PGCE Assignments, and the need for space for professional learning: what am I learning from marking?

I’m marking – a lot. We are assessing and moderating the final submission on our PGCert, which is taught as part of our PGCE, as well as a ‘top-up’ qualification for partners around the region and beyond. Marking it has made me think a great deal about some of the pitfalls and some of the barriers our trainees and PG students face, in writing and developing their practice, through L7 study.

Some of these pitfalls are a question of style. To my irritable and jaundiced eye, an awkward influencer / Louis Theroux documentary style is spreading insidiously in some students’ writing at L7. But, though I find signposts such as “with these challenges in mind, I wanted to find out how X would work in practice…” mildly irritating, it’s not an absolute barrier to passing, or even greater success.

More worrying, and more debilitating, is a tendency to describe pieces of literature in turn, often without drawing out implicit links, synthesis or even tensions. Similarly, long decorative quotations which aren’t interrogated, analysed or even evaluated for their implications, are holding back students attempting to write about their practice. Sometimes these are combined with narrative “documentaryism” – leading to stories about the research process such as “what I discovered when I read Cass and Podesta’s (2022) chapter on how to plan lessons was shocking, when they suggested that….”.

Writing is about making choices (and so is teaching)

Even when they avoid the worst of these stylistic and structural issues, the most common problem is that trainees can be very reluctant to choose (even when explicitly invited to) what to develop their understanding and writing about – and therefore to choose what not to write about. I can see why – it’s hard when you have little basis in terms of knowledge and / or experience, on which to reflect, or make decisions like this (McIntyre 1997). The result is that trainees often make a broad and shallow readings of too many aspects or topics, instead of justifying, and then prosecuting, a focus on a narrow range of salient issues at an appropriate depth.

This is sometimes related to a tendency to see, or at least to describe, pedagogic techniques as things that can be applied to learning situations, in the same way as one might use a medicine, or introduce a nutrient or plant food to a house plant. Confident assertions, that ‘dual coding’ or ‘small group sizes’ produce improved outcomes or test scores are made, sometimes with a couple of references to big-ticket research papers. These evidence-informed assertions are quite often made without considering how teachers’ ideas, experience, subject expertise and decision making, are used to secure the possible benefits that might arise from these approaches.

Again, I think I can see how this happens – trainees don’t know how to justify an approach, because they don’t yet have the right amount or kind of experience and knowledge, and because the pace and character of school and training tend to obscure the way that those decisions and judgements are made.

What Works Didn’t Work

Let’s take an example, quite a simple but very popular form of generic technique – “retrieval practice”. Trainees and new teachers writing about their practice in this way will often describe how the decontextualized application of ‘retrieval practice’, in their experience, ‘didn’t work’. This can lead to a dismissal of approaches, techniques, or even the concept of the application of research in education. A kind of learned helplessness can set in – a (sometimes resentful) externalised locus of agency, arising from the fact that they were told it was ‘what works’.

Contextualization – No Excuses

Getting new teachers and trainees to contextualise their use of such research informed techniques is hard. Contextualisation doesn’t mean letting a trainee say ‘it doesn’t work for these kinds of kids’, or ‘we’ve tried it, but it won’t work in this kind of school’. However, given the power of our expectations, it’s not hard to see why such views and system 1 thinking might have a powerful limiting material effect on the process of contextualisation, and in turn the chances of generic techniques being used effectively.

A more useful form of contextualisation is one that that develops from discussions and reflections on what a generic technique is being used *for*. These discussions need to go beyond the immediate response of ‘improving outcomes’. In other words, to help trainees and ECTs plan effective use of generic techniques, we (school, mentor, host teachers, provider, HE, etc) need to engage in conversation about what that approach is being used to achieve, conceptually and procedurally in *this specific lesson, or sequence of lessons*, or in relation to *this specific concept*, or *these procedures and skills*. Moreover – these discussions about the purposes need to be turned back on *how* this generic technique might (and might not) help achieve them.

What are we learning – and why?

Turning back to retrieval practice – my argument is that mentors and trainees/ ECTs should together discuss and consider why concept ‘a’ is being retrieved now, and how it will be used in the lesson or sequence. This will help new and developing teachers understand much more about the generic technique, but also the teaching of the specific topics and concepts in question. They could discuss (as appropriate at different stages of training or ECT years):

  • where and when pupils last learned about concept ‘a’,
  • what pupils learned about concept ‘a’, and whether this is appropriate, correct, etc
  • how pupils use concept ‘a’
  • the best ways of explaining concept ‘a’
  • who could tell us more about helping pupils to understand concept ‘a’
  • what pupils misunderstand or assumer about concept ‘a’
  • what makes concept ‘a’ a powerful or important concept in the subject
  • what use pupils will make of ‘a’ in upcoming lessons or sequences
  • who could tell us more about helping pupils to benefit from this form of retrieval practice
  • whether concept ‘a’ should actually be a focus for retrieval, rather than concept ‘b’ or ‘c’
  • whether this kind of retrieval practice is appropriate for concept ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c’, and if not, what alternatives there might be.
  • how the ‘remembering’ achieved by retrieving concept ‘a’ is going to be used and built on, in the lesson, sequence and longer term – see for instance Dennis, N. (2016)

Agency and Autonomy – Making Choices and decisions

Choosing what is retrieved (and when or how) is a really powerful position of responsibility, but it’s often not discussed by trainees when writing about using RP, or even when they’re discussing how they plan lessons. That’s a shame, because it could also help make more meaningful any discussions about what is actually being learned, such as:

  • the key concepts pupils need to have as they cross the threshold of the classroom;
  • the concepts that might be described as the ‘fingertip’ working knowledge (Counsel 2012 p.66) – built up during a sequence, which helps establish criteria for using, making or evaluating explanations, or procedures, or for making sense of and connections with more structural or iteratively developed concepts;
  • the(se) more structural concepts (which Counsel calls (perhaps unhelpfully!) ‘residue’) that need to remain when immediate experience of this learning has shaken from the sieve, which will be built on, developed and referenced in later learning; or even just
  • the concepts that are really hard to grasp, or need careful handling of analogies, or rehearsal of explanation, clear diagrams or building carefully over a few lessons.

Making Mechanisms Explicit

In other words mentor-trainee dialogue, using the subject-topic context to interrogate the use of generic ‘evidence informed’ techniques, can help improve the use of generic techniques and subject and new teachers’ professional learning. These discussions guide trainees and their mentors to consider whether subject priorities and concepts are being addressed in their planning, in both the short and medium term. Reflection and dialogue like this can also help trainees understand *why* such generic techniques can work by making explicit the underlying pedagogic (rather than psychological, physiological or cognitive) mechanisms.

The other side of that coin has to be that mentors and trainees / ECTS will sometimes decide that, in a specific subject-topic context, a particular ‘what works’ technique isn’t appropriate. That is because, finally and very importantly, discussions like these move responsibility and agency for effective teaching back onto the partnership between the mentor and the trainee (or new teacher), and away from the warrant provided solely by external authority, policy or standardized recipes.

Our Collective Responsibility

This means that departmental or school-wide requirements play a role here. Expectations, arising from policy, or lesson structure models, that are enforced through coercive or normative mimetic isomorphism – (copying or expecting to see surface features) can push out opportunities for professional (and pupil learning), especially if enforcement is blunt. We can again return to retrieval practice as an example. Policies that expect the strictly timed spaced practice / retrieval of specific content will possibly squeeze out more relevant activities, or even opportunities to re-activate knowledge relevant to the current sequence of learning – in favour of knowledge chosen by more the arbitrary criteria of when it was last taught.

I’m not arguing that this is the fault of ‘what works’ pedagogy – isomorphism is a feature of regulated, publicly accountable, or competitive fields – organisations copy approaches from those seen as successful, or which will provide a defence for criticism from regulators like Ofsted. But I am arguing that in our teaching and professional learning partnerships and networks we have an obligation to resist isomorphism, and to create spaces for rational, discursive autonomy and development of practice, and that tutors and mentors who understand their subject-community’s practice and its sources of expertise are best placed to help create these spaces.

Counsel, C Historical Skills and Historical Knowledge: a distracting dichotomy, in Arthur, J., & PHILLIPS, U. O. W. S. R. (2012). Issues in History Teaching. Routledge.

Dennis, N. (2016). Exploring the testing ‘effect’ to enable knowledge retention and deployment in the Key Stage 3 History classroom [Master’s thesis]. University of Oxford.

McIntyre, D. (Ed.). (1997). Teacher Education Research in a New Context: The Oxford Internship Scheme (1st edition). Paul Chapman Publishing.