New Disciplines, Old Problems

Posted by Edward Willatt on Saturday, September 5, 2009 Under: Education

A debate is going on in the Times Higher Education Supplement over the value of teacher training in Higher Education.  It is a debate that is of course always going on but a letter in response to a recent article is particularly striking.  I have heard teacher training described as ‘self-perpetuating’ by some.  It is a criticism also levelled at management theory and seems to concern disciplines that have emerged relatively recently and whose claims to importance conflict with those of older disciplines.  Is the discipline of teaching uniquely concerned with how people learn?  Subjects like philosophy and psychology have older claims but are they less engaged with practical issues in learning?  The defence I read in THES was that few academics are born good teachers (you can read this letter here).  The claim is made - one I have heard many times in teacher training sessions - that lecturing is the least effective form of teaching.  My concern with this has always been that such an argument is highly abstract and disengaged from the subjects that people are being trained to teach.  When it comes to my subject, philosophy, it is certainly not straightforward to make this claim.  Certain concrete concerns come into play.  I also worry when I see ‘progress’ or ‘innovation’ attached to a wholesale rejection of one type or form of practice.  Such a rejection does ‘make a difference’ but does so at the expense of some real variety, the variety of forms that lectures can take.  It is a negative difference, one that limits the variety that could animate practice.  It certainly abstracts from concrete concerns of philosophy.  This of course returns to issues that I discussed in my last post.  Is philosophy purely abstract or is it concretely grounded in the reading of texts?  I would argue that we need to correlate the abstract and the concrete if we are to do anything genuinely productive.  Otherwise we get carried away with abstract categories or statements – ‘lectures are the least effective form of teaching’ – to the neglect of concrete concerns and possibilities in particular disciplines. 

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Another concern with teacher training is its claim to being purely practical (‘we don’t have time to discuss theory at this level or in this course’) whilst employing a great deal of theory from other disciplines.  This theory is presented as neutral and practical but, because this discipline does not examine its own foundations, it merely assembles theories from other disciplines.  A lot of theoretical assumptions are made on the grounds that there is either no time to discuss theory or that these starting points are purely practical.  Are these theories any good when compared to other theories and examined in the light of the disciplines from which they emerged?  These questions don’t seem to be asked unless one enters into the research side of the discipline of teaching.  Masters and Doctoral level courses in teaching certainly engage with the theory but what about the disciplines from which these theories come?  Such disciplines may be better able to critique theory and to examine their foundations because they do not assume a context or starting point like teaching does.  Often teaching as a discipline starts by defining a group of people called ‘students’ and a group of people called ‘teachers’ while perhaps also including a group called ‘administrators’ or ‘managers’.  The profiles and needs of these groups are then set out in order to make everything clear and distinct (and in order to fit the format of ‘power point’ presentations or brain storms, which demand simplification into a list of definitions or aims or needs …).  To question these schemas is to ignore the needs to students, something which is labelled negative and immoral.  If certain theories have an unquestioned place on teaching courses the concrete specificities of different disciplines don’t get a voice and nor does the wider context of these theories.  It seems as if teaching as a discipline needs highly abstract bits of theory to get started, to make everything clear and distinct, and then proceeds without questioning these starting points.  To question them is to be overly theoretical or to neglect the needs of students who have been defined by the very assumptions that were made in order to introduce teaching to those who take teacher training courses.  The challenge then is for the discipline of teaching to become less reliant on abstractions, to understand the correlation between the abstract and the concrete.  It must not assume that an understanding of learning exists in its discipline alone or that its ideas float free of any theoretical context or the concrete context of the disciplines from which it borrows so much theory.  Thus when someone questions the value of teacher training they can be engaged with rather than denounced as often happens when they accused of neglecting students needs.   

In : Education 



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New Disciplines, Old Problems

Posted by Edward Willatt on Saturday, September 5, 2009 Under: Education

A debate is going on in the Times Higher Education Supplement over the value of teacher training in Higher Education.  It is a debate that is of course always going on but a letter in response to a recent article is particularly striking.  I have heard teacher training described as ‘self-perpetuating’ by some.  It is a criticism also levelled at management theory and seems to concern disciplines that have emerged relatively recently and whose claims to importance conflict with those of older disciplines.  Is the discipline of teaching uniquely concerned with how people learn?  Subjects like philosophy and psychology have older claims but are they less engaged with practical issues in learning?  The defence I read in THES was that few academics are born good teachers (you can read this letter here).  The claim is made - one I have heard many times in teacher training sessions - that lecturing is the least effective form of teaching.  My concern with this has always been that such an argument is highly abstract and disengaged from the subjects that people are being trained to teach.  When it comes to my subject, philosophy, it is certainly not straightforward to make this claim.  Certain concrete concerns come into play.  I also worry when I see ‘progress’ or ‘innovation’ attached to a wholesale rejection of one type or form of practice.  Such a rejection does ‘make a difference’ but does so at the expense of some real variety, the variety of forms that lectures can take.  It is a negative difference, one that limits the variety that could animate practice.  It certainly abstracts from concrete concerns of philosophy.  This of course returns to issues that I discussed in my last post.  Is philosophy purely abstract or is it concretely grounded in the reading of texts?  I would argue that we need to correlate the abstract and the concrete if we are to do anything genuinely productive.  Otherwise we get carried away with abstract categories or statements – ‘lectures are the least effective form of teaching’ – to the neglect of concrete concerns and possibilities in particular disciplines. 

?

 

Another concern with teacher training is its claim to being purely practical (‘we don’t have time to discuss theory at this level or in this course’) whilst employing a great deal of theory from other disciplines.  This theory is presented as neutral and practical but, because this discipline does not examine its own foundations, it merely assembles theories from other disciplines.  A lot of theoretical assumptions are made on the grounds that there is either no time to discuss theory or that these starting points are purely practical.  Are these theories any good when compared to other theories and examined in the light of the disciplines from which they emerged?  These questions don’t seem to be asked unless one enters into the research side of the discipline of teaching.  Masters and Doctoral level courses in teaching certainly engage with the theory but what about the disciplines from which these theories come?  Such disciplines may be better able to critique theory and to examine their foundations because they do not assume a context or starting point like teaching does.  Often teaching as a discipline starts by defining a group of people called ‘students’ and a group of people called ‘teachers’ while perhaps also including a group called ‘administrators’ or ‘managers’.  The profiles and needs of these groups are then set out in order to make everything clear and distinct (and in order to fit the format of ‘power point’ presentations or brain storms, which demand simplification into a list of definitions or aims or needs …).  To question these schemas is to ignore the needs to students, something which is labelled negative and immoral.  If certain theories have an unquestioned place on teaching courses the concrete specificities of different disciplines don’t get a voice and nor does the wider context of these theories.  It seems as if teaching as a discipline needs highly abstract bits of theory to get started, to make everything clear and distinct, and then proceeds without questioning these starting points.  To question them is to be overly theoretical or to neglect the needs of students who have been defined by the very assumptions that were made in order to introduce teaching to those who take teacher training courses.  The challenge then is for the discipline of teaching to become less reliant on abstractions, to understand the correlation between the abstract and the concrete.  It must not assume that an understanding of learning exists in its discipline alone or that its ideas float free of any theoretical context or the concrete context of the disciplines from which it borrows so much theory.  Thus when someone questions the value of teacher training they can be engaged with rather than denounced as often happens when they accused of neglecting students needs.   

In : Education 



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