Banishing the Past in Teacher Training

Since I had been aware of the progressive ideology emanating from universities before starting my course, I picked up on the anti-traditional bias from start. During the induction week for new trainee teachers, our course coordinator told us to put aside any preconceived notions we may have of what traditionally constituted a good teacher. She advised us not to fall back on impressions from own school days, as apparently times have ‘moved on’ to a more ‘progressive’ era where students are engaged in active learning rather than passive recipients of mere knowledge. This was a pre-emptive strike against traditional teaching: she knew that Irish education has until recently remained fairly conservative in that we have been resistant to the progressive fads that other Western countries embraced, such as the belief that everything taught must be relevant to the child’s life, ‘mere facts’ (i.e. large doses of knowledge) are tedious and that discipline is oppressive. Our coordinator seemed to be concerned that we may be favourably disposed towards conservative education – or ‘chalk and talk’ as it’s now disparagingly called – having benefited from it ourselves. She was thus subtly priming us to reject this legacy: yes, you may have benefited from a traditional model of teaching, but this style is no longer an option, she seemed to be suggesting.

The coordinator proceeded to get herself into a bit of a muddle, though. She went on to sing the praises of one particular Irish-language teacher from her own school days who, judging by her description of him, had a traditional, no-nonsense approach, as he did lots of grammar, translation and rote memory work. He inspired her to go on to study Irish at university. She used his example when speaking of the impact good teachers can have on students. After speaking so glowingly of him, however, she then had to qualify her praise with an an obligatory warning against his conservative style. While he may have been suited to the era and worked for some students, she said, ‘you could never teach like he did nowadays’. Nowadays too much emphasis on grammar and translation is frowned upon as it is deemed to be pedantic and off-putting: students must do lots of games and group work, with everything served up to them on a fun plate in the hope that they will pick things up in a natural process of osmosis. In reality, this ‘child-centred’ approach leads to a chaotic classroom where students are lucky to pick up the odd word as they end up speaking the target language badly among themselves in small groups while the teacher darts among groups as a largely useless ‘facilitator of learning’.

My coordinator serves as a prime example of the kind of cognitive dissonance that exists among progressive educators who have benefited from a conservative, knowledge-rich education themselves but who seek to deny it to others. Since their own positive experience doesn’t fit their progressive ideology, they have to reject their own heritage of traditional schooling and seek to deny others the fruits of such an education. They know that the caricature of repressive, authoritarian teaching is largely false and yet they go along with it. Since ‘old-school’ education is closely associated with the Catholic Church in Ireland, progressive educators seem to believe that putting an end to traditional practices is a necessary part of the wider process of cleansing the country of the Church’s supposedly toxic legacy.

Another highly ‘progressive’ reason that our coordinator opposed the traditional educational system is that certain aspects of it are apparently a legacy of British colonialism. She said that the school uniform was a colonial imposition, implying that it should therefore be abolished. But rejecting something based on its ‘imperial’ provenance is ridiculous. By this logic, should we abolish parliamentary democracy and Georgian architecture, since they are both relics of British rule? This scorn for the past also betrays a mistrust of Irish people: did previous generations of Irish people not choose to adopt and maintain school uniforms and the inherited grammar-school curriculum, seeing them as fit for the purposes of the time?

While bashing the old system, our coordinator made snide remarks about Irish people being backward and frustratingly resistant to change. But, she added, there are ‘signs of hope’ that progressivism is taking hold. Being Irish herself, she intended her comments about Irish backwardness to be self-deprecating. But to me, her patronizing attitude towards her fellow Irish men and women who happen to be conservative is indicative of an inferiority complex, which is ironically a legacy of the colonial era.

In any case, why would we scrap our valuable educational inheritance if it has served previous generations well and has been found to be well above average in international comparisons like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)? We should do our best to preserve it and guard against rejecting it or modifying it simply because it does not accord with the progressive worldview that sees traditional institutions as inherently bad.

The edu-blogger Anthony Radice recently tweeted: ‘It’s not so easy for consultants to get away with peddling tripe nowadays. They have to ask themselves how many bloggers are in the audience’. Well, no longer is it easy for educationalists to get away with peddling tripe on teacher training courses. Luckily I can go to the traditional edu-blogospere when I need an antidote to the hyper-progressive ideology being propagated on my course. I have also found some like-minded trainee-teachers with whom I share subversive blogs and who were in turn relieved to discover that they are not alone in their misgivings about what we are being taught.

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