An international perspective on English teacher education
I thought that it might be interesting to look at the ways that a different country organises and thinks about the education of their children. It is easy to think that there is only one way (your own way) to do things. Canada offers a good contrast to our own current system.
In Canada there is no national education policy. There is no National Curriculum. No exam boards! And yet the children there seem to be doing better than our children in terms of getting results. Teachers write their own exams for the students and they also get to award the grades. It’s called trust in the professionalism of teachers – you might not recognise it!
That is what interested me in choosing to go to Canada recently to see what it was like to be a teacher there. I was interested in discovering what the core messages of Canadian teacher training programmes are. With what sense of the profession and its importance will a newly qualified teacher begin?
Schooling in Canada
The country is made up of ten provinces and three territories, each of which takes responsibility for its own educational policies. Whilst this raises obvious concerns, from a British perspective, about uniform standards (yawn – as if we have ‘uniform standards in our exam system!), it certainly allows educators to respond to local rather than national agendas.
In each of the provinces there are district school boards that run schools but they are not involved in decisions about educational content that individual schools wish to pursue. To add to the regional mix there are also some autonomous schools that exist outside provincial control. In Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in the three territories, there are religious school, largely Catholic in nature. There are also a very small number of private schools. One further sub-group of schools is those run by the native Aboriginal settlements.
The leaving age varies between eighteen in Ontario and New Brunswick and the rest of Canada where education is compulsory to the age of sixteen. Education is available in English and in French throughout Canada. Schools offer both academic and vocational courses.
Canada has a highly diverse ethnic mix in its population. Inward migration is focused upon the three largest cities; Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. 75% of immigrants head for these cities with 40% of these new settlers not being familiar with either of the official languages of Canada; English and French. Because of this rich mix of people, much of the focus of Canada’s educational policy is about social justice and citizenship (something from which we could learn, rather than competition being the driving force of schools).
Much like the UK, primary school teachers are expected to teach across a range of disciplines whilst secondary school teachers are prepared to specialise. The expectation is that a secondary school teacher will be able to teach two subjects. So in many ways the profession is similar in Canada to here.
Statistically, Canada holds up well in terms of international comparison of student achievement. Above average numbers of students leave High School with good qualifications and strong numbers return to pursue education at College or University. Canada devotes a relatively high percentage of GDP to education. Parental satisfaction with schooling is high and the profession of teaching is highly regarded.
However, there are some fundamental differences that go past the organisational aspects of the education systems in Canada and the UK. When Canadian trainee teachers learn their craft, the emphasis is on learning to be a teacher rather than learning to be a teacher of a particular subject.
‘Equity, diversity and social justice are foundational principles of the program.’
This is a recurrent theme in Canadian education, and I would say in Canadian life more generally. The themes of equity and social justice are explicitly considered in the coursework elements of teacher training programmes. This is common practice in the work of University based initial teacher training in the UK as well. In school based training that I have seen in the UK, the emphasis is upon the ‘problem’ presented by students making use of EAL or students with particular special needs.
From my time in Canada, I have been able to draw a number of conclusions about the gap between our own developing practices and those of Canada.
- A focus upon social justice and the link to the on-going discussion about what it is to be Canadian
On the day that I arrived in Canada it was the final game in Ice Hockey’s Stanley Cup. Game 7 of 7 was to take place in Vancouver with Boston the visitors. Large screens were erected in the downtown area and an anticipated crowd of 100,000 began to arrive. Vancouver lost the game and the scenes in the streets turned ugly; stores were looted, cars turned over and burnt, and further violence ensued.
If this kind of thing had happened at an English football ground then the perpetrators would be dismissed as thugs and hooligans. It would not open a debate about what it is to be English or an inquiry into collective blame in the way that Canadians immediately began a public discussion about their collective responsibility. This kind of aggressive and aimless violence does not suit the Canadians self perception; they are decent, friendly and tolerant people.
‘As a Vancouverite, I am truly disgusted by the behavior of the people who participated in the violence that erupted last night. Vancouver is a gorgeous city; it’s a shame that something like this has tarnished the image of Vancouver, and by extension Canada, as a friendly and hospitable place. Please note that the disgusting behavior of groups of people last night after the game is not representative of all the people of Vancouver. Hundreds of volunteers, organized through social media, are downtown or will be heading downtown this weekend to clean up the mess that was left by those thugs/hooligans/idiots.’
A posting on popwatch.ew.com after the Vancouver hockey riot
In the aftermath of the night before, people began to write apologetic graffiti on the boards that protected the shops. Volunteers flooded onto the streets of Vancouver to help with the cleanup effort. Watching the news footage of this story it was clear that there was something very cathartic about this response.
Central to education policies in Canadian provinces is the idea of equity of opportunity, tolerance of diversity and a strong sense of citizenship.
The first Pan-Canadian Accord in 2006 aimed to establish values and ideals for the teaching profession across the provinces and territories. Middle and centre of this newly proposed set of principles were the ideals of ‘… respect, inclusion, globalisation and diversity…’
Canada’s population is diverse and to make a community/country that values a sense of rich ethnicity is a challenge. Educators have certainly risen to this challenge. There is a healthy respect for the seemingly divergent concepts of community and diversity as motivating factors behind schooling. Citizenship is at the core of Canadian educational philosophy. Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at OISE, writes ‘To be inclusive means to embrace difference as the central value to be encouraged and from which the production of culture begins, rather than as the central problem to be managed and through which culture becomes inert’.
I stood at the opening of Kerrville Street Festival on Saturday June 25th 2011 and listened to the provincial mayor celebrating the fact that there were over 400 different ethnic groups in the area, living together harmoniously and prosperously. This diversity needs to be catered for in schools.
Frederick M. Hess, writing over the border in the States proclaims that we should ‘…revel in a world of schooling that embraces competing pedagogies, missions, and approaches…’ He argues that we are not in the business of trying to create homogenous people and that we need to help create diversity.
Culture should not be viewed as an entity, which unfortunately, in the UK, I think it mostly has been. Culture is a moving shifting process that can be made by teachers and their pupils. Engagement with cultural learning can be an agent for tolerance, valuing of diversity and the beginning of community. This perspective of equity is alive and well in Canada.
The emphasis at OISE is clearly stated. ‘Equity, diversity and social justice are foundational principles of the program.’ There is a clear contrast here with the UK. Inclusive education in the UK largely works at the level of integration. A focus upon becoming a teacher of a subject is in the foreground in the UK. This naturally relegates the importance of the teacher as social educator.
My feeling is that we in the UK have much to gain from a closer reading of the core values of Canadian education policies and their emphasis upon the need for equity and social justice. In comparison, the way that schools in the UK dealt with the subject of citizenship a few years ago is, on reflection, simply shameful. Citizenship was disappeared into policy documents that were generally never read, valued or acted upon. Do you ever reflect on the ways in which your teaching is adding to the ‘whole’ of the child/ learner? Do you think through the moral implications of your work with children? Most of us have had this aspect of teaching compartmentalised, something to be ticked off after a brief lecture or seminar or INSET session.
- Attempts to find deep learning: there is no evidence to suggest that a much more relaxed accountability than in the UK is at all detrimental, indeed the range and flexibility of assessment in Canadian school goes some way to suggesting the opposite
The difficult word in this heading is ‘accountability’ (a word that is included in the list of regrettable new language of education in Part Two of this book). How do we employ this word and what does it actually mean? Governments and education authorities and, sometimes, head teachers and line managers want to use the word to mean integrity and quality assurance. Accountability for them means an appearance of standards.
Ann B. Vibert, in her short essay What is Accountability? writes the following.
‘… the consequences of accountability discourses for integrity and quality in schooling: teaching to the test, raising standardised test scores by inviting the poor kids to stay at home, producing banal mission statements and binders full of meaningless statistics, and planning for improvement rather than improving, are all we should expect when it is the appearance of quality that we are after.’
Whilst this is a fairly damning indictment of the US situation, it sounds rather familiar to UK schooling. Surely in education we don’t need this sense of accountability that belongs in the market driven world of business. Education should be a collective endeavour. Do we really want our kids to do better than theirs? Accountability would be better replaced with the word responsibility. I want teachers (you!) to take responsibility for the learning, deep learning, of your pupils.
The profession of school teaching is very well regarded in Canada. It costs 7,000$ to train at OISE and yet they are oversubscribed by four to one, even in a time when there are plenty of teachers about already. The qualifications of those entering the profession are high and the levels of trust demonstrated by administrators are excellent. Dropout rates are very low at OISE and on the whole anyone leaving tends to self select, realising that teaching is not the right option for them. The grading of beginning teachers is based around a culture of supporting progress rather than pass/fail mentalities. We certainly have much to learn here. High stakes observations in the training and NQT years are largely unhelpful. Retention rates in the teaching profession more generally in Canada are high although beginning teachers often have to wait a while to make their way into the profession.
Teachers devise their own programmes of lessons based on broad and general outlines from the Ministry of Education. Teachers create their own tests for pupils. The purpose of testing is in the main to help assess the way forward; looking for the next step in the development of the pupil. Teachers make the assessments and they award the grades. General standard normative tests are rare across Canada; British Columbia has State testing but this is very much the exception. Professional development time is set aside for discussion of the individual needs of pupils and collaborative action engaged upon. What an improvement that would make to tracking the individual needs of your students if you had time to discuss with colleagues rather than filling in data tracking sheets!
There is little normative ‘one size fits all’ testing, little assessment from external sources; and yet, the standard of education in Canada is high; high based on comparative data of student achievement.
Mark Evans (from OISE)observes,
- Canadian students score well on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), TIMMSS and other international rankings of student achievement
- Recent surveys show that 91% of 25 – 34 year olds have obtained senior secondary education; (this is a number of students feeling a sense of success that is far greater than the UK)
- In comparison to other countries, the gradient of inequality in attainment is relatively low
- 54% have tertiary education, compared to the international average of 32%
Here we have an environment in which teachers are trusted to devise curriculum, organise and adapt means of assessment to support learning and then to award grades. And, achievement is very high! Rather than treat this model of education with suspicion, we should be looking at the healthy respect for the professionalism of teachers and their ability to create and deliver an educational programme that gets ‘results’, both in terms of appropriate and useful educational experiences and in terms of terminal results.
Canada is not alone in this seemingly, from a UK perspective, relaxed approach to checking up all the time. Finland has come top of the above mentioned PISA scoring system for most of the last ten years. What is the magic formula for Finnish education? Ingredients include; all teachers have a Masters Degree, compulsory schooling doesn’t begin until age seven, no national testing, no inspections, no league tables, the government looks at 8 – 10% of the pupils work to check on performance. This system is far removed from the current UK situation and it is thriving.
Finland and Canada do not actively pursue and threaten their teachers with the consequences of failure. The profession is regarded highly and that level of respect and trust is rewarded with the delivery of high quality education. Our current emphasis in the UK on competition and driving up results is not what most of the rest of the world is doing. We are not really preparing for the needs of the new global environment in the ways that other countries are. It is refreshing to see a different approach succeeding.
- The liberating sense of a collaborative rather than competing schooling system both at the level of schools and teacher training institutions
Sharing of good practice is essential to progress. This concept is embedded in the new Learner Document that outlines the skills that new graduates, on the BEd course at OISE in Toronto, must begin to demonstrate. Under the heading Teacher Identity, beginning teachers have to ‘recognize their potential as collaborators, mentors, and leaders within a variety of professional contexts’. Under the heading Learning and Teaching in Social Contexts, beginning teachers will ‘participate meaningfully and actively in professional learning communities’.
David Montemurro, of OISE, described the beginning teacher cohorts that act as tutorial groupings on the courses. Teacher candidates are purposefully mixed across disciplines so that a staffroom type atmosphere is created. David argued that to have teachers from different curriculum areas is important because teachers from different disciplines ‘think’ in different ways. Therefore, all teacher candidates are exposed to these different perspectives and mindsets. The cohort becomes the teacher candidates ‘home base’, a place where they feel happiest to discuss and reflect upon the experiences that they are having on the course at University and the experiences they have in the field. This rich exposure to a range of ideas, frustrations, perspectives and reflections can be weighed up and can add to the growing personal sense of the purposes of education that each individual teacher candidate is developing. Beginning teachers leave OISE with a healthy understanding that they can work with others to develop all aspects of their on-going professional learning journey.
In the UK this sense of collaborating as you train and then enter your NQT year is being watered down. Time is not allocated to reflection nearly enough on any of the routes into teaching in the UK. This collaborative element to teacher training in universities is important if the beginning teacher is to see the potential for change, and for themselves to become agents of that change. Training based entirely in a school will not afford the beginning teacher time or opportunity to see past the immediate locale of the school itself. In my experience, schools do not see the primary function of their trainees and NQT teachers as to be developing capabilities. In many schools the emphasis is with getting on with teaching.
At the level of schools during my visit to Canada, I went looking for competition (conditioned you see!). I went looking for schools trying to do better than their neighbours, I went looking for the severe measures of administrators for under achieving schools, I went looking for the inspection regime; and I found none of this. I found schools that worked collaboratively to enhance weaknesses detected at particular schools. I found sympathetic and well thought out plans to resource the needs of inner city schools. It might be hard to believe, but there was no stigma to difficulties in schools, just a determination to draw in expertise and resources across the city to help a department or school progress. The only competition that I found at all was when William Peat, Vice Principal at an independent school in Hamilton admitted that they had to put on lots of exciting extra-curricular activities so that they could compete with other local independent schools. But that is money driven and not really an educational consideration.
There is no brutal competition (can you hide brutal competition form a researcher?!) such as we are experiencing in the UK at the present time. The focus on improvement is not on being better than your neighbour but on being better at providing educational opportunities for your pupils. There are no discussions behind closed doors about how to drive up results by hook or by crook. And where does this healthy collaboration get Ontario? Recent PISA statistics placed 15 year old Ontario students amongst the best readers in the world. Only Shanghai, as an international jurisdiction rated higher.
Worrying about your neighbours’ achievements again demonstrates the provincial approach the UK has to schooling. Perhaps we should invest more in collaborative schemes to help make improvements for everyone. At this time the opposite is happening in the UK; schools are being encouraged to go it alone, become an Academy and move outside the ‘control’ of the local education authority, thereby losing the connections that have been built up by the newly redundant consultants and advanced skills teachers. If we are all going it alone, where is the incentive to collaborate?
Damian Cooper comments about system wide change that, ‘… threats, budget cuts, teacher testing, intimidation, and humiliation tend not to work!’ Instead he cites the work of DuFour and Eaker (1998) who champion Professional Learning Communities.
‘Professional learning communities use evidence and intuition in order to work and talk together to review their practices and to increase their success… In a professional learning community, the culture changes- everyone sees the bigger picture and works for the good of the whole community. Professional learning communities bring together culture and contract.’
The advisor on education to the Obama administration, Linda Darling-Hammond, looked to collect the best learning practices globally. Three of those elements that she identified are important here:
- Daily time for professional learning and collaboration among teachers
- Supportive induction programmes for new teachers
- Extensive formal and informal in-service opportunities
Collaboration time for teachers everyday sounds expensive. But it only sounds expensive if you don’t value the idea or see its potential to deliver strong education. When Principals and Head teachers say there isn’t enough money for an initiative, what they mean is that they don’t want to invest in it. Schools have huge budgets; there is enough money, just not for things that aren’t a priority!
But what if, in each school in a district, teachers are using their precious preparation time duplicating what their colleagues are doing down the road? Collaboration can save hours of wasted time and can involve the discovery of best practice. Just as importantly, it creates an environment that places learning and developing stronger curriculum at the heart of teacher practice.
- The emphasis in teacher training programmes on becoming a ‘teacher’ rather than a teacher of a subject; the very idea of training English teachers or Maths teacher etc indicates the narrower perspective of what a teacher is in the UK
The old witty remark that goes along the lines of Hi, I’m a teacher. Oh yes, what do teach? Children! presumably doesn’t work very well in conversation in Canada. The emphasis here is on becoming a teacher of children rather than, as is the case in the UK, training based around the idea of becoming a teacher of a subject. Whilst PGCE courses in the UK certainly devote many hours to the art of teaching the emphasis is certainly different and leads to a different impression from the Canadian model of what becoming a teacher is all about. Canadian teachers are being trained for their careers with a wider sense of what teaching might be because of this more conceptual emphasis. In the UK, the emphasis of School Direct training is on preparing teachers to be teachers that belong to particular Academy chain. Training in schools is even more focused on teachers being deliverers of subject pre-packaged materials. This kind of mentality is de-professionalising.
Whilst at the point of admission for teacher training in the UK we spend a good deal of effort checking competences in subject knowledge, I think that there is a greater assumption made on Canadian teacher training courses that the teacher candidates bring subject knowledge with them and it is the purpose of the course to present models of why to teach and how to teach rather than focusing on what to teach. The choice of a second subject is left to the teacher candidate; and whilst the disciplines tend to be related, there is nothing to stop a teacher candidate selecting diverse disciplines.
In the UK, why and how have become secondary to what. This is not right and you are going to have to be alert to this. You need to get your head up; look past the confines of your own school so that you don’t lose sight of the wider picture.
- Explicit attempts to discuss the theory/practice connect; including the specific initiative of seconding teacher to the university programmes is surely a strength in keeping courses relevant
One of the features of initial teacher training at OISE in Toronto that stood out for me is the way in which the course leaders are keen to constantly connect the theoretical work that takes place at the university and the practical elements of the course.
The ‘theory/practice disconnect’ is, of course, an issue with which we are familiar. It stems from the fact that beginning teachers want to get to teaching straightaway. You are anxious to prove to yourself, as much as anyone else, that you can ‘do it’. Obviously, the key here is preparation. Hopefully, you agree that you are going to make a much stronger start if you have some theoretical and practical learning before standing in front of a class. The teacher as learner is also an important emphasis in the OISE teacher training courses, as is the sense that this qualification is just the first step along a pathway of developing practice across a whole career.
- The determination to approach the training of teachers with an ethos of the holistic rather than technical operative at its core
Clearly, this is not a point of comparison between the approaches of Canadian and English teacher training courses in universities. It is a point that unites them.
However, with cuts to university teacher training, I dread the thought of the beginning teacher in the UK being plunged straight in to a school with nothing more than copies of the staff and faculty handbooks and ‘a rather world weary on the verge of retirement and shackled with the new teacher’ mentor! The Head teacher has decided to keep the money accrued from the training pot and has put it in the general fund because the heating system is on the blink. There isn’t much money for professional development this year and plenty of staff in the queue ahead of the fresh face. Even if the mentor is replaced on retirement with someone who is mad keen to help, is there a guarantee of their competence? No, this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. Right?
There is a difference between schools and schooling. The training of Canadian teachers is the responsibility of universities and with a supportive political environment, their work is flourishing.