Six months into my training course, and I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to have learnt about maintaining and running a classroom.
Education is such an amorphous concept, involving so many different variables, that it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it is difficult to delineate neatly into a structured series of units for consumption by novices. It also doesn’t help that right at the centre of education is the most variable variable of them all, human behaviour.
But still, there seems to be a scattergun approach to teacher training that tries to impress on us a series of theories about how and why students learn, which is admirable and certainly academically challenging, but it is a strategy that, for me, doesn’t really work, at least in the context within which I encountered it.
The first three weeks of training college was spent on campus, in class, and started – logically enough – with a series of activities designed to improve confidence in public speaking. Even though I have been a teacher before, and thus have no problem speaking in front of others, it was still the best place to start; concrete skill and confidence building, with instant feedback and analysis of how we could improve. This lasted about three days, and then we dived head first into learning theory. We learnt about how our concept of learning has evolved over the years, about key theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky, about learning styles and information assimilation strategies. Definitely heady stuff, and as I said before, challenging and interesting.
But at that stage in our training, it was almost completely useless.
Remember, most of us hadn’t been back into a high school classroom since we were students. We had no experience of a class in action. We couldn’t appreciate the various behaviours and trials and actions that take place when you put 30 hormonal teenagers into a room fronted by an authority figure charged with imparting knowledge the students may or may not have wanted to learn. In essence we were learning how to drive a car by starting with an indepth analysis of physics, momentum and chemical change within the engine without ever having seen a car actually being driven. It is a huge disconnect, and lead to two weeks of frustration for me, and I suspect most others.
It wasn’t until we came back from our first placement that you could see it our eyes, that we actually knew what teaching was. Experience is everything.
But getting back to the theory, what struck me, and still does, is how extremely contradictory education theory really is. One one hand, we are encouraged to never pressure students, to never blame them or call them out in front of others; in other words, to not indulge in deficit theorising – blaming the students for poor performance. Then, in the very next breath, we are informed that we are to blame for poor performance in the classroom, and we are constantly reminded of our power to fail, offend, disinterest, discourage, insult, ruin, confuse, mislead, overindulge, bore, anger, lose. If a class is going wrong, it’s the teacher’s fault. Deficit theorising at its finest.
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I do think that the teacher is the primary factor in regards to classroom performance. It makes logical sense, and has been recently backed up by John Hattie in his long-term study. (While I’m on the subject though, I have no idea how performance related pay would ever work. You’d have teachers scrambling to avoid lower band classes, which are more likely to drag down average scores, or teacher’s desperate to indulge the students in order to get good feedback, and it would go a long way to destroying the collegial atmosphere that is essential to a smoothly-running school; if you knew that your salary was determined by your performance relative to other colleagues, you’d certainly be less willing to share your own personal resources, especially those that prove popular with the students. By sharing, you’d be eliminating your professional advantage. My solution would be to boost salaries for REGISTERED teachers – that is, those that have done two years teaching, and to make the registering process a little more rigorous. If a teacher, in the course of regular observations, proves to not be cutting it, they will have to stay unregistered, and thus on a lower pay scale, for another term, or half-year, or full year, until they reach the minimum standard. A significant bump in registered teacher salaries would also encourage more people into the field, make teacher’s college more competitive and increase the overall standard. Am I Education Minister yet?)
Rather, my objection is to do with the underlying principles. As trainee teachers, we are learners, and yet there appears to be a different set of rules for us compared to other learners (for example, high schoolers). The random application of principles is something that really drives me to distraction in education. My favorite example: we are constantly reminded that the traditional teaching model (teacher at the front, teaching the whole class as one and the same) has failed us, because learners have different learning styles. Fair enough. I can go with that. Personally, I find that I can only really learn things through projects or assignments – through having to apply knowledge. Sit me down to study a book on say, web design, and ask me questions about it after, the results will be pretty dismal. Give me an assignment to build a webpage and then ask me the same questions, and I’ll be much better informed. It’s the way my mind is wired; I like to be able to come out of something with a concrete item, be it an essay or a report or a presentation, and the information I recollect most readily is that was used in the production of that item.
Put me in a lecture theatre and give me that same information, and I’ll be running through Liverpool FC selection dilemmas, or constructing an outline for the greatest screenplay ever written, within 2 minutes.
Okay, so that principle I agree with. But education being education theory, it then takes this principle and then applies it in a way that perverts it completely. Individuals have different learning styles becomes: boys have different learning styles from girls; Maori have different learning styles to non-Maori; Asians have different learning styles to non-Asians. Suddenly, we are taught to treat boys as a single homogenous group in the service of addressing individuality within the classroom! It makes absolutely no sense to me.
COMING UP: Placements