11 October 2009

On doing a "one-off" (written 8 10 09)

I have been asked to step in to do a single one-hour lecture to about 200 Secondary PGCE students tomorrow on "Major Theories of Learning", for reasons which don't matter. So I thought it might help concentrate my mind, and give some hostages to fortune (this is before the event, and I'll post afterwards, too), if I "talked through" some of my thoughts with whoever is out there.

In what follows, it is not my intention to be critical of the programme or of colleagues working on it. It is in the nature of the situation that I have a very limited view of the factors which went into its design. But it is a challenge, just as it would be for someone else making a similar emergency contribution to a programme I had designed.

Beyond my control/above my pay grade (basic VL contract): If you are outside the UK, the PGCE (I won't expand the initials--there is a big argument with policy implications over what they stand for!) is the basic qualification for graduates who wish to become teachers and acquire Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) in schools. (Yes, there are lots of other teachers who do not work in schools, but that is another story...) It is a full-time one-year course, which consists of 80% teaching practice in a school supported/assessed by a mentor, and 20% = one day a week in the university. In the unlikely event that you want to know more go here. This is, I think, the end of week three of the initial study block.

The programme concerned has, I am told, just this one lecture on learning theories. It is followed by a seminar, granted, but the topic of that has been decided already. It is based on the "Simple Minds" video, which is a very stimulating polemic (some parts of it are used here), but since I was not involved in the original planning, I am not sure what connection was being made between the lecture and the seminar.

The details of learning theory will be dealt with by practice-based mentors as they arise, I am told. If this happens, it is in my view the best way of dealing with the material. It will be anchored in experience and practice and responding to students' questions. I'm not sure in practice that mentors and students always have enough space to stand back from actual teaching and consider the underlying principles. But let's assume that it works.

So! The one and only explicit hour in the year which addresses the body of learning theory (we'll assume that it is confined to taught learning in young human beings.) How should I make the most of the opportunity?

I have a copy of last year's presentation, but the lecturer is not identified so I can't check anything out with her or him. But she (probably) was helpfully explicit about her Aims and the Session Outline (again, we clearly differ about tactics, but this was a well-crafted lecture. Come to think of it, why could she not have just repeated it this year?*). She identified the Aims of the session as;
  • To consider some of the major theories that try to account for how learning happens 
  • To explore how learning theories may help us to understand issues related to learning 
  • To think about the implications of these ideas for our work as teachers
That makes good sense. But it is Teacher-think. Precisely, of course, what this course sets out to endow on its graduates, and to which I shall appeal a little later, which is rather ironic.

I read through the presentation, trying to wear my hypothetical recent-graduate-teacher-trainee-to-whom-all this-education-stuff-is-rather-bewildering head. I got a headache from the hammer blows of bullet points telling me what I ought to know about learning theories. Unless I know this, I won't be able to be an effective teacher...

Apart from the self-evident fact that this is egregious bullsh*t (don't you think that the asterisk is overworked?), that is only self-evident to 40-year denizens of the swamp like me...
Isn't this putting the cart before the horse? I've just been in correspondence with a student elsewhere who has been very critical, in public (a mistake) about one of his lecturers, who clearly knows a lot about teaching, but has not connected that with how s/he does it.

I think I have to go for the "thinking-like-a-teacher" orientation. This of course buys into all the Threshold Concepts stuff I have been exploring for the past year or two...

But reality obtrudes. It's after 9 pm and I have to prepare the session for real rather than pontificate about it....

*  Does all this agonising about teaching actually matter? Does it make any difference? Wouldn't we do better relying on the Pareto principle?

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