School based teacher training: do we need any other kind? Part 1

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Around the world, teacher preparation or initial teacher education includes an extended placement in schools where beginning teachers spend time in the classroom ‘learning about practice in practice’ (Darling-Hammond and Bransford 2005: 401).

In  Finland, the practicum takes place in university practice schools. The first English school of this kind, the University of Birmingham School, has just opened.

Increasingly, however, England is in the process of setting out in a different direction: away from any significant university involvement and towards a school-led and school-based system, based on ‘an unquestioning belief that gaining more experience in schools with automatically and inevitably’ lead to better trained teachers, (McNamara, Jones and Murray 2014).

Why? 

An important reason is that there is research from those in the university sector arguing for ‘the potential of school-based teacher education’, (Hagger and McIntyre, 2006).

Another reason is government policy. In the introduction to the Importance of Teaching White Paper, Cameron expressed concern that ‘we are standing still while others race past.’ (DfE 2010). A review into the effectiveness of Initial Teacher Training by Sir Andrew Carter was launched, and published in January 2015.  The conclusion was the Something Must Be Done. The initial government response to the review was very clear: it would have to be schools that would Do Something.

The implication is that things are so bad that only radical change can make a difference. This is essentially the case made by Michael Gove when he was Education secretary, and here is a quick overview of what he had to say:

  1. Teaching is a craft
  2. Learning to teach is about apprenticeship
  3. Observation is the best way to learn as an apprentice
  4. Apprenticeship creates liberated professionals able to improve the system
  5. Teacher educators in universities oppose change because they are the new ‘enemies of promise

This is old news. But the consequences of these views are playing out now in changes to teacher education. It has taken me some time, some reading and some mulling, but I am now ready to write a few thoughts about each of the points summarised above.

I think it is too soon to write universities out of teacher education, but we need to share the work of explaining why.

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Remembrance Sunday and History teaching

So what do we mean when we say  ‘Lest we forget?’

This isn’t a simple question. You remember your times tables. I remember the birthdays of my children as easily as I remember my own birthday.

But when we talk of war, this isn’t my experience, thankfully. I am not remembering a tour in Afghanistan or time in the trenches.

In one sense, ‘Lest we forget’ means to me today, a gratefulness for those who do put themselves in harm’s way, when I have not had to do this.

Services of remembrance though, like funerals, are for the living. There are histories of remembrance, but here is what I remember about how remembrance has changed over the last 50 years.

When I was a child,  remembrance in schools was powerful, in part because First World War veterans were still alive and spoke out. Otto Frank came to my school and spoke in an assembly. Unforgettable.

But in the early years of my time as a History teacher, some of the traditions, such as the two minute silence at 11 minutes past the hour at 11 on the 11th of November, began to fade. The most important reason why they faded was probably that after the Falklands, times were more peaceful. I think we should acknowledge that one reason why remembrance has become so important once again, is because the 21st century has begun so violently. This did not mean, though, that the First World War left the History curriculum. How we study the First World War has changed though, and there are good reasons for this.

I do worry that remembrance traditions, so necessary when we have people currently ‘in harm’s way’, can become confused with what we want children to remember from our History lessons.

What is memorable depends on what we find to be significant, in the present. This changes over time, and also depends on who we are, and the questions we ask about the past. The content and character of an historical education is therefore a mutable thing.

The sounding of the Last Post moves me, as I am sure it moves you.

But tomorrow, I go back to the drawing board in thinking about how we should teach children to remember the past. I intend to do that every Monday morning until I retire. Traditions are important, and they can be very memorable. But it is not wise to let them define what we should ‘remember’.

British values, the History curriculum and Moral Capital

Part 2 of the Teachers’ standards (2012): Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: …not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs

‘Fundamental British values’ have a history. A well-designed History curriculum should enable teenagers to understand how attitudes and beliefs are not static, and how beliefs have changed in Britain, over time. An example of this is the origin of the belief that slavery is wrong and the story of the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. In part, this is a question of History teachers taking an interest in historiography. The first stories about the abolition of slavery I heard as a pupil were similar to the interpretation offered by the film Amazing Grace. The ‘take-away’ for me then (Ian Dawson’s term for what we remember) was that the slave trade was abolished because Wilberforce persuaded Parliament that it was morally wrong. There are many problems with this simplistic interpretation, brilliantly explored by Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery as long ago as 1944, and more recently by historians such as James Walvin. In their accounts, background conditions such as the American Revolution and changes in trade, and the agency of slaves themselves, play a much more powerful role in explaining abolition. In recent web resources designed by teachers and for teenagers, richer and more nuanced accounts are offered; further example here.

So it is simple then: History teachers just tell an up to date story of the abolition of slavery and we can guarantee that the ‘take-away’ for teenagers will be a sound understanding of individual liberty, say, and the rule of law? Except that it is really isn’t that simple, for reasons to do with pedagogy, how we learn and the nature of the subject itself.

As Arthur Chapman explained in his article in Teaching History 143,  Time’s arrows: using a dartboard scaffold to understand historical action,  we have put a lot of effort into helping pupils with causal explanations as History teachers, but much less into helping them to understand claims about the actions of people in the past. His dartboard scaffold is an approach to dealing with the teacher’s problem: showing us a way to model an exploration of the certainty of claims about acts, beliefs and aims.

Make no mistake though, there is a learning problem too, explored by Shemilt and Pickles later in the same edition of Teaching History. We tend to assume that beliefs current in our own time and our own culture are in fact timeless, when they are not; historical thinking is an unnatural act. We have abandoned empathy and thrown out an understanding of perspectives with the bathwater.

Can more recent historiography help? I have been reading Moral Capital by C.L. Brown, a book inspired by the ‘desire to explain the decisions to act, to make sense of the relation between cultural prescription and individual action’, (Brown, 2006:1). He explores at great length the connections between changing background conditions, (within the American Revolution, Quakerism and the Evangelical movement), to challenge a series of ‘false binaries’ (Brown, 2006: 459) about the abolition of slavery. These include:

  • abolitionists were selfless or self interested
  • abolitionists were humanitarians or hypocrites

He advances a number of claims I would love to see pinned to Chapman’s dartboard:

  1. Colonial assemblies in America wanted to limit enslaved Africans arriving and blame Britain for the slave trade
  2. Granville Sharp wanted to overthrow slavery and establish the liberty of the subject ‘as an inviolable right in British law’ (Brown, 2006:458)
  3. Free black people in Britain wanted to expose the horrors of slavery and assert their own rights and liberties
  4. Evangelicals wanted to promote Christianity in the West Indies and make evangelicalism socially acceptable in Britain
  5. Quakers wanted to abolish slavery and renew their distinctive approach to their faith in a country where pacifism was not respected

We aren’t the only History teaching community concerned with these issues; see the ideas of Peter Seixas in Canada, explored most recently by Alex Ford in Teaching History 157. Ford argues that History is not just ‘a passing on of traditions from one generation to the next…’ but ‘demands that we engage with the complexities of the past…that we interrogate the mentalities of the people we struggle to understand and that we recognise the limits of our understanding. The models of progression we choose to build need to reflect this’, (Ford, 2014: 35).

I am not suggesting that this will be easy. But I am suggesting that if, as History teachers, we don’t think carefully about how to help teenagers understand the actions, beliefs and aims of people in the past, they will be less well prepared than they should be to understand what might underpin ‘fundamental British values’ now, and acquire their own moral capital.

Trust me I’m a … PGCE tutor?!

The Carter review into teacher training is out. Out, but also in: kicked into the long grass unless a College Of Teaching gets off the ground. There is continuing disbelief in some political circles that the PGCE route into QTS is of any value.

Here is what I think. But wait, you can’t trust me, I am only a PGCE tutor.  An ex-teacher. Nearly 20 years in schools, two daughters going through the education system, apparently I know nothing useful (or am being patronising to claim otherwise). I am merely an ‘educationalist’, see @oldandrewuk for a powerful explanation of this view.

So do I know anything useful? The Collins dictionary defines an educationalist as ‘a person who has a special knowledge of the principles and methods of teaching’.

I haven’t forgotten everything I learned as a teacher and my current job entails being in school and working with teachers. But I have changed my mind about generic issues, for example learning styles, and about history teaching specifically, as a result of being a PGCE tutor. Why? When working full-time in school, I was encouraged to study for a Masters to develop my understanding of management and leadership. In fairness, I had a lot to learn about this. Sadly, it didn’t occur to school leaders that a Masters could enable me to be a better History teacher. Apparently I was good enough. Meanwhile, I mentored trainee teachers in school.  I loved the focus on learning, seeing many great teachers in the making.

What do I specialise in now as a secondary tutor? I focus on how people think about their subject as they begin teaching, and how this thinking underpins their performance in the classroom. As I read research, I see that deep learning in the History classroom is even more difficult to achieve than I realised. Reading therefore boosts my admiration for those who teach; so we go into many classrooms on our PGCE, in sessions called learning rounds. But I build into the university elements of the PGCE an opportunity for student teachers to change their minds about what they think History in school should be, and how children learn to think using an understanding of the past. We use research by Lee, Ashby, Pickles, Wineburg and Chapman, reflecting on practice seen in schools, Teaching History, and online. I read Burn, Shulman, Fordham,and others, about developing professional knowledge and judgement. I recognise that the new knowledge we draw upon at Roehampton has been created, or in the case of Teaching History, celebrated and supported, by colleagues working in other universities, such as Christine Counsell.

Is knowledge enough? No. I meet teachers daily who act with integrity, having the well-being of children as a primary concern. As experienced teachers take on the role of leading teacher training in their schools, they apply the same principle to their work with new teachers. Whilst keeping a focus on the progress of pupils, they deal with the contradictions implied by an obligation to put the needs of new teachers first. Working with PGCE tutors can be one way to work out these contradictions.

Do PGCE tutors know or do anything useful? Whilst extensive experience in schools will always be necessary as you begin to learn about teaching, it is not always sufficient. For many beginning teachers, a PGCE tutor enables new teachers to think critically about their subject, to change their minds about how children learn, and to develop professional judgement.

If the College of Teaching is to have a role in writing a curriculum for initial teacher training, (though there are other reasons for including us), it needs to include trainers. The fact is that we have relevant knowledge and experience. We aren’t the only people who have this knowledge but we do have the well-being and progress of beginning teachers as our core purpose. Maybe this is why you should trust me…

Historical knowledge: what do History teachers need to know?

Having started my blog with something old, here are a a few thoughts about a very recent and characteristically though-provoking article in the final issue of  Teaching History  for 2014 written by Kate Hammond. Called ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: towards building and assessing knowledge on three scales’, the article reflects on the marking of Year 11 GCSE essays, in particular those that seemed ‘secure but less convincing’, (Hammond, 2014). Kate Hammond has written powerfully on this issue before, (Getting Year 10 to understand the value of precise factual knowledge, Teaching History 109).

The key argument in this article is that we should pay attention to the way in which the deployment of substantive historical knowledge varies between pupils. Kate mentions the importance of second order concept understandings explored by Elisabeth Pickles, but noticed that in the essays under examination, the  types or forms of substantive knowledge pupils used seemed to have a more significant impact on the quality of historical analysis produced.

She was able to divide the substantive knowledge she observed in use into a time-scale: knowledge within the topic, within the period, and within history generally. The best essays deployed knowledge from across the scale; more successful pupils were not limited to explaining their reasoning using what Counsell has called ‘fingertip‘ knowledge, (link given is to Sally Thorne’s reflections on this idea).

Hammond then goes on to design a different GCSE style mark-scheme that might better reward the types of historical knowledge she sees as significant. She also wonders whether the choices students made ‘were indicative of the different ways in which students see the past..’.

She draws the following conclusions after a caveat about generalising from one marking experience:

1 developing substantive historical knowledge has implications for curriculum design

2 there are implications for GCSE mark-schemes, especially with pressure on colleagues to ‘teach-to-the test’.

My reflections on this are as follows.

Firstly, I think that although Kate’s caveat about generalisation is sound, I think she brought considerable experience, study and reflection to bear on the marking of one set of essays and therefore although the data set seems limited, the knowledge upon which Hammond draws is not limited. Counsell writes about the implications of this for understanding our teaching in School-based research, (Wilson, 2013).

Secondly, other jurisdictions have been interested in the development of substantive concepts in History, and some of this work is reflected not only in Teaching History but also  in the International Journal now hosted on the Historical Association site. So here I agree with Kate: we need to plan for the development of concepts such as democracy, slavery, church, over time. But these ideas do not necessarily ‘progress’, in the way that we might want pupil understandings of them to progress. So a chronological trawl through the past is not the answer. More thinking needed on that one as we go into changes in the curriculum in England from 5-18.

I am less sure that second-order conceptual development isn’t at work here too though. Having looked at the pertinent excerpts of pupil work Kate included in her reflections, I was reminded of another article by Robin Conway, where the preconceptions pupils have about the topic, about the past generally and about how history works, all impinge on their reasoning about the past.

I also think that re-writing the GCSE mark schemes is problematic for other reasons than those explained by Kate. Examination mark-schemes need to focus on reliability and this may lead to some loss of validity. Where again I agree is that we should focus on more valid assessments of historical thinking in our formative assessments of pupils, because this can inform changes in our teaching.

But that requires another blog…

Thanks to Kate Hammond for yet another excellent and though-provoking article, and apologies if I have misrepresented the ideas within it… I would be interested to know what colleagues make of the entire article, and here is the link to it again just in case:

http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_8130_12.html 

Personal and public theories, not just practices

The name of this blog was inspired by an article written by Griffiths and Tann in 1992, Using Reflective Practice to Link Personal and Public Theories.

This extract from opening paragraph could easily have been written in more recent times:

‘…ministers believe…trainee teachers could learn on the job… without the risk of infection by …fancy theories’.

The idea seems to be that trainee teachers don’t have theories unless given them by universities, and that qualified teachers, if they have theories, are able to tell which theories are useful, and which merely ‘fancy’.

Both these ideas seem like common sense. But all the beginner teachers I work with arrive with personal theories, with varying degrees of awareness of them. To help them develop their practice, they need to explore their preconceptions about teaching and learning, and make them more explicit. If they don’t do this, one common consequence is that they have trouble acting on their mentor’s advice.

This means that when recruiting, I look out for those prepared to respond to advice from a mentor with the question ‘why is it better to do that?’ . The question ‘how do I do that?’is useful, but not enough.

I do think experienced teachers are often better at telling when a theory is useful than beginners. Sometimes this is because they are reading research or conducting their own. Sometimes this is because they can relate research easily to their more extensive experience. When working with new teachers, though, we have to find ways to enable THEM to think critically about teaching and learning. They need some new ideas to think with, or their growth will be stunted.

The article by Griffiths and Tann explains this. They argue, as have many others, that the divide between theory and practice is just ‘assumed’. They argue that actions are underpinned by personal theories. If these remain unchallenged by critically considering public theories, the development of the teacher will be limited.

They claim that if we, as teachers, do not engage critically with public theories, (based on research rather than just personal experience), there is a problem. We limit the growth of our professional judgement, and the ‘effectiveness of our professional thinking’. Professional thinking informs our practice. If we want better practice, we need better thinking.

So the next time your trainee teacher ( or less experienced colleague) says ‘why?’, but you don’t have time to explain just then, what else could you do?