The rise of generic pedagogy

Ever since reading Michael Fordham’s blog about pedagogy and curriculum earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about the striking similarities between teacher training and the MBA (Master of Business Administration) I studied for over twenty years ago. In both cases, what was being taught was not an academic subject with its own traditions and domain of knowledge, but what is essentially a skill or a craft.

The MBA was supposed to equip us with the necessary skills to manage or lead a business. Nobody seemed to factor in that our ability to successfully lead a business was dependent on deep contextual knowledge of that sector or industry. Instead, we were led to believe that the skills we were learning on the MBA would be transferrable to any business. Thus, we briefly studied accounting and statistics so that we could read company accounts and understand spreadsheets. We did a short law course, not enough to make lawyers out of us but sufficiently to give us a general understanding of the law and particularly contract law. We had a marketing course, where we looked at different ways of marketing a business, the product life cycle, how to conduct market research and so on. We looked at corporate governance. We did some case studies, of Ford’s production line, for example, or the way IBM dealt with a product failure.

At the end of this whistle stop tour of the business world, we were sent out in teams to local businesses to consult on whatever issue they wanted us to tackle. This last bit was rather a joke – just picture in your mind four over-confident twenty-somethings strutting in to the offices of a small business and telling the owner, who had set that business up and managed it for many years, just what he was doing wrong and what he should do instead. I should say it was three over-confident twenty-somethings, as even back then I was painfully conscious that I didn’t really know enough about the context of that business to speak with any authority. Project over, we wrote up our findings and then had several weeks to prepare a dissertation (can’t remember what mine was on), culminating in us being able to print out business cards with our names followed by MBA. There are no words to describe how proud my father was on my graduation day. His daughter had an MBA! Somehow, I was now ready to set the business world alight.

My MBA graduation – with a very proud mum and dad

Reader, life just doesn’t work like this. In truth, there are superb business leaders out there who have never done an MBA. Many of them started on the shop floor of their industry and worked their way up. They are good leaders because they thoroughly understand their industry, and because through experience and perhaps also innate talent, they have worked out how to manage other people effectively. I am not saying the MBA was useless. I’m sure it taught me a thing or two. But it would be a mighty stretch to say it equipped me to manage a business. How could it? By its very nature, it was a generic qualification, and as we have seen, successful management of a business is dependent on really knowing and understanding that business. Managing a PR firm is a totally different kettle of fish to manufacturing widgets or running a hospitality business. There might be some common features here and there, but not enough to make expertise in one transferrable to another.

And so, we come to teaching. PGCE or Schools Direct courses last a year, and in that short time, just like in the MBA, trainees are taken on a whistle stop tour of all the “components” of teaching. There may be modules on behaviour management, lesson planning, assessment, the science of learning, educational theory and some subject specific sessions, as well as hands-on teaching time in the classroom followed by some reflection with a mentor. And at the end of this one year, hey presto we are ready to teach. And yet reader, once again, life doesn’t work like this.

Let’s take behaviour management for one. I’m sure some good pointers can be taught in a couple of lectures, but this will only take the trainee so far. If the school they work in has a strong culture and systems for behaviour, this should be enough for the trainee to cope well from the get-go and focus on developing their teaching. If, as it often is the case, behaviour is poor, many trainees will feel as if they have been cast out at sea during a storm without a life jacket. In such situations, the niceties of behaviour management they may have learned on their course will go out the window, and all their focus will be on survival. And, some of the advice given to them may not work in the specific context they are in. Behaviour management techniques that are effective in an inner London classroom may not have the same effect in a different context.

Of course, there are a minority of people who very quickly achieve behaviour success, perhaps due to their own backgrounds and personalities. However, for the majority this is not something that will come quickly or easily, and the more challenging the context they are working in, the longer and harder that road to success will be. Therefore, if we keep putting trainee teachers in schools with poor behaviour, we are implicitly setting them up to fail. Lest you think I am exaggerating this point, let me quote from “The Teacher Gap” by Becky Allen and Sam Sims, who have conducted extensive research on teacher recruitment and retention gap:

Even worse, because it is the low performing and disadvantaged schools that suffer from staffing shortages, the schools with the strongest incentives to take on trainees are often not those that are best placed to support them. High performing schools with excellent working conditions generally have less need to recruit new teachers. As a result, those schools with the greatest strength and stability to deliver training experiences are often not the institutions who are incentivised to do so.

But let’s leave behaviour to one side if we can, although it casts a long shadow over every other aspect of teaching. The whistle-stop tour of that first training year cannot in such a short time acquaint the trainee with the curriculum knowledge they will need to teach effectively. There are subject specific elements of a PGCE/ITT course that will look at certain key aspects, such as how to teach the Holocaust or how to use sources in lessons. But it’s essentially a matter of dipping in and out rather than covering the curricular knowledge that would be required to teach at KS3, KS4 and KS5. Somehow trainees are supposed to already know a lot of it because of their undergraduate degree, and to pick up the rest as they go along. If we turn back to Fordham’s blog, he highlights the type of questions teachers might want to answer before teaching ‘the Norman Conquest’:

  • What do historians already know about the Norman Conquest?
  • What arguments do historians have about the Norman Conquest?
  • What questions about the Norman Conquest do we want pupils to answer?
  • What kind of overview of the Norman Conquest would be needed to answer those questions?
  • In answering those questions, what kinds of simplifications about the Norman Conquest can be made without causing too much distortion?
  • What prior knowledge is required for someone to answer the questions we will ask of the Norman Conquest?
  • What ways are there of structuring the new knowledge pupils need to answer those questions?

I don’t know how many teacher training courses in this country take trainees through this process for the key parts of curriculum that they will be expected to teach (for instance, most if not all history teachers will be required to teach the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta or the English Reformation at KS3 or beyond). Do we prepare our new teachers with this curricular knowledge before they step into the classroom? Some high-quality training courses might do so, but my understanding is that the vast majority don’t have the time to pack so much content in. And yet it strikes me as a vital part of what trainees need to teach effectively.

Perhaps one solution would be to train new teachers for each separate key stage rather than expect to equip them for all three of them in one go. For instance, they might spend their first training year focusing on KS3 and investigating the curricular questions for that key stage. I know this can vary from school to school, but there are enough overlaps to construct a meaningful repository of curriculum knowledge. Once trained in KS3, teachers may decide to practise in that key stage for a year or several more, before returning to train for other key stages. Am I being fanciful here?

One cannot underestimate the amount of curricular knowledge required to teach effectively. When I came to write my booklets on the Middle Ages (available on I took as my starting point the curriculum most often taught in year 7. I thought I knew it well enough and that the booklets would take me relatively little time to write. I had after all, studied medieval history at A Level and university. I knew the events and characters so well and I’d spent a considerable amount of time in KS3 history classrooms, initially as an LSA and later as a trainee teacher myself. Surely it would be a walk in the park to prepare resources on these familiar subjects? In the event, I was surprised by just how long it took to read, research and refine the questions and arguments I wanted to make. I laboured over the course of 8 months, during holidays and in the evenings after work, to produce my booklets. Imagine if I’d had to simultaneously do this work while also trying to plan for other year groups, mark lots of books and manage behaviour, such as making phone calls home and running detentions. We are asking new teachers to juggle so much. Again, implicitly we are setting them up to fail.

The net result of trying to squeeze years of expertise into one year-long training course is genericism. Just like my MBA course couldn’t equip me with expertise on all the possible businesses I might venture into, so too the one-year teacher training cannot equip new teachers with the expertise to do their job well. In answer to this conundrum, the focus has turned towards generic pedagogy. This might help explain the current phenomenon where pedagogy has taken centre stage and curriculum a back seat. If you can teach a particular pedagogical technique, then it can be re-used in lots of other contexts – for instance those ubiquitous hexagons or card sorts. When confronted with a full timetable, new and more seasoned teachers grasp at activities that they think will engage their students in some purposeful way. I see these teaching resources shared on Twitter on a regular basis. So for instance just this week, I’ve come across a “Come dine with me” activity and one that uses a Rubik’s cube. Teachers welcome these because they can quickly adapt them to the topic they are teaching, photocopy the worksheets and then spend a “productive” lesson getting their students to fill them out.

And so we have a situation where pedagogy trumps curriculum in schools across the country, leading to the rise of the ‘whiz bang’ lesson. Perhaps this situation would be rectified if more focus were put on developing curricular knowledge in the first place.

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