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.

The Big Listen

A big man, definitely listening.

Ofsted’s “Big Listen”, [Ofsted Big Listen – GOV.UK (] their consultation designed to “inform [their] thinking going forward”, and to gather our views on the “future direction of Ofsted” feels like a hollow exercise in enabling the inspectorate to signal a ‘listening mode’. The fact that the outcome will be decided by the winner of the election this year adds to the sense of scepticism.

However, I generally tend to do consultations. When I came into teaching from another sector, I was amazed to find that teachers and schools don’t often take part in consultations. These play such an important role in other parts of the social, political and economic framework of the country. Since then I’ve come to understand that education consultations are hard to fit in with everything else (even when they’re not timed to make it even more difficult for schools to respond, such as the generous six weeks between end of July and the end of August provided for ITT market review consultation).

Despite this cynicism, there are examples of consultations making a difference. In 2013 the response of the History teaching community (see – You Spoke. We listened. Our response to the History Consultation 2013 / News / Historical Association) to the terrible Gibb/Gove proposals for a reductive, nationalist history curriculum ended with capitulation, and a much better History curriculum as a result.

So, here I am completing the Big Listen. My responses are below. You’ll see what I entered in response to the the very leading survey questions, and the further detail I wrote in an attempt to escape that sense of constantly being asked ‘when did you stop hating quality education?’.

Priority 1 – Reporting

Further detail:

I think it is possible to comment on the quality of the things you mention in this question, but 'clear judgements' are not only difficult to do with any fidelity, but also result in reductive data such as 'good' 'outstanding' etc. Of course you will have thought carefully about how to word these questions to get the results that reflect the policy of the day, so that this distinction is not seen in the data or analysis.

Priority 2 – Inspection Practice

Further detail:

I have found inspection in the second phase of the current framework to be collegiate, challenging but also focused on some valuable things in ITE/T. The first phase, when political influence required that Ofsted was 'let rip' amongst ITT providers, made the organisation look like the tool of the government of the day, rather than an independent inspectorate.

For more on the ‘let rip’ phrase – DfE hopes snubbed teacher trainers will help plug ‘cold spots’ (

Priority 3 – Impact

Further detail:

These questions aren't about impact. They are assertions or descriptions of intentions of impact (ironically, given the most recent framework).

The most important aspect of impact in relation to Ofsted is that the organisation's institutional memory is short, because of it's dependent nature on the government of the time.

This is not a party political point - I objected to enforcement of the gamification, skillification etc of the DCFS as much as I do the cognitive-turn which has been required by more recent policy. Each turn is enforced by Ofsted, which must forget the previous policies. The number of 'outstanding' providers is therefore a measure not of quality. Instead it is partly a reflection of the level of compliance with the policy at hand and partly a tool for more immediate policy goals. Inspections of ITT/E providers under phase 1 of the most recent framework illustrate both of these points - 'good' providers found themselves outside the new 'good', outstanding providers had not reacted quickly enough to the most recent changes in policy (despite previously being told that the process of development and change would be recognised). This process of softening up for the re-introduction of the Market Review and re-accreditation having been achieved, the practice, tone and outcomes of inspections in phase 2 returned to more usual patterns.

The most recent reports are written in ways that reflect this lack of underlying consistency, quality assurance. These bland summaries using standard text make it impossible for reports, evidence, judgements to be critiqued, intentionally so in my view. Ofsted itself publishes little about the impact, or reliability of its judgements. Schools, teachers, and educators know that the system is a game. The persistence of that game avoids and devalues the legitimate interests of the public in a robust inspection system.

Priority 4 – Culture

The experience of inspection is highly variable - it depends too much on the character and style of inspection teams, and on the policy environment at the time of inspection.

Provision of feedback to Ofsted is one thing - but reactions to that feedback are, non-existent. Processes of reaction to feedback, quality assurance of systems and judgements, relations with policy makers are entirely opaque.

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

Two things would make very easy quick-wins in re-establishing credibility and trust of teachers, schools and providers with the inspectorate.

The first is open-access to important processes. Training materials, manuals, ppts, videos etc should be made available to schools and providers at the same time they are used by Ofsted to train inspectors. Quality assurance materials, outcomes and data should similarly be made available.

You might argue that this provision would encourage more gamification, narrow working to the rules and outcomes set by the Inspectorate. There are two responses to that. The first is that Ofsted's processes, outcomes, training etc should not, if they are capable of accurately evaluating the quality of education, lead to gamification. The second response is that removing the high-stakes nature of Ofsted judgements would significantly reduce these incentives. With a lack of evidence that such judgements are effective in school improvement ( and plenty of evidence from the crisis in our education system to the contrary (Punishing Ofsted regime is driving us out of education, say school leaders | Ofsted | The Guardian), there is no reason not to change Ofsted's role in this way.

So, the second, quick-win change would be to remove one word judgements, and to make reports much more useful in helping schools and providers understand the evaluation, contexts and reasoning of inspection teams - so that reports are readable, read and used.

What’s the point of me (3) – HE fights back!

Zamyatin at the University of Leeds

In previous blog posts I’ve written about the way that HE ITE tutors are caught between practice and theory – and at home in neither, and about the central problems of initial teacher education that interact with the marginal status of ITE HE tutors. Having dug ourselves into a slough of difficulties I think it’s time we thought about the ways that HE brings distinctive and valuable approaches to these issues.

University should be in a position to examine the notions of ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ in ITE. However, this examination might not result in a convenient or stark differentiation between the work of HE and School – and this might be a good thing, considering the difficulty that trainees have in perceiving a coherent PGCE in a course split between university and school. Our position suspended between school and university, between practice and theory might also give us unique perspectives on both.

We need to explore the way that we “theory” is conceptualised. Rather than looking for ‘implementable’ research, derived from the foundation disciplines of Education (and perhaps their successor ‘cognitive science’), we need to recognise that nature of research in education has changed dramatically over the past 100 years(furlong).

Burn and Mutton argue that a ‘practiuum turn’, simply cutting down on the amount of time spent in University, and increasing that spent on ‘practice’, on its own will be ineffective. Learning by doing may ‘imply a rejection of research-based knowledge, rather than a concern to integrate this more effectively in professional knowledge’[1]. They suggest three ways in which theory is brought to bear on ITE programmes, or in which they might claim to be ‘research-informed’:

  • the use of insights from research evidence that seem most relevant to trainees so that these can be brought to bear on their decisions and actions as they begin to practice;
  • the use of research in to the nature of teachers’ professional knowledge to find ways to make that expertise explicit to learning trainees;
  • the use of research into beginning teachers’ learning to inform the construction of learning opportunities and assessment;

This is far beyond the notion of ‘what works’, the agenda that’s been haunting the corridors of policy and of MAT offices. It requires the recognition by teacher educators that context is king – and that whilst there are approaches which across contexts and over time will bring advantages, even these have to be implemented contextually – and crucially brought to bear on the trainees’ practice at the right time. Too soon and these ways of thinking are lost in the struggle of the first weeks of placement, too late and we risk either the resentment of ‘why didn’t you tell me that earlier’ (you can often see this on twitter when experienced teachers talk about their PGCEs), or by that point trainees have discovered work-arounds, or un-critically accepted the practice that they see in their placement schools.

At the same time our understanding of the idea of ‘craft knowledge’ or ‘practical wisdom’ of teachers has also developed. Rather than only considering routine ways of working should we focus on the ways that teachers make judgements about what they do and the range of influences on these judgements. For instance, the use by Burn and Mutton of the term ‘clinical practice’ highlights particular features of effective ‘clinical’ professional training:

  • Centrality of clients needs
  • Knowledge demands on the practitioner
  • Requirement for judgement
  • Conducted in a community of practice with shared standards.

Similarly Korthagen and Kessel seek to bridge the gap between theory and practice, and also want us to move beyond conceiving of placement as an opportunity to perfect technique or implement theory. In their view professionals use ‘Gestalts’, instantly created and deployed mental frameworks, to help them understand and make decisions about the contexts in which they are working. These Gestalts are created in the light of the professional’s knowledge and experience, and their reflection on that experience. We know that trainee’s practice is hard to alter, that their views and underlying attitudes are sustained in the face of contrary experience and evidence. This suggest that it is the role of the teacher-educator to create suitable learning experiences in order for trainees to create and examine their Gestalts[2].

Gestalts offers a powerful way of thinking about the learning experiences that we create jointly with our mentors in School, and the way that we should be using our time in University to work with these experiences developmentally. However, we need to be careful about relying on the notion of ‘Reflective Practice’ in order to achieve this. As Furlong and Maynard point out this ‘slogan’ of ITE needs to be deployed carefully and clearly[3]. Purposeful reflection requires knowledge and a store of experience that trainees simply lack – asking them to reflect often means asking them to fall back on their own resources and experiences, which may make it even harder for their learning to impact on their beliefs and actions [4].

The questions that Korthagen and Kessel provide for helping trainees reflect on their practice in their ALACT model (Action, Looking back, Awareness, Creating alternative methods of Action and Trial) suggest that the value is not in the student’s first reaction or reflection, but in the structured responses designed to open up alternative ways of looking at the situation. Unless we are clear that this is our aim, and without the store of experience that trainees lack, as Anna Pendry points out, we risk asking the trainee to make sense of an incoherent experience, without giving them ‘adequate means to achieve this. At best it seems they will learn to critique practice, but often only in deficit terms’[5]. Burn’s work on the role of mentors in school suggests that such reflection is difficult to do in school, that trainees find it hard to challenge the Gestalts of their mentor or the practices of their school, and that mentors often deflect both questions and challenges of the trainee’s views and practices[6]. Not everything can be done in school.

What comes out of these considerations are the crucial roles that HEI tutors have in providing the knowledge, evidence, tools, and space for reflection on the experiences that the trainees gain in school. By using research informed insights to help trainees reflect on the professional dilemmas they face in practice, and encouraging challenge, discussion and debate these ways of working can be both contextualised and understood in relation to wider issues of policy, ethics, and subject, as well as the often foregrounded question of whether they ‘work’ in relation to those concerns of behaviour, results, practical implementation and resourcing that rise to the surface in schools.

[1] Katharine Burn and Trevor Mutton, “A Review of ‘Research-Informed Clinical Practice’ in Initial Teacher Education,” Oxford Review of Education 41, no. 2 (2015): 217–233.

[2] Fred. A.J. Korthagen, “Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education” (Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, 2001),

[3] J. Furlong and T. Maynard, Mentoring Student Teachers: The Growth of Professional Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1995).

[4] Anna Pendry, “Dilemmas for History Teacher Educators,” British Journal of Educational Studies 38, no. 1 (February 1, 1990): 47–62, cited in Hayward 1996.

[5] Pendry.

[6] Katharine Burn, “Promoting Critical Conversations: The Distinctive Contribution of Higher Education as a Partner in the Professional Preparation of New Teachers,” Journal of Education for Teaching 32, no. 3 (August 1, 2006): 243–58,

What’s the point of me (2) – what’s my position in HE?

I’m using this series of posts as a way of thinking through the development of my professional identity and position. In my last post I talked about moving from teaching to HE. In this post I’ll consider this a little more, but also move on to thinking about the kinds of knowledge that I bring to HE, and the liminal position I feel I have, sometimes.

These are complicated issues, and sometimes it is hard to work out where these vague feelings of discomfort or uncertainty come from, or even where to look to find out more about whether others feel the same. Fortunately, whilst I have been puzzling over these ideas and problems, Jason Todd ( has hoved into view with some reading, thanks to a conversation between him, Alex Ford ( and Helen Snelson ( in the dinner queue at the SHP conference.  I suspect if there’s a Phd in someone mapping out the informal sources of ‘leaps forward’ in the thinking of History teacher educators, then the SHP dinner queue will feature quite heavily in it.

In the dinner queue they talked, I gather, about what it means to be a HEI history teacher educator, rather than a school-based mentor, the need for a community of practice, and a way of inducting new tutors into this community (I wasn’t there, so may have got this wrong –  Jason, Helen, Alex?).  As a result of this conversation Jason sent round a few bits of reading to a few interested parties.  Earlier this week we joined forces with other fantastic HE history teacher educators (,, and

One of the key pieces was Geoff Hayward’s chapter in the venerable but brilliant Mentoring for Science Teachers[1].  He identifies three central issues of Initial Teacher Education, which are echoed in multiple places in the literature as:

  • A lack of coherence and discontinuities between school and HE as sites for learning – and the different characteristics of the knowledge valued in each.
  • Schools are environments not well suited for trainee learning.
  • Student teachers bring their own agendas, which are very resistant to change[2].

Reflecting on this list now, it is remarkable how many of our conversations at Uni, about our trainees, our placements, our training and our knowledge, fit within these three big issues. However, I think there’s the risk that as a teacher who finds themselves at University, we’re not able to access the positions or strengths of a lecturer because we are not aware of the systematic thinking about such issues that people like Geoff Hayward have done before us.

What’s also interesting is the way that these issues interact with the liminal position that HE initial teacher educators also face in their own work. At university long term generalisable knowledge is preferred over the context bound short term effectiveness and action-oriented knowledge valued in schools[3].  In the last post I exposed my own worries about my ‘classroom’ knowledge fading and losing its value for trainees as the years out of school teaching slowly mount.

However, even when an ITE tutor in HE takes steps to carve out a research profile or orientation this can fail to secure their identity as ‘University’ tutor.  Administration in HE and policy makers in government place value on highly generalizable ‘big ticket’ research, often with experimental, quantitative approaches – the kinds of work that is ‘ref’able[4]. This means that the kinds of knowledge, even the kinds of research that practitioners undertake and value as they move into HE mean that they’re occupying liminal positions in Academia.

Finally, student teachers as learners bring with them a legacy of their apprenticeship as pupils, their understanding of their subject and what it means to teach it.  These ideas are really resistant to change in the circumstances of a normal school placement.  Hayward raises the danger that the trainees react by seeing the course as requiring that they meet the different criteria of the different personnel on different occasions”[5] – seeing each as a test to pass, rather than a coherent opportunity for development.

In a policy context which places value on practice and action above thinking this can easily lead to trainees focusing on ‘gathering evidence’ in school. In turn this means that the expertise of the University lecturer is under-valued, deprecated as ‘out of date’ or ‘too theoretical’ – especially where our courses are actually out of date, and are actually too focused on decontextualized theory in the way that lends itself to large, cost effective lectures!

In the next few posts I hope to work through some of the implications for our work of these problems, and to explore some possible solutions.

[1] Geoff Hayward, “Principles for School Focused Initial Teacher Education,” in Mentoring for Science Teachers, ed. T Allson and A Benson (Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1997).

[2] Hayward.

[3] Fred. A.J. Korthagen, “Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education” (Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, 2001),

[4] John Furlong, Education: An Anatomy of the Discipline (Routledge, 2013).

[5] Hayward, “Principles for School Focused Initial Teacher Education.”

What’s the point of me, a HE lecturer in Inital Teacher Training?

Moving from school to university as an ITE tutor is an important personal and professional change. Apart from the weirdness of no-one giving a monkeys about you telling them about what time you go home, or what you’re doing from minute to minute, or the liberation of being able to get a cup of tea or go to the toilet whenever you want, there’s a question of identity. What am I, if I’m not interacting with hundreds of different individuals each week? What do my students value? What should they value?

At first I found that it was enough to play off my cache as hard-bitten (moth-eaten?) classroom hack. Trainees are very keen to hear war-stories and ‘the best way to do x or achieve y’. Overtime I realise that as my INSET uniform of levis, satirical t-shirt and lumberjack shirt fade, my continued authority might require me to develop new forms of expertise and knowledge. Formulating and emphasising a distinctive nature for my role in ITE as a university lecturer, and pointing out the value of this role are key ways in which I can develop and continue to improve my contribution.

However this expertise and knowledge is different from that which we bring with us from our time as teachers in school and needs to be nurtured and developed in different ways from the expertise of teachers. It should also be used in different and particular ways in school and university partnerships, in order to have the best impact. The studies considered in the next few blog posts suggest particular ways of working: pedagogical and pastoral approaches that we need to develop in our practice and in the practice of our mentors and tutors in the wider partnership.

However, I found that a source of such authority and knowledge is not immediately clear on entry to HE Education Departments. HE based ITE has faced constant challenges from policy makers and politicians for decades[i]. Falling numbers of applicants and the entrance of a broader range of competitors into the sector makes it harder for universities to sustain ITE provision[ii]. Changes to regulation and compliance frameworks can make running an ITE programme seem like walking a tightrope. Regulation and competition has increased the diversity of providers and those who work in them, but has flattened the work of teacher education itself. Complexity in particular has been flattened out of the system, leaving HEI Education departments with ITE work increasingly vulnerable[iii]. As an example, in the last couple of weeks we have seen guidance on workload in schools and during Initial Teacher Education which acts as an excellent illustration of this flattening[iv]. In seeking to reduce the pressures of work on ITE trainees the guidance calls (requires) partnerships to allow trainees to use pre-prepared lesson resources, and to eschew planning lessons.

Another aspect of flattening can be seen in the mimetic use of buzzwords and silver bullet searching that have affected the mainstream of education practice and policy in recent decades and which has inevitably infected Initial Teacher Education. Slogans such as ‘partnership’[v], and ‘reflection’[vi] “have revealed a superficiality in theoretical rationales of many of those engaged in professional education which inevitably leave their practice open to attack”[vii]. In addition the policy maker’s quick fix for ITE has been to increase competition between providers and extend the time that new teachers spend training in schools. The underlying assumptions are that more time in practice will lead to trainees becoming better teachers and that the market will guarantee that the best providers will thrive, whilst others go to the wall.

The focus on quick fixes, the practicuum turn and the hope that a market will solve the central problems of professional education of new teachers, suggests that there is an unwillingness to actively engage with what the central problems of Initial Teacher Education. Indeed recent policy decisions about ITE have downplayed these issues, and framed the problem as one of ‘what to teach’ – what items of knowledge should teachers have in their heads that can be deployed as deliberately practiced techniques in the classroom. Many courses favoured by policy makers involve less and less ‘tuition’ and, as Childs predicted in 2013, rely on the mentoring and coaching skills of teachers and the ability of new teachers to learn on the job. The latest call to avoid the complexity inherent in planning learning, by insisting on delivering materials and lessons prepared by others, is perhaps an example of this tendency[viii].

When ITE is delivering a centrally mandated technical curriculum and the vast majority of time on PGCE courses are spent on placement in school, it is not immediately clear what HEI’s distinctive role in the process is, or should be. The implications of Child’s conclusions are that ITE becomes merely an extension of the School Improvement agenda through the sharing and implementation of good practice, using mentors to show new teachers the ‘craft of teaching’, and that HEI’s role is thereby limited only to accreditation.

Being clear as to what this contribution is has the potential to help us outline a clear path to nurture and further develop a distinctive academic capital. University Teacher Educators can provide a unique and valuable range of insights derived from the knowledge not only of ‘practice’ but also of research and their own subject-pedagogy expertise, as well as their understanding of the limitations of the research and literature that they use with the trainees.

However, in order to meet the challenge of these implications, and examine our role in the sector, it is vital that we act from a position of informed strength about what makes for good ITE provision. We therefore need to examine the central issues of initial teacher education, and explore the buzzwords and policy formulations which accrete to it. In order to maintain our impact and importance in the sector and husband our resources most effectively we should consider important questions such as ‘where does HEI’s independence spring from?’ and ‘what kinds of expertise do we bring that differ from that of our school colleagues?’

[i] John Furlong, Education: An Anatomy of the Discipline (Routledge, 2013).

[ii] James Conroy, Moira Hulme, and Ian Menter, “Developing a ‘Clinical’Model for Teacher Education,” Journal of Education for Teaching 39, no. 5 (2013): 557–573.

[iii] Ann Childs, “The Work of Teacher Educators: An English Policy Perspective,” Journal of Education for Teaching 39, no. 3 (July 1, 2013): 314–28,

[iv] “Addressing Workload in Initial Teacher Education (ITE),” GOV.UK, accessed November 11, 2018,

[v] Conroy, Hulme, and Menter, “Developing a ‘Clinical’Model for Teacher Education.”

[vi] James Calderhead, “Reflective Teaching and Teacher Education,” Teaching and Teacher Education 5, no. 1 (1987): 43–51.

[vii] Geoff Hayward, “Principles for School Focused Initial Teacher Education,” in Mentoring for Science Teachers, ed. T Allson and A Benson (Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1997).

[viii] Caroline Daly, “DFE Advice on Student Teacher Workload Misses What Is Learnt by Planning Lessons,” IOE LONDON BLOG (blog), November 9, 2018,

Review: A Philosophy of Schooling by Dr Julian Stern

Review and Welcome of A Philosophy of Schooling by Dr Julian Stern(1)

This is the ‘welcome’ to Julian Stern’s thought-provoking book that I gave at meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain at Leeds Trinity University on 20th March 2018, at which the book was launched.

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A review of Education – An Anatomy of the Discipline by John Furlong (part 1)

I found this book to be really informative, and in many ways empowering – it’s especially helpful to me as a relatively new entrant to the job of overseeing the work of Initial Teacher Educators, and it has given me some excellent ideas about how to develop our work as a team. Focusing on the inherent complexity of the discipline of Education (and at the same time a claim that Education can be seen as such), this book is also partly a record of the troubled history of Education’s journey to its place in the University. As an analysis of the reasons why Education’s place in University has been marginal and insecure since that arrival, Furlong can then offer a set of ideas and suggestions for “re-tooling” the discipline in University.

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Michael F.D. Young, Graduate Teachers and the Hero’s Journey

Just over a year ago I started reading books that I thought I wouldn’t agree with. One of those books was E.D. Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’, and although I didn’t agree with it (as feared), I will  be forever grateful that it did lead me to read Michael F.D. Young.

One of Young’s central arguments is that educational purposes, the acquisition of powerful knowledge being the most important, are disrupted by the instrumentalism that drives policy makers’ interventions in education.

Over the last few years I’ve come to see that these instrumentalist motives had converged with many of the progressive ideals that I hold – that education can emancipate, that it can be a route to a ‘good life’ (in the broadest terms).  The effect of this has been to drive pupils into ‘vocational’ pathways that deny them access to the knowledge that can really change lives, but has also been reflected in curricula that could easily lead to this knowledge being de-emphasised, and too much value being placed in teaching ‘exam skills’ or ‘subject skills’ (sometimes it was difficult to see the difference between the two).

The threat to the academic curriculum therefore has many sources – no doubt a crude constructivism in some PGCE courses contributed to this. One of the most valuable (and perhaps most uncomfortable) truths that twitter has taught me is that not all university-based PGCE courses were as good as the one I took, and those which my colleagues @LTUPGCE run.  Too many anecdotes about generic and ‘skills only’ training suggest that many new teachers were not forced to think about the nature and value of their subject knowledge or subject pedagogy as my PGCE peers were.

This week is has become clear that the short-term instrumentalism which drives the government’s initial teacher education policy is one of the sources of threat to an academic curriculum.  Instead of rising to the challenge of the teacher-shortage (let alone admitting the role of recent ‘disruption’ to the ‘market’ of ITE in creating that shortage), the DFE has ducked it by proposing that non-graduates be allowed to join the teaching profession.

The same Government that trawls through international comparisons and research evidence in search of policy about pedagogy and school system reform is ignoring that on the preparation of new teachers in high performing jurisdictions and opting for the go-to response of the market: de-regulation.

Young suggests that ‘knowledge about the world, if it is to be the basis of the curriculum, refers to concepts that take us beyond […] the contexts in which we find ourselves’ (2008:95).  In other words, the school curriculum should not teach pupils things that they will meet in their everyday existence, it should transcend the everyday and bring knowledge that takes them ‘beyond’ it.

Perhaps this should also apply to the teachers who hold and teach that knowledge. Teachers represent the world outside of family and community – even (and perhaps especially) if they come from that community. Teachers should represent the educated life that knowledge makes possible, and which they seek to promote.  To do this, they need the knowledge and experience that comes with communication with the outside world.

This does not mean that teachers should not work in the communities that raised them – I know brilliant teachers who work in the schools that taught them their GCSEs, to which they have returned to give something back. The point is that these great teachers have all been outside the communities.  This might be in body and mind, spending 3 to 5 years living away at universities in other towns and cities, meeting other people, experiencing other perspectives.  It might be in mind only – studying to degree level at home or in the local university a subject which itself takes them out of the context in which they were raised.

This hero’s journey gives them far more than the sufficiency of subject knowledge that will enable them to pass on the stuff in a specification or deliver a school curriculum. They return with a kind of ‘elixir’ something that can help transform the lives of the pupils they teach.  This is the broader view of the world that stepping out into it brings, as well as an example of someone who did that and brought themselves into a new relationship with the world.   What I fear will be the end-point of a policy like this is the rise of the apprentice-pupil who never leaves their community in a meaningful way, who can teach the textbook but not write a university reference, who has never read Marx or met a Mancunian, sat on a frosty roof and listened to someone’s dreadful poetry, asked a question in a seminar, argued with a lecturer or packed their stuff into a bag and left their home town behind, for a bit.


Young, M.F.D (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back in: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education

Writing to Argue

writingMy undergraduates are unwilling to argue, in person, or in writing. Their essays are often surveys of a scene, descriptions of a landscape. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a survey if that’s what you’ve been asked to do – but I want my students to have an informed opinion – and to have practised the art of coming to an opinion – so that they can work out when it’s necessary to change their minds about something.

So, in order to do that we’ve been presenting arguments.  This is something that I have done in the past with AS students who have often struggled in the change from more descriptive answers at GCSE to the direction and argument of an KS5 essay.  The discussion that follows will clearly show that my thinking is often influenced by my practice as a history teacher and the professional literature in Teaching History journal from the HA, or books written by teachers or academics such as Christine Counsel.  As I am still new to HE – I’m painfully aware that there is a body of evidence and practice which I’m starting to explore. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you think I should really know about something that I don’t – please feel free to let me know!

We’re coming to the end of a module that I’m teaching on “Special Educational needs and Inclusion” which has focused on the history and conceptual underpinnings of ‘inclusion’, and the tension between this and ‘differentiation’. Part of the assessment is for the students to write a short essay on an aspect of inclusion – they have a choice of questions, but each one requires them to come to an informed judgement.

The issues:

My students see essay writing as a kind of complicated obstacle course.  They like to tackle each part as it comes to them,  instead of lifting their heads to the horizon.  This leads them to focus on issues such as ‘how to write a good introduction’ or what should go in a ‘good paragraph’. I’ve been trying to encourage them to see an essay as a way of communicating with a reader – and a way of persuading that reader.

I’ve also noted that these undergrads have trouble differentiating between the big and little points of their developing argument – and will often conflate these, meaning that the paragraphs they write are sometimes ‘scatter gun’ – they will cram in all the things that they can think of to do with the topic in the question – rather than attempt to actually answer it.

I suspect that these students have not seen enough examples of academic writing, and have not spent enough time considering the style of different academic writers, let alone their own.

These are the issues I perceived from the other pieces of writing that they have done for me before this module, and from their directed task submissions.

One Line Answers

They had a choice of essay titles for this module – and in order to make them read these carefully (so that they’re not tempted to ‘do’ the one that they recognise some key words from) they were asked to look down the list and then spend 5 minutes drafting a one line answer to the question.  I explained that this was the kind of answer they might give if someone asked them a question like this on the bus, or in discussion with friends.

Model Answers

We then looked back at some model essays written in response to questions that were asked on the module the year before.  These were different from this year’s question.  I wanted them to be clear that they were reading good academic writing – not ‘good answers’ to the questions. They were asked to use highlighters to look for examples in the text of the following things:

  • Points – things that this person writes that moves on the argument in their answer to the question
  • Evidence – things that are used to support the argument that this person makes.
  • Evaluation – places where this person makes a critical point, or a judgement or weighing up of an approach or idea.

They were also asked to work out what the writer’s ‘one line answer’ to the question might have been.

A multi-faceted ‘One Line Answer’

When they’d done that, and following a discussion of some of their examples, and of the ‘one line answers’ from the model essays, I asked them to look again at their one line answers, and to re-write them, using the following words if they could:

  • However
  • But
  • Only
  • If

I wanted them to learn that their one line answer could contain a more nuanced line of argument, or perhaps an acknowledgement of another perspective or even some indication of how universal their ‘one line answer’ was.


I also decided to ask them to present their plans as part of one of their directed tasks, using a template which acts as a kind of ‘speaking frame’.   They presented these arguments in support of their ‘one line answer’ to their peers. Their peers were then encouraged to ask questions that will help them understand the argument that is being made.  I was hoping that this would act as a kind of dry run for writing the assignment itself, in that it would help them clarify their ideas.  wanted to see if their role as presenters of an argument would help them become writers of an argument.

How’s it going?

Not bad – the sessions in which we looked at ‘model’ essays were very interesting – there’s still some work to do in helping them see what the ‘big points’ are in models of academic writing.  I’m also having to think quite carefully about the kinds of things I want them to read – academic journals often are not full of ‘essays’, and ‘education’ undergraduate textbooks on these topics are often quite descriptive. I think that getting them reading more pieces of writing in which people have made and sustained arguments is the key way in which they will understand how this works.

During the presentations it was clear that whilst many had now made the leap from ‘survey’ or ‘everything I know about’, and were starting to think in terms of ‘what’s my argument’, some of these students were still hesitant in making definite and confident choices in selecting evidence or ‘little’ points to support these arguments.

Overall the level of writing has improved across the group.  Many more of these students are writing in shorter, much more focused paragraphs – even if they have not yet made the leap to argument.  Those that have made that leap are often writing sharply focused sections in support – though sometimes this is not sustained throughout.  Those that engaged more wholeheartedly in their presentations tend to be those who have gained the most in these improvements.  Next time we do this I’ll ask for permission, before we start the process, to share their work online – so that I can us it more precisely here.

Undergrad Day

17303176035_035cd2da96_zToday is undergraduate day. I’m teaching a module on SEN in the secondary school to my undergrad PE and Secondary Ed students in May, and I want to be well prepared. I read an interesting study by Benjamin Bloom earlier in the year (1984) about ‘Mastery’ and his attempts to solve the ‘2 sigma problem’, i.e. the 2 standard deviations in increased attainment that he found between pupils taught in ‘conventional classrooms’ and those who were instead ‘tutored’ one to one or in very small groups.  I think that aspects of this study can help me with my students.

This study seems to be one of the original studies that informed the current vogue for ‘mastery’ approaches in teaching and assessment. The recommendations are for iterative cycles of formative testing which allow a student to reach the desired ‘mastery’ level of attainment. I’ll not go into that now (perhaps I’ll plant a seed in the ‘post-garden’ and come back to it later). Suffice to say that I think that Bloom underestimates the time cost, and fails to make out what he really means by mastery (80% in a test score is the usual level – which we can see means pretty much nothing).

What grabbed me more is an idea that that Bloom develops from Leyton (1983) of techniques that “enhance the students’ initial cognitive entry pre-requisites” (who said that educational research can’t be easily understood?!). Broadly, this means ‘making sure they know and can do the things they’ll need to be able to do before they start to learn the new things that you have to teach them’.

Today I’ll be reading through my course materials, looking at the development activities I want them to do during the 10 weeks of the module, and working out a list of these ‘prerequisites’.  I’ll then scrap the first week’s sessions and turn them into a ‘prerequisites’ week.  I might have to think of a snappier title… any suggestions?

Where will this lead?  I’m hoping to make an ‘knowledge organiser’ which the students themselves have to complete, and which I’ll then check over formatively.  I’m sceptical that an organiser on its own will do anything (I need to make sure they read it and commit the ideas to memory for a start), but I’m hoping that if they have a first go at coming up with the ideas, which I then correct, this will give me an idea of where they’re coming from, and them a couple of chances to understand the material they need to know.   I’m hoping that my prerequisites audit will also help inform decisions about the way I structure the workshops and seminars that follow, as well as the content of the weekly lecture, as well as giving me some clear hooks and points to attach to ongoing quizzing.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bloom, B.S., 1984. The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational researcher, 13(6), pp.4-16.