Teacher education institutions have been criticised for delivering graduates who are not well prepared for the reality of schools (“Reality + theory = good teachers”, June 17).
So what is the current situation regarding initial teacher education policy and practice? How do we compare with international exemplary practice? How valid is the criticism?
The Council on Higher Education (CHE) report (2010) on the national review of academic and professional programmes in education concluded that teacher education in South Africa is “riddled with difficulties” and that several teacher education programmes fail to prepare student teachers for practice in diverse environments.
Teacher education quality was also highlighted at the Teacher Development Summit (2009). A main discussion point was that teacher education emphasises theory at the expense of practice. It was also claimed that teacher education programmes were not aligned with what schools needed. The summit called for the development of a national plan for teacher development.
Two policy initiatives took account of the review and summit recommendations. The Minimum Requirements for Teacher Education Qualifications, promulgated in 2011 and revised in 2015 (with mostly technical changes), requires a redesign of teacher edu- cation programmes to align them with the policy.
This sets out the requirements for initial teacher education programmes regarding the knowledge mix that should be present (disciplinary, pedagogical, practical, fundamental and situational learning) and it provides guidelines for practical work (learning in and from practice). The policy also specifies the minimum set of competences required for a newly qualified teacher.
The minimum requirements drew on local and international research, responded to issues raised in the CHE review and stakeholders were consulted.
But the effect of this policy will only become evident in a few years’ time. Higher education institutions are either currently designing programmes aligned with the minimum requirements or have only recently started to offer these programmes.
Stakeholders who were involved in the Teacher Development Summit collaborated to develop the Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development in South Africa, 2011-2025.
This framework seeks to direct the improving of the quality of teacher education and development. Activity 4.5 pertains specifically to initial teacher education. This states that initial teacher education programmes will be strengthened by the establishment of teaching schools and professional practice schools to support meaningful work-integrated learning.
Teaching schools are described as teaching laboratories where student teachers can learn from practice. Professional practice schools are the schools at which students will engage in work-integrated learning. Thus, the framework proposes the two will play complementary roles.
Both policy initiatives reflect powerful teacher education practices that are prevalent internationally. Research on successful teacher education programmes shows that such programmes are characterised by the integration of knowledge for teaching with knowledge of teaching — neither theory nor practice is privileged. The design of such programmes draws optimally on collaboration between teacher education institutions and schools.
If I was to single out one aspect that could contribute significantly to strengthening the quality of teacher education, it would be planned collaboration between schools and higher education institutions. In my view, this is the Achilles heel of teacher education.
Why? It is the case that school practicals form part of all teacher education programmes in South Africa. The minimum requirements specify the time that student teachers must spend at schools for formally supervised and assessed school-based experiences. The minimum requirements also state that practicals must take place in functional schools that are committed to the role they need to play to support the development of student teachers.
But even if student teachers are placed in functional schools that are committed to hosting them (which is regrettably not always the case), it does not necessarily imply that the experience will be educative. Implicit in arguments for the extension of school experience is the assumption that this results in learning. So more experience is probably valuable.
Yet, educationists John Dewey and Lee Shulman have noted that experience is not necessarily educative. Shulman argues that a precon- dition for learning through experience is reflection on experience. Dewey cautioned that experience can be “miseducative”.
Teacher education researchers raise concerns that school experience can have detrimental socialising effects by, for example, perpetuating the status quo. These researchers advocate that attention must be paid to the quality of school experience rather than the quantity.
Inherent to educative school experience would be that student teachers encounter practices that could be emulated, coupled with reflective mentoring by expert teachers.
In addition, a powerful school experience would imply that the school and the teacher education institution jointly negotiate a shared vision regarding the type of teacher that should be developed, what good teaching entails and what each of the partners, namely the school and the institution, can contribute to achieve this shared vision. This requires a strong negotiated partnership.
To enable this, some countries use special types of school. For example, in the United States, many teacher education institutions join forces with school districts to create professional development schools, also referred to as partner schools. In the Netherlands, some universities place student teachers in a specific kind of designated school, called training schools or opleidingsscholen. In Finland, special practice schools are used to enable the inte- grating of theory, research and practice in the education of teachers.
This is where Activity 4.5 of the Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development holds much promise — strengthening teacher education through teaching schools and professional practice schools.
The faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg has been involved in developing two schools to serve as teaching schools. The one at the Soweto campus is now established and our research has shown that it enables the integration of knowledge for teaching with knowledge of teaching in ways that were not possible before.
But setting up this school and trying to transform a second school in Mpumalanga into a teaching school has been challenging. We have persisted because we are convinced that a teacher education model incorporating a teaching school, coupled with also placing student teachers in other schools for work-integrated learning, does result in powerful teacher education. At the teaching school, student teachers encounter mentoring and good practice that can be emulated. But they also experience the varied conditions and difficulties of the wider schooling system.
Policy initiatives are promising but take a long time to come into fruition. What can be done in the meanwhile?
Currently faculties and schools of education struggle to support and monitor work-integrated learning. Many have large numbers of students and have neither the human nor the financial resources to supervise student teachers adequately during school placement or to collaborate actively with the schools.
This presents a significant challenge for quality teacher education. During the past few years the Education Deans Forum has been advocating (unsuccessfully) for ring-fenced funding to support work-integrated learning.
The department of higher education and training provides a clinical grant to higher education institutions to support healthcare training. A similar type of grant for teacher education could go a long way towards enabling strengthened work-integrated learning and set up true teacher education partnerships between higher education institutions and schools.
Sarah Gravett is the dean of education at the University of Johannesburg