Rethinking Teacher Training – Entrance Requirements and Certification
This post is the second in a three-part series on teacher training. The first, found here, explored evidence-based practices in teacher training programs. The third, found here, discusses how re-structuring mathematics content and pedagogical content courses to include deep content knowledge and evidence-based practices may be of benefit for our future teachers.
In this post, I want to further explore pre-service teacher education by breaking-down a few key items that I think would strengthen our current programs. Specifically, I will look at K-8 mathematics training, using Brock University’s Concurrent Education Program as a reference point (although other university programs will be brought up as well).
HOW MATHEMATICS DEPARTMENTS CAN HELP: ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS INTO EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS
I believe that if we desire excellent teachers of mathematics, then our entrance requirements should be high. To get a sense of what I am looking for, let’s explore Brock’s entrance requirements for their Primary/Junior and Junior/Intermediate programs for 2016.
For entry into the Primary/Junior stream (BA in Child & Youth Studies), students are required to have one Math 4U (grade 12 math) credit, and Data Management is specifically stated in the academic calendar as being preferred. To me, this raises some concerns. Why is Data Management preferred over Advanced Functions or Calculus & Vectors? I am not stating that Advanced Functions or Calculus & Vectors are necessarily better choices, but Brock goes out of the way to state Data Management is preferred and this strikes me as odd. Another concern I have is over the use of calculators. Can we be assured that all high schools in Ontario aren’t using calculators and that our potential future teachers are getting practice with calculations involving fractions, decimals, percent and whole numbers in Data Management? Those in the Primary/Junior stream will be teaching K-6, which includes topics such as comparing fractions, operations with decimal numbers and percent, and operations with multi-digit whole numbers. Does Data Management truly prepare them to master this content? (Go check it out yourself, the curriculum documents are here.)
For entry into the Junior/Intermediate stream, students may choose one of three sub-options: a Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Studies (BA-IS), a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies (BSc-IS), and Bachelor of Physical Education (BPhEd). For entry into the BSc-IS stream, students must have one of Advanced Functions or Calculus & Vectors at 70%. For entry into the BA-IS and BPhEd streams, students are required to have one Math 4U credit (one of: Data Management, Advanced Functions or Calculus & Vectors). Note that both the BA-IS and BPhEd do not require a university level mathematics course whatsoever for degree requirement. Personally, if I was a student interested in teaching, but weak in mathematics, I would take the path of least resistance: BPhEd with Data Management as my math prerequisite, then avoid math at the university level altogether.
We are doing these future teachers a disservice by allowing them to actively avoid mathematics. Teacher training programs need to instill the message that mathematics matters. It is also important for our future elementary teachers to be fluent with the major number sets: whole numbers, integers, rational numbers and real numbers. Why is this important? If we have math-avoiding teachers at the elementary level, then our teachers at the high school level have an uphill and potentially impossible battle of teaching both basic numeracy and more advanced mathematical techniques.
To help give the message that mathematics is important, and that our future teachers should have a base-level of mathematical knowledge, I recommend teacher training programs offer mathematics competency exams. To ensure that future teachers are competent in calculations, I recommend that either (1) calculators not be used, or (2) that the exam is divided into two portions: a calculator-allowed portion that tests knowledge of the device rather than computation, and a non-calculator portion that tests computation. Mathematics Departments, working in conjunction with Education Departments, could offer their time to help with test creation and marking. In addition to this, Mathematics Departments could offer a skills-based mathematics course for students who do not pass the competency exam on their first attempt.
Lakehead University has a math competency exam already set up for their teacher training program. Primary education students must show competency up to a grade 7/8 level, and intermediate education students must show competency up to a grade 8/9 level. Since I have not seen a copy of the competency exams, and I do not know the regulations, I cannot comment on how effective they would be; however, I commend Lakehead for having something like this already in place.
HOW EDUCATION DEPARTMENTS CAN HELP: FINE-TUNING CERTIFICATION
As an instructor of mathematics for pre-service teachers, there is nothing worse to hear from a student than “Well, I will just go into Senior Years Education (high school) because then I don’t have to worry about math.” The main issue in Manitoba, is that when teachers get their certification, they are actually allowed to teach at any grade level (see section A1. of this document). So we have students who enter Senior Years training (in, say Arts), get certification, then land a job in an elementary school – effectively avoiding mathematics altogether. How does this help our teachers, and how does this benefit our students? This may not be the case in all provinces, but if it is, then this loophole needs to be shut.
Personally, I am fine with teachers not wanting to teach mathematics (not everyone loves math as much as I do). Maybe they will be an excellent English, History or Art teacher at the high school level – great! Then let’s ensure that, when hired, they don’t teach mathematics. At the high school level, I believe this would be fairly simple – ensure certified teachers are only permitted to obtain positions in high school in their teachable subjects. Perhaps this could be fine-tuned a bit more, but I haven’t put as much thought toward this level as I have for the K-8 level. At the moment, all pre-service teachers entering K-8 teaching certification are in a “one size fits all” kind of training. That is, we generally want all pre-service teachers to master mathematics up to at least a grade 8 level. Is a teacher who obtains a position in K-2 ever going to use mathematical knowledge from grade 8? Probably not. Mind you, it is not a bad thing for this teacher to have this knowledge. And currently, due to the certification process, someone who wants to teach K-2 may end up teaching grade 8, so I don’t think there is a way around a “one size fits all” training at the moment.
I think we can do better, though. What if we broke up teaching certification at the K-8 level into three streams: Primary (K-2), Junior (3-5) and Intermediate (6-8)? This would allow us to fine-tune what kind of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge we teach to our pre-service teachers (see diagram below). For example, this would allow a teacher entering certification for K-2 to learn deeply the ideas of cardinality, place value, operations with whole numbers, and methods of how to best teach these concepts to our younger students. Best-practices for teaching students aged 4-7 may include discussion of the importance of rote memorization and mnemonics, repeated and spaced out practice, learning through games or play, which manipulatives are best to use for explaining concepts, common misconceptions students at this age group have, and how mathematical concepts connect to future grade levels. If a pre-service teacher decided to go this route, their certification would allow them to obtain a job at the elementary level teaching K-2, and nowhere else. Similar certification programs could be created for the Junior and Intermediate levels, specifically focusing on the content and pedagogical content knowledge required for those age groups. I believe, if this route of certification is taken, in-service teachers should have the opportunity to upgrade their certification if they choose by taking appropriate content and pedagogical content courses. That is, if they are certified in K-2, they could upgrade to be able to teach K-5 by taking the Junior content and pedagogical content courses. This would allow in-service teachers more flexibility in searching and applying for future positions within their school board, and also ensure that both the Mathematics and Education Departments are happy with their content knowledge.
A big change like this would effectively remove the need for a “one size fits all” approach to elementary teaching certification. This way, our future teachers could develop deep content and pedagogical content knowledge for a specific age-group, rather than broad knowledge for all age-groups. In my opinion, this task would need to be taken up by the Education Departments – effectively lobbying governmental bodies and teachers’ unions to get behind such a radical change. Of course, before such a radical change is taken up, more discussion should be had, as I am simply offering an opinion on the matter.
In closing, I want to mention that successful and meaningful change to teacher training programs cannot be accomplished unless both Mathematics and Education Departments are ready and willing to communicate, collaborate and critically analyze current programs. Remember that this is part of an opinion piece regarding the current state of teacher training in Canada. As such, I welcome constructive feedback on items you think are good and items you think are not so good. Please feel free to offer alternate suggestions and reference any sources you think I might find beneficial. In the future, I would like to spend more time flushing out my ideas and backing them up with appropriate sources. Let me know if you would be interested in reading such a reference!