Last week the above tweet got a fair amount of interest, with several people asking for more details. I quickly realised that I couldn’t explain what we’re doing in 280 characters, so decided it made more sense to write a brief summary of what we’re doing to improve our teacher training offer at Bedford Free School.
Over the past term we’ve started to rethink how we approach the role we can play as a school to ensure that our trainees are receiving excellent training. We realised that there was much more that we could do as a placement school to complement and extend what trainees already receive from their course providers, through providing a research-based internal programme of professional learning and rigorous mentoring. In pursuing this aim, however, we decided to start anew, and think about precisely what good teacher training looks like.
One of the biggest problems is that teaching is so often seen as an entirely skills-based profession. This is partly the result of the over-emphasis of the Teaching Standards which, when subdivided into level descriptors, quickly become the heart and soul of the profession, rather than a barrier to entry. Our contention is that this isn’t the case, that training shouldn’t just be a chance to practice and develop a series of generic skills.
We believe that there is a core body of knowledge that all teachers should have access to. Those of us who have been to ResearchEd, or another education conference will be aware that there is a group of ‘switched-on’ teachers who have the knowledge to meaningfully debate best practice. It’s a group of teachers who, when they collect in a summative assessment Year 10 have just completed, are able to discuss with their departments whether the data is reliable or valid. It’s a group of teachers who are aware of the research on Cognitive Load Theory, the testing effect, and the limitations of working memory, and who can both discuss the potential implications of that research for classroom practice, and identify its potential limitations. It’s a group of teachers who have been exposed to, to borrow Arnold’s phrase, ‘the best that has been thought and said’, and as such have been inducted into the community of educated practitioners.
It’s this knowledge that we think is key. Our belief is that a key part of teacher training should be to induct trainees into the community of practitioners, giving them the knowledge to participate in these conversations. It’s the same knowledge that will help them avoid having to re-invent the wheel during the first few years of their career, and prevent them having to spend years working out the limitations of level-descriptors, or what approaches to differentiation are genuinely effective.
Our first step, therefore, was to try and identify this knowledge. We focused on the four broad categories of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and behaviour, setting out everything that we thought an ‘expert’ teacher should know, before attempting to identify the ‘must haves’, those that were most important to a trainee. We then built a programme of professional learning designed to give our trainees access to this knowledge. A brief outline is below:
Of course, exposing trainees to education research does not mean handing down a rigid template of the best way to teach. Far from it.
Exposing trainees to the research on, say, Cognitive Load Theory, empowers them to take part in discussions about its utility in the classroom, giving them the knowledge to identify the potential benefits it can provide to planning. Furthermore, it’s exactly this knowledge that will enable trainees to, where appropriate, mount a critique of what the research says, and to identify potential limitations. To this end, following each reading, trainees will have a reflection task that involves identifying its main conclusions, but also noting any potential limitations.
Many of these limitations, of course, will come in the form of subject-specificity. One of the greatest risks of the move towards educational research is the poorly-thought through implementation of conclusions from a piece of research with scant regard for the distinctiveness of each subject. Here, our mentors will play the crucial role, supporting and challenging trainees to discern what does and doesn’t work for their subject, identifying potential benefits whilst maintaining the integrity of their discipline.
All of this will, we hope, play an important role in equipping our trainees not only to go on and become excellent practitioners in their own right, but to play pro-active roles in promoting meaningful debate and ideas, both within their first roles and more widely.
If you have any feedback or suggestions, then please let me know via Twitter. Likewise, if you have any other questions regarding what we’re doing, then do get in touch!