Does culture trump everything?

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Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction provide a useful summary of some important ideas that we would encourage our trainee teachers to read and think about. The practice of instruction is an important aspect of teaching which many professionals need to be concerned with in their day to day work. However, as academics, one of our roles is to encourage our trainees to question the wide range of evidential and philosophical positions that they encounter, and before Rosenshine’s work becomes a kind of unchallengeable orthodoxy (something that happens with influential educationalists’ work – c.f. Lev Vygotsky) we would raise two questions that we think speak to the wider question of culture and its effect on education

  • To what extent are Rosenshine’s principles (and the research that he bases them on) facilitated by the cultural context within which he is working?
  • To what extent can any educational idea be successful if the cultural environment that it is being introduced to – both within and outside schools – does not see view that idea as desirable or compatible?

In raising these questions, we don’t seek to denigrate Rosenshine’s (or any other thinker’s) work, but rather get trainees and their mentors to think about  the wide range of processes at work in teaching and learning. However for at least one or two of us in the UoB team we would posit that culture might be the most significant, and perhaps unrecognised factor involved in these processes.  What we’re referring to when we talk about culture is in some senses, an intangible combination of location, class, race, gender and ethnicity, but for simplicity’s sake, we might see it as the interconnectedness of three things; who I am, where I come from and how those things shape my world view. This might also apply to groups of people or organisations, so culture could also refer to who we are and how we see the world.

Writing in the TES recently  teacher and blogger Mark Enser suggested that he thought that every UK teacher’s practice could be improved by adopting Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. However, he also commented that he thought that it would take a culture shift to effect such a change in UK schools.  Enser is right about this – to move to the kind of culture in which instruction was the focus of all teaching would require some big movements in the way that both educational policy is made, schools are run and teachers are developed. Attempting such a shift would lead to that second one of our two questions above; is such a shift achievable, or indeed, desirable? To explore this further for a minute, let us return to Rosenshine, an academic working at an American University (Illinois, in this case) and working with people who are going on to teach in American elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Anyone who has spent any time in the American education system will know that instruction is very important; indeed, many of the people who work in these institutions will be referred to as instructors. Within this education system, they are expected to instruct, to lecture, to set quizzes and tests and to confer grades on their students.

We would suggest that this is something subtly different to the Northern European conception of a teacher. In the European tradition, instruction has only been a part of what the teacher is expected to do. Some people might think that this is what needs changing  about UK schools– that teachers need to be left to teach – but notice here that they don’t say “teachers need to be left to instruct”. We might suggest then that the culture of Northern European education – as opposed to an American, or Far Eastern one perhaps – is one in which the teacher has a more holistic, and certainly more pastoral, role. The teacher standards (regardless of what one thinks of them) in both the UK and the Netherlands would seem to indicate this. We could of course, have a national conversation about whether or not we think that this should be the role of the teacher, but right now, in many ways, this is the culture of UK education.

Instruction is of course, a hugely important part of many educational processes. Improving the way that our trainees here at UoB give instruction is something that we focus on quite a lot. Rosenshine provides a good starting point for thinking about what teachers need to do with instruction. But what about those circumstances where we don’t want them to be instructing (we think there are some) or perhaps those circumstances where we need them to be more critical than Rosenshine’s principles require them to be? (And we should say here, that probably in opposition to a lot of people writing on the internet, that we believe “whataboutery” to be a thoroughly good thing, as it drives inquiry on). We have recently been engaged in some research[i] which suggests that there might be some difficulties for science teachers  – who require a particular kind of ontological self- awareness – if they approach their instruction, or any other aspect of their teaching,  in an uncritical way; a fact not lost on some American colleagues who are thinking along similar lines. Such criticality requires an understanding of the culture in which Rosenshine originally develops his research, and the cultures from which his research examples are drawn (largely Maths, Science and English classrooms in the USA and Australia). It also requires some understanding that the culture of school science requires that teachers’ instruction deals in things that are, at best, simplifications.

The importance of understanding culture, is importantly for us, acknowledged by a wide range of people in education who come at the problem from different perspectives. Tom Bennett, for example,  arrived at the conclusion that the culture within a school is the single most important factor in determining how pupils behave. We often extend this by telling our students that they need to understand the culture that surrounds a school as well and this thinking is what leads to the second of the questions that we started with. If we want to promote a particular way of thinking about teaching and learning we need to understand the culture into which we are doing that promotion. Careful thought about this process is required beforehand if it is to work. For us this is best exemplified by the cautionary tales of the involvement of both Dulwich College and Wellington School in state education. Both instances suggest that knowing a little about the culture of the area that you are moving your educational philosophy into might be useful, and a consideration of the cultural differences between that philosophy and the world view of the people you are trying to introduce it to may also prevent misunderstandings. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt you might carry a big stick, but you still need to remember to walk softly.

 

[i] Bates, G. & Connolly, S. (in review)  “The role of intellectual virtues in the development of the science teacher: an initial provocation” Research in Teacher Education

Are you a PGCE mentor or PGCE trainee? Read on…

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Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee meets their PGCE mentor. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter  ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’

You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever.

The first thing to think about is that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious

What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?
Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?

Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly.

You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like.

How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?

Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.

What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?
What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?

Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:

If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?

And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.

There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.

How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment?  Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.

I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit.

What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously?  Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?

That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.