Education NOT Training: The uncomfortable truth about effective initial teacher education

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Periodically social media is liberally sprinkled with negativity about ‘teacher training’. This isn’t the kind of negativity about teaching that prompted the ‘Those who can, teach’ campaign in 2000, rather this is negativity about the training itself.   For those considering embarking on teacher training who stumble across these posts, it can feel as if everyone had a bad experience that meant they weren’t prepared for the classroom. The impact of these accounts can also be heard in the current Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Market Review (2021) – they have contributed to the belief that all ITT is broken and that only wholesale reform can fix it despite scarcity of evidence beyond anecdote to support these claims.  And, whilst the complainants are loud, they are not as numerous as they would have you believe, nor are certain routes immune from critique (thereby offering a silver-bullet for improvement) as some would like to suggest.  Will the proposed newly accredited provision really transform this phenomenon?

I want to be clear that in writing this I am not denying the fact that some teachers will have had a negative experience of initial teacher education (ITE) -clearly each complaint will be specific to the individual programme and circumstances of their placement/ training school.  Nor am I excusing situations where these concerns were not addressed or taken seriously at the time. Furthermore, I recognise that many of those raising concerns see themselves as ambassadors for teachers in training who, they point out, having no prior point of reference cannot act as a suitable barometer of quality: DfE surveys examining satisfaction with ITT consistently show over ¾ of NQTs rating their ITT course experiences very highly – in 2017 (the most recent statistics available) 81% of NQTs rated their course 7-10 out of 10.  It is true that negative experiences from training can be found, usually in small numbers, on every training route, whether school-based, university-led or accessed via a specialist not-for-profit programme: to suggest otherwise does the whole sector a disservice.  However, the ‘horror stories’ will sit alongside those of course/route contemporaries who many years later still feel they got a ‘good deal’ and were well prepared for what was to come.  Why does this happen? Are the silent majority misled or is there something else going on?

Interestingly many of the experiential accounts offered up by those who complain most vociferously about ITT share similar features, often centring around a Damascene moment post-qualification following which they truly realised their potential as a teacher.  In almost all cases they express incredulity that this revelation was not shared as part of their training, given they found it easy to access from an instructional teaching text or through trial and error in their own classroom.  When I hear these stories, they make me feel sad and prompt me to reflect on my own experiences of training, the start of my teaching career and of the experiences of my own ITT students.  They also make me acutely aware that no matter how hard I work or how carefully we think through our curriculum planning, we will never get it totally right for everyone we support.  However, it also leads me to reflect on the misunderstandings and misconceptions people hold more widely about initial teacher education – most of which can be summed by the notion that it is an endeavour of training rather than education.

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Foundational outcomes

A significant element of an effective ITE course involves supporting beginning teachers to recognise and understand their own preconceptions about school life, the ways their subject/phase is taught, and education more widely.  Most beginning teachers embark on their ITE year with a clear vision of the kind of teacher they wish to be, usually born of their own experiences of school.  Some students find it disconcerting to be challenged to analyse and deconstruct these preconceptions, but it is a necessary step before they can truly begin to ‘see’ their new school contexts, understand how and why to employ different pedagogical approaches and appreciate the ‘building blocks’ of their subject disciplines.  This education goes beyond simple ‘training’.  It is important preparation for a career of growth and learning – critical self-awareness of positionality is key for developing colleagues who can identify the need for change and engage with an ongoing improvement cycle rather than allowing their professional knowledge to stagnate.  However, the outcomes of this element of teacher education are not instrumental or easily quantifiable list of applicable ‘skills’ for classroom practice. They are foundational and underpin the dispositions required for a long-term teaching career (Korthagen, 2017).

Effective ITE involves the synthesis of school experiences and observation, theoretical understanding, teaching practice and personal reflection and connection building between these elements.  Most aspects of this can be curated with careful curriculum sequencing and the provision of well-timed opportunities for rehearsal and practise.  However, different school contexts mean the practical realisation of these opportunities will necessarily differ.  Additionally, they require students to undertake additional reading and experimentation that frequently places them beyond their own ‘comfort zone’.  Beginning teachers have to be prepared to engage with elements they might feel irrelevant to their current situation, the importance of which they only later come to understand, and therefore can lead to particular aspects not resonating as strongly at the time in their own practice.  Developing a ‘learning that’ and ‘learning how to’ ITT curriculum (DfE, 2019) may therefore have value in establishing a minimum entitlement for beginning teachers but it will not necessarily provide the panacea to the perceived shortfall in beginning teachers’ education.  Teaching is complex and highly contextualised.  Learning ‘that’ and learning ‘how’ in one school setting does not automatically mean you are able to apply it with the nuances required in a new setting – beginning teachers frequently experience big challenges when transitioning to their second placement school for precisely this reason – which may help to partly explain why some teachers never feel fully prepared for their role in a new school.

Education not ‘training’

ITE has a responsibility to prepare beginning teachers for the vast array of school ethos’ and approaches, the technological developments and many different policy agendas that will appear during their careers, and to equip with a mindset that will enable them ultimately to become effective school leaders for the future.  All teachers obviously need to be trained in fundamental strategies and approaches for managing behaviour and introducing key elements of their subjects as a minimum but presenting teaching as a neat package of strategies to be implemented uncritically does no one any favours in the long term.  Our aim is to develop teaching professionals capable of managing uncertainty and complexity, engaging critically with a broad base of research while simultaneously improving their technical knowledge and allowing this to impact on their classroom practice.  It is therefore inevitable that where education rather than training is the aim teachers may feel that a particular book read a few years into their career really resonates and provide a Damascene moment – the foundations of criticality and application to practice formed as part of ITE in fact enable these moments, an aspect of ITE that seems to escape its loudest critics. 

References/ Further Reading

DfE (2019) Initial teacher training (ITT): core content framework, London, Reference: DFE-00015-2019

DfE (2021) Initial teacher training (ITT) market review report, London

Korthagen, F. (2017) Inconvenient truths about teacher learning: towards professional development 3.0, Teachers and Teaching, 23:4, 387-405, DOI:10.1080/13540602.2016.1211523

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