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’. 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.
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. 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 .
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’. 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. 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.
 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.
 Fred. A.J. Korthagen, “Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education” (Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, 2001), educ.queensu.ca/~ar/aera2001/Korthagen2001.pdf.
 J. Furlong and T. Maynard, Mentoring Student Teachers: The Growth of Professional Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1995).
 Anna Pendry, “Dilemmas for History Teacher Educators,” British Journal of Educational Studies 38, no. 1 (February 1, 1990): 47–62, https://doi.org/10.1080/00071005.1990.9973834 cited in Hayward 1996.
 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, https://doi.org/10.1080/02607470600782252.