If SA wants good teachers, bring back colleges
With the theory-practice balance out of sync, varsities are not the best place to train primary school teachers
Plastered all over my Facebook pages is the one demand that South Africans seem to agree on: Bring back the colleges of education.
This was in response to a question I recently posed: Are universities the best place for training teachers? Almost everybody seemed to agree that universities are not suited for preparing the next generation of teachers, but if we bring back the colleges, problem solved.
As someone who has spent most of my life preparing teachers for the profession, I have come to a simple conclusion. Universities are not the best place for teacher education. For one, most of us have not been classroom practitioners for decades and so the exigencies of classroom life are often lost on those who teach teachers for our schools. Too many academics are self-absorbed scholars who are enthralled by high theory (they even speak strange using ridiculous terms like epistemic suicide and habitus rather than classroom management and reading literacy) and more concerned about getting the next article published for money and promotion.
Frighteningly, many of those who prepare our teachers were never teachers themselves for any appreciable length of time; imagine this applied to those who trained heart surgeons.
The theory-practice balance, in other words, is out of sync. One way to remedy this is to place student teachers in classroom practice for 70% of the time and in education theory classes for 30% of the time. In other words, the best way in which to become a teacher is to observe teaching and to practise teaching under the supervision of an expert teacher.
There are excellent examples of this practice. One of my favourite SA companies is a family business called Polyoak, and their Teacher Plus Foundation takes average high school pupils, registers them at Unisa for a teaching degree and then takes over their on-the-ground training. Polyoak places these future mathematics and accounting teachers in the classrooms of the best schools in the country working under expert supervision while they spend the rest of their time at company headquarters in specialist training workshops to build their competence as prospective teachers.
The Unisa degree would be pretty useless – as they are for most pre-service teachers – without this critical scaffolding in classroom practice that Polyoak provides. Unsurprisingly, most of the Polyoak-supported teachers find jobs in some of SA’s leading schools.
But do not discount theory all together. A teacher is not a mechanic with a toolbox of techniques that you whip out for the right situation. Teachers (like good mechanics) are expected to be thoughtful individuals who are empowered to make reasoned choices among alternative strategies for teaching cellular division in the life sciences or “the present past” in history or number theory in mathematics. The best teachers not only deliver the curriculum but understand why whole-class teaching works for Grade 8c, but individualised learning works better for the children in Grade 8a. That insight requires theory.
That said, we should bring back colleges of education for the preparation of primary school teachers while universities take charge only of high school teachers. This means that the Bachelor of Education (the four-year degree) is for primary school education where the teacher does not need to be a subject specialist as in the foundation years. And the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (one year of teacher preparation after a degree in a discipline) is reserved for future high school teachers with a solid training in mathematics or science (BSc) or economics (BCom) or languages (BA), and so forth.
But a warning. Those who demand the return of colleges often do it from the vantage point of their own experience – they remember the Johannesburg College of Education in Gauteng or the Hewat Training College in the Western Cape. These were indeed outstanding colleges for the preparation of primary school teachers. But the majority of the colleges were in the former homelands and they were absolutely terrible places for education of any kind.
So the question is, which colleges should be brought back?
This government is good at creating new institutions of dubious status, and do we really want our education colleges looking like our TVET colleges? Be careful what you wish for.
The colleges of education must be places that employ only the most experienced teachers – start with one per province – with years of work in early childhood education and the foundation years in particular, and with a solid academic training to back up their practical experience. And as in the case of high school teacher preparation, most of the time spent in training should be inside real schools that work rather than dysfunctional schools all too familiar to many of our students from their enforced apprenticeship over 12 years of formal schooling.
If our government simply gifted us this, we would have a blueprint for changing the face of SA education for decades to come. I will be checking my Christmas stocking.