A matter of status

In his article of November 5 Michael Rice gave reasons for the establishment of new colleges of education for foundation-phase teachers.

He made points about the importance of having the best teachers possible for this age group, with which we agree. We concur that more and better teachers in the foundation phase are a prerequisite for the long-term improvement of education.

He identified causes for the scarcity of foundation-phase teachers and suggested how to ensure that there will be enough teachers in future, specifically teachers who can use African languages as mediums of teaching. No one would disagree with the obvious need for more teachers who can engage with children in their primary language.

But we are concerned about some of his suggestions. We are not clear on what basis he makes the case that colleges of education will be better suited than universities for educating foundation-phase teachers. Is the reason to enable access for those who do not meet university entry requirements, or is his plea mainly based on a rather constricted view of university education — that universities offer “abstract theory”?

The hallmark of all good programmes preparing students for the professions, including the teaching profession, is that theory and practice are not viewed as separate, but as intertwined. When we started planning a new programme for the education of foundation-phase teachers at the University of Johanesburg (UJ), we studied the best programmes locally and internationally. The research we did underlies our concern that Rice’s suggested curriculum for pre-service foundation phase teacher education is oversimplified. He intimates that a diploma should be a vocational, applied qualification, focusing mainly on subject content, practical subject methodologies and classroom management; and that such a qualification will be a better preparation for teaching.

What he suggests runs the danger of dumbing down the ­education of the most important teachers in a child’s life. He also bypasses an important social factor that has caused a flight from this professional qualification — the status of foundation-phase teachers in some communities.

Our research asked why so few African students enrol for this programme. We were aware of the disturbingly low numbers of new foundation-phase teachers qualifying every year. There are on average 1 200 of them. More than 500 are from an English-language background and 500 from an Afrikaans background. Taking into consideration that the country needs more than 4 000 new foundation-phase teachers every year alarm bells go off about the current output.

Many of the people we interviewed said they grew up with the idea that if you want to be a teacher you should aim to be a teacher in the higher grades and that people “look down on” foundation-phase teachers. We learned that, during the time of the colleges, high-achieving students were advised to enrol for a qualification for teaching in the higher grades by the administrations of the African and coloured colleges. In our interviews with the new intake of foundation-phase students on UJ’s Soweto campus this was affirmed. Many said their families were quite concerned that they chose “the lowest option”.

Teacher status is a focal area of the higher education and training department’s nationwide programme of research into teacher education for the foundation phase. One aim is to find ways to enhance the status of early-grade teachers. But it is not easy to change a society’s perception of the status of a profession. We think one way of doing that is to make sure that foundation-phase teachers qualify with a full degree, that they are educated optimally, that they follow programmes that link school practice to university learning incrementally and learn that theory and practice are not on different sides of a divide.

This is what they do in countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea — top-scoring countries in international assessments of educational performance.

If one follows an overly methods-oriented curriculum, as Rice suggests, there is a risk that students will “reflect on practice” (the mantra of teacher education), but think mostly about teaching methods, without grasping the complexities of a young child’s early learning. Theories are thinking tools, not abstractions without use.

How will novice teachers be able to think on their feet in a classroom if, for instance, they have not learned something about the complexities of conceptual development? Or if they do not know how language interplays with concepts; or what literacy is (not only how to teach it); or what the haphazard mixing of languages (also known as “code-switching”) implies for early conceptual development? Or if they know little about the early development of pre-schoolers’ concepts of number and space? One needs theoretical knowledge as the other face of practice as much as one needs practice to inform theory and to change it.

We ask: Why colleges? And why colleges specifically for foundation-phase teachers? Why isolate them in their “own institution”? Why are medical professionals, social workers and others in the helping professions educated with the status of a full university (vocational-professional) degree? If the status of the work is already a possible cause of the low enrolment, why perpetuate it?

Professor Sarah Gravett is dean of the education faculty at the University of Johanesburg. Her main research focus is teacher education. Elizabeth Henning is professor of educational linguistics at UJ and a lead researcher in the Institute for Childhood Education on UJ’s Soweto campus

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Sarah Gravett
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