Who should teach how to teach?

June 25, 1999

Richard Pring maintains that universities are the best places to train teachers

The most recent government green paper is a radical reappraisal of how the teaching profession should be managed - including the recruitment and training of new teachers. In effect, there is to be "performance management" - a lot of target setting, with rewards related to the attainment of those targets. Able people should be attracted to teaching, knowing that their ability will receive due recognition.

However, there is hardly a whisper in "Teachers: Meeting the Challenge of Change" about the role of higher education. Indeed, the green paper endorses more flexible routes into teaching - it can no longer be assumed that the main route should be through university courses.

It is suggested that the money for initial training should be redirected through "partnerships" (which may or may not include higher education) rather than, as now, through universities and colleges themselves. For many universities, this would spell the end of their commitment to teacher education.

Would that matter? Many universities think so. Education students make up a large proportion of universities' total number of students. Education courses forge a strong link between schools and higher education. And many universities feel justly proud of a long tradition of preparing teachers for schools. Since the McNair report of 1944, there has been an attempt to bring academic rigour to education. The profession of teaching needed, so it was believed, to be rooted in the intellectual tradition of the university.

But the professional relevance of this academic respectability has recently been regarded with scepticism. This can be summed up in these questions:

* To what extent does the training of teachers in universities better prepare them for the practical task of teaching?

* How far does the research conducted within universities answer the questions that teachers or administrators ask about schools and classrooms?

* Why should teachers themselves be excluded from theorising about education and from the training of the next generation of teachers?

Theory, it has been argued, has been separated from practice, the theoretical knowledge of the teacher educators from the practical knowledge of the teacher. Hence, the shift to a more school-based model of professional preparation and the diminished control by universities over their own courses as syllabuses are dictated by government.

The upshot is that university departments of educational studies can no longer take as self-evident their traditional place in the initial training and further professional development of teachers. That place has to be justified - and the justification needs to be persuasive both to the government as the main funder of teacher training and to the "customers" or "clients".

That justification must start with a profound respect for the practising knowledge of teachers. The question must be, not "What can teachers learn from universities?" but "What is distinctive about universities' contribution to teachers' professional knowledge?" Moreover, such a question can be effectively posed only within a framework in which the distinctive kinds of knowledge - the more research-based and decontextualised knowledge of the university and the professional knowledge of the teacher - are brought together.

There remains one further role of universities. Education is concerned with forming the minds of the next generation, developing the capacities to reflect, to analyse, to question. It is too important to be left to politicians. So too, therefore, is the training of teachers. We do not want a teaching profession that attracts only those who can teach what and how the government or the Teacher Training Agency or the chief inspector of schools has told them to teach. Teaching must be rooted in the critical traditions that are maintained and enhanced within universities. How else can one protect that freedom of enquiry, that justification based on evidence, that are at the core of education?

Richard Pring is professor of education at the University of Oxford.

* Should universities continue to play a role in training teachers? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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