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Blog post Part of special issue: Education research: Northern Ireland

A new agenda for teacher education research in Northern Ireland

Martin Hagan, Head of Education at St Mary's University College

The importance of teachers has long been recognised as central not only to the educational and personal development of children but also to societal wellbeing and economic growth (OECD, 2018). Over the past 40 years, therefore, teacher education has become a key policy concern in most countries.

In Northern Ireland, however, policy development on teacher education has been exceptionally slow and fragmented. In a recent paper (Hagan & Eaton, 2020), my colleague and I use Rittel and Webber’s (1973) concept of a ‘Wicked Problem’ to consider the 13-year process of teacher education review initiated in 2003, which eventually led to the publication of Learning Leaders: A Strategy for Teacher Professional Learning (DENI, 2016). Many reasons may be posited for the extended hiatus, including the challenges of new and unstable government; joint departmental governance of teacher education with two different ministers; a parallel review of infrastructure initiated in 2014; and, fundamentally, an insufficient acknowledgement of the political nature of teacher education which Cochran-Smith (2005, p. 3) describes as ‘the cultural ideas, ideals, values, and beliefs to which it (teacher education) is attached’.

So how can the inertia of the past be overcome to allow for a move towards the implementation of the ‘Learning Leaders’ strategy alongside a progressive research agenda aimed at improving the life chances of children in the post-‘Troubles’ era? The Department of Education has produced a proposal document entitled, Teacher Professional Learning in Northern Ireland. The document outlines the key principles of Teacher Professional Learning (TPL); the framework through which it may be developed – ‘The Learning Leadership Lens’ which crosses all career phases from initial teacher education to senior leadership; the use of this lens from the perspective of teachers, schools, teacher educators and employers; and finally, the means by which TPL may be evaluated. A video-recorded overview of the proposals can be found at Hagan (2022). I was privileged to chair the stakeholder group which developed the Lens and Competence Framework. Our aim was to change the professional learning paradigm to enable teachers to take ownership of their professional development and move towards ‘self-authorship’ (Hodge et al., 2009). I would argue that achieving this would provide the best opportunity to address the challenging issues identified as far back as 2003.

‘If Northern Ireland is to develop the world-class education system to which it aspires, Teacher Professional Learning needs to become a central priority.’

To support the paradigm shift, the TPL framework also provides a platform for the development of a fresh, collaborative research agenda. While the teacher education research community is relatively small in Northern Ireland, members are active across a range of organisations including the British Educational Research Association (BERA), the Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) and the International Professional Development Association (IPDA), and are in partnership with colleagues applying to UK funding councils such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Standing Conference on Teacher Education, North and South (SCoTENS) has also, for many years, provided seed funding to support collaborative research activity with colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. The value of association and involvement with these academic fora cannot be underestimated in terms of capacity building and enhancing research partnerships both within and beyond Northern Ireland. We know that the quality of any education system is dependent upon the calibre of its teachers and the strength and vision of its leadership, and so if Northern Ireland is to develop the world-class education system to which it aspires, TPL needs to become a central priority. The TPL framework provides an opportunity to align education research more closely to the teachers’ career continuum to allow for new insights and understandings of how teachers can best be supported to grow and develop their competence as ‘Learning Leaders’.


Cochran-Smith, M. (2005). The new teacher education: For better or for worse? Educational Researcher, 34(7), 3–17.

Department of Education for Northern Ireland [DENI]. (2016). Learning leaders: A strategy for Teacher Professional Learning.

Hagan, M., & Eaton, P. (2020). Teacher education in Northern Ireland: Reasons to be cheerful or a ‘wicked problem’? Teacher Development, 24(2), 258–273.

Hagan. M. (2022). Teacher Professional Learning in Northern Ireland: Changing the paradigm [Webinar]. St Mary’s University College, Belfast.

Hodge, D., Baxter-Magolda, M., Haynes, C., & David, C. (2009). Engaged learning: Enabling self-authorship and effective practice. Liberal Education, 95(4), 16–23.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2018). Effective teacher policies: Insights from PISA.

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.