Monday, 26 May 2014

Mr. Gove may have a point...

Michael Gove:
"The evidence shows that the best teacher training is led by teachers... The classroom is the best place for teachers to learn as well as teach."
(Source here)

As much as I truly hate to agree with such a poisonous character... Gove may be onto something here.

My experience of university based ITT

Don't get me wrong, there are many things I enjoyed about university. Obviously the social side - but the freedom as well; let's face it, you don't really have many responsibilities whilst you're there, which is exactly what I needed from the ages of 18 - 21. I knew I wanted to teach from the outset, so my only option was to opt for a Bachelor of Education; wasting three years on a degree I wasn't particularly interested in to then complete a PGCE didn't appeal to me - I wanted to do what I loved (or at least predicted I'd love) right from the start. University was my only choice - but if I had had (side note - isn't it great how the English language makes those repeated words perfectly acceptable to use; see here for an ingenious use of the repeated word) a choice between a PGCE or GTP (which was on offer at the time), in hindsight, I would have chosen the school-based training. Here's why:

You can't teach someone to teach.

This is, of course, my personal opinion. I believe you are born to teach; you are born with the natural ability to stand in front of a group of children, engage them, communicate with them, and make them understand something. This, then, renders lectures useless. I would say that my lectures were pretty fairly balanced between subject knowledge and pedagogy. However, there are two issues with this: 1) If you really don't yet understand level 4 maths skills, should you really be at university? and 2) Is the pedagogy of science really that different to the pedagogy of literacy? Surely if you can teach one subject, you can teach another - it is all about differentiating and communicating knowledge and skills, despite the subject matter at hand. In all honesty, PE was the only subject-specific lecture from which I gained anything - different ideas and activities for all the different sports for all different age groups. My PE folder is a complete gem which I will never discard; I can't say the same for the others (in fact, they have all already been binned  recycled).

Other general lectures (you know the sort - theory based) also seemed to fall flat. Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori... who cares? I haven't got a long experience of teaching, but in my four placements and in my job so far, I have never once thought, "Oh wow, right now I'm recognising the student's prior knowledge, identifying myself as the More Knowledgeable Other, finding out where we need to get to and therefore working in the Zone of Proximal Development. Thanks, Lev Vygotsky, where would I be without you?!" My inner monologue goes more like this... "That's what he knows. That's what he needs to go. Let's fill in the gaps." Surely that is just common sense. I have had to apply this in my sports coaching ever since I was a teenager - and I certainly hadn't heard of Vygotsky then.

University, in its attempt to keep up with government initiatives, ends up falling behind by the time they are implemented. When I started, it was all about phonics. Phonics, phonics, phonics. I'm an expert now. But now, it's not such a big deal. In fact, everything seemed to be about the entry levels - phonics, FUNdamentals or basic mathematical skills, like counting. Not once did we cover the SPAG test, how to use figurative language, how to solve linear equations, how to identify methods an author had used to convey a certain emotion - all skills needed by high ability upper KS2 children, particularly evident in the Level 6 SATs. Now, I know what you're thinking - I'm contradicting myself here - we shouldn't have to be taught subject knowledge. But we ARE. Or at least, I was. So if this is going to happen, the content should be useful. Luckily, I am particularly interested in English and Maths (and have A-levels in both) and am capable of teaching both to a Level 6 standard, which I did do this year in a different school. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of my peers at university; if challenging the more able children is so important, isn't this the sort of subject knowledge teachers should be taught? I know of so many local schools that have had to use secondary school teachers to teach their Level 6 groups because their own Year 6 teachers aren't capable. Primary school teachers are capable of this; many just aren't taught it.

As you can tell from my previous blog posts, my first two days of "proper teaching" have taught me more than many years of university training has.

Things university does not teach you (in my experience)
  1. How to deal with parents
  2. How to handle parents' evenings
  3. How to write reports
  4. How to deal with bad behaviour (I don't mean mild disruptions. I mean throwing chairs, physical fights and verbal abuse - all of which I had to face in my final placement)
  5. How to deal with "challenging" colleagues
  6. How to plan long term
  7. How to work with a TA
  8. How to identify SEN
If you're luckily, you will pick some of this up on the way - whether it's just common sense, or through your placements. However, I've found that, as a student, you are usually quite shielded in your placements. In tandem with the points above:
  1. Parents tend not to come to you as you are not their child's "real" teacher
  2. You would never lead the parents' evenings as you won't have taught the children for long enough
  3. Same as above for the reports
  4. Students are never usually left to deal with behaviour that bad (unfortunately I was)
  5. You only usually ever work with your mentor
  6. You only have to plan for a maximum of about 8 - 10 weeks
  7. (Placements are actually quite good for this, so this point is irrelevant)
  8. The "real" teacher tends to deal with this

For me, ALL of my learning took place in the classroom. The advice and guidance from those four class teachers that mentored me throughout each of my placements - particularly the last two - have been invaluable. Yes, it is good that a university based ITT course organises multiple teaching experiences for you across a long period of time - but for me, the time between each experience - the time spent in the lecture theatre - was useless, irrelevant, unavailing, futile, and any other word that means there was no point to it.

In that case, I am in complete agreement with Gove's above quote. But please allow me to emphasise - this is only my personal opinion. Many of my peers wrote endless notes in all our lectures that I'm sure they would say were very useful. I have just found that learning on the job was the best way to go about it - it is only when you are shoved in front of 32 pairs of eyes staring at you (two of those pairs being your mentor and the TA at the back of the room) that you learn to think on your feet and learn from your mistakes, just in time for when the learning behind those 30 pairs of eyes is completely your responsibility.

Find me on Twitter at @Miss_RQT (previously @MissNQT)

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