Friday, 10 February 2012

About closing down university PGCE courses

In a recent blog post Donald Clark gave seven reasons for slashing university PGCE courses. In attacking such courses he is supporting government policy which aims to close down courses and move teacher training into schools to an even greater extent.

One of Donald's seven reasons was:


"Irrelevance
The drift towards ‘University-led’ courses had loaded these courses up with irrelevant theory that has no real bearing on the practice of teaching. A good example is Abraham Maslow, a staple in teacher training, yet of no use to anyone in terms of what they’re actually asked to do in schools."

I can only talk (with relatively little knowledge, I confess, though I have supervised trainees and picked up anecdotal evidence) about PGCE courses in modern languages, but I suspect what I say could apply to other subject areas. I am slightly concerned that trainee MFL teachers do not get enough theory. Apart from learning something about the general psychology of learning and the history of education, I consider it important that young MFL trainees get a solid grounding in theories of second language learning. Anecdotal evidence from forums and personal acquaintances suggests to me that this is not always the case.

Do all MFL trainees learn about the history of language teaching movements? Do they learn about behaviourist and cognitive theories of learning? Do they understand arguments for and against grammar-translation or audio-lingualism? Do they consider the limits of natural or direct methods? Do they look at learning versus acquisition? Do they study communicative theory, the comprehensible input hypothesis, the monitor model, suggestopedia, whole body approaches or the oral approach? Do they learn about phonetics and phonology? Do they study syllabus design?

If they do not, then they are missing out on some basic theoretical underpinnings of their practice and may not fully understand why they are teaching in such and such a way. I would go as far as to say they are full professionals in the best sense. Whilst I would accept that, in the end, teaching a language is often a pragmatic exercise where you use what works, and that many of the generic techniques of teaching, including effective assessment for learning, also apply to language teaching, it is also crucial to have a grasp of the pros and cons of different approaches and methods.

If we move teacher training out of universities and into schools, then we risk losing a great deal. The current balance of school placements and time in university to reflect and learn seems broadly appropriate to me. We just need to make sure that that the content of university PGCE courses includes enough theory of the right type, that courses are large enough to be economically viable and well taught by a range of well qualified people with a solid academic base of educational and second language learning knowledge.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Steve. Thanks for the response. Moving teacher training into 'teaching schools' does not eliminate the teaching of theory. What it does is force teachers to apply their theory to actual practice. This is what happens in, for example, 'teaching hospitals'. I have no problem with theory but slabbing it out in lectures is absurd. This is, pedagogically, at odds with the very basics of learning psychology. In any case, I think the theory is often abtruse and irrelevant. I used Maslow as an example, since it has no real academic basis, yet is almost universally included in teacher training courses. Why? Fossilised and out of date course content. The balance between theory and practice is an interesting debate - we may disagree about the exact fuel mixture, but this move about where the teaching takes place not what is taught.

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  2. I wonder who would teach it in schools though. Hard pressed teachers who may not be expert in theoretical basis of their practice may not be best placed to help trainees.

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