Teacher Training (or lack of it…)

I consider myself very fortunate that I didn’t go straight from my degree to doing a PGCE. I took a year out. I didn’t do the Backpacker thing, I set about getting admitted to a PGCE course for the following year, and one of the expectations was prior experience in a school.

As a History and Politics graduate, secondary History seemed like a good choice. I contacted the secondary school I’d attended as a pupil, but, although they didn’t say no to having me there for a couple of weeks, they were hardly falling over themselves to get me onboard either. My former Primary School was. “Free help? When can you start?”

I had never intended to become a Primary School teacher, but this opportunity and the support and encouragement of my former Primary Headteacher set me off on a different course to the one I’d initially anticipated.

I stayed on working as an assistant in that school for a whole year. And even secured some paid hours. This turned out to be a great opportunity. Classroom Assistants get to move all around schools. They get to see what’s going on inside most, if not all classrooms. They were still quite a rarity, outside of reception class, at this point in time, and so I was working with children and teachers across all year groups. I ran after-school clubs, got involved in the school play, and had the chance to ask all the questions I wanted. I had no paperwork to complete, and no parents to meet. And I was just itching to get started on my PGCE at the beginning of the next academic year.

When I think back to what I expected from my PGCE year, I can’t help feeling short-changed. The very least I’d have expected was:

  1. A Thorough training in the teaching of reading and writing. (including grammar and phonics)
  2. A healthy serving of classroom management strategies.
  3. An overview of the National Curriculum, which, after all, I would be expected to teach.
  4. A good grounding in Primary Maths, with a revision of the curriculum content, and the methods and strategies my future pupils would be expected to use.
  5. An overview of educational research, and how both this and schools in general have developed in recent times.
  6. Advice on how to plan lessons, and medNium and long-term plans.
  7. Advice on how to mark and assess students’ work.
  8. Training on working with EAL and SEN students
  9. Advice on how to work with parents

What I got was far from what I was (at the very least) expecting:

  1. There was NO training on phonics or grammar. The reading and writing training I received had the following aims – 1. Make it relevant 2. Make it cross-curricular.
  2. Classroom management strategies were very thin on the ground. Where it was provided, Positive Behavioural Reinforcement was the way to go, sanctions were frowned upon, and the “natural” innocence of the child reigned supreme. Oh yes, and there was Circle Time. Plenty of Circle Time.
  3. We seemed to spend more time hearing the Lecturers/Professors views on the National Curriculum, than we did on familiarizing ourselves with its content and what the pupils were expected to learn. The only exception was in Science. The lady who trained us in Science Teaching was still working in the classroom on a part-time basis. Theory never came into it.
  4. ALL Maths “training” was centred around the use of manipulatives and making Maths “real”. There was no discussion about developing number sense or fluency, and arithmetic barely got a look in. Problem solving was popular, but the essential prerequisites for producing efficient problem solvers, barely got a look in.
  5. Research is an easy one for me to recall. Dewey. Piaget. Vygotsky. If the word triopoly does indeed exist, this is as good an example of one as I can find. (I’ve just discovered it does exist, and it’s also a board game…apparently). We were presented with this as the Rules of Teaching and Learning”, and yet we were never trained in the rules of grammar and phonics!!
  6. This is the exception to the rule. We did lots of work on planning! I spent many hours cross-curricular mind- mappish plans with tenuous links galore, only to find myself using the National Literacy and Numeracy Planners and QCA Schemes of Work, a couple of years later!! Other than for an OFSTED inspection or a classroom observation, I have never since written an individual lesson plan, and if I never had to again, I don’t think I’d be any worse off. Nevertheless, I do concede that these are extremely important and helpful during teacher training and your NQT year.
  7. When it came to marking and assessing students work, all I came away with was a list of things that I wasn’t to do: a) Don’t write negative things b) Don’t use red pen (it’s not an urban myth) c) Don’t give a grade d) Don’t correct all mistakes. e) Don’t give weekly spelling and mental maths tests. f) Keep running records g) Formative Assessment Good – Summative Assessment Bad.
  8. When it comes to EAL and SEN, I must have been absent that day. I have no recall of being trained for this. I assume the Army trains soldiers in how to use a gun? And yet I wasn’t trained for situations that I would find myself encountering on a daily basis for the rest of my teaching career!
  9. To prepare us for working with parents we did Role Play. I can think of no better way to illustrate this than by referring to this YouTube clip… (go to about 20 minutes in for the role play)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. I spent at least half the year in class. I got the Year 6 class of an over-worked, over stressed Deputy Head, in Edmonton, North London. It was a baptism of fire on which I thrived. As is often the way, I then did a second teaching practice at a “contrasting school”. This time I found myself with a Year 3/4 class in a Grant Maintained School (remember them?) in Hertfordshire, that counted Posh Spice amongst its alumni.

And so, my PGCE year came to an end, and I was “ready” to go out there and do the job for real! I appreciate this is only one person’s experience of one institution. Maybe it’s isolated, but I’m confident it isn’t. Fortunately the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies came along soon after. I say fortunately, despite the criticisms we hear of them (some of which I share), because I was reliant on them for much of my training in my first years of teaching, and they did at least cover grammar and, to some extent, arithmetic! I was also fortunate enough to attend a training day on Behaviour Management, with Bill Rogers, during my first year of teaching. What I learnt that day still serves me well to this day.

I hope you now understand why I’m so grateful to my former Primary Headteacher, who allowed me to work (largely for free!!) in his school, and why, when it comes to Education, being an autodidact is a MUST!

The Road I Took

After six years of teaching in the UK, I moved on. In 2003 I moved to the South of France. At the time I didn’t know what this would mean for my teaching career. I didn’t have a job to go to. I wasn’t looking for one. I was determined to give France a go. Give it at least two years. And, at the very least, learn the language.

Eleven years on, I’m still here. I’m now bilingual, have spent the last ten years working in International Schools, and my two daughters (born here and franglaise) are making their way through the French Primary School System. So why do I follow the UK “Education Debate” so closely? Why don’t I leave “all that” behind me? The sun is shining, it’s the first day of my long summer holiday, and here I am writing a blog about teaching! I’ve been away for so long that when I left Charles Clarke was still Secretary of State for Education!

I’m one of those people who only have two gears when it comes to interest levels – 1. No interest 2. Bordering on obsession. The UK Education Debate has moved me into second gear.

I’m often a little reluctant to disclose where I teach, for fear of being pigeon-holed as a teacher of the “privileged few” who knows nothing of the “real world”, and yet my teaching career has afforded me a number of valuable experiences, which will form the basis of many of my subsequent blog posts:

  1. 5 1/2 years teaching in North London (Cricklewood)
  2. 18 months in a “twee” little C of E Primary School with great SATS results!!
  3. One year studying French (full-time) as an adult (with very strict French teachers!!)
  4. Ten years working with students, teachers, and families from around the globe, within International Schools.
  5. 7 years of watching my daughters progress through the French Education System.

None of the above provides me with heightened powers of insight into the education debate, but when the UK Traditionalist versus Progressive debate heats up, I can at least reflect on the dangerously high doses of both, that I’ve encountered along the way…


Next post: Teacher Training (or lack of it)…coming very very soon!!

The Need For Knowledge

Prior knowledge improves reading comprehension and facilitates new learning. Chris Benson asks if it is time for the explicit teaching of knowledge to return to the classroom?

After 15 years of teaching (six years in the UK and nine years overseas), I have been exposed to a fairly extensive list of panaceas for improving learning, and the chances are that you too are already fully conversant with this ever-changing list of acronyms and terms largely centred around the word ‘learning. And yet, one word that I rarely hear mentioned is ‘knowledge’.

On the few occasions it is used there are typically negative connotations attached, as though the ‘sage on the stage’ merely wishes to fill young minds with facts (in a return to the days of Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind) that will be of little relevance to the child growing up in the 21st century.

Advocates of 21st century skills tend to favour student- centred methods based around problem-solving and project-based learning, an approach that dominates current thinking and has won almost unanimous support amongst teachers. And yet, little thought appears to be given to the importance of prior knowledge despite extensive research clearly emphasising that for learning to occur, new information must be integrated with what the learner already knows.

All too often I have seen primary school age students thrown into demanding research projects with the aim of constructing new knowledge and understanding. But what exactly are they supposed to build on if there is no clearly-defined and solid knowledge base?

We have all done brainstorming sessions and had students fill out charts, detailing what they know and what they want to know and, at the end, outlining what they’ve learned, but what I am getting at is a far more direct approach to the teaching of knowledge. It is one that entails us looking, first, at the higher order skills we want our students to learn, and then unpacking exactly what prior knowledge they’ll require to pursue this.

This is not about correcting each child’s initial misconceptions; this is an extremely time-consuming process that interrupts the momentum of learning. I am advocating a direct approach (as unfashionable as it may be) that ensures that all students are brought up to speed – the essential first step that is often ignored in a quest to engage the learner in learning that is ‘fun’.

I have always found that my students have loved acquiring new knowledge. They like to know things. And yet I’ve often found myself feeling guilty when pursuing such an approach, as though it is almost patronising to attempt todo so. I love listening to knowledgeable people. I find myself gravitating towards them in the hope of learning more. Just try having an interesting and meaningful discussion where subject knowledge is sparse. It will do little for your enquiry skills and you’ll solve few problems in the process!

A class of children cannot move forward as a group until they’ve all acquired the necessary prior knowledge to enable them to take the next step and yet much group- based project work is allowed to begin with just one or two students possessing this, with the others tagging along. Some are ready for such an approach, (and should not be held back whilst waiting for the others to catch up) but the majority are not.

This is an approach that I have found to be particularly prevalent in international schools, and we pat ourselves on the back believing that we’re creating a generation of independent enquirers, well-equipped for an ever changing world. What I see is a great inequality of background knowledge and the majority of students spending weeks, and sometimes even whole terms, to acquire an at best superficial understanding of what their teachers had hoped they’d learn.

Had they started from more solid foundations, things could have been very different, freeing up their minds to acquire new skills, knowledge and understanding, without being bogged down with the information overload that encountering too much new knowledge in one go inevitably brings about.

As a teacher, I long for my students to become critical thinkers with enquiring minds and strong problem-solving skills. These skills are not the sole preserve of 21st century learners; they have always been essential skills for an educated mind, but if they are to be spread more evenly amongst our students, the knowledge gap needs bridging. We are teaching a generation with the greatest access to information ever known in history, but if they’re to fully utilise this we must allow teachers to define and impart the knowledge needed for this learning process to thrive.

I have often heard it argued that knowledge is easily learned and forgotten. But without it, developing and applying the higher order skills that we want our students to possess becomes a long and frustrating process for all concerned.