Ramblings on teacher development

For several years I’ve been unable to escape a certain train of thought, to do with teacher training in all its guises, initial and ongoing.

Back in early 2017 I wrote a blogpost about subject knowledge in ITT, drawing on the findings of the 2015 Carter Review and the ACME report into ITT. In the post I set out the importance of subject knowledge in ITT, how new entrants to the profession, regardless of prior qualifications, lack the content knowledge necessary for teaching, and how the fragmentation in our system allows for hugely variable quality in teacher training in this regard.

At the end of that year I wrote a further post, picking up on the point of fragmentation in the system a little more, and argued that a core curriculum for maths ITT was necessary. Since then the DFE released its ITT core content framework, which was written in recognition of the disparity across ITT providers. The framework makes a start in addressing the issue, in that it sets out what the members of the expert advisory group felt needed to be consistent across all teacher training programmes. It is, however, generic. In its opening pages we read,

The ITT Core Content Framework is designed – as is the ECF – to cover the content required by trainee teachers irrespective of subject or phase. As such, the document does not provide a breakdown of the content to be covered across the various subject training routes for ITT. There is, however, a strong emphasis on the need for training to be subject and phase specific throughout the framework and it is for providers to ensure they carefully craft coherently sequenced curricula that meet the particular needs of their trainees, including the foundational knowledge of what subjects and curricula are. [Emphasis added]

And therein lies the biggest problem of all, and it’s not specific to maths. Up and down the country, new teachers are being trained in schools and universities in hugely different ways, and the way they learn to teach their subject – the didactics of their subject – is down to the knowledge of those training them. It is entirely plausible that someone can train to teach in School A, which has a very particular modus operandi, where there is little-to-no subject specific instruction apart from quick conversations with class teachers when planning, spend a few years working in School A, then train a new teacher themselves in the same way. If this teacher never learnt different approaches themselves, they will not be able to pass any on.

From my perspective, the majority of a trainee teacher’s curriculum, and the majority of qualified teachers’ ongoing development, should be subject-specific and evidence-based. This is not currently the case. I am not criticising any individual, only the system, when I say that this is not what we should expect from a profession in the twenty-first century. Our current model, with school-based training pitted against a university course, is not good enough. There is not enough control over efficacy, uniformity or quality because we are lacking a shared understanding of what teacher training ought to be. Ongoing training is left to teachers’ varying motivations and commitments. If someone is able and willing to use a Saturday, and even aware such things exist, they can attend conferences such as researchEd or MathsConf, which are superb and make learning accessible for free or little cost. But development ought not to be the preserve of those few.

In recent months my thought processes have moved to where teacher training ought to be. You see, I think the entire model of teacher training, support and development in England – initial and ongoing – needs overhaul. It values short-termism and quick wins, refusing to acknowledge the time it takes to develop someone into a good teacher.

Berliner (1988) posited a “theory of skill learning” which said that teachers go through stages in their development:

  1. novice
  2. advanced beginner
  3. competent
  4. proficient
  5. expert

It takes time and experience to move through the stages, but if we recognise their existence we can tailor training and provision appropriately. I am reminded of what we learn from the expertise reversal effect in cognitive science: when someone is a novice, they benefit from explicit instruction and a great deal of scaffolding; when someone is an expert, such an approach can actually hinder, and they respond better to open-ended tasks and greater inquiry.

How often do we put a trainee teacher (a novice) in front of a class and say, “Go for it!”? They are expected to simultaneously learn how to teach a topic, how to manage behaviour, how to move the pupils through the curriculum, how to set and check homework and the many other subtle things an experienced teacher does automatically.

We could, instead, start by putting a trainee in a class and get them to focus on just their content delivery while the qualified teacher manages behaviour and everything else. By scaffolding and gradually removing scaffolds we enable someone to grasp what we want them to more readily.

Often – to use a phrase I’ve only ever heard in a religious context before but which applies here nicely – what we expect early-career teachers to do does not “speak to their condition”. That is, the skill we want them to display is such that they are not ready to display and the knowledge we expect them to have is such that they are not ready to understand. This is where Berliner’s theory takes us beyond implications for the format of initial training and compels us to look at the entirety of continuing development and to critique the existing teachers’ standards themselves.

It should not be the case that someone passes ITT and their NQT year and then is classed as having met the teachers’ standards. Teachers’ standards are not pass/fail and it is doing us all a disservice by suggesting that a list of vague, interpretable statements can be “met” or “not met”. Everything we want a teacher to be able to do is spread along the novice-to-expert continuum. I would argue that we need a system that sets out how a teacher will be developed from novice to proficient over a period of years. One which accepts that someone in their early years will rarely be able to do what someone in their tenth year can do, but that by spreading instruction and expectation out in an ongoing curriculum for teacher development (which doesn’t stop post-NQT) we can guide more people to competency and proficiency more successfully.

Such a system would be inherently developmental rather than judgmental (which anyone who has taught in the last fifteen years will understand has been the prevalent state of affairs). Such a system would build in time for teachers to continue to learn, recognising that only when all teachers are learning consistently can we improve our schools as a whole, rather than in pockets. Most of all, such a system would be subject-specific in the main. Maths teachers would deepen their knowledge of the didactics of maths, while history teachers would do the same for history. Subject would be at the heart, generic pedagogy at the periphery where it belongs.

I haven’t given thought to what this system might look like in practice. I hazard a guess there would be multiple permutations, each with its own merits. I do know there are pockets of excellence throughout the country on which we could draw and there is a combined expertise that rivals anywhere in the world. It’s just fragmented, and tired with initiatives and tinkering, and needs empowering.


One comment

  1. Love this Jemma, I am currently applying for a HoD role and this is perfect for what I want to put across, that too often teachers meet standards, go to prescribed inset, but are pretty much left to their own devices to develop.
    They have often be party to the ‘rating’ game as well, so end up just delivering the same ‘safe’ lessons.
    We know they are not effective as the students are different, so change is needed.


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