Just over a year ago I started reading books that I thought I wouldn’t agree with. One of those books was E.D. Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’, and although I didn’t agree with it (as feared), I will be forever grateful that it did lead me to read Michael F.D. Young.
One of Young’s central arguments is that educational purposes, the acquisition of powerful knowledge being the most important, are disrupted by the instrumentalism that drives policy makers’ interventions in education.
Over the last few years I’ve come to see that these instrumentalist motives had converged with many of the progressive ideals that I hold – that education can emancipate, that it can be a route to a ‘good life’ (in the broadest terms). The effect of this has been to drive pupils into ‘vocational’ pathways that deny them access to the knowledge that can really change lives, but has also been reflected in curricula that could easily lead to this knowledge being de-emphasised, and too much value being placed in teaching ‘exam skills’ or ‘subject skills’ (sometimes it was difficult to see the difference between the two).
The threat to the academic curriculum therefore has many sources – no doubt a crude constructivism in some PGCE courses contributed to this. One of the most valuable (and perhaps most uncomfortable) truths that twitter has taught me is that not all university-based PGCE courses were as good as the one I took, and those which my colleagues @LTUPGCE run. Too many anecdotes about generic and ‘skills only’ training suggest that many new teachers were not forced to think about the nature and value of their subject knowledge or subject pedagogy as my PGCE peers were.
This week is has become clear that the short-term instrumentalism which drives the government’s initial teacher education policy is one of the sources of threat to an academic curriculum. Instead of rising to the challenge of the teacher-shortage (let alone admitting the role of recent ‘disruption’ to the ‘market’ of ITE in creating that shortage), the DFE has ducked it by proposing that non-graduates be allowed to join the teaching profession.
The same Government that trawls through international comparisons and research evidence in search of policy about pedagogy and school system reform is ignoring that on the preparation of new teachers in high performing jurisdictions and opting for the go-to response of the market: de-regulation.
Young suggests that ‘knowledge about the world, if it is to be the basis of the curriculum, refers to concepts that take us beyond […] the contexts in which we find ourselves’ (2008:95). In other words, the school curriculum should not teach pupils things that they will meet in their everyday existence, it should transcend the everyday and bring knowledge that takes them ‘beyond’ it.
Perhaps this should also apply to the teachers who hold and teach that knowledge. Teachers represent the world outside of family and community – even (and perhaps especially) if they come from that community. Teachers should represent the educated life that knowledge makes possible, and which they seek to promote. To do this, they need the knowledge and experience that comes with communication with the outside world.
This does not mean that teachers should not work in the communities that raised them – I know brilliant teachers who work in the schools that taught them their GCSEs, to which they have returned to give something back. The point is that these great teachers have all been outside the communities. This might be in body and mind, spending 3 to 5 years living away at universities in other towns and cities, meeting other people, experiencing other perspectives. It might be in mind only – studying to degree level at home or in the local university a subject which itself takes them out of the context in which they were raised.
This hero’s journey gives them far more than the sufficiency of subject knowledge that will enable them to pass on the stuff in a specification or deliver a school curriculum. They return with a kind of ‘elixir’ something that can help transform the lives of the pupils they teach. This is the broader view of the world that stepping out into it brings, as well as an example of someone who did that and brought themselves into a new relationship with the world. What I fear will be the end-point of a policy like this is the rise of the apprentice-pupil who never leaves their community in a meaningful way, who can teach the textbook but not write a university reference, who has never read Marx or met a Mancunian, sat on a frosty roof and listened to someone’s dreadful poetry, asked a question in a seminar, argued with a lecturer or packed their stuff into a bag and left their home town behind, for a bit.
Young, M.F.D (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back in: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education