Trust and Initial Teacher Education

A Lament

Teachers as trusted professionals

Popular writer Adam Grant has looked at what has made the Finnish school system among the most successful in the world:

In the early 1990s, a new leader came in and called for another set of dramatic changes to create ‘a new culture of education.’ Policymakers started engaging teachers and students in a collaborative effort to define their ideal culture. They articulated a new assumption – teachers were trusted professionals – and supported it by introducing practices that gave teachers freedom and flexibility to shape a previously rigid curriculum…. And they don’t have to waste time teaching to the test.

Politicians in England and Australia have mandated a rigid curriculum as a basis for accreditation of initial teacher training courses. This is grounded in a pervasive lack of political trust in professional expertise and a reliance on data judged on predetermined criteria (set by someone who is trusted). Those who are currently trusted to make such judgements in Australia are educators selected to present a report to Education Ministers and the Australian Educational Research Organisation (AERO). It is a well-established practice for politicians to select persons who can be trusted to write a report that recommends what the minister wishes to receive. It is also now a well-established practice to require teachers to implement evidence-based practices based on recent research that can be trusted. That research is the much-heralded Science of Education of Thorndike, recently manifest in a form of cognitive psychology and neuroscience:

The [Teacher Education Expert] Panel has identified the core content for ITE programs, which … reflects the knowledge and evidence-based practices that support ITE students in meeting the Graduate Teacher Standards and have the greatest impact on student learning. The Panel has defined four types of core content:

  • The brain and learning: content that provides teachers with an understanding of why specific instructional practices work and how to implement these practices.
  • Effective pedagogical practices: practices including explicit modelling, scaffolding, formative assessment, and literacy and numeracy teaching strategies that support student learning because they respond to how the brain processes, stores and retrieves information.
  • Classroom management: practices that foster positive learning environments.
  • Responsive teaching: content that ensures teachers teach in ways that are culturally and contextually appropriate and responsive to student need.

This core content is operationalised in the requirements of State teacher registration bodies and teacher education accreditation processes. The exclusive focus on the trusted form of cognitive psychology results in total exclusion from initial teacher education (training) courses of any other foundational study that may provide students with a basis for deciding why they are educating and whether what they are required to do by school and political authorities is conducive to the education of their students. In the past, some foundational study of the philosophy of education, history of education, or sociology of education had the potential to open up questions about schooling and education and offer some options for students to consider. Subject method courses also provided a range of practices from which students could construct their coherent style of teaching. Currently, graduates of these prescribed initial teacher education courses have no basis for professional judgement other than an ‘understanding of why specific instructional practices work.’ They are to be compliant technicians, not professionals who have a basis for deciding what to trust and themselves to be trusted. Instead of parents entrusting their children to the care and education of professional teachers in schools, parents are now asked to trust politicians (rated among the least trustworthy members of our society) and their selected advisors who tell them what the politicians wish to hear to be re-elected. This may not be an insurmountable problem in a democracy when the electors can choose a better group of decision-makers. Unfortunately, Australian politics currently does not offer a choice as the alternatives on offer only compete to see who can be the more authoritarian. This trend is not peculiar to Australia, as England, the USA, India, Russia, and China are on similar paths.

Science of Education

The issues bound up in the evidence-based research that now constitute the Science of Education are not new. The question is, ‘which science?’ William James saw science differently:

Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art, and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary, inventive mind must make the application by using its originality.

The task of initial teacher education (rather than training that was current in James’ time) is to begin the development of the inventive mind of a teacher who can see an educational situation and identify appropriate means to take advantage of it for the benefit of the students. It is the inventive mind of the teacher educator that creates a good teacher education course suited to the students and their circumstances. It is the role of an administrator (educational and political) to trust the inventive teachers and support them, not prescribe a universal solution based on the science of education (as currently conceived). This approach to teaching and teacher education is not merely speculative, as is demonstrated by the Western Australian Education Department primary school curriculum:

The curriculum offers a maximum of suggestions and teaching aids and a minimum of prescriptive and dogmatic regulations…. Teachers will consider themselves free to make any alteration or rearrangement of work they think desirable, and inspectors will accept any reasonable scheme that appears to meet the needs of children of a particular type or of a particular locality.

The problems facing teacher education and a self-proclaimed Science of Education are also not entirely new. John Dewey had a more holistic view of the science of education with research located in the school and less focused on quantification.  … there is a strong tendency to identify teaching ability with the use of procedures that yield immediately successful results…. Prospective teachers come to training schools, whether in normal schools or colleges, with such ideas implicit in their minds. They want very largely to find out how to do things with the maximum prospect of success. Put baldly, they want recipes. Now, to such persons, science is of value because it puts a stamp of final approval upon this and that specific procedure. It is very easy for science to be regarded as a guarantee that goes with the sale of goods rather than as a light to the eyes and a lamp to the feet. It is prized for its prestige value rather than as an organ of personal illumination and liberation. It is prized because it is thought to give unquestionable authenticity and authority to a specific procedure to be carried out in the school room. So conceived, science is antagonistic to education as an art.

After a century of dedicated endeavour, Australian initial teacher education is back where it was. But even if desirable changes were made and foundational and related studies were again made available in initial teacher education, would this solve the perceived problems in Australian schooling, such as declining ITE student and teacher retention, declining standards of behaviour in school, declining test scores, and declining school attendance?

Declining ITE student and teacher retention

The Teacher Education Expert Panel said, ‘Sadly, too many [students] fail to complete their studies or stay in the profession long enough to flourish.’ While some of the dropouts are regrettable and could be avoided with better support systems, only a bureaucrat concerned solely with marketing could regard dropouts as a bad thing. Nearly 40% of ITE students drop out within six years of commencing their course which is up slightly from the number during all my time in teacher education. Lengthening the course means more will drop out due to personal circumstances. In setting an enrolment quota, I built in a 20% dropout in the first six weeks of a one-year Graduate Diploma Primary course because that was the best outcome for all concerned. After one day a week in their assigned school in Term 1 and two weeks of practicum, what seemed to some like a good idea in September did not look so good in March. Some misconceptions about teaching – school hours and holidays mean I can do full-time study/teaching and full-time family care; primary teaching is easy, and any female can do it; I can afford to take a year off from paid employment; and such like – were put to the test in that period, and, if the answer was to leave, it was done without incurring a HECS debt. Now, that course is two years long, and the first practicum is in June (as a cost-saving measure). Ignorant prejudice from educational administrators and politicians assumes a one-year course is worse than a two-year course and, of course, it will generate twice the student fees. They did not trust the experience and judgement of lecturers and students, both of whom put in extraordinary effort to achieve outstanding outcomes with good teachers entering the workforce. But the panel reported, ‘too many beginning teachers have reported that they felt they needed to be better equipped for the challenges they faced in the classroom on starting their teaching careers.’ I, too, felt I needed to be better equipped for the challenges when starting on the bottling floor at Coca-Cola during my university vacation. The problem with classroom teaching, and now with many other employers who do not provide adequate induction for new employees, is the demand for job-ready graduates is fundamentally flawed, even if economically attractive to employers. For an ITE student to be better prepared for full classroom duties at the start of the school year would require school practicum experience at the start of the year not, as now, in the middle or end of their final year. It would require employment to be matched with aptitude and experience rather than the current random assignment to fill vacancies. No ITE course could adequately prepare a student for all eventualities. Recent graduates complain about not being adequately prepared to deal with the same problems experienced teachers have difficulties in handling.

Declining behaviour standards, test scores

The ITE solution to declining behaviour standards is evidence-based classroom management practices. The ITE solution to declining test scores is evidence-based instructional methods. A problem with this evidence-based science of education is that what counts as evidence is partly political. The evidence-based research disseminated and supported by AERO is as much an outcome of the Psychology Wars (Dewey lost), the History Wars (Howard nearly won), and the Reading Wars (phonics is the solution to most instructional problems) as it is of sound theoretical assessment of empirical evidence. Edelman Trust Barometer Australia records that 59% of Australians agree, ‘science has become politicised in this country [and] government and organisations that fund research have too much influence on how science is done.’ However, even AERO and the US What Works Clearinghouse distinguish between four levels of trust to be placed in evidence-based research. Pogrow pointed out that procedures validated by evidence-based research on the bottom level would not produce discernible results if implemented. The two top levels of AERO-backed evidence-based research are claimed to demonstrate a causal connection between process and product without any causal explanations being available. Conducting research in an environment similar to yours does not demonstrate a causal connection, even if it does give grounds for greater trust in the findings.

It is a serious misconception of initial teacher education to assume that providing a select set of behaviour management techniques in university courses will halt a decline in behaviour standards in schools, including student violence. An ITE student learns behaviour management while in the classroom on observation or practicum. What they see and do there is mediated by what they were taught at university, but it is crucially dependent on the prevailing situation and practices in that school. The student needs to put together a coherent set of practices they can effectively manage that has some chance of success during the practicum. Whether that is easily or effectively adapted to the different situation of their first class will depend on the inventive mind William James had in mind. While classroom behaviour management techniques are what a teacher can control, there is more to resolving behaviour problems than evidence-based techniques. The experience and expectations a child brings to the classroom are important variables in the equation. If a child does not trust teachers or school to act in their interest it is hard to see how using authorised classroom management techniques will make much difference.

Using evidence-based direct (explicit) instruction and phonics can make a difference in some settings to some outcomes. To mandate them to improve school outcomes on national and international tests is a rather optimistic ask. However, mandating direct instruction in schools based on research evidence has its problems. AERO also supports play in early childhood settings. The cognitive psychology and neuroscience cited by AERO seem not to be able to identify the neurological or other changes that occur when a child enters primary school, which would explain why direct instruction should be mandated. If a child can do some of the most difficult things in their life at an early age without direct instruction, e.g., social interaction, speak a language, walk, trust, etc., why do they suddenly need direct instruction for all primary school matters? Group work is accepted by AERO as a means to practice what has been instructed but not to discover anything new. By way of contrast, Adam Grant found the following:

Finnish schools create cultures of opportunity by enabling students to build individualised relationships, receive individualised support, and develop individualised interests.

However, even all the lauded features of Finnish schooling cannot guarantee what the Australian politicians are looking for from their schools: improved test outcomes. Grant also notes that since 2006, Finland’s PISA scores have declined – possibly influenced by social change in Finland.

Declining school attendance

School absenteeism and school refusal have been increasing during this century but accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic produced social dislocation such that as many as 35% of a school’s enrolment may be absent on any given day. No amount of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, direct instruction and phonics, combined with evidence-based classroom management practices in ITE, will improve the schooling outcomes, including test results, of children who do not attend school on a regular basis. All these teacher-related features to be acquired in mandated ITE will have limited impact on children, for whom lack of trust in teachers and no expectation that school will provide them with what they need if their peers and family do not model the desired attitudes, values and expectations. As more Australian families fall into unemployment or under-employed poverty, in a society where a few are visibly acquiring wealth at an obscene rate, the twentieth-century expectation that school success will lead to an improved life no longer has traction for an increasing number of Australians. One of the features of Finnish society is a much smaller gap between rich and poor in that country and much more similarity in attitudes to teachers and schooling. The Teacher Education Expert Panel recognises that ‘Schools are at the forefront of managing the impacts of constant changes shaping our society, such as mobile technology, social media, artificial intelligence and vaping.’ What the Panel seems not to recognise is the impact on school attendance of changing social attitudes towards compulsory schooling and the declining economic prospects of middle and lower socio-economic groups in Australia.

Simple solution

Improving initial teacher education to help beginning teachers be more effective in their first appointment may well improve the outcomes of Australian schooling. A simple solution is to ensure all new graduates are imbued with the new science of education and fully committed to increasing test scores to impress politicians and the public they inform. As John Dewey said, the science of education ‘is prized because it is thought to give unquestionable authenticity and authority to a specific procedure to be carried out in the school room.’ An alternative would be for initial teacher education to help students develop the inquiring, inventive mind of a professional educator seeking appropriate solutions in their actual classrooms for the benefit of their students.

As H. L. Mencken pointed out, ‘For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’ Building trust in teachers as professionals (and trust in teacher educators) is itself a complex task. Rebuilding trust in a socially just Australian society that is effectively supported by schools educating the young is yet another complex task. Trust in those seeking to address these problems in diverse ways, as opposed to mandating a single authorised way, is a hallmark of a democratic society that tolerates or even celebrates difference. It is perhaps ironic that as Commonwealth politicians privatise the funding of State universities, they increase the administrative and curriculum compliance requirements. The current simple solution for Australian initial teacher education presents a bleak prospect for Australian schools and society. Perhaps the front cover of the panel’s report hints at a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

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Full Citation Information:
Haynes, B. (2024). Trust and Initial Teacher Education: A Lament. PESA Agora.

Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes, FPESA, FPE, is retired after 34 years in teacher education and 50 years of PESA membership. He is founding member, a past president and fellow of PESA, and been always been active member. PESA honours him and Felicity by holding a named lecture at conference. His 2009 papers, in the Educational Philosophy and Theory special issue, Celebration of PESA 40 years, include Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia: The official record, and PESA and I: A long engagement, tell us a lot more about his contribution to PESA.