Teaching habits hard to break
The view was expressed recently on a local radio station that, in Barbados, there is too much emphasis on “teaching” and too little on “learning”.
Permit me to say, however, that the teacher-education programmes, at both Erdiston College and the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, have for years been driven by an emphasis on student-centred learning. These programmes are underpinned by the adoption of the constructivist approach which is, in effect, a theory of learning (and not a method of ‘teaching”), which clearly views the teacher as more a “facilitator of learning” rather than a dispenser of knowledge.
I do agree, though, that there appears to be a problem in terms of what transpires at the classroom level, and the resultant dissonance between what the teachers are taught in their training and how they, in turn, function in the classroom. Part of the problem, it seems, lies in four longstanding “elements” in our schooling system.
(i) The historical culture of teaching in Barbados.
(ii) The rather abbreviated period of teacher training that we offer our beginning teachers.
(iii) The acute shortage of “learning” resources, and the heavy reliance on textbooks.
(iv) The role of the principal as being more of a manager than really as an instructional leader.
Historically, the method of teaching in Barbados has always been characterized by an emphasis on direct instruction, also called “lecture” or “exposition” or “teacher talk”. And the research indicates that teachers tend to “teach as they were taught”.
They have thus “learned” by observation and experience, and thus build on their own “primitive spontaneous pedagogical tendencies”. These habits of teaching are thus rather difficult to break; and it will of course take time, practice and reflection change these traditional attitudes and methods.
Yet the rather brief periods of training now provided for our teachers is clearly inadequate, and cannot satisfactorily address the required shifts in habits and attitude to teaching and learning. We appear to be quite satisfied with a single two-year training programme; while, in some other jurisdictions (such as Germany or New Zealand), teachers are required to undergo up to six or seven years of preparation before entering the classroom.
In addition, the period of practical teaching, in Barbados, is between eight and 12 weeks – far less than the 16 to 24 weeks required in many other jurisdictions. (See table at top). Only in the diploma in education programme, where the teachers are already teaching full-time, is the practicum longer than 20 weeks.
“Learning”, especially experiential, requires the learner to interact with a variety of learning resources and situations, both inside and outside of the classroom. Barbadian schools, however, are noticeably deficient in this respect.
Apart from the designated textbook(s), there are notoriously few other learning resources available in schools. Thus teachers are often forced, despite their training, to adopt the stance of “the sage on the stage” rather than being, more effectively and professionally, “the guide on the side”.
Equally important, in all of this, is the role of the school principal who needs to be a person of vision and ideas, and not merely a manager. The principal also needs to be, in reality, an “instructional leader”, ensuring that the students have access to adequate learning resources, learning conditions and learning opportunities. He/she needs to speak more about “the needs of the students” and plans “for the students”, rather than the frequent intonations about “my school”.
These four dimensions of the teaching/learning enterprise need to be urgently addressed if any meaningful improvements are to occur and be maintained in our educational system.
A teacher-education programme, no matter how well designed and delivered, cannot be successful if its mission and its graduates are not actively and professionally supported by (i) the principal, (ii) adequate learning resources and (iii) the classroom conditions.
Too many Erdiston and UWI teacher-graduates complain about their frustration and inability to transfer many of the progressive ideas and approaches learned during their training. The research suggests that the three factors above loom large in their frustration.
The problem therefore does not lie with the teacher-education programme per se, though this may need some revisions. The problem rather resides mainly with the existing in-school and in-class conditions relative to: (1) support from administration (2) learning resources, (3) access to ICT facilities, and (4) student attitude and motivation.
• Anthony Griffith is a former senior lecturer in education, UWI, Cave Hill