Avoiding Newspeak: Why we need the critical voice of Higher Education in Initial Teacher Education

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In the third and final part of a series on the Carter Review of ITE, Chris Carpenter reflects on the place of higher education arguing that engagement with scholarship is vital for both student teachers and the profession as a whole.

tree rootsThere is no doubt that the Carter Review has been viewed by those in Higher Education with some trepidation. Over time the number of student teachers on school based routes has risen (the 2015-16 ITT allocations announced last week continuing this trend) and so the review may be seen as a continuation of the trajectory to gradually side-line University involvement in teacher education. Added to this historical trend, Michael Gove consistently claimed that the evidence said the best teacher education takes place in schools; it is not clear however, what studies support this claim, which was made despite Ofsted consistently reporting favourably on higher education routes.

This series has already considered two issues the review may have missed: retention of teachers and evaluating previous change in ITE; I want to conclude by asking whether the review will fully consider the consequences of an education profession without an important role for the critical thinking commonly found in higher education.

Teacher education: a concern with the professional and the academic?

Given that teachers in schools can be positioned principally with being policy enactors and that education policy tends to be deeply implicated in political imperatives, some alternative perspectives are required if the thinking in schools is to evolve beyond the constant bending to policy initiatives – a classic example of which might be seen as the latest push for British values.

If teachers are concerned with children’s learning in a policy context where education is seen as an economic good rather than a social good (Furlong 2008) it is inevitable that teachers become constructed in particular ways.  In reflecting on the effects of neo-liberal policies on teachers, Stephen Ball proposes that: ‘The novelty of this epidemic of reform is that it does not simply change what people, as educators, scholars and researchers do, it changes who they are.’

In a neoliberal milieu, the identity of the preferred teacher is one who is dutiful, compliant, market responsive, and uncritical of the circumstances and conditions around them – especially in respect of what the neo-liberal agenda is doing to schooling and groups within it (Smyth 2011). In this viewpoint the construct of the teacher becomes closely related to a ‘technical rationalist’ view. The traditional antidote to the technical rationalist position is that of ‘professional artistry’, a perspective championed by Donald Schon, who argued that technical rationality depended on agreement about the ends and worked well when the ends are easily defined. However, when the ends are not clear then there is a requirement for reflection-in-action and a need to be able to apply intelligent problem solving in an open environment.

Another, related alternative to the technical rationalist perspective is that of critical pedagogy. This is the notion that it is incumbent on the teacher and by implication the student to be critical, with a view to social improvement. Henry Giroux uses critical pedagogy to examine the various ways in which, according to him, classrooms too often function as modes of social, political and cultural reproduction particularly when the goals of education are defined through the promise of economic growth job training and mathematical utility. There is therefore a case that in order to avoid ‘un-mindful’ reproduction there needs to be alternative perspectives and this can come with higher education and sustained engagement with scholarship.

New comers to the profession and the value of scholarship

Over the last few years we have come to see ‘change’ as evolution when in fact ‘change’ could also be interpreted as compliance to the latest policy initiative. Ian Stronach and Margaret Maclure discuss neoliberalism as bringing in a ‘policy frenzy’, with successive waves of reform hitting the profession that can be likened to a matter of sunburst and dieback. Michael Gove himself talked about the rate of change but rarely spoke in terms of evolution.

One of the key reasons I believe that HE involvement is key is that if scholarship is about anything it is about the pursuit of truth. Reflecting on the relationship of education policy and philosophy, Terence McLaughlin argues that scholarship in the form of philosophy has a concern with truth whereas educational policy is a matter of developing solutions to practical problems. There is also the idea that scholarship is necessarily ‘messy’ whereas education policy has to be presented in a manner where the ends are a given and ‘solutions’ presented as simple, easily understood messages – these tend to be reductive and can lack the nuance needed to be appropriate when applied in contexts that are very different.

In George Orwell’s 1984, ‘Newspeak’ is a fictional, highly controlled and regulated language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit freedom of thought. Any form of thought which in any way contests the party position is classified as a thoughtcrime. In one scene from the book, Syme, a party worker, explains to Winston, the central character, that:

‘We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The eleventh edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

Later on Winston is told:

‘Until they became conscious (the party members) they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.’

While I am not advocating a revolution it does seem that unless there is a culture where current thinking and practices are questioned the chances of evolution are reduced.

In this way my worry is that teacher education programmes that are principally situated in schools are more likely to lead to teachers who, through quite naturally wanting and having to ‘fit in’, may be subjected to forms of ‘occupational socialisation’. That is not to say that the practices of any school are ‘bad’ but they naturally have a concern to work in a particular context with the families in that area experiencing social economic and cultural circumstances that will be unique to that school. The teachers in schools will have found ways to work in those individual circumstances.

This may mean that student teachers’ reality would be defined by the values and practices in that school and other perspectives not known about. Following this we can see that the discourses in educational policy become a form of newspeak and the profession only changes in relation to adopting whatever policy is next in line in the ‘frenzy of reforms’. Worse, it is possible that if student teachers draw on the ‘truth’ of scholarship to critique ideologies and practices in school it can be received implicitly or explicitly as a form of thoughtcrime.

Ironic, as the very kinds of thoughtcrime based in scholarship may be a crucial route to social improvements that could lead to all manner of evolution in schools.

In this article I have made the assumption that the university is a crucible for debate and developing ideas in relation to scholarship. With greater pressures university education faculties, like schools, may be increasingly subjected to regulation. A result of this may be that debate is increasingly subject to constraint. If scholarship is about the pursuit of truth it needs to operate with wise autonomy and so must be relatively untrammelled. That is not to say that universities have a monopoly on scholarship but it seems that, at the present time, they are best placed to contribute this to ITE partnerships.

I feel that thoughtcrime based on scholarship is essential both for ITE and the teaching profession to evolve in a way that is deeper and richer than meeting the shifting demands of policy. Therefore I am hoping Andrew Carter’s independent review will recognise the contribution that HE can make and that this will be a significant element in his report.

Bibliography

Ball, S. (2003) The Teacher’s soul and the terrors of performitivity. Journal of Education Policy. 18 (2); 215-228

Ball, S. (2008) The Education Debate. University of Bristol, Policy Press.

Fish, D. (1995) Quality Mentoring for student teachers. London, David Fulton.

Furlong, J. (2008) Making Teaching a 21 Century Profession: Tony Blair’s big prize. Oxford Review of Education. 34 (6); 727-739.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy. London, Continuum.

Gove, M. (2013) Speech at the Policy Exchange; 5 September.

McLaughlin, T. (2000) Philosophy and Educational Policy: Possibilities, tensions and tasks. Journal of Education Policy. 15 (4) 441-457.

Orwell, G. (1954) 1984, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Schon, D. (1991) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. Aldershot; Ashgate.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice. London, Continuum.

Stronach, I. and MacLure, M. (1997) Educational Research: The Post Modern Embrace. Buckingham, Open University Press.

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