Thursday, May 10, 2012

Transforming teacher education

Reading and listening to Sir Ken Robinson talk about education struck a chord with me, especially when he speaks about the way today's educational institution is designed like a factory.
"We have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it. […] Schools are still pretty much organized along factory lines; ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. We put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that? Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are? It's like the most important thing about them is their date on manufacture."

Looking back on some twenty years' experience teaching in the French national education system, I couldn't agree more. We're educating kids for the 19th century, not the 21st. The most important quality a student has, apparently, is that he should be seen and not heard. At end of trimester meetings, I hear colleagues bemoaning the fact that some students won't sit still, keep quiet and copy their lessons off the board like docile automatons. Rarely do any of them talk about working outside the "programme" – the officially mandated curriculum for their discipline.

Yet this is exactly what we need to do. For example, as an English teacher, my "programme" consists in long lists of grammar points, and more or less utopian targets of the proficiency levels all students should reach by the time they leave school. It's a mandate for standardization and conformity. While we have been fortunate that the official instructions for foreign language teachers mention more and more often elements of 21st century learning – task-based and project-based learning, international communication and collaboration projects like eTwinning and Comenius – so few teachers really take those innovations to heart. In my region (Région Centre, Académie Orléans-Tours) I often feel like I am the only one carrying the torch of 21st century learning practices. Certainly, none of my fellow teacher trainers seem to be operating on this wavelength.

Indeed, teacher training is in crisis here in France. The institutions responsible for teacher training, the IUFMs, were first gutted and then abolished by the Sarkozy administration, with very little actual teacher training of any sort taking their place. The budgets for in-service teacher training have been shrinking every year, and there seems to be little or no support for innovation and the four C's of 21st century learning - Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration and Communication. What would really help is a concerted effort from the new Hollande government, and whoever he eventually selects as Education Minister, to revitalize both initial and in-service teacher training. If there were a network of teacher trainers bringing this message out from the Ministry to the Académies to schools and to individual teachers, we might see real qualitative changes to the school-as-factory paradigm that has inflicted so much damage on the educational potential of young people today.

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