Why professors of education should not be teaching future teachers

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Most professors have not taught in schools for decades, and that is part of the problem.

Most professors have an idealised notion of what education is about, based largely on theory and literature, and that is another part of the problem.

And most professors norm their teaching on the basis of middle class schools; few ask what it means to teach in poor and working class schools and, among them, dysfunctional schools. That is the third part of the problem.

How do I know that? Because I was one of them until the start of this year.

I have been teaching a grade 9 science class and gradually I realised that I was completely out of touch with the realities of schools today especially in poor and working class communities. So, what do professors get wrong about the real world of teaching?

First, you cannot use constructivist principles of teaching in tough environments; you start with memory, repetition, and routine first.

It would be nice to take what the learner already knows and build gradually towards new knowledge all the time.

Wake up.

Children come from harsh social and economic backgrounds; it is not their fault. They also come from weak educational foundations in the primary school especially in math, science and languages. That too is not their fault. They have not been exposed to higher levels of reasoning and believing.

Therefore, start with the basics. I reteach the same unit of learning three days in a row; it is called consolidation.

Once those habits of learning are established, then and then only can I move to higher order cognitive challenges including constructivist learning; but it takes weeks and even months.

Professors take constructivism as an article of faith because of high-minded thinking detached from where children in tough schools and communities come from.

Second, you cannot treat assessment as the enemy; it is a vital, short-term tool not only to check whether they got what you taught, but to reinforce a unit of learning over and over again.

Go to the professorial tea room and you will see their noses in the air: assessment and examination has replaced teaching and learning. Partly true. But well-designed assessments after every 20 minutes of teaching can ensure that new learning sticks.

And by the way, a simple one-pager of a test which learners mark themselves can be done in 15 minutes, I discovered, without making an administrative mountain out of an assessment molehill.

Three, you cannot use open-ended questions as a matter of course; it is a recipe for disaster. You have to keep the teaching tight and the responses direct.

Throw a question into the ether like, explain the physics of the recent geomagnetic storms that gave us the spectacular northern lights, and there will be chaos. Where there is not (yet) pedagogical habits ingrained like raising your hand, speaking thoughtfully, and engaging respectfully, do not go open-ended.

Four, you cannot teach the subject for at least 10 minutes (if you’re lucky). You have to lay the disciplinary platform and classroom atmosphere first before you can proceed to teach.

This takes time especially when not all teachers are working from the same pedagogical and managerial playbook.

Children I work with, loving as they are, come in highly agitated for reasons that are complex but real. Before you can even say of launching into the chemical processes explaining rust formation in metals, you first have to establish calm.

Five, you cannot downplay the importance of the school uniform — it is one of the few tools available for managing discipline and establishing culture in a struggling school.

Professors smirk at this practice because they’re thinking about where their own children go to school. They like liberal thinking that encourages looser forms of disciplinary control.

So, ‘manners maketh man?’ quipped a colleague with more than a hint of sarcasm, when a made this kind of point. And yet it is the uniform that gives order, predictability, connectedness and yes, a measure of decency.

The alternative is a loose cap on the head, a sagging pants, earphones for connected music, and a lollipop dangling from the side of the mouth. Good luck, professor.

And six, you need to give up (for a while) notions of innovative, out-of-the-box teaching — until you have first and firmly established regularity and routine in a crowded classroom with little facilities.

One the basics of science knowledge have been ingrained and routines of science learning established, then branch out to science museums and science centres.

I have been humbled by my experience of teaching in a science classroom after many years.

I quickly realised that I would be wasting my own time and, more importantly, that of the learners, if I did not work out a curriculum and a pedagogy that was profoundly sensitive to the context in which I teach.

Make no mistake, the children in my science class have exactly the same potential for becoming scientists and innovators as the kids in privileged schools. But I must start at a different point that is respectful of who my charges are and the different gifts they bring into the classroom.

I am, therefore, calling on deans of education to require that all their professors return to classroom teaching in a challenging school for at least one term as a condition of their employment in university faculties of education before they continue teaching future teachers.


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