Turning on the head of a pin: Why developing agency in beginning teachers matters

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If the pandemic period has convinced me of anything it is that developing professionals with agency is vital for society.  The ability to imagine an alternative to what is already known and practised, and to find a way of enacting that imagining, has been part of our daily experience over the last 18 months.  Teachers have been turning on the head of a pin daily, as the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring has presented a constantly shifting context.

In a previous blog I described the way our partnership have worked to develop beginning teachers during the pandemic and stated that:

‘We work with our school partners to develop teachers who think critically and develop agency which means they can be visionary not just reactive when circumstances change, and to make the most of the opportunity presented by challenges such as the pandemic.  We create thinking teachers with deep foundations which equip them for the long term in teaching.’

It now feels appropriate to unpack why this is such an important part of an effective Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programme.

Will Bailey-Watson neatly summarised in a twitter thread that 2020 was a year in which the history teaching community not only rose to the challenges of the pandemic but also moved the ‘discourse forward and improv[ed] the quality of curricula and pedagogy towards more authentic, representative history’.   In the context of the crisis of the initial lockdown educators demonstrated an incredible ability to adapt and rise to the challenge.  At a moment’s notice teachers have adjusted their curriculum, altered their pedagogical approach and adopted unfamiliar technology to provide quality educational experiences for students.  In the most challenging of times, they proved their ability to imagine future possibilities (previously deemed out of reach) and innovate to make this a reality.  This doesn’t just happen by accident.  It is the result of foundational thinking that underpins our professionalism – the notion of teacher as thinker, an autonomous agent of change and improvement – the roots of which can be located in many high-quality initial teacher education programmes.

Understanding models of ITE

A model of initial teacher education I have found particularly helpful in articulating the complexity of our endeavour has been expressed by Winch, Orchard and Oancea.  In their IMPACT pamphlet examining ‘Why theory is necessary to good training’, Winch and Orchard assert that ‘Professionals do not require protocols setting out in detail what to do in every conceivable situation. Rather, a set of guiding principles is developed and agreed over time and the kinds of attitudes and dispositions that help teachers to reach the right decisions are fostered during their training.’ (2015, p.18).

We know that beginning and early career teachers often want immediate solutions to today’s problems.  They find it hard to look beyond their short-term development.  Initial Teacher Training which relies upon the adoption of instrumental technicist approaches which are then practised and employed in the classroom often provides those solutions.  However, these ‘craft’ and ‘executive technician’ approaches, whilst an important component of the teacher training experience, risk developing mindsets of teacher knowledge – content, curriculum, pedagogical content knowledge and practice knowledge (Shulman, 1987) – as an inert and given ‘cannon’.  Beginning teachers need to be developed as thinking practitioners who engage with their ‘craft’ as a professional endeavour.  They need to engage with research in situations where they are supported to develop criticality, enabling them to exercise their own judgement as to the relevance of that research to their own phase/ subject domain and school context. 

CraftExecutive TechnicianProfessional Endeavour
Common-sense’ apprenticeship model

Emphasises situated professional knowledge

Understanding of students and approaches through observation and practice

No place for research-based knowledge in teacher professionalism.

Downplays technical know-how and critical reflection

Emphasises value of technical know-how to effective classroom practice

Empirical education research valuable BUT not necessary or desirable for teachers themselves

Research needs to be translated into protocols for application in the classroom

Looks to educational research to deliver certainty

Values craft, technician and research informed practice

Teacher exercises own judgement as to how research-based considerations are relevant

Research informs and improves technical knowledge –reference points for critiquing protocol interventions

Draws on body of theory mastered by teachers through years of study and reflection

Engages with research and common sense critically – able to accept uncertainty and complexity

Summary table developed from model expressed in Winch, C., Oancea, A., & Orchard, J. (2015) The contribution of education research to teachers’ professional learning: philosophical understandings, Oxford Review of Education, 41:2, 202-216

The preparation of excellent beginning teachers looks beyond short term solutions, and aims to equip the student for the long term.  The more beginning teachers see subject, pedagogical and practice knowledge as inert and given, the more their continued professional growth is stymied.  With this longer-term preparation in mind, it is important that beginning teachers are equipped to challenge their own practice and to withstand pressure to implement inappropriate initiatives which run counter to the best practice in their own subject discipline.  This requires engaging them during their training with communities of practice which do not offer ‘certainty’ but instead draw on a body of subject/ phase specific theorising by teachers which has evolved to reveal the complexity of our classroom endeavours in making our subject disciplines understandable by pupils (see Gödek (2010) for more on the challenges encountered by early career teachers in developing their subject and pedagogical content knowledge).

Why agency matters

Developing a model of professional endeavour is critical for developing agency, and it is incumbent upon Initial Teacher Education to lay down foundational patterns of thinking and equip teachers for continued growth as practitioners engaged with communities of practice.  The pandemic has proven that it is impossible to teach protocols with which to address every possible scenario a beginning or early career teacher might encounter – they need agency to enable them to respond when the context changes and the scenarios become unrecognisable, and the existing protocols no longer fit the imperatives of the situation.  There are undoubtedly fundamentals principles that need to contribute to that foundational thinking, but the best outcome of an initial teacher education course is a beginning teacher equipped to envisage an alternative, drawing on a rich underpinning of criticality and engagement with the ways in which research and teacher knowledge and experience combine in practice.  There are a great many initial teacher education programmes that do this very thing with real success, who set down the foundational thinking that has allowed so much innovation in the teaching profession during 2020-2021 and that equipped teachers to ‘turn on the head of a pin’.  

References/ Further Reading

Gödek, Y. (2010) The role of teacher education courses in developing teachers’ subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge in M. F. Taşar & G. Çakmakçı (eds.), Contemporary science education research: pre-service and in-service teacher education (pp. 17-21).

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4-14.

Winch, C., Oancea, A., & Orchard, J. (2015) The contribution of education research to teachers’ professional learning: philosophical understandings, Oxford Review of Education, 41:2, 202-216.

Winch, C.& Orchard, J. (2015) What training do teachers need? Why theory is necessary to good teaching, Impact No.22 Philosophical Perspectives on education Policy, Wiley.


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