Reflections on Teacher Education
As a relatively recent graduate from what we informally call Teachers’ College (six years ago) and a current graduate student, the notion of initial teacher education and its reform weighs heavily on my mind. Although coming from a slightly different experience in Manitoba compared to that of Ontario, there are commonalities within all institutions and provinces that leave many pre-service and new teachers ill equipped for a career in educating both young people and adults. Having said this, I certainly acknowledge the incredible academics who mentor and instruct pre-service teachers on a daily basis, who are determined to affect change within society and further our understanding of what is education. What I attempt to do here is simply highlight gaps from my own experience.
The first of these gaps has to do with what one might call a philosophical foundation. Throughout my Bachelor of Education program and my current Masters program, I felt that there was something missing in terms of the course content. Within the two-year undergraduate program in Manitoba, I took a variety of courses that explored specific practice and methodologies within subject areas. I took courses entitled “Teaching Social Studies in the Middle Years,” “Teaching Mathematics in the Middle Years”, and so on. What was lacking, however, was an in depth opportunity to examine the “why” and the “what.” At no point did we explore conceptual understandings of education or why we even bother with the notion of institutionalized education in the first place. We never examined basic concepts such as learning, teaching, or knowledge. Ask your colleagues about these concepts today, and you will receive dramatically different answers. Regardless, during my ITE experience, I felt that we were always being instructed on literacy strategies, or math fact games, or other “truths” that have been employed for decades without being able to ask “why?”
At the graduate level, this became ever more pronounced when the only research methodology course offered was within the realm of quantitative and qualitative research. For many researchers, this might lead to the question of “Well, what else is there?” Philosophical inquiry, as a research methodology in education, was left off the table. Now, I am fully aware that there is a polemic relationship between those who support “scientific” research and those who ascribe to a more humanities-based approach, and I do not wish to comment on the superiority of either. What I would suggest, however, is that graduate students, and even undergrads, need to read about philosophical inquiry, practice philosophical inquiry, and develop an ability to further our philosophical understanding of what we do and why we do it. When I took the basic research methodology course and came across case studies that tested tools for improving engagement levels, for example, without an investigation as to why engagement levels are important, I felt somewhat cheated. Perhaps engagement level seems like a philosophically self-evident concept, but if teachers are not questioning how and why they teach from a foundational perspective, we can end up perpetuating bad practice. Do we not want teachers who are critical thinkers who question their own practice, how we learn, and the societal objectives of formal education? My fear is that we are “producing” teachers who simply seek out “best practices,” the latest iPad app, or Smartboard lessons in the name of survival.
A second gap in my ITE experience deals with the idea of the modeling of good pedagogy. This is certainly a topic that is bemoaned by all, so I will be brief. As many pre-service candidates have expressed, I too was often confused by the teaching methodologies employed by instructors and professors who, ironically, were tasked with highlighting pedagogy that shrugged off the models based on industrialization, colonialism, and consumerism. We all shared similar experiences of courses whereby the instructor lectured, assigned readings from a textbook, and then gave fact-based tests at the end of each “unit” (apologies for using this term). Those classes, however, where the instructor or professor was able to model how he or she engages students, while at the time challenging pre-service teachers on significant questions related to education, are the memorable experiences. It seemed, from my simple perspective, that there was not really a quality control on the level of instruction.
Finally, and most importantly, education for sustainable development was a huge area of study that was missing from the ITE experience. Most provinces have adopted some sort of ESD curriculum, but as David Orr suggests, all teachers are responsible for teaching an ecological literacy. Our planet is in an unprecedented crisis situation, relative to human history. Pre-service teachers need to aggressively engage and be engaged in the practice of ecological-literacy throughout the entirety of their practice. From a brief investigation of Education faculties around the country, there are a handful of researchers and programs that examine this literacy. Unfortunately, these programs seemed to be somewhat isolated and the overarching idea of sustainability is not reinforced. Why is it that we focus so heavily on technology, reading levels, or math literacy? Should teachers not be equipped to teach their students the tools necessary for sustaining the biosphere, as well?
The ideas for reform that I have presented are not novel and may even be utopian. Given this, pre-service teachers need good modeling, an ability to ask those questions that get us further to the truth, and a literacy in ESD. Without these three concepts, no amount of ICT courses, or education psychology lectures, or reading intervention seminars will allow us to get closer to societal transformative change. Most of us can agree that the path that our society is on is unstainable; education is the agent for the change needed and this most certainly needs to be addressed at the ITE level.