Does Teacher Training Know Too Much?

Question: What happens when you call a cup, a cup?

Answer: It stops being any number of things that it could have been:  a hat, a dragon’s nose, a weapon, a drum, a shoe, etc, etc.

This morning, I had a blazing argument slash friendly chat with colleagues in the staffroom over this very point. We weren’t originally talking about cups though; we were talking about teacher training. In light of the fact that so many schools are failing to hire the required staff, it quickly became apparent that many teachers believe in competencies; the idea that there is a pre-defined list of things that a good teacher should or could be able to do.

I disagree with this position, for the same reason that I think you shouldn’t go round calling a cup a cup. As soon as you begin to codify ‘good’ teaching, you effectively limit the possibilities of what good teaching could be. Every step towards definition closes a door of possibility. The dangers of this are twofold. First, it works against a culture of innovation and second, it establishes a culture of deficit and insecurity. Think about it for a minute: if there is a definite list slash criteria that a ‘good’ teacher should adhere to, anyone entering the profession is immediately faced with a list of things they cannot do or may not be able to do.

This, surely is crippling. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling to attract teachers, when the expectations are so restrictive. It’s not a question of standards – obviously, teachers should be aiming for excellence and competence – it’s a question of approach. Do we know what we are asking new teachers to step into? And are we choking their potential before it’s had a chance to flourish?

Exploring the unknown unknown

Too much of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) seems to be hung up on what we can call ‘the known knowns’, the things we know to work or not work, as proven by experience or research. Whatever. The known unknowns are slightly more interesting; ie: the things we know we don’t know, such as whether a skills-based curriculum is better than a knowledge-based curriculum, or whether PBL is better than a linear scheme of work for fostering student engagement.

My argument here is that our energy is best spent contemplating the unknown unknowns; the things we never even realised we didn’t know that we might one day discover. The things that might revolutionise our ideas and lead to unpredictable successes in the future. If we accept the unknown, it changes the realms of possibility. Once upon a time, humans believed ourselves to be the centre of the universe, placing ourselves atop a ludicrous and lofty metaphysical throne. Then Galileo came along with his home-made telescope and discovered that we are floating in one of trillions of galaxies. This simultaneously dethroned us while opening up new realms of possibility regarding space and the universe. Rather than naval-gazing and wondering how we came to be so amazing, humans could finally start contemplating the awesome mysteries of the great unknowns. With trillions of galaxies out there, it becomes frankly stupid to position yourself as anything but an explorer.

So too with teaching? I think so. I often tell people that, in my eyes, I am not a teacher seeking some preset goal of pedagogic perfection but am in fact undergoing ongoing action research. And the more I know, the more I don’t know. Questions foster questions and the the grappling with new ideas is what fuels my development. Like Galileo, surely our innovation should be fuelled by curiousity and innovation?

Case in point: skateboarding. Bear with me. See, the skateboarding community is an excellent example of a learning community that feeds itself with its own curiousity over the unknown. There was a time when no-one ever made a skateboard jump with their feet, while moving. Then, one day, someone, in a moment of inspired, imaginative innovation did it. The ‘ollie’ was born. This was then fed back into the community, and new skaters took it and tweaked it, spinning the board (a ‘shove-it’) or flipping the board (a ‘kick flip’) or making it jump front first (a ‘nollie’). All of these moves were, before the ollie was born, part of an unknown unknown – beyond the realms of possibility.

Now, you have a catalogue of moves that a new skater in 2015 is aware of and can learn, but the possibilities are still infinite. The tricks keep coming because skaters aren’t happy with an inventory of moves passed on from some predefined canon of manoeuvres.

Can you imagine if this is what teaching was like? If new teachers were stepping into a community of innovation fuelled by curiousity, informed by but not limited by the past? It would change everything. I’ve said in previous posts that the human brain is designed to innovate – why not embrace this and start all training right there? Explore the knowns as a means of exposing the unknowns. Mystical.

So, does experience matter?

At this point, you may be wondering if experience holds any relevance if the job of a new addition to a community is to explore and invent, rather than to simply gain mastery of existing skills. Good question. I have an anecdote that might be useful.

In a recent interview lesson a prospective art teacher presented the kids with the task of designing a set for a theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Where do you start, he asked them. And of course, he was met with blank stares. He then proceeded to blindfold the kids and started reading ‘The BFG’ alongside music, asking them to draw instinctively as he read. Then, he removed the blindfold and talked through what they had drawn, cutting out the shapes and fixing them together in a 3D diorama. This was the first draft of the theatre set.

Brilliant, isn’t it? In 15 minutes, this guy had opened doors to unknown creative possibilities, using his expertise to make sense of innovative experiments. His mastery was guiding innovation, not stifling it. (Coincidentally, he wasn’t a teacher.)

Ultimately, we need to remove the barbed wire of expectation from ITT. Perhaps then teachers, new and not-so-new, might feel free to explore their profession and make innovations for the benefit of the teaching community at large. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations


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