Preparing the next generation of classroom teachers is hugely important, but, argues Elaine Sharpling, over-protecting students and neglecting proper challenge can hamper their development. In this insightful blog, she offers an alternative to what has been dubbed the ‘snowflake generation’ and calls for a more pragmatic approach to teacher education…

As a teacher educator I have the privilege and joy of working with a wide range of student-teachers who are on their way to a career in teaching. In general, the students are enthusiastic, well-motivated and want to achieve their best. These qualities are admirable and ones which we would like to see in all learners across a sophisticated education system.

Recently I have been reflecting on how these qualities are made manifest in the programmes of teacher education, and how we each play a part in achieving these shared outcomes. Increasingly, university programmes of study are being held to account and different measures are in place to determine whether or not they are fit for purpose. National Student Surveys, Teaching Excellence Frameworks and destination data are all examples of ways in which the student voice is captured and, more importantly, given credence and value.

Of course this is important and no-one would argue that expensive and poorly delivered degree programmes should be allowed to run and in doing so give false hope for employment opportunities and career progression. Public accountability and transparency is to be valued and students need robust information to make informed choices.

However, if the qualities of being enthusiastic for learning, being well-motivated and striving to achieve the best are shared ambitions between the student and the university tutor, then there has to be a space for both voices to be heard.

‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure’, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, is an analysis of how good intentions in university education may have inadvertently led to over-protecting students and hampering development.

I support the view that attempts to achieve inclusivity by shielding students from words, ideas and thinking which may cause emotional discomfort can lead to a ‘generation intellectually and emotionally ill-prepared for an ever-more fraught and complex world’ (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). Others describe this as characteristics of the ‘snowflake generation’ in which young people are over-protected, demonstrate less resilience and are more likely to take offence than their predecessors.

Whether it be described as coddled minds or snowflakes, there are long-term implications for our whole education system if students fail to embrace the world as it is (with its complex and competing ideas), and begin to force change to avoid challenge and suit their individual needs. Indeed, how will student-teachers espouse the new curriculum aim for ‘ambitious and capable learners’ if they themselves are risk adverse and teach from a position of comfort.

My own experience as a university tutor has seen this kind of ‘coddling’ beginning to emerge in university programmes, albeit through the lens of good and worthy intentions. Most recently, this can be seen in the increase of unconditional offers and the perceived lowering of entry requirements – an action which is having the unintentional effect of demotivating students who would previously strive for good entry grades.

In teacher education, our aim is to raise the bar for entry thus signaling the value attributed to our education system. However, we are not free from aspects of coddling and need to refocus our energies in preparing student teachers to become the educators of future generations. In particular, I believe there is a risk to the development of critical thinking which should be at the heart of a university education and the foundation for the teaching profession.

Lukianoff and Haidt suggest that one way the development of critical thinking may be hampered is to allow students to adopt the stance of ‘always trusting your feelings’. This particular aspect of coddling relies on emotional reasoning and gives the student space to create distorted schemes about ideas and tasks. In teaching this can be transmitted to the pupils, for example: ‘I’m no good at Maths’ or ‘You will be much better at drawing than me’.

If critical thinking is a commitment to inform one’s ideas with reliable evidence, and to recognise that this position may need to change given different evidence, then investing in feelings is wholly unreliable and uncritical. Not only this, but relying on feelings is a barrier to scholarly behaviour and has the potential to impede progress in the field of education through a reliance on narrow thinking.

One aspect of behavior that may fuel this reliance on feelings is the growing tendency for catastrophising. Both in the sense of focusing on the worst possible outcome, e.g. ‘I am going to fail anyway’, and in the over-dramatising of a particular incident, e.g. ‘The library has no books,’ when a student-teacher has struggled to find a particular article or text.

At best, catastrophising leads the university tutor or the school-based mentor to be caught-up in the time-consuming venture of diffusing an emotional response either with individual students or with a cohort of students. Only when a more objective balance is restored can any engagement with critical thinking even begin.

At worst, the pressures of accountability, most particularly through the external surveys, can lead to a reciprocal act of catastrophising on behalf of the university tutor, who is also at risk of making an emotional response. The fear of negative feedback via the various outlets for student voice is very real and puts livelihoods at stake.

At some point, someone has to gather the evidence and mitigate the distortion so that balance is restored.

Learning how to be a teacher is complex. The children who find themselves artificially gathered into a class are not a homogenous group but are individual, idiosyncratic and ever-changing. Student-teachers need to be equipped to succeed in this environment by having the skills of critical thinking at their finger-tips and being aware of the risks of emotional responses.

At the heart of critical skill development is the need to be engaged with and informed by research – not in some dusty tower surrounded by books, but in the classroom at the site of practice. The practical skills of being ethical, being skeptical, being a skilled researcher and being part of an inquiring profession (Orchard and Winch, 2015) need to be explicitly taught in teacher education programmes. I would suggest that this is a powerful antidote to the risk of coddling.

These skills are both student-teachers’ defence and their ticket for growth – it is entirely possible to be challenged, to survive and as a consequence, to form a different viewpoint which leads to progression.

Furthermore, the imminent launch of the new curriculum founded on its guiding principles of subsidiarity means that the teaching profession as a whole needs to move away from delivering an off-the-shelf curriculum to becoming curriculum designers. High-level curriculum documents will have to be critically discussed, debated and interpreted to give a unique perspective for every school setting.

This will need all of the attributes of critical thinking to be brought to the fore. If future teachers are to achieve practical wisdom (the meeting of intellectual and experiential knowledge in the classroom), then the terms ‘research evidence’, ‘research-informed’, and ‘professional evidence’ need to be a part of the new glossary of teaching.

And so, we all have a part to play in this revolutionary landscape of change in education and I am convinced that with a renewed focus on developing critical thinking, our student-teachers will neither be coddled nor snowflakes.

It is inquisitive innovators, who are responsive to challenge and constantly learning, that will make all the difference in a post-Donaldson world.

  • Elaine Sharpling is Director of Initial Teacher Education at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Leave a Reply