Formal learning ‘on the job’ a success

Much of our tertiary education system involves a separation of theory from practice. Recently, however, a new experiment to bring a fresh stream of talented people into the teaching profession has shifted from the traditional approach.

The Teach For Australia initiative selected 45 top university graduate students from 750 applicants across a wide range of course backgrounds. Despite wide criticism of the program, these students were then placed into an intensive 6-week teacher education program at Melbourne University.

The students were then sent to ‘Associate’ teaching positions in Victoria’s toughest schools.

Throughout their practical teaching experience the students continue to study and undergo a formal mentoring program. In many ways this initiative mimics the style of training and development established in the vocational education system. The bottom line is that the students are learning by doing, supported by continued development of their knowledge of theory.

After the first year of the program, 95% percent of the students are continuing into the second year of teaching which is an outstanding achievement and highlights the value of mixing theory with practice.

As a qualified teacher myself (my first degree was a Bachelor of Education majoring in Physical Education) I have often thought that the ‘apprenticeship’ style of formal education might be better suited to the development of teachers. I have often thought the same about management development.

One of the great challenges for management development is the separation between theory and practice. When you are the only manager from your area completing a graduate management program it is very difficult to apply what you are learning in the workplace. It is even more difficult to discuss with colleagues why you are doing what you are doing. It is for this reason that formal corporate education programs where teams of people from the same company receive formal management training as a cohort have the potential to significantly enhance the transfer of theory into practice.

Looking back at the education example cited above, let’s consider some of the reasons why this program has been successful despite it being highly criticised when it was introduced. I will take a Systems Thinking perspective on my analysis.

  1. The system required that the students who applied for the program had to be graduating from their current courses with high grades. This meant that the system was attracting students with a proven capacity to learn in a university environment.
  2. The students were aware from the outset that the program required them to teach in ‘difficult’ schools and that this commitment was for a two year period. In other words the students were highly aware of the ‘big picture’ into which they were enrolling.
  3. The students would be paid $45 per year for being in the program. This is a reasonable wage for a graduating student and what better way to receive a formal education than to be paid for doing it!
  4. The factors listed above meant that you had highly self-motivated people enrolling into the program.
  5. When only 45 positions were available and 750 applications were received the intrinsic value of the system was in evidence by the sheer numbers of applicants – students could see the long term value of the system.
  6. Continuing the formal teaching education after the initial six week university program meant that students could discuss and reflect ‘in class’ on real teaching situations. Theory and practice had become one.
  7. The formal mentoring system meant that the students were ‘not alone’ on this journey – while they may have been alone in the classroom, help was never far away.

It is heartening to see such a modern approach to formal education and my hope is that more university courses follow this approach, and management is a particular area that could benefit from tightening the relationship between theory and practice.

You can read more about the Teach For Australia program here.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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