to lecturers begging them to teach outside the box. Rather than resulting in a marriage of policy and best practice, the programme design and content work at cross purposes. In an age screaming blue murder about sustainable development and underskilled youth (and with a UN goal of Education for Sustainable Development) mustn’t we build teachers’ capacity to facilitate skill building, rather than just edu-babble?

Lengthening the programme would not amount to an improvement without a transformation of its current framework. The grouping of subjects bears little relation to each subjects’ current directions or self-definition. The programme’s first semester is reserved for desk-based Math and Literacy. One explanation I’ve encountered for the grouping of Science, Technology and Social Studies in semester 2 is that they’re all ‘constructivist’ (perhaps we are living in Russia circa 1920?). Arts, Languages, PE and Health probably have as much idea of why they are lumped together as a bunch of backpacking hippies in a squashed caravan.

Watching the Arts (there are four), Languages, P.E. and Health paper flash by is like watching a series of prisoners in a firing line each given half a minute to plead for their lives. Every lecture is an ode to its subject, a desperate attempt to make trainees see to its core before they flag it from their curricula in the interests of the 3 Rs, which bring in the paycheck. So it is that almost every lecturer outside literacy or math becomes an evangelist simply by virtue of their marginalisation. Alongside are papers regarding educational psychology and Maori education, emphasising that Maori children are being failed by the system, and how they in particular must be taught through the holistic methods listed earlier.

One recurring theme in lectures is empowerment—or mana, tino rangatiratanga, self efficacy, confidence and power. These terms are each associated with theorists’ paradigms. The word ‘power’, for example, is William Glasser’s, who claimed that a learner’s four needs are: power, freedom, fun and belonging. While important, this kind of content sees the programme swing like a pendulum between aspirational rhetoric and prescriptive training. Is it radical to suggest that my human ‘needs’ include water and food, shelter, medicine and clothing? Is education regarding the meeting of those needs not essential to sustainable development, and empowerment?

Statistics suggest that overall, mainstream education in New Zealand is not ‘empowering’: not enabling socio-economic mobility or freeing families from the perils of poverty, poor housing and preventable disease. The cycle continues if it produces teachers who are not supported to facilitate skill-building and agency in the face of this. Without wanting to load the world’s problems onto their overworked shoulders, teachers play arguably society’s most important role. Indeed, when we think about the needs of ‘developing’ countries, we often consider the education system to be the logical starting point for positive transformation. There is something about considering ourselves ‘developed’ that perhaps makes us a little more complacent.

You may have seen Ken Robinson’s viral video Changing Education Paradigms. It is promising that our NZ Curriculum, bicultural policy, aforementioned UN goal, and theory regarding best practice support the kind of changes Robinson suggests: holistic, participatory and creative (rather than linear, standardised or prescriptive) teaching. Put into practice, these have the potential to positively influence a globe in protest over its wealth gap and addictions to oil, monoculture and exploitative labour; a first world experiencing an ADD epidemic amongst children; and a country with high rates of youth suicide, poverty, unemployment and teenage pregnancy. Or, at least to facilitate the empowerment of many young people who may otherwise feel helpless in the face of all of this.

One main obstacle to an effective programme is the crisis in which tertiary education finds itself worldwide: contemporary study in education undermines common university teaching models. It suggests that lectures and exams don’t teach—education lecturers, then, are fated to a catch-22.

Or are they? If lectures don’t teach, why do I love so many of them? Why can conferences be so transformative, and why is such a raving success? The University of Minnesota Rochester recently opened in the U.S. with a progressive no-lecture policy, yet it has a high dropout rate. Change needn’t be radical or reactionary. There is no need to sacrifice the economy of one great speaker addressing an audience on a point of universal relevance. Optimising any curriculum design involves reconciling best theory with a reality including time, budget, policy and space constraints.

Students can do much to improve courses: answering feedback forms constructively, rather than politely, for example, supports a faculty to discover its strengths and weaknesses. The history of student protest is furthermore not one of gratuitous antagonism: students hold a rare, valuable and powerful position in society that can be harnessed to its benefit. They are actively engaging with the most current theory and increasingly able to compare it with the structures in place in their lives. They have no job description to constrain them in critiquing these structures. The history of student protest is the history of systems updating so that they continue to serve people, and not vice-versa.

That’s what universities, that’s what students, are for: keeping our policy, institutions and systems, including our education system, as current as our theory and research.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Disclosure says:

    In the interests of full disclosure, perhaps the author should have mentioned that she enrolled in, and subsequently failed to complete the course requirements for, a Graduate Diploma last year. This was despite having been given ANOTHER CHANCE to sit an exam which she decided not to turn up to. There were a number of successful graduates from the programme who both passed and found meaningful employment, so perhaps a better byline would have been “Teacher Training Isn’t Working (For Me)”.
    P1 Student

  2. GDT student says:

    It might be of interest to this respondent that the author did in fact turn up to said examination, and wrote a statement in support of a submission made to the faculty during the examination, which fully explained in what way course content actually undermined the validity of the examination itself. For more information on this, please see the current exhibition ‘The Campus’ at the Adam Art Gallery in which an interview with the author outlines the rationale behind this particular action, which involved extensive research, consultation and strong faculty support. Many thanks for your interest.

  3. Disclosure says:

    Please note that the above comment is intending to sidestep the key thrust of my issue by focusing pedantically on a throwaway line. The key argument was not disputed in any way.

  4. GDT student says:

    By the ‘key thrust of your issue’ you appear to mean that the author deserves eternal damnation and hellfire for taking a stand against arbitrary and problematic institutional protocol. Don’t get me wrong – maybe she does! Burn her at the stake if you so desire! But who cares? It’s not all that relevant. Consider the message instead of getting overly hung up on the messenger – over and out.

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