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Applying Intelligence to Teacher Education

Rachel Lofthouse

I was motivated to write this blog after Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, gave a speech about teacher recruitment and training at the Festival of Education, at Wellington College on the 18th June 2015  News reports focused on his attribution of blame to the media for putting off prospective teachers (hard on the tail of Nicky Morgan who has reached the same conclusion), while the assembled twitterati were evidently underwhelmed by his self-professed trumpet blowing about his own remarkable teaching. His speech was actually about was the crisis in teacher recruitment. Of particular significance was the worry that some schools are now out of the loop and no longer deemed appropriate for teaching placements, and that those same schools find recruiting teachers a challenge. As Wilshaw said ‘The prospect of the most successful schools cherry-picking the brightest and best for themselves, creating a polarised system between the strongest and weakest schools, has become a reality.’ Dr Mary Bousted (general secretary of the ATL) tweeted that Wilshaw was ‘spot on about teacher training crisis’ which really was an interesting moment of convergence.

structural changes at this scale can prevent us from looking hard at the details of practice

So, in the spirit of seeking out alternatives for a better future I returned to my blog written as part of a series published by the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal, written in the form of research-informed messages for the new government. My blog was a plea – a call to arms, a challenge to plan initial teacher education differently. Policy developments have sent schools and universities along journeys of structural change from HEI / school partnerships for teacher education to school-led provision for teacher training. But structural changes at this scale can prevent us from looking hard at the details of practice, as we become so busy re-organising (rather than reconceptualising) existing programmes, budgets and roles. In prioritising schools as providers of workplace learning we have affected the experiences of, and infrastructure for, teacher training. In the current system new teachers are immediately exposed to the performative culture of schools, having their individual successes and failures measured and graded from the moment they arrive, and becoming acutely aware of the relentless ‘standards agenda’. Prioritising teaching placements in the most successful schools reinforces this agenda, and convinces some prospective teachers that some places are much safer career destinations than others. As Wilshaw said in his speech ‘Unsurprisingly, the majority opt for a well-performing school in a nice area.’

We can rake over the irony of this statement, or we can look ahead. Wilshaw suggests ‘national service teachers, contracted directly with government and then deployed to a disadvantaged area’ and ‘more flexibility when deciding which schools can lead teacher training’. I suggest we need to focus on reducing the significant anxiety that many prospective and qualified teachers feel about training and working in more challenging contexts. I fear that student teachers are rarely encouraged to innovate and many simply learn how to survive. Instead of new teachers being a source of inspiration and innovation they adopt normative practices, and their potential and energy is not garnered for their individual benefit or that of the schools. In the worst cases, instead of building the necessary professional capacity to work flexibly to meet ever changing demands of the job, they become less resilient to the stresses of the job.

So, looking for a solution, my NISR blog was called ‘ProjectTeach – applying intelligence to teacher education’. It was a flight of fancy, but not fanciful, painting a picture of a different approach, with new pedagogic models of teacher education that have the capacity to change the professional outcomes. Through PROJECT-TEACH intelligent thinking would be applied to teacher training, drawing on the principles of successful learning organisations, coaching and project-based learning. I suggest that student teachers should be educated not only individually but also in teams which tackle real-life workplace challenges through projects based on research, development and practice. The teams would be supported by co-coaches who enable their team to develop collaborative, empowering and supportive relationships, as well as the knowledge and skills required for them to tackle the genuine challenges of teaching. The responsibility for the professional learning of all student teachers in a team becomes a collective one; each team is aiming for the best possible outcomes in terms of professional learning, pupil outcomes, and school development.

If we are to crack the recruitment crisis we need to make initial teacher education irresistible

Much successful adult learning is social and contextualised, and PROJECT-TEACH would enable new teachers to develop skills and knowledge through collaboration on authentic and rich learning tasks set in the realities of the full range of schools. The project briefs would be planned by drawing on the combined expertise of the professional and academic co-coaches who would design them to meet the ambitions of the host schools as well as to take account of the development stage of the new teachers. The Teacher Standards would develop significance in terms of long-term occupational capacity, rather than simply as a checklist of time and context limited competencies. If we are to crack the recruitment crisis we need to make initial teacher education irresistible – the best learning experience one can imagine, one which reinforces aspirant teachers sense of vocation rather than diminishes their sense of efficacy. We need new ideas – for now ProjectTeach is mine.

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