|The MUSTER Synthesis Report - Researching Teacher Education: New Perspectives on Practice, Performance and Policy (CIE, 2003, 237 p.)|
The MUSTER analyses of teacher education curriculum issues lead to many insights into the quality and relevance of material for existing programmes. The picture these paint is one that suggests that investment in curriculum development is long overdue and that much which is currently available falls short of what is needed and what is possible. Large parts of the teacher education curriculum seem to have been adapted from the academic curricula of school or university, rather than designed for adult learners or for the acquisition of professional knowledge and skills. They seldom recognise the role of relevant experiences, nor the different motivation and learning styles of adults. The curriculum needs to be reconceptualised, but in ways that keep in touch with local context and realities. The following are points for consideration.
Firstly, the curriculum must be matched to the needs of the learners, recognising areas of both strength and weakness. Primary trainees are usually a 'mixed ability' group; they will have done different subjects at high school, and a number may well have been 'slow learners'. Many may find Maths and science particularly difficult. The subject courses must take this into account, by such means as setting, providing remedial support, self-study materials, or whatever is needed. This could include subject upgrading to school-leaving level through recognised and effective distance learning methods.
Second, a fresh look has to be taken at all the traditional components. Curriculum developers have to be realistic about what can be achieved within the given time, taking account of the age, experience and academic level of the entrants. Many programmes seem to assume that everything has to be taught during initial training, and consequently most of the curricula we analysed are grossly overloaded. The resulting stress on both tutors and students tends to lower morale and lead to less efficient teaching and learning.
The curriculum should be slimmed down to concentrate on helping the student acquire relevant core skills and competences, and the basic subject knowledge needed at that stage. This might mean less focus on the subject as a traditional discipline, and more on understanding the main concepts from a learner's viewpoint, as expressed in the terms science education, language arts education, etc. In so doing, students are likely to come to a clearer and more useful, if narrower, understanding of the subject itself, as well as the primary school syllabus. The languages of instruction should have a special place in the training of primary teachers, especially where lower primary is taught in the vernacular and upper primary in English. Trainees need to be fully fluent and competent in both, and to understand the strengths as well as the difficulties of bilingualism.
Such a slimmed-down curriculum should, however, include key frameworks drawn from psychology and sociology about how children learn, how individuals differ, and about the role of schools in the society. This is a problem area. Firstly, 'foundations' courses often try to teach far too much of the theory. Secondly, the texts and the research on which they are based are often drawn exclusively from rich country contexts. There is an urgent need here for both research and curriculum development to bring theories developed elsewhere into dialogue with local cultural practices and the students' own experiences of growing up. The aim should be to compare what is considered universal with what is culturally specific and contextual, so that students come to understand themselves and their pupils more clearly. Then, taking a problem-solving approach to their work, the young teachers are better equipped to deal with the realities of their classrooms.
Third, the role of the personal in professional education has to be recognised. Trainees do not come empty-handed, they bring much baggage in the form of images, ideas and experiences about teaching. One task for the tutors is to help them unpack and articulate these, so some can be thrown away, others refashioned or replaced. This does not require special techniques or resources, but it does imply an open approach from the tutors, and the use of methods such as autobiographical essays, role-play and discussion, to elicit memories and allow attitudes to be re-examined.
This links to the need for the whole curriculum to pay more attention to the 'affective side'. It is paradoxical that while most trainee teachers and their tutors rate personal attitudes and interpersonal skills as key characteristics of good primary teachers, the training curriculum allows little space or opportunity for fostering personal growth and attitudes conducive to professional responsibility.
Fourth, the processes by which the curriculum are delivered need to be rethought. Theories of professional learning stress how public propositional knowledge, situational understanding, and personal experience have to be brought together. Such theories emphasise the importance of practice, and of reflection on practice, in developing skills. New information, ideas and skills have to be used before they are fully understood and internalised. Therefore, preparing and developing teachers means providing them with appropriate inputs of relevant knowledge, information and concepts stage by stage. Learning to apply and use the ideas and skills needs support, coaching and constructive feedback, thus 'scaffolding' the learning. Therefore learning to teach requires extensive opportunities for guided practice in a conducive environment.
This highlights the role of the school. For practical reasons, most training programmes have Teaching Practice in one or two large blocks, or during an internship year, often at the end of the course. Yet shorter, alternating, periods of time on and off campus are more effective, as they allow new information, ideas and skills to be internalised gradually through application and practice; equally, the experiential knowledge gained from attempting to teach can be thought about and refined before the next trial. This is difficult logistically when colleges are residential and/or in rural areas.
Fifth, attention must be paid to modes of assessment. Written terminal exams have a role to play but should be complemented by assignments linked to practice in schools which might use the classroom as a resource. Ghanaian experience suggests this is difficult, both because of conservative attitudes, and because alternative methods are thought to be too time-consuming to be used with large numbers of students. However difficult, new attempts must be made to find more appropriate methods of assessing professional learning and professional competence. In particular, the assessment of TP is often just a ritual, sometimes a farce. Aims in some systems (e.g. South Africa) to provide more holistic assessment of performance in an authentic environment, based on demonstrated competences integrating knowledge, skills and attitudes are laudable, but difficult to achieve.
Sixth, we suggest that curricula need to be more precisely designed for specific contexts - preparing teachers for bilingual teaching, large classes, few resources etc - for specific school phases e.g. lower or upper primary, and for specific groups of trainees, such as experienced but unqualified teachers, or school leavers. One practical approach might be a more modular curriculum, where trainees took those subjects and contents they needed, but care would be needed to ensure integration and coherence.
Finally, we suggest that in any teacher education curriculum the overall aims and desired outcomes need to be clarified, so that everyone is aware of the kind of teacher they are trying to produce - whether this be framed in terms of an effective instructor engaged to deliver a given curriculum efficiently, or in terms of a more autonomous professional expected to exercise their own judgement reflectively. The curriculum strategy then needs to be consistent with these aims and outcomes, and stakeholders should be supported in understanding and carrying out their roles in achieving it.
There are some general dimensions to curriculum problems raised by the MUSTER research. Amongst the most important are:
The lack of mechanisms for curriculum development, evaluation and renewal. None of the MUSTER countries have systems for teacher education curriculum development; as a result it is ad hoc and sporadic.
Teacher Education and Structural Change
Educational reform focused on schools often proceeds in advance of reforms in teacher education curricula. In principle teacher education should lead rather than lag behind wider reforms, so that new entrants can be prepared to adopt new curricula and teaching methods. It is, however, unrealistic to expect new teachers to be focal points for change as new members of the profession in junior positions. There are risks, exemplified in some of the MUSTER countries, that reforms that simultaneously seek to transform pedagogy, curriculum content, and the organisation of learning and teaching, may over-stretch infrastructure and capacity for change.
Cross-Cultural Borrowing and Innovation.
International borrowing is inevitable and often useful for the development of teacher education. However, models and theories developed in one context should not be imported uncritically to others. Some aspects will resonate more easily across cultures than others. Teacher education curricula are needed that, while sometimes using cross-national insights as points of departure, also build on local teacher knowledge, experience, and examples of good practice, in order to develop culturally relevant and effective teaching strategies. If innovations are to work, they need to be grounded and contextualised, and to make sense to those expected to carry them out. Moreover, strategies for innovation should recognise the importance of establishing a favourable climate of opinion to adopt new practices. Innovations that are pushed from the centre, rather than pulled by effective demand from communities of practice, will always be more difficult to sustain.