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Why the push to overhaul teacher training needs a flashback, future preview

By Ishmael Munene | June 28th 2021

Kenya is in the fourth year of implementing a new competency-based curriculum for all levels of schooling. The new curriculum seeks to develop student competencies, including mastery of content, critical thinking and complex problem-solving.

This new curriculum is the third top-down overhaul of the country’s education system since Kenya’s independence in 1963. The previous curriculum was deemed too academic and examination-oriented. It was deficient in hands-on, experiential learning, and practical experimentation to allow for competence.

The goals of the new curriculum are worthwhile. But a controversial government proposal to radically change teacher training is unwarranted. Under new guidelines by the Teachers Service Commission – the government agency which administers public school teachers – the Bachelor of Education (BEd) teacher training degree is to be abolished.

This degree, in place for the past 50 years, emphasises the mastery of teaching (pedagogical) skills during training. The teacher candidates simultaneously take courses in education courses as well as in content areas during their entire undergraduate studies.

The approach being proposed is identical to the one abandoned in 1970. Under this model – which emphasised subject matter expertise – prospective teachers enrolled in regular arts or sciences degree lasting three years. This would be followed by a one-year post-graduate education diploma, completing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science (Education Option).

The diploma covered educational courses in pedagogy, curriculum, foundations, and management.

In some countries like the US and UK, both approaches are common depending on the institution attended. India and Nigeria, like Kenya, adhere to the Bachelor of Education model only.

Kenya’s official support for change has met a forecul defence of the existing programme. But, in fairness, research is inconclusive on whether student learning is enhanced by the development of teachers’ theoretical professional knowledge or subject matter expertise.

As such, it is not definitive which is the best approach for teachers to get their initial training (called pre-service training). Given student learning outcomes are not determined by what type of pre-service training teachers get, then the new teacher training policy initiative should not driven by research evidence. Rather, it is informed by political calculations. The public teachers’ commission is seeking to project a reformist stance because it wants to be seen to be contributing to the new education system.

The alternative

There is an alternative. Rather than overhauling the existing pre-service teacher training programmes, the commission should pursue a staff development programme for teachers that would focus on collaboration, active learning and problem-solving of complex issues in the new curriculum.

Just as important, university curricula and how they are implemented should remain the preserve of the academic institutions. This control would ensure that academic programmes are grounded in the best knowledge available. And it would ensure courses are free of short-term political considerations.

The Bachelor of Education programme, offered under arts or science, is the most widely offered degree in Kenya’s universities. Some 56 of the 74 public and private universities – equivalent to 76 per cent – offer the course. The popularity of the programme emanates not only from the ease of mounting the programmes but also the good employment prospects, captured in teacher shortage surveys. The degree was launched at the then Kenyatta University College in 1970.

Prior to this, prospective teachers completed undergraduate studies in the content teaching areas (either arts or science). This was followed by a one-year postgraduate diploma in professional educational studies. Offered at the University of Nairobi, it stressed the mastery of teaching content over pedagogical skills as a basis for effective student learning outcomes.

But by late 1960s, teacher graduates from the university were being rated below the exemplary teaching records of teachers from two institutions – Kenyatta University College (arts) and the Kenya Science Teachers College (science). The perceived reason was the focus on teacher pedagogical skills rather than content mastery at the two institutions.

Nonetheless, graduates of the two diploma-awarding institutions could only teach junior high school. Only degree holders were entitled to teach the rest of the high school classes. This precipitated the introduction of the Bachelor of Education degree, which has remained in place for 50 years.

The real issue is not whether there is a focus on content mastery or pedagogical skills. The problem is that many of Kenya’s teachers fail to excel in teaching mainly because the pre-service training is disjointed and fragmented.

Subject matter courses

Teacher education scholar Deborah Loewenberg Ball has observed that teacher candidates in universities take stand-alone professional and subject matter courses with minimal opportunities for integrating this knowledge in the context of their work. Such integration, according to Ball, is a complicated task, yet it is assumed teachers achieve it in the course of their work.

Content mastery, on the other hand, is important, yet there is little research to demonstrate the connection between this mastery to students’ learning outcomes. As the Ball rightly observes: what is measured as “content knowledge” (often teachers’ course attainment) is a poor proxy for subject matter understanding.

Furthermore, she argues, many teachers with content mastery lack sufficient understanding of how to hear students, select good learning tasks, or help students learn.

Equally, the benefits of excessive focus on pedagogy, or the method and practice of teaching, are uncertain. Though it elevates teachers’ practice and may improve students’ learning outcomes, research has not identified which aspects of pedagogy contribute to this.

Therefore, a hodgepodge of education courses is offered without a clear justification of their effectiveness in teacher preparation. What has been found to be effective and helped in teacher retention is consistent in-service professional development activities.

What the government should focus on is providing school or site-based in-service professional development to improve student learning outcomes.

It would enable teachers to learn and refine pedagogies in context, it would be content-focused, incorporate active learning, use models of effective practice, and support collaboration between teachers and school administrators.

This cannot be achieved in any pre-service training. This because opportunities for such collaboration and practical sharing of experience are unavailable in universities and colleges.

The writer is a Professor of Research, Foundations and Higher Education, Northern Arizona University. The article was first published in ‘The Conversation’.

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