How do teachers value theory?

photoDye, V. L. (1999) Is Educational Theory being Valued by Student Teachers in Further & Higher Education? Journal of Vocational Education and Training. 51 (2).

I picked this article to read because it seemed to relate to my questions about the accessibility and impact of the PG Cert course I lead, the first unit of which is all about engagement with and discussion of theory, and relating it to practice.

Vanessa Dye describes the place of theory as “facilitating the neophyte teacher in to the practice of teaching” – i.e. giving them pointers about how teaching should be done. Our PG Cert course is not designed for ‘neophyte’ teachers (although we have a small number doing it alongside a voluntary teaching placement); it’s a CPD course for in-service technicians and lecturers who are generally pretty competent already. So what are we teaching them? We could be cynical and suggest that the course is simply a means of getting our FHEA numbers up – which looks good from a quality/marketing perspective – but if I was that cynical about my job I wouldn’t be doing it. Most would say that we are looking to improve the quality of teaching. However, while my own students often request more input in terms of ‘tips and tricks’ – both at the start of the course when I ask them about their personal goals and expectations, and at the end in the unit evaluation forms, I think we need to be wary of the technocrats who oversimplify the practice of teaching into competencies. On our course, I feel a primary role of the theory is fuel for debate; a starting point for the sharing of practice and the building of supportive networks and effective communities. Theory is a conversation starter.

As Dye suggests, the student teacher must clarify and reconcile theory with practice to legitimate what is of value. You could even say the more experience teachers have to relate to the theory, the more they will value it, and the more they will get out of it. I now find myself considering the paradox of the true neophyte teacher; where does one start? With theory or practice? My own PGCE seemed to be a careful blend of both; a few weeks brushing up on subject knowledge, covering some basic planning frameworks and classroom management techniques, and then a gentle introduction to the classroom; shadowing, team-teaching and then taking on a class or two. Did it work? Initially. I think being back in a learning situation myself – at St Martin’s – raised my confidence instantly. I was enthusiastic, I worked hard and my first placement was a roaring success. But by the end of the year – in complete isolation on my second placement – all that confidence had been shredded. I was too occupied with trying to figure out what the other teachers wanted from me (and what they had against me) to relate theory to practice. There wasn’t any opportunity to anyway; I was instructed to stop planning my own lessons, given a ringbinder of ready-made plans and worksheets, told when and what to shout, and to shout louder. Jarvis’s (1992) framework didn’t really come into it… I had a few teaching books on my bookshelf but by the end I didn’t feel like I had any autonomy to try anything out for myself.

In contrast, in the HE sector – at Bath, and now at UAL – I have been supported and encouraged to develop my own ideas and my practice. It was quite obvious to me that I was initially hired to work full-time on the PG Cert because of my competence in designing and running blended learning courses – where theory and practice had both contributed to practice – rather than my classroom teaching competence. I felt I had little of the latter; a fact I confessed to my line manager at the time, Susan – to which she replied ‘well, you’d better get better at it then, hadn’t you’. Ha. My own development in this area has come about almost by accident; my engagement with theory continuing to focus on learning technology until my MA dissertation showed me a more critical perspective on blended learning, and also that I needed to listen to my students more. I then started the EdD and began to engage with writers like Freire and hooks, which has, I think, further humanised my approach and my teaching self.

I suspect it helps to be quite content in your work, with a strong sense of your own autonomy, in order to put all the politics aside and engage constructively with theory. I’ve been talking to some of my own student teachers in depth over the last few weeks about their experience of the course, and I have been amazed at their resilience; their continued enthusiasm for engaging with theory and developing their practice despite the shit hitting their metaphorical fans. Even though the coursework of the worst affected fell by the wayside, all stressed how much they value the theory, and have shown this in their ability to discuss what they have learned, and in catching up with coursework tasks before the close of the unit.

I think those on our course who would claim to value the theory least would be those who already have well-formed ideas about learning and teaching, and therefore tend to be more critical of the theory. But I still see them engaging deeply with it, and synthesising new ideas – so that doesn’t bother me in the slightest 😉

To conclude – I feel the relationship with theory – and the type of theory to be engaged with – is very different on a CPD-type teaching course than on the initial teacher training programmes that Dye is discussing in this paper. I have made major design changes to promote authentic, personally-relevant engagement with theory rather than the mechanistic, ‘name dropping’ approach described by Jarvis (1992).  Rather than an integrative terminal assignment – as is common on PG Cert courses of this nature – I use regular, collaborative and cumulative coursework tasks that require deep engagement with only one or two sources. This doesn’t suit everyone; a small number of participants would much prefer to have a single essay at the end. But whereas before only these participants would be able to access the higher grades, now everyone gets by with a decent pass at the very least – despite the fact that everyone says how much harder the course has become! So it’s harder, but everyone is doing better… which I like 🙂

Secondary reference: Jarvis, P. (1992) Theory and practice and the preparation of teachers of nursing, Nursing Education Today, 12, pp. 258-265

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