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Initial teacher education is about ‘sojourning’: the role of universities in developing ‘know that’ to inform ‘know how’

Ali Messer

Context: Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper March 2016

The White paper proposes: a ‘new accreditation’ that’ will raise the quality and status of the teaching profession, better recognising advanced subject knowledge and pedagogy that is rooted in up-to-date evidence…’. So far so good. I agree that this kind of ‘advanced subject knowledge and pedagogy’ is vital for teachers. I work in an institution that has provided teacher education for 175 years. This blog has a specific focus on the case for the role of universities in the initial education of secondary teachers.

The white paper appears to draw on the commonly held view that ‘advanced subject knowledge’ is something that well-qualified graduates bring into teaching. The paper may also depend to an extent on the argument developed by Gilbert Ryle (1946/9) that ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’ are different. Degree level knowledge is assumed to be the ‘knowledge that’ teachers need, and so what novices learn through apprenticeship in schools is ‘knowing how’. The ‘the shift towards a school-led ITT system’ seems also to be supported by this view of teacher knowledge.

Chris Winch (2009) has examined Ryle’s claim in the context of the vocational education of teachers. His argument is that when professional judgement is required in new and unfamiliar situations, the decision-making of experts is informed by propositional knowledge. A form of ‘know that’ informs action or ‘know how’. New teachers do not gain the necessary propositional knowledge simply through first-degree subject study; they need to acquire this through systematic postgraduate work. If we accept this argument, the fundamental role of schools in the apprenticeship of new teachers is acknowledged as necessary, but insufficient.

The White paper later claims that ‘…it is not yet as easy as it should be for teachers to find and use evidence to improve their teaching practice because the evidence base is patchy, difficult to access or to translate into action.’ This claim is not well-founded in relation to ITE, and could be an example of what Meg Maguire (2014) has characterised as a sustained attempt to control teacher education in England by erasing alternative understandings.

The evidence base in my curriculum subject, History, is anything but patchy. In the last 30 years, there has been a substantial body of research, developed cumulatively in England at the IOE and abroad in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and beyond. This body of work has been ‘translated into action’ through the community of practice that is Teaching History, a professional journal written by teachers, for teachers, sustained by PGCE tutors such as Katharine Burn . It has also been translated through sustained debate about the nature of the subject within the curriculum, and its purpose in the lives of young people, triumphantly summarised by Christine Counsell as ‘disciplinary knowledge for all, the secondary history curriculum and history teachers’ achievement’.

My argument is that it should be the role of universities to create, curate and critically explore ‘advanced subject knowledge and pedagogy’ with entrants to teaching, sustaining enquiry through online communities of practice. We need to create learning environments, with school-based colleagues, in which new teachers can be ‘sojourners’ and not ‘tourists’, where university-based study helps new teachers make sense of teaching experiences. Mark Fenton-O’Creevy et al argue that tourists engage superficially in academic practices but do not engage with their meaning, whereas sojourners are on a different trajectory. They are engaged in integrating their understanding of academic and workplace practices, and show potential to integrate powerful ‘know that’ into ‘know how’ in their professional practice.

 For this integration of ‘knowing that’ into ‘knowing how’ to be achieved, we need to move on from what Viv Ellis has characterised as an impoverished understanding of experience in schools. A much richer understanding develops by viewing ‘the experience from which beginning teachers learn in schools as the object of inquiry’, (Ellis 2010: 116), with a focus on what might benefit pupils in school.

Initial teacher education needs to make sense to new teachers, or they won’t stay long enough in the profession to make a significant difference to the lives of young people. Postgraduate study is needed to help them develop the right kind of ‘know that’ to inform their developing ‘know how’. And this is needed for all new teachers, in SCITTs and those trained through School Direct, not just those training with Russell group universities.