The challenge of transformation in teacher education: New article in Acta Didactica Norge

‘Reforming’ teacher education is the go-to policy area in many countries around the world. You can have a bash at teachers (they’re not good enough) and university lecturers (they’re why teachers are not good enough) and also that ‘out-dated’ model of the welfare state where general taxation provides basic services for the general population in a relationship of democratic accountability and for the public good (‘how old-fashioned!’). You need some private providers who will do some ‘disruptive innovation’ (for which read ‘high risk codswallop that will, in the final analysis, be financially underwritten by the state when it inevitably goes south’). And while what I’ve just written may be mildly sarcastic in tone, it is undeniably the basis on which English governments have operated for at least 17 years.

But ‘reform’ means many different things. Norway is one of those countries also deeply interested in reform, especially with that highly successful Finnish neighbour. Norway has a dose of PISA envy like many countries but how they are choosing to reform teacher education (and under what, for them, is a right-wing government) stands in stark contrast to the unholy clusterfuck that is the recent White Paper in England. Far from trying to dismantle a system of public or community schools, abolish teaching qualifications, reduce university involvement, generally foul things up and fall over into a ditch, the Norwegian reforms – first mooted in 2010 and announced in 2014 to be implemented in 2017 (now that’s a difference too) – entrench and enhance the university contribution, challenge the universities to do better, reorganise and restructure parts of the higher education system and put practitioner research at the heart of professional preparation.

Yet, after over five years of working in the Norwegian system, I think they and us (here in England) suffer from the same problem: we haven’t worked out the relationship between the teaching profession and a bunch of academics in universities (teacher educators) who have an important relationship to that profession but are not it. In large part, I think it is a knowledge problem in that the knowledge that tends to get people from schools work in the university is not, in the end, valued by the higher education system (as useful as it is in the preparation of teachers) and the knowledge that is valued within the university rewards system is often assumed to be capable of being simply transferred or, at best, translated into schools. And when that doesn’t work, it is usually schools and teachers (who, remember, haven’t been prepared well by the universities in the first place, so the argument goes) that get the blame. The university researchers go all hoity-toity and remind us that the effect size was significant and it was just those pesky teachers’ lack of fidelity to the design that was the problem.

A special issue of the Norwegian journal Acta Didactica Norge has just been published on teacher education and teacher education reform with a range of fantastic articles by leading Norwegian researchers. There are analyses of pilots of the 2017 reforms and the development of the new five year Master’s degree for all primary school teachers. There is a great historical analysis of Norwegian teacher education curricula from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century that shows how control of the curriculum was lost by the profession to a point in 1965 when it was just one university (Oslo) that determined what teachers were taught (and not much about teaching, it seems). There are some very interesting papers on digital tools creating new dialogic spaces for teacher development. And also reports from projects led by ProTed, the Norwegian national centre of excellence in teacher development led by Andreas Lund. I was asked to write an epilogue for the special issue that responded to the articles and drew, briefly, on the international comparison.

In making the argument I do in the article (which you can download for free from the Acta Didactica Norge website and also from the Articles section of this site), I draw on the work of Paul Carlile who works in organisational theory and his ideas about the complex processes that are required when different actors have to work together across complex boundaries. So far, I argue, we have managed to get new teachers to do some pretty difficult translation work quite successfully and the risk of the Norwegian reforms is that this situation will continue, with the struggle to translate now encoded in a Masters’ thesis. But the potential for genuine transformation is a challenge for both Norway and England and requires us to work through that question about the relationship between one of the largest and most important professions in society and a group of academics in the increasingly specialised and competitive environment of universities.