Education: Learning at the chalkface - Lucy Hodges examines an American system of training

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HOMEWORK for that night was fractions. The seven-year-olds' task was to divide their supper into four equal pieces and eat them one by one.

'But what if it's soup?' asked Maruna. 'What if we go to a restaurant?' said another smart alec. 'Well, do it there,' replied their young teacher patiently. 'But my parents will get real mad,' ventured another. 'They'll tell me to stop playing with my food.'

This was one of the first maths lessons that Jolie Plate had taken in Bonnie Brae, a primary school in northern Virginia, and she was learning as well. Bonnie Brae is one of 10 schools in Fairfax County at which trainee teachers are learning their job where it matters - in the classroom. More than 50 such schools have started up in the United States as experts continue the search for new and better ways of training with methods based in practice rather than theory.

Unlike many trainee teachers, Ms Plate had the advantage of knowing the class well and they of knowing her. She had spent three days of each week with them, learning how to take a lesson, set up a classroom and motivate those who were disinclined to study.

The lesson was observed by the regular classroom teacher Lori Stone, who doubles as Ms Plate's 'mentor', and was deemed a success. One activity moved smoothly into another, the pupils paid attention, they participated furiously, and most seemed to grasp


The American approach of making schools training establishments where a working teacher is assigned to a trainee, is one which education ministers would like British universities and schools to emulate.

Ms Plate, 28, is thriving under the attentive eye of Mrs Stone, who has 13 years' experience and appreciates an extra pair of hands. She also welcomes the professional development school, as it is called, and describes her own training in the Sixties as inadequate.

'But that was an easy time,' she says. 'There is no time for teachers to try their act out on the road any more. The parents won't stand for it. They will say 'I want my kid out of that classroom'.'

The idea for the special training school is modelled on the medical intern in the teaching hospital. 'Nothing affects the ability to teach as much as simply being there, next to a teacher, and doing it,' says Mrs Stone. 'The longer you are part of a classroom, the better you are going to be when you start work.'

The experiments in America vary. In Michigan, for example, professional development schools contain education professors who spend half their time in the classroom and half in the university. In Washington State the emphasis is on getting teachers to do courses at the university. But all are trying to include trainers in the life of the school, and teachers in the life of training colleges.

There has been the same debate in the US as in Britain about teacher training being too divorced from the classroom, about it being too theoretical and taught by academics who have not seen a child in years. There is also much agitation about falling standards and failing teachers.

The special training school is part of a greater effort on the part of individual states to improve teacher training and thereby raise standards. In Virginia, training has been made into a one-year postgraduate degree.

Student teachers at Bonnie Brae are enrolled at George Mason, a state university in Virginia. They spend two days a week on campus taking courses in the curriculum and observing and assessing children's behaviour; theory is kept to a minimum.

The idea is to integrate what they are taught in the lecture theatre with what they learn in the classroom. This is not always achieved, particularly as the schools were not initially consulted about the syllabus. But in recent months there have been regular meetings between the five Bonnie Brae teacher-mentors and the university professors. Changes have been made as a result.

'What is nice about George Mason is that they do listen to the teachers,' says Mrs Stone. 'And they are prepared to make alterations to the course.'

Rather than read 20 books of children's literature, as required by the professors, students are now asked to find children's literature to support what is going on in the classroom.

The computer course, in which trainees learnt how to use a computer for word-processing, compiling databases and using spreadsheets, has been altered and integrated with what is going on at the school. The students complained bitterly that the course was too abstract, so the Bonnie Brae teachers were consulted. They badly needed an inventory of the school's software, related to subject areas. Bingo - that was where the database training came in handy.

'One of the great values of this project is that it enhances teachers' professionalism,' says Mary Anne Lecos, George Mason's director of teacher education. 'They no longer feel like cogs in a machine, but like people whose expertise is respected in training the next generation of teachers.'

All those I spoke to in the George Mason/Fairfax scheme agreed that it was a genuine collaboration and had worked. They were almost surprised it had been so successful. But the clash between the academic and school cultures is not so easily reconciled everywhere.

'The biggest problem has been to get the academics and teachers to give up their differences of power and status and to regard one another as equals,' says John Snyder, director of the National Centre for the Restructuring of Education, Schools and Teachers at Columbia University in New York. 'The teachers think the real problem is to fix the colleges, which are all screwed up, and the professors think they need to fix the schools.'

The other big problem is money, which is in short supply in American education. It is not easy to introduce reforms, persuading people to change their methods or do extra work, without hard cash.

George Mason University came up with the neat solution of persuading Fairfax county, the equivalent of a local education authority, to hire the trainee teachers as substitute teachers.

This has brought great benefits. The money for the substitutes is switched to the university, which pays the trainees a stipend of dollars 5,500 ( pounds 2,900) each for the school year, and the school gets a steady supply of substitutes, people they know and who can ensure continuity.

Having received special university training free, the mentor-teachers, are given several hundred dollars a term for their efforts. It is not much, but it is something. Compensation comes from the satisfaction of doing a good job and feeling valued.

'The quality of the people we are turning out is so much richer than it has been in the past because of the year in this school,' says Kay Eckler, principal of Bonnie Brae. 'I would like to leave as a legacy a way of bringing teachers up to scratch before we put them in the classroom.'