Avoiding the Observation Trap: Interpreting generic mentoring approaches through a subject specific lens

This blog is jointly authored by Vic Crooks and Laura London based on a presentation we gave at the Historical Association Conference in May 2022.  

Back in January, this blog introduced you to Tom who was struggling to understand why things were going wrong in his teaching.  His mentor has identified ‘pace’ as an issue, but Tom really doesn’t know what that means.  The blog explores logistics, clarity of instruction and clarity of purpose as possible reasons for why Tom is struggling with pace or indeed issues with pace at the ‘transition’ points in his lesson. 

Now, 5 months on from ‘targeting Tom’s transitions’ his mentor is getting increasingly frustrated.  Why are lessons still falling flat? Why hasn’t he moved into his golden era of ‘consistency’ which is the ambition of all beginning teachers in their Initial Teacher Training (ITT) year?  It might be because by looking for generic solutions he (and his mentor) have fallen into the ‘observation trap’.

Guidance for Beginning and Early Career Teachers

It is not that Tom is short of advice. In fact, beginning and Early Career Teachers are surrounded by advice and guidance to help them develop their classroom practice.  Central to their development is the weekly mentor meeting, underpinned by the clear requirements of the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework (CCF) and the Early Career Framework (ECF).  These documents clearly define the minimum entitlement ITT and ECT teachers can expect in terms of curriculum content and mentoring support during these initial years of their teaching careers.  To provide a continuity of experience across ITT and the first 2 years of teaching, both frameworks are designed to cover the same 5 key areas linked to the teacher standards:

            • Behaviour Management (TS1&7)

            • Pedagogy (TS2,4,5)

            • Curriculum (TS3)

            • Assessment (TS6)

            • Professional Behaviours (TS8)

A minimum entitlement to curriculum and mentoring support is laudable.  However, whilst some support materials created by ECF facilitators make reference to ‘subject’ and ‘phase’, for example stating ‘it is strongly recommended that early career teachers are grouped by subject or phase for the delivery of this sessions’ (Teach First, p.2), the reality is that most of the guidance depends upon the application of generic teaching & learning skills and pedagogical approaches. Beginning teachers, early career teachers and their mentors are encouraged to apply generic approaches to their teaching, but these are rarely grounded in a subject specific context. 

Teacher Tapp survey: mentor perceptions of ECF provision, April 2022

Indeed, in a Teacher Tapp survey from April 2022, 60% of ECF mentors who responded to the survey said they felt that ECF programmes they were following were not subject/ phase specific enough. 

The Observation Trap

Between us we have experience of working across 6 different ITT routes, 4 of which approached beginning teacher development in cross-curricular groups supported with generic pedagogical training and development.  Our experience has shown us that interpreting the generic through a subject specific lens is really difficult for mentors and beginning (and by extension early career) teachers.  

In practice terms this is what often lies at the root of Tom and his mentor’s problems. A preoccupation with generic approaches can lead to repetitive targets around ‘developing pace’ or ‘working on questioning’ with action steps being centred around engaging in more cold calling, leaving wait time for thinking etc. However, as asserted in the blog about Tom:

‘Sometimes the organisation of a lesson is slick and the instruction giving crystal clear, and yet … apathy reigns and pupils see transitions as an opportunity to seek distraction because they simply do not understand the purpose of the activities they are completing.’

The Observation Trap

In these circumstances, all the generic targets in the world set around lesson ‘enaction’ are never going to help the lesson to fly and the teacher to attain consistently effective practice.  Mentors need to be supported to avoid the ‘observation trap’ and to help their mentees think beyond these surface level ‘symptoms’ of the lesson to the actual ’causes’ of those symptoms – causes which often reside in their framing of the subject itself and the curricular thinking which underpins the lesson.  

This is not to say that enaction should never be the focus of beginning and early career teacher development, of course it should – clearly developing generic teaching skills to ensure a functioning classroom is a crucial part of learning to teach and becoming competent.  However, this should not be the sole focus of beginning teacher and early career teacher target setting.

A good example of this is around questioning.  All the wait time and cold calling in the world won’t make a questioning phase in a lesson go well if the questions themselves are fundamentally flawed and lacking disciplinary purpose.  You can find more on this here

Subject Specific Approach to Planning Questioning

A worked example: Dual Coding

Similarly, dual coding is an important facet in the toolkit of helping children to encode information in their brains more effectively, however, for this to be effective it needs to have disciplinary fidelity.  Dual coding which is divorced from disciplinary context is much more likely to embed misconceptions and be more damaging than helpful.   Therefore, simply exploring whether dual coding has been utilised in purely generic terms is insufficient. 

As shown in the example below, subject specific mentoring questions (here focusing on exploring Mike Hill’s taxonomy for using visual imagery (2021)) need to be used to ensure that the dual coding supports the lesson purposes and will not lead to unhelpful connections being made in pupil schema.  Moreover, stimulus needs to be provided for beginning and early career teachers to continue developing their thinking beyond the context of the one lesson that has been observed – providing subject specific reading which helps them to think more broadly than ‘correcting’ that one task is vital for helping them to reconceptualise their teaching practice. 

Subject Specific Mentoring Questions and Support

Avoiding the observation trap

Tom needs his mentor to help him look beyond generic solutions to the ‘symptoms’ of his lesson enaction (e.g. the role of ‘pace’ and questioning) and instead shift his perspective to see that these are the outward manifestation of the ’causes’ of effective and less effective (in this case) historical thinking (insert your own disciplinary challenge here) that was taking place in his lesson. 

He needs to be supported, through a dialogic and non-judgementoring (Hobson & Malderez, 2013, p.90) approach, to ask questions of his practice which will drill down into substantive and disciplinary underpinnings of the subject so that he is pushed beyond thinking purely about his own teaching and into a zone where he is concerned with what children are learning and how they are making meaning from this knowledge. 

This can only happen if he is supported to think in subject specific ways about his own practice and to look beyond enaction.

References and Further Reading

Crooks, V., London, L and Snelson, H. (2021). ’Singing from the same hymn-sheet’: Exploring school-based mentors’ perceptions of the role of HEI subject tutors in ITE partnerships’ TEAN journal. 13(1), 1

DfE (2019) Early Career Framework, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/978358/Early-Career_Framework_April_2021.pdf

DfE (2019) ITT Core Content Framework, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974307/ITT_core_content_framework_.pdf

Grande, J. (2022). #6 This week in history… why the hinterland is core, Curricular Pasts Blog, https://curricularpasts.wordpress.com/2022/03/06/6-this-week-in-history-why-the-hinterland-is-core/

Hobson, A. & Ashby, P. & Malderez, A. & Tomlinson, P. (2009). Mentoring Beginning Teachers: What We Know and What We Don’t. Teaching and Teacher Education. 25. 207-216. 10.1016/j.tate.2008.09.001. 

Hill, Michael (2021). Picturing the past: using historical illustration with clarity and purpose, Virtual Historical Association Conference Presentation

Hobson, A. & Malderez, A. (2013). Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school‐based mentoring in teacher education. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education. 2. 89-108. 10.1108/IJMCE-03-2013-0019. 

Mills, J. (2021).  ‘One big cake’: in what ways does substantive knowledge of the ‘mid-Tudor crisis’ emerge in the writing of Year 7 students?, Teaching History 182

Mutton, T., Hagger, H. & Burn, K. (2011) Learning to plan, planning to learn: the developing expertise of beginning teachers, Teachers and Teaching, 17:4,399-416, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2011.580516

Timperley, H. (2001) Mentoring Conversations Designed to Promote Student Teacher Learning, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 29:2, 111-123, DOI: 10.1080/13598660120061309

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