Completing teacher training and induction is pretty intense anywhere. Figuring out curriculum expectations, planning lessons, working out how to build on successes and avoid bear traps, navigating your way around school rules and staff rooms and, above all, getting to know your students create big, cognitive, practical, emotional and time demands. This article brings into focus some of the strengths of the preparation of teachers in England that may only be obvious to a bird’s eye (in my case, international) view.
As a member of the OECD Expert Group studying teacher preparation in different countries, I have had the privilege of gaining a research-based insight into the experiences of new teachers around the world. The most striking contrast between teacher preparation here and in other countries is the searing and widespread overseas experiences of ‘practice shock’.
Norway, for example, is a country that takes teachers, teaching and the quality of life seriously, and is currently converting teacher training into a five-year master’s programme. But at the end of five years, trainees will still have only had 110 days in school. Since much of that time involves preparing and teaching lessons in groups of five, those days offer rich learning but a not entirely realistic insight into the realities of classroom teaching on your own.
In South Korea, teaching is seen as an extremely high-status and prestigious role. Entrance to four-year teacher preparation degrees is extremely competitive. Successful graduates then have to pass an intense academic exam about practice. Over the course of this five-year study period, students preparing for secondary teaching will experience only 110 days in school. They arrive in schools with an understanding of the curriculum and the subjects underpinning it at their fingertips, ready to contribute to curriculum design alongside their teaching duties. But these newly qualified teachers, with their track records as exemplary students, still feel an acute need for training and mentoring to learn to work effectively with students who are less successful and, for example, those who express their concerns through disruptive behaviours.
This approach to managing the transition into effective classroom practice seems unthinkable from an English perspective. The extensive reforms to teacher education in this country are geared towards giving new teachers a serious grounding in the art and craft of classroom management and negotiating school life. If you ask most trainees what they value most about teacher training, it is the time they spend with students. And you will value this the next time you encounter a challenge in a classroom that you first experienced during an early classroom placement.
What are trainee teachers in other countries spending all that time away from the classroom doing? Thinking about Norway and South Korea again, one powerful opportunity that students of teaching in England often lack is the opportunity to study a subject (or subjects – primary teachers in both countries study and specialise in a number of subjects) and the curriculum side by side. What seems particularly helpful is the opportunity to interrogate each through the lens of the other.
In South Korea, this is further strengthened by a sustained programme of learning to critique textbooks. This might sound arcane, but textbooks are the local medium for developing schemes of learning, ensuring that learning is cumulative and coherent in ways that help students make powerful connections between ideas and phenomena in different contexts. They are seen as part of how generations hand on social and intellectual capital – they even have a museum of textbooks! I can’t imagine that catching on here, but I do think that having the opportunity to study and critique textbooks or schemes of learning is a powerful way of helping you relate your subject knowledge to your knowledge of the curriculum and how students learn it.
Now you may or may not feel the lack of time and support for studying and critiquing curriculum artefacts – right now, but in time I hope very much that you will want to become a teacher who also contributes to curriculum design.
There is another area where England is an outlier, which is an advantage for teachers in this country. Here, teaching has been explicitly promoted as a research- and evidence-informed profession on both a bottom-up and top-down basis since 1996 (Cordingley, 2015). There have been multiple models over the decades, as national teacher research grants and scholarship funds ( from government, unions and schools), the National Teacher Research Panel and School-Based Research Consortia morphed into Teaching and Research schools.
Similarly, the wide range of government and professional websites for making different kinds of research accessible to teachers have been replaced by the EEF toolkit and the Chartered College of Teaching’s own website and its exciting Impact journal – though you can still find the National Teacher Research Panel’s website, with research resources for teachers too.
The new debates springing up as a result of Ofsted’s new focus on ensuring balance in the curriculum have the potential, too, to add an important layer of thought, analysis, research and development to this powerful professional movement. CUREE’s research with support from UCL Institute of Education into ‘Developing Great Subject Teaching’ highlights the importance of grounding all professional learning in the subjects we teach. You can find web links here to all the practitioner research and practitioner-friendly summaries of academic research that are useful for new teachers (insert web link to NQT article for TES). I hope they inspire you to think about building on these and grounding your own enquiry-based professional learning in the curriculum.
Pick up a copy of Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan for more insights into what we can learn from other countries.
Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of CUREE, is a renowned expert in evaluation, research use and effective Continuing Professional Development and Learning (CPDL). Philippa leads the CUREE research team. Recent projects include exploration of what is involved in the gaining sustainable momentum in school improvement for Teach First and a review of subject-specific CPD in the UK and in comparison with high performing countries.