I have taught for many years, and I know how hard working and caring most teachers are – yet I am not surprised that people are starting to question whether some of these dedicated teachers are guilty of malpractice.
Personal confession – I have been.
A professional is guilty of malpractice when they go about their work in a way that runs contrary to the best available evidence. For example, a doctor may be guilty of malpractice if she conducted unwarranted surgery or advised all his patients not to vaccinate their kids.
Do you base your approach to teaching on the best available evidence?
For many teachers, their approach to teaching is a private matter. It occurs behind closed doors and is based on personal philosophies of teaching rather than on hard evidence. While some teachers may disagree with each other’s philosophies, it is largely a ‘live-and-let-live’ mentality.
This is why a submission to Government’s review of teacher education is alleging malpractice.
The Achilles heel of teaching as a profession is … the idea that the ‘best’ teachers just make up their own teaching approaches based on their own experience and theories … These teaching beliefs have the effect of encouraging what might be termed malpractice as the norm for teachers in their daily teaching work.
However, the problem goes well beyond individual teachers. In fact, in many cases, teachers have been let down by their training and by their employers.
The Quality of Teacher Education Is Embarrassing
John Hattie’s review of research1 showed that teachers’ initial training had virtually no impact on the results of students those teachers later taught.
This isn’t surprising as student teachers are indoctrinated in personal philosophies of their lecturers, regardless of whether those philosophies are backed up by research. For example, evidence shows that Direct Instruction has an effect size (i.e. its effect on student results) of nearly double that of inquiry teaching. Yet, just yesterday, a student teacher told me that his university was still peddling the idea that inquiry teaching is better.
Every year I present lectures to teacher education students and find that they are already indoctrinated with the mantra ‘constructivism good, direct instruction bad’. When I show them the results of these meta-analyses, they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.
Teacher training needs to convey the evidence about what works, and what works best – even if it means that some academics have to put their pet philosophies aside. As with any profession, new ideas and theories will emerge. These can be talked about openly. However, such theories should not be endorsed and promoted to teachers in training unless subsequent research supports those ideas.
Employing Organisations Are Not Much Better
Recently, a teacher asked me to help her write her application to be recognised as a senior teacher (I’m sure it’s called other things by other employers).
What made me cry was that she was that as part of this process, she was expected to show how she catered for kid’s different learning styles and how she helped other teachers to do the same. There has never been any research support for catering to children’s different learning styles. In fact, research has shown that such efforts are an utter waste of time.
Learning styles has as much scientific basis as the magic crystals you can buy in the King Arthur shop in Glastonbury.
The problem is that those in charge of teaching and learning within various systems have their own pet philosophies, often grounded in misinformation that they themselves were fed. They embed these unsupported beliefs in system-wide policies and in system supported professional development programs.
Organisational leaders need to ensure that their policies and promoted practices reflect what the research says.
What Can Be Done
If we are serious about cleaning up the malpractice in our profession:
- Teachers need to be made aware that much of what they were taught had little if any grounding in evidence.
- Individual teachers must be willing to challenge deeply entrenched beliefs about teaching, and to change those beliefs when the research shows them to be wrong or inferior.
- Universities need to ensure that their teacher-training courses reflect what the evidence shows to work best.
- School systems need to replace unsupported practices with evidence based approaches in their system-wide policies and in system supported professional development programs.
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. [↩]