Educating the educators

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
4 May, 2023

The parlous state of new Zealand’s school education system is common knowledge, in part thanks to the Herald’s recent Making the Grade series. Our poor results in literacy featured prominently. The shortcomings of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) were also discussed.

The best way to teach reading and writing has been debated for decades, not only in New Zealand, but internationally. That debate has sometimes been so heated, it has been dubbed ‘the reading wars.’

The current scientific consensus is that teaching literacy in a structured way is the most effective approach. Unfortunately, despite this, the Ministry of Education has not backed structured literacy. Some schools have adopted it independently and are seeing the rewards in their literacy data.

The NZC has also been debated, ever since it appeared in 2007. Its critics – and I am among them – say that it lacks specificity and structure. Its defenders say it gives schools flexibility to design local curricula.

There is something in education that matters even more than the Ministry embracing structured literacy. More, even, than having a world-class curriculum.

That ‘something’ is teachers.

Well-trained teachers use structured literacy because they know it works, whether the Ministry backs it or not. And good teachers can work around a deficient curriculum because they have knowledge and know how to impart it to their students. The trouble is that teacher education in New Zealand also has serious problems.

These go back to the merger of the old teachers’ colleges with universities, in the first decade of this century.  Suddenly, teachers’ college staff found that they were academics. They were expected to complete PhDs and become active researchers. Many good teacher educators, especially the older ones, left the profession. Who could blame them? It takes at least three years to complete a PhD and it was not what they had signed up for.

There is a credible argument that our teachers should be trained by active researchers. If teacher educators are at the forefront of research, this argument goes, then new teachers will be trained to use state-of-the-art methods. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when they are first registered, all teachers were experts in the science of learning and knew how to apply it in the classroom?

That would indeed be a good thing. But somehow, after more than 15 years of being part of universities, our new teachers graduate with scant knowledge of the science of human learning. How can this be?

The answer goes back to the way in which the teachers’ colleges were merged with the universities. In most cases, the universities already had schools or faculties of education, and the teachers’ college staff joined them. Very often, existing academics in these schools and faculties supervised the PhD work of the incoming teachers’ college staff.

These academics were not usually involved in teacher training. They were mostly sociologists who studied the social influences and impacts of education. As a result, most of the PhDs completed by teacher educators coming in from the old teachers’ colleges had a sociological basis.

Sociological research is usually, although not always, qualitative in nature. It tends to rely on interviews and focus groups. Sociological research in education rarely focusses on measuring what students have learned, to rigorously test the effectiveness of different approaches to teaching. Instead, it usually gathers the views and perceptions of students or educators on various aspects of education.

Because a large majority of their PhDs were sociological in nature, few of the new members of the schools and faculties of education became experts on the science of human learning. Learning science is a branch of cognitive psychology. To become experts in it, teacher educators would have had to complete undergraduate degrees or diplomas in psychology before moving on to their PhDs.  

So now, teacher education in New Zealand is dominated by sociological perspectives. Arguably, that is why so much of the material produced by the Ministry, including the NZC and the new Common Practice Model for teachers has such a sociocultural overlay.

Yet there is no solid evidence that infusing education with sociocultural theory has done anything to improve young New Zealanders’ learning. In fact, our declining performance in international tests of reading, writing, numeracy and science suggests the opposite.

During the 2010s, the universities set up Master’s programmes for teacher education. The status of having qualifications at Master’s level is attractive to prospective teachers. But this move has made it difficult for the few independent providers of teacher education that exist to stay in business. As a result, universities now enjoy a near monopoly in teacher training.

In theory, it may be great to have active researchers involved in teacher education. In practice, though, it is time to let go of the fiction that handing teacher training to universities has improved the teaching profession. They have had well more than a decade to demonstrate their model, and they have not demonstrated that they deserve the dominance they have.

But what is the way ahead?

We should release academic staff involved in teacher education from requirements to be active researchers. Naturally they should stay on top of current research, especially in the science of human learning. They should make sure that teachers-in-training learn how to apply that research to their classroom practice.

Spending time running research programmes that many of them never wanted in the first place is a distraction from their main task. That task is to equip the country with highly trained teachers who hold knowledge and know how to pass it on to young people. Relaxing the expectation for teacher educators to be academics would open up teacher training to much-needed competition.

In the final analysis, teaching is a craft, not an academic exercise. The old teachers’ colleges were not perfect, but they had one job and they did it well.

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