Reimagining initial teacher education

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

COMMENT

As a teacher educator I am often told that universities are not preparing pre-service teachers sufficiently for the demands of teaching in the South African context. Teacher education graduates are not classroom ready. I am also asked what teacher education institutions are doing to prepare prospective teachers for the fourth industrial revolution.

So, teacher education institutions are faced with seemingly competing demands: should we prepare teachers for the schools that are, the schools that should be or the schools of the future?

In a previous Mail & Guardian article titled Industry 4.0 is being taken seriously, I made the case for infusing so-called 21st century competencies across the school curriculum.
I was not advocating for a curriculum that is thin on knowledge. Strong personal knowledge is fundamental to thinking. But I argued for a curriculum that focuses on core concepts and essential content, a curriculum curated for relevance (for now and the future).

I also highlighted the importance of literacy and numeracy as fundamental skills. But concentrating on these does not need to preclude nurturing other competencies that children would need to negotiate an uncertain, fast-changing and increasingly complex world.

So, how do we create teacher education curriculums that will help pre-service teachers to be sufficiently versatile to succeed as teachers, no matter how the world and school curriculums change?

I, of course, take it for granted that a fast-changing world necessitates continuous in-service development of teachers. My interest here is in how initial teacher education could and should provide a solid basis for navigating future education needs.

The book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World by cognitive scientist David Perkins caused me to think deeply about this question. Perkins writes about reimagining the school curriculum to prepare children for a fast-changing world and uncertain future. He makes a convincing case that school curriculums should be redesigned, using “what is likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live” as a core measure. He coins the term “lifeworthiness” to encapsulate this.

This also makes sense to me in relation to teacher education. I was reminded of an enlightening and sobering conversation I had with a group of dynamic young people with a passion for education.

Many had recently graduated as teachers. They were unanimous in their judgment that parts of what they had encountered in teacher education programmes were immaterial for teaching. They spoke about courses and themes that reflected lecturers’ personal interests or fields of expertise that had little relevance for their lives as teachers. On reflection, they were yearning for lifeworthy teacher education.

Teacher education curriculums would benefit from scrutiny using “lifeworthiness” as a lens. Crucial questions to grapple with are: Which key theories, perspectives, processes, methods and tools have promising payoffs in the lives pre-service teachers are likely to live as teachers? How often will they serve to inform teacher and teaching decision-making and action? With what importance? Will they remain significant over time?

I can hear some of my colleagues arguing fervently that I seem to be propagating a utilitarian curriculum devoid of theory. Far from it. Lifeworthy theories are powerful thinking tools.

I can also hear them saying that particular concepts and theoretical perspectives have intrinsic value. This may be so. However, if the pre-service teachers do not see the intrinsic value and they experience them as irrelevant, how will they feature in their lives as teachers?

Perkins reminds us that our minds hold on only to knowledge that we use in our lives. If knowledge is not used, we forget it. Thus, whatever the intrinsic value of knowledge, to be lifeworthy, we must experience the knowledge as relevant to our lives. Knowledge can’t be lifeworthy unless it is remembered.

But knowledge that is lifeworthy does not necessarily end up being “lifeready” (another term that Perkins uses). Here the teaching practices used in teacher education come into play. The types of practices that should be used for converting lifeworthiness to lifereadiness are those that aim for meaningful learning and transfer. The core of transfer is recognising when, how and why to apply previous learning to new problems or situations.

Teaching for transfer requires deep engagement with learning content, questioning claims and evaluating evidence, practising self-monitoring, exploring multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks and how they interrelate, engaging with challenging tasks and problems aided by supportive guidance, and engaging with examples and cases.

Teaching to enable the likelihood of transfer is time-consuming and requires repeated practice. Content-crowded curriculums do not allow for this.

Another criticism of teacher education is that teacher educators often make curriculum decisions based on long-held beliefs and ideological commitments instead of sound research. Because academics have invested much in their field of expertise, they find it difficult to discard parts that may be outdated. A corollary to this is that newer knowledge about child development and learning from the cognitive sciences and neurodevelopmental cognitive sciences rarely features sufficiently in teacher education programmes.

The 21st century literacies that the pre-service teachers need to acquire are digital literacy and information literacy. Pre-service teachers need to learn how to search for relevant information and how to read, interpret and communicate digitally. Importantly, they also need to learn how to evaluate the quality and reliability of information and how to manage information so as to enable them to also teach this in school.

In an age where data is becoming ubiquitous, pre-service teachers need to be able to read, work with, analyse, argue and communicate with data, draw valid conclusions and recognise when data is being used in misleading or inappropriate ways.

Teaching with Information and Communication Technology (ICT), cannot be considered to be “new”, but initial teacher education programmes may not have a sufficient focus on the use of ICT for teaching in a digital era. I would argue that for pre-service teachers to learn how to teach with technology requires not only teaching them how to do this, but that they should experience this type of teaching themselves.

Another aspect that will have to receive increasing attention is teaching with artificial intelligence (AI) and how AI can be harnessed to improve education and opportunities for learners. Some of the possible advantages of AI are that it could contribute to: democratising knowledge by providing access in a variety of ways; providing tailor-made access to education for those with additional needs; personalising learning; individualising feedback; freeing (human) teachers to work with learners on other things; repetition, drill and practice; supporting collaboration; and assessing and monitoring learner progress.

To return to the dilemma I noted earlier: How do we deal with the seemingly competing demand to prepare pre-service teachers for the schools that are and for the future, taking into consideration that predictions about future education are bound to be partially flawed?

I would argue that reimagining teacher education programmes using lifeworthiness and lifereadiness as yardsticks will increase the likelihood of preparing teachers adequately for now and the future.

This cannot be done if teacher educators work in silos. Creating a lifeworthy and lifeready programme for pre-service teachers calls for teacher educators to collaborate closely to ensure as much programme coherence and cohesion as possible. This requires open minds, the willingness to let go of entrenched thinking and setting aside academic egos.

Professor Sarah Gravett is the executive dean of the faculty of education at the University of Johannesburg

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