What role is there for university-based teacher educators in an increasingly school-based teacher education system?

By Polly Glegg, UCL Institute of Education

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

The importance of teachers is hardly contentious. Their work is complex and relational, drawing on multi-faceted expertise: they need deep knowledge of learners and learning, of their subject and how to teach it and of teaching as practice, and they need fine professional judgement as they decide how to use their knowledge in practice with each young person they encounter, informed by research and experience. This can be described as having both a ‘practical repertoire’ and a ‘conceptual framework’ for teaching. Like other forms of professional practice, what is observed in teachers’ day-to-day work is the physical manifestation of the rich thought processes that underpin decision-making. This thought process isn’t necessarily evident, even to the expert practitioner themselves, who may not always be able (or need) to articulate fully the conceptual framework underpinning their practice or, indeed, the details of their practical repertoire. Specifically, because it is complex and relational, teachers’ professional judgement can be informed by, but never reduced to, findings from research about ‘what works’ and what constitutes ‘best practice’, or to textbooks of precisely defined ‘moves’ to be reproduced with fidelity. Observing and reproducing what expert teachers do doesn’t account for how expert teachers think. Teacher education curricula should rightly include some content that teachers must ‘know’ and ‘can do’, but always alongside the development of thinking and good judgement. Teaching is thinking and doing, never just doing.

For this reason, initial teacher preparation (ITP) demands careful attention. Teacher educators develop teachers’ practical repertoires and conceptual frameworks. While ITP and teaching are clearly allied activities, the differences between them are crucial and narratives which diminish these differences, and simplify the skilled work of teacher educators, risk lasting damage to teachers and teaching. Teacher education has been described as a ‘second order practice’ in that it involves teaching and learning about the first order practice of teaching itself. The ‘thinking and doing’ of teaching therefore becomes the focus of ITP; the teacher educator’s expertise is in representing this to adult learners in such a way as to both retain and make accessible its glorious complexity.

English ITP is heavily influenced by a policy narrative of current teachers being best placed to teach new teachers, with schools increasingly positioned as leading teacher education. But it makes no sense to assume that ‘first order’ teachers in schools, embedded in and expert at rendering their school subject(s) to young people, are automatically well-placed to undertake the complex work of ITP I’ve just described. Through well-established partnerships, teacher educators in universities and schools have a long history of collaborating so that novice teachers develop practically and conceptually through access to wide-ranging expertise. We might say that, crudely, ITP academics draw predominantly from the research traditions of the academy while school-based colleagues foreground their wisdom of practice, that academics handle the conceptual while the practical is dealt with in schools; but the divide is anything but binary. The expertise of each enriches the other, and the partnership whole is much greater than its parts.

A colleague and I recently presented to teaching school hub leaders involved in delivering the Early Career Framework (ECF), the compulsory induction programme for early career teachers in England. These leaders spend much of their time involved in teacher development. They are smart and committed to their work and I am certain they are expert teachers. I learned much from them about their experiences of the ECF which will inform my ITP work. We offered the leaders some models for working with mentor teachers to think about their roles as teacher educators. One was the idea of first and second order practice; another used the didactic triangle (the relations between teacher/learner/content) to explore the intricacies of educating teachers. These ideas, arising from our work as education academics, were warmly received by the leaders who had not encountered the models previously, just as their input helped us. Our reciprocal professional learning was respectful and enriching. This is why a move to school-led ITP is so limiting: not only because new teachers benefit from university-based teacher educators, whose professional education, communities and resources hone their particular expertise, but because mentor teachers in school do likewise in developing their own roles as expert teacher educators. Because educating teachers isn’t the same as educating young people.

If we want thoughtful, skilled, knowledgeable teachers in our schools they deserve the very best professional education from expert teacher educators, in schools and in universities. Because schools and universities as working and learning environments expose us to different experiences, ideas and communities, we each develop our own, complementary, expertise, which works best in partnership. It is our obligation as professional educators to continue to collaborate, regardless of divisive policy, and to leverage this collective expertise for the benefit of new teachers.

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Polly Glegg is a lecturer in business and economics education at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. She is currently researching teacher learning in salaried initial teacher preparation.

Twitter: @pollyglegg

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