Ideasroom

Teachers must be educated, not just ‘trained’

The University of Auckland's John Morgan questions the new orthodoxy that on-the-job training in real schools is the best way to learn how to be a teacher

Remember the heady days of 2017 when, after 12 years of a National government, a new Labour-led coalition took up the reins of power? Here was a Government committed to social justice and wellbeing, and education was central to that. The Government signalled a commitment to improving the educational experience for all.

Then, in the style of modern centre-right governments the world over, it set about consulting, and last December published its expert report that announced the end of the Tomorrow’s Schools era.

One part of that report was concerned with getting enough well-qualified teachers, and this week, Education Minister Chris Hopkins announced an injection of $95 million over four years to address "the teacher gap".

I see this as a major turning point in New Zealand’s educational history because, as we face uncertain economic futures and - after Christchurch - wake up to the realisation that we’re not immune from the powerful trends reshaping global politics, we are challenged to ask ourselves, what type of teachers do we want for what kind of society?

To understand what’s at stake, we need to look a bit more closely at how the Government proposes to spend the $95 million. The headline figures are that 3860 more teachers will be trained at secondary level to teach their specialist subjects. This is encouraging since it goes some way to addressing the concern that the New Zealand curriculum is not sufficiently focused on knowledge.

Many of these teachers are to be ‘trained’, and I’ll come back to that word in a minute, on new ‘employment-based’ schemes and the already established Teach First programme. In this, New Zealand is following the example of places such as England where there is a move towards school-based or on-the-job training.

This approach appeals to many New Zealanders’ common sense ideas about practical training and learning-by-doing from a skilled mentor. It appears to be cheaper, more focused on results, and does away with the need to get through books of theory that seem to be divorced from the real world of the classroom.

If we deny new teachers the opportunity to learn about and think about these important questions, then New Zealand will end up with a thin and undernourished version of education, rather than a teaching force that is able to contribute to a reflective and knowledgeable culture.

Like a lot of good ideas though, whether it works in practice is not clear. The evidence from other places is mixed. We simply don’t know whether teachers trained this way achieve better outcomes for their students, or if they are more likely to remain as teachers rather than moving into other careers. It’s almost as if the Government is about to embark on a giant experiment on New Zealand children; let’s hope it works out.

This model of how teachers are to be trained is also being applied to the traditional way to become a teacher – i.e spending time in a university faculty of education. The school-based element of this training has increased over the past two decades and almost one-quarter of the $95 million is to be spent helping universities ensure that their teacher training courses are more aligned to classroom practice and informed by teachers in schools.

The money the Government plans to offer universities involved in teacher training is therefore to be used to help them comply with what is becoming a new orthodoxy; that on-the-job training in real schools is the best way to learn how to be a teacher.

But is it? Teaching is one of those tricky jobs that requires both practical skills in making learning happen, which itself is improved if we have studied theories of learning, and the possession of an ‘educated’ disposition. For example, on the afternoon of Friday March 15, it was surely not enough to carry on skilfully teaching maths or science as if nothing was happening. Most teachers would have felt the need to respond to questions, to offer perspectives and context, to counsel, and perhaps to provide historical and cultural knowledge that could help to make sense of such horrors.

This may seem like an extreme example, but a moment’s thought would reveal others. All teachers, for example, are charged with helping students reflect on, and think about, the way technology shapes their lives.

Although some of this knowledge comes through simply living in, and reflecting on, the world, it is enhanced through disciplined learning; of history, sociology, philosophy, culture. And education is the discipline that deals with this. At its best, it leads to teachers who can play their part in sustaining the democratic ideal.

To be clear, this is not a knee-jerk defence of universities from someone with a vested interest. Having worked in university education faculties for two decades, I recognise the real challenges and dilemmas in any approach to preparing teachers to connect with future generations.

I am simply worried that if we deny new teachers the opportunity to learn about and think about these important questions, then New Zealand will end up with a thin and undernourished version of education, rather than a teaching force that is able to contribute to a reflective and knowledgeable culture.

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