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Teacher trainees must be allowed to focus on their strongest skills

By Antoney Luvinzu | November 20th 2021

Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia presented a present of one of the best teacher trainees at Murang’a Teacher Training College. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

A recent education stakeholder’s forum agreed that only prospective teacher-trainees who will teach mathematics and/or mathematics-related courses should have the subject as a mandatory {pass} requirement. While this move has been welcome by many, it has elicited mixed reactions in equal measure. 

Some quarters opine that the logical nature of mathematics makes it a mandatory pass requirement for any instructor to teach any discipline.

“Otherwise how would they jolt learners to think logically in the subject they are instructing? How will they compute mathematical tasks like grading etc?” They ask.

Other quarters wholly welcome the move and aver that the interaction with mathematics since primary school through high school is enough to help a teacher carry out simple computations like grading and whatnot. To them, math is technically and logically irrelevant in teaching a subject like literature, or history or psychology et cetera.

Also part of the resolution in the forum was that a teacher of agriculture, for instance, need not pass chemistry, for the same reason math is irrelevant to the arts.

Studies abound on the dichotomy of aptitudes; mathematically inclined individuals tend not to be strong in the arts, and the reverse holds true. Individuals whose strength is the natural sciences might not necessarily be strong in the human sciences or languages. As such, a proficient level grasp of a target language of instruction should suffice. An insistence on a high score in the target language of instruction could be a tall order for them. This could potentially lock out an otherwise good, well versed teacher.

The innumerable formulae, complex equations, and arithmetic with multiple methods poses a problem for many artistically inclined individuals, most of whom do not wish to take courses aligned with the trade of calculations or chemical equations.

There are those who argue that the cluster requirements for educational courses in Kenya are in fact low. That because all other courses {read professions} stem from education (the teacher), then for one to pursue education, they should score an A or at least an A- or B+. The counter argument to this is that a teacher is no longer a reservoir or conveyor of knowledge, but a facilitator of learning. The modern teacher simply facilitates learning. Jolts learners to think, inspires and challenges them to create new knowledge. The 21st classroom is invariably moving away from traditional classes that are deemed to be authoritarian and teacher centred. They are being re-imaged and recalibrated to be more interactive, learner centred and driven by 21st century needs in terms of skills and content.

So, is this resolution a step in the right direction or a set-back in the quest to have quality teachers? What happens in other model jurisdictions?

In one of the top universities in Africa, Rhodes University in South Africa, the vital prerequisite entry for a Bachelor of Education degree admission is a National Senior Certificate (NSC) with at least 50 per cent in the language or subject of teaching and learning and at least 40 per cent in Mathematics or 50 per cent in Mathematical Literacy. In the University of Zambia School of Education, the minimum entry for a Bachelor of Education degree is a mandatory six points or better (which is at least 46 marks or C+) in English Language, and at least six points from any four subjects from: History, Geography, French, English Literature, Mathematics, Zambian Language, Commerce or Economics, Additional Mathematics, Science or Physical Science or Biology or Agricultural Science, or Religious Education.

Compared to the requirements for educational courses admission in Kenya, universities in Zambia give premium to the particular fundamental/key subjects a student wishes to pursue further, which makes it less likely that a student might stall in their pursuit of further education or a course of choice due to failing or not highly passing a particular subject not in the least related to their target or choice. With the current reformed university framework for BED courses, Teachers Service Commission (TSC) has given the entry grade for the science and arts bachelors as a mean grade of C+ and a minimum of B- in three teaching subjects. Which is a fine balance and quite accommodating. However, some still find it a tad too harsh.

In the US, many schools ask prospective teachers to demonstrate their academic ability through a foundational curriculum that includes general education courses in Math, Science, and English. Enrollment in upper-level teaching degree courses requires acceptance by the department. In schools with a high enrollment of education majors, the department selection process could include transcript reviews, interviews, and demonstrated interest in the education profession through volunteer or work experience.

Some schools set prerequisites for admission to the school of education, with classes like speech or an introductory education course, as well as a minimum GPA of 2.5. Some schools also require an interview, essay, and letters of recommendation.

Depending upon the state and school district, college students expecting to graduate from a teacher-education program are first generally required to post satisfactory scores on the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination. Many states require an overall college grade point average of 2.5 (Roughly our equivalent of a C) from an applicant for a teaching certificate to be issued.

In addition, since teachers are expected to demonstrate a good grasp of content and concepts in their field, they often must have a grade point average of 3.0 (Roughly our equivalent of a B-) in order to be accepted unconditionally into a graduate school; many graduate schools require an even higher-grade point average in the applicant’s major. These vital requirements are requisite in the eligibility for teacher training in higher learning institutions in the US where a BED course is one of the major areas many students wish to pursue.

In this light, the resolution in question is well within international best practices.

Intellectually gifted learners

As I have posited earlier, an intellectually gifted person may have a striking talent for mathematics without equally strong language skills. Another learner might depict shades of linguistic intelligence but is badly off in mathematics. In particular, different learners have different abilities in a class setting. Another example is a student artist’s brain, which is structured differently.

Scientific studies have compared artists’ brains to non-artists’ brains, and discovered that the artists in the study had an increased amount of neural matter that is related to visual imagery and fine motor movements. This suggests that an artists’ abilities are innate, but of course environment and nurture can improve their talents further. The study revealed that an artist’s brain is structurally different.

This gives artists the ability to combine imagery and deconstruct imagery in their heads, which can lead them to be more creative individuals. It also suggests why they tend not to be good at analytical work like math, and why this subject may not interest them at all. An artistically gifted person is not less intelligent than non-artists, their brains just don’t align with the linear way of thinking that math requires.

A paradigm shift in teacher education and training is called for that focuses on the development of “reflective practitioners” who can be active participants in their own learning processes as professionals and critical of their own teaching practices. There is a compelling need to ensure that teachers are fully trained and upgraded both academically and pedagogically.

High quality education means that teachers must be trained and confident in children-centred teaching approaches and methods, and skilled in classroom management and in evaluating learning. This can be achieved without placing unnecessary hurdles and red-tape on the way of prospective teacher trainees. A certain level of specialisation should be allowed and even encouraged. We cannot all be good in everything. Prospective teacher trainees should be allowed to shine in what they good in and passionate about.

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