/ 29 April 2020

Initial teacher education must be prioritised

A group of teachers undergoing digital skills training in the DBE Teacher Center in Seshego
A group of teachers undergoing digital skills training in the DBE Teacher Center in Seshego.

Last year I wrote about reimagining initial teacher education for an increasingly complex and fast-changing world, mainly due to the exponential pace of technology developments.

I made the case that teacher education institutions should create programmes that will help pre-service teachers to be versatile and adaptive, no matter how the world and school curricula may change. Little did I know how soon the world would be changing in a totally unimagined way and how the complexities of education would increase overnight.

During this time of Covid-19-induced uncertainty I have been asked many times what teacher education institutions should be learning from the crisis and how we should prepare teachers for change and the unknown. 

My first response is that the argument that I made before still holds, maybe even more so. I still believe that teacher education should be “lifeworthy”, that is relevant and significant so as to lay the foundation for lifelong versatility and agility and that continuous teacher development is essential.

With relevance, I don’t imply immediate applicability. I agree with the education author Daisy Christodoulou that being preoccupied with what is new and on the cutting edge runs the risk of soon becoming outdated. Hype is usually short-lived. 

Relevance means that teacher-preparation programmes should take account of the South African context, including the adverse socioeconomic circumstances of the majority of  learners, as well as the demands of the school curriculum (contextual relevance) but  that it should, concurrently, prepare future teachers for the unknown (future relevance).

An overemphasis on the current reality may result in teacher preparation becoming immaterial when the context or the curriculum requirements changes. A relevant and significant teacher education curriculum foregrounds key understandings, processes and methods that are likely to have longevity.

I have also been making the case to prune over-crowded curricula in teacher education, which does not mean knowledge-thin curricula, but curricula that allow for deep learning of the core ideas and processes required for the teaching profession. 

Deep learning, or learning for transfer, is dependent on ample opportunities to engage and grapple with these fundamentals. Teaching to enable the likelihood of transfer is time-consuming and requires repeated practice. This cannot happen in content-heavy curricula. It requires much discussion, practical application and hypothesising.

So, what is the essence of programmes for student teachers to succeed as teachers across their career lifespan? First, constructive collaboration between teacher education institutions and schools should be a given. This will go a long way to cater for contextual relevance. 

Furthermore, I argue for deep exploration of central themes, instead of superficial coverage of many. These themes must have contextual relevance and future relevance, for example poverty and its impact on child development and education, and technology’s influence on education in a world in which technology is becoming pervasive.

Strong subject knowledge, coupled with an understanding of how to best elicit learning in the subject areas — so called pedagogical content knowledge, should be a given, too. I have also made the case before that pre-service teachers need to acquire digital literacy and information literacy, and that they must understand how and why to use information and communication technology for teaching.

I said that pre-service teachers should not only learn how to teach with technology, but that they should experience learning with technology themselves. What student teachers experience as learners in teacher education programmes will inevitably impact their understanding of good teaching practice.

The current situation, which abruptly catapulted teachers into emergency remote teaching, using technology, has underscored the necessity of preparing pre-service teachers to teach with technology. But I am concerned that the technology as such has taken centre stage in many a conversation and in the media, instead of technology in the service of learning.

I propose that pre-service teachers should be prepared, first and foremost, to become learning specialists. I agree with the educational psychologist John Sweller’s view that without an understanding of the nature of learning and human cognitive architecture (the way in which our cognitive structures are organised), teaching is blind. 

Expert teachers often have an intuitive understanding of cognition, built through a deliberate reflective stance and their teaching practices reflect this understanding. However, even they would benefit from explicitly articulating their understanding of the nature of learning. Teaching “blindly” or intuitively limits agility and flexibility when contexts and circumstances change.

To me the essence of what student teachers should learn about our cognitive architecture and the nature of learning, coupled with the implications of these for classroom practice, can be captured in six overarching tenets. These are: 

  • New learning is dependent on knowledge learners have already acquired; 
  • our working memory is limited; 
  • learning is dependent on attention and cognitive engagement; 
  • emotion and cognition are intertwined; 
  • transfer of learning does not happen automatically; and 
  • learners learn more effectively if they understand how they learn and manage their own learning (metacognition – thinking about one’s own thinking). 

These could be used as principles to guide lesson design.

Three of these tenets can be used to illustrate, albeit cursorily, what it would involve to guide student teachers towards becoming (beginner) learning specialists.

Firstly, teachers generally propagate the importance of “activating” learners’ prior knowledge. Yet my experience has been that many teachers don’t understand what this means. They don’t fully grasp the significance of previous knowledge for learning and that all new learning is based on what we already know. Our prior knowledge and experiences determine how we view, understand and interpret the world around us. 

If what learners know and believe about a curriculum theme is not engaged, it is unlikely that they will grasp new ideas and information they are taught.  Misconceptions will also be perpetuated. Teachers who understand this tenet deliberately elicit what learners think and know and then intentionally and systematically connect new learning content with the learners’ prior knowledge. 

Educationist David Ausubel said: “If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

Also – so called 21st century skills such as the 4Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and communication, creative thinking) that are touted widely as indispensable in a fast-changing world are intertwined with one’s existing knowledge. Even though it is possible to describe, for example, critical thinking and creative thinking at the conceptual level in a general way, in practice, critical and creative thinking are linked to one’s knowledge of a field or context. You cannot communicate or think critically about something, without first having knowledge about that something.

Secondly, student teachers should have a basic understanding of the cognitive structure of our memory system. Why is this important? If teachers, for example, know that our working memory (where processing of information occurs in milliseconds), is limited in capacity and duration (how much information it can hold and how long it can hold that information) and that thinking becomes increasingly difficult when information overloads our working memory, they will chunk learning content in meaningful units during teaching and will do ongoing assessment for learning (checking for understanding) routinely.

Thirdly, the notion that learners should be engaged during teaching is widely touted in education. What does this mean? I have heard teachers claiming that learners are highly engaged because they are discussing something or doing something. However, this does not mean that they are actually learning. Learning requires cognitive engagement and cognitive engagement implies paying attention to something and thinking about it. 

Cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene reminds us that teachers should pay constant attention to attention. A core task of teachers is to persistently capture and channel learners’ attention and to focus their attention on prioritised specific tasks that they need to attend to. Engaging their attention means listening carefully to learner responses and guiding them using questions and remarks that stimulate their thinking, imagination and interest and make them want to delve deeper and learn more.

Guiding student teachers to gradually become learning specialists requires an explicit focus in pre-service teacher preparation on the nature of learning and by implication how to create the best conditions to support learning. 

This focus will provide beginning teachers with a solid base for reflecting on and refining their teaching as practising teachers and allow them to be responsive in an informed way when confronted with education dilemmas, such as the current education challenge presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

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