David Thomas has worked as a Head of Maths at a central London comprehensive school and as an adviser at the Department for Education.
In many ways, this will be a Parliament of consolidation at the Department for Education. The policies of the last five years are coming into force, and Nicky Morgan will need to put her political energy into seeing them through. But there is one area that does need reforming, and it needs it now. It is possibly the biggest opportunity to improve education in this Parliament, and one that would last well beyond 2020. It doesn’t sound glamorous or exciting, and won’t make the headlines. But its potential should not be underestimated. Nicky Morgan should use this Parliament to set a curriculum for teacher training.
Teacher workload is already extremely high, as Morgan has publically recognised. This means that government can’t improve outcomes in a way that puts pressure on schools – there are no more gains to be made from making teachers work harder. Instead, government has to look for ways to help teachers be more effective; and it should start by making sure every new teacher gets the training they deserve.
When I did my teacher training we spent laughably little time learning about learning. We discussed what made a good lesson (in the lecturer’s opinion…) but rarely why those components were good. We were often given quasi-moral justifications, like the assertions that “it is better to discover things for yourself” or “children learn better when they work in groups”, but I cannot recall a single time I heard something explained in terms of how a child’s brain would be responding.
This is a huge problem. We teach because we want children to learn, and learning is the process of creating memories in the brain. As one group of prominent cognitive scientists say, “if nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned”. But in my teacher training textbook there are more entries in the index for “multiple intelligences”, a widely discredited theory that has been disowned by academics everywhere outside of education, than there are for “memory”.
The problem has deep roots. In most education circles, the status of knowledge about learning is very low. Understanding how the brain works and how the human mind learns new information is considered at best to be an interesting pastime for the curious, but definitely not something that everybody should be expected to engage in.
This is because learning about the workings of the brain is anathema to the dominant philosophy in teacher training – that teaching is so profoundly personal you have to discover how to do it for yourself. Only by a process of exploration and personal reflection can you generate the knowledge about teaching that is right for you. It is this philosophy that dominates in teacher training, and that explains why knowledge about learning is so thoroughly subjugated.
This philosophy traps us in a status quo where the only theory teachers learn is a canon of decades-old discredited psychology that just happens to be self-reinforcing. They are fed an intellectual diet of Piaget (whose scientific method consisted of observing his friends’ children and writing down whatever supported his initial theory), Vygotsky (whose social constructivism is used to instruct teachers that knowledge is best generated by groups of children talking to each other), and Blooms (whose arbitrary taxonomy of cognitive activities is perhaps most responsible for the demeaning of knowledge in our education establishment).
The worst thing about this is how rich the alternative diet could be. We have discovered so much about the brain during the past 50 years that we now know a huge amount about how people learn. We have powerful theories that explain the acquisition of knowledge, how to optimise it, and how to make sure it is remembered for years to come. Teaching these to new teachers would set them up for success by giving them the intellectual equipment they need to make learning happen.
A basic grounding in cognitive load theory, for example, would be hugely empowering. Stumbling across this by chance after completing my training showed me why my pupils were struggling to pick up particular mathematical ideas, and helped me change my teaching to fix the problem. But teachers shouldn’t have to bump into a theory like this by chance. It should be a core part of how they learn their craft.
Having a scientific understanding of learning gives you the theoretical frameworks you need to understand what’s going on in your classroom. With that knowledge you can pick apart why something is working, or why it’s not. You can make informed adjustments to improve your lessons so that children learn more. And because you’re no longer taking guesses based on intuition, you have more time freed up to contribute to the wider life of your school.
Once teachers have a common understanding of the theory behind learning they will also have a stronger claim to be considered one of Britain’s great professions. They’ll be able to rebut the claims of the snake oil salesmen who do the rounds of our schools, selling crackpot ideas and lecturing staff about make-believe pseudo-science. They’ll be able to challenge ideas held up as truth, and question the evidence behind doctrinaire policies. But most of all, they’ll be even better equipped to help our children learn.