Degrees of Freedom

Michael Gove’s Wizard Wheezes: No 47:

Maths teaching is all to pot now (not like in my day), so let’s make things jolly well better. We’ll get all those mathematical chappies from the universities to teach children maths. What could be better, eh?

A bit extreme, perhaps, but not far from the truth if you read the BBC story from yesterday, with ministers suggesting that giving university fellows extra cash for teaching in schools.

At first the idea seems oddly seductive: three’s a problem with maths and science teaching, so let’s get the expertise form places in the system where we know it is. This will, of course raise standards. Won’t it? Well, no. no it won’t. And it’s indicative of a mindset amongst minters about the value and difficulty of teaching. There are a couple of problems wit hthe idea. Here they are:

  1. Just because you’re good at hard sums doesn’t mean you’re any good at explaining. Maths and physics at degree level are very different beasts from the things you learn at school. There’s a whole bunch of abstract frameworking and thinking required to get around, just to be able to deal with the notations for doing stuff, never mind actually doing them. Many of the people doing these subjects past the doctoral level have now assimilated so many of these things into their normal thinking that it’s difficult to roll back and think about them in the basic ways again. See, even explaining that is hard. How do you manage to even begin to remember what it was like to explain something basic to year 7 kids when your head is chock full of multi-dimensional spaces and abstract geometries.
  2. Just because you can teach adults doesn’t mean you can teach children. Another problem. Academics are used to teaching adults, if they’ve been let loose on undergraduates at least. Even then they’ve probably been given the donkey work to do. The issues of pedagogy (teaching children) and teaching adults (andragogy) are different. Pedagogy needs an understanding of things like brain plasticity, developmental stages and understanding what kids at those stages can and cannot do easily or well. For adults, the job is (at least in theory) a bit easier – that part of the process has happened, and students can articulate needs and issues more clearly in many cases. That’s why PGCE and PGCHE are different qualifications.
  3. Can you even teach AT ALL? Then there’s the kicker. All of this is lovely, but you just might not be able to do it at all. Being a good teacher is a gift. It is possible to train people to teach adequately, but the good ones are born, not made. It’s doubly insulting, because it firstly forgets just how many poor teachers there are in HE (though that is slowly improving because of things like HEA, so obviously it’s having all it’s funding pulled. How clever). Second, it relegates the skill of teaching children to being inconsequential. The assumption being made by people like Gove is that anyone can teach school kids; it’s easy. Anyone who’s been through either PGCE or even PGCHE knows this simply isn’t true. I feel reasonably comfortable teaching in HE, but I know for a fact that I would struggle more in a secondary school classroom for a whole bunch of reasons.

This is classic Government (and not just above, Tory-led rabble) kind of announcement. It’s seductively simple, and appears to appeal to “common sense”, but it really hasn’t been thought through. Pushing academics from the top down isn’t the solution. HE mentoring of teachers and support is a good start, but this isn’t the way. It’s a panicky short-term attempt at a fix because we are not producing a good enough stream of science and maths teachers through our own school systems. It’s doomed to fail, unfortunately, in the few places it will end up being tried.

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