Why abolishing Ofsted is not such a bad idea

The Labour Party’s proposal to abolish Ofsted has outraged many and provoked others to argue for a revised regime that produces more reliable ‘judgements’. Both perspectives miss the point: Labour’s aim is not to end school inspection completely but to close down a relatively recently established organisation that is no longer fit for purpose. Local ‘health checks’ and a residual HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) will continue to inspect schools under Labour’s plans and these quality assurance mechanisms will also be situated in a renewed school improvement system that Labour plans to model on the highly successful London Challenge.

Gone would be the oppressive, heavy-handed, ‘short notice’/high-stakes school invasions that have skewed both teaching and teachers’ workload and wellbeing. Gone would be the political noise and the increasingly partisan behaviour of some of the current crop of senior inspectors. As far as HMI goes, it would be a return to a smaller and more carefully selected inspectorate bound by similar codes of practice to previous generations of HMI; inspectors who are sufficiently experienced as well as trained in order to arrive at cogently argued, independent, professional judgements.

Attempting to make inspectors’ ‘judgements’ more scientifically ‘reliable’, however, is a red herring. It is an answer to a different question which is probably something like ‘how can you make classroom observation a more reliable instrument for measuring X, Y or Z?’ Inspection is not research; inspection agencies are not research organisations. Inspection is about checking the quality of often highly divergent entities and practices. To be successful and cause as least harm as possible, it has to rely on the professional wisdom of those who inspect, their capacity to adapt their practice to often wildly different settings, as well as an overarching accountability framework that isn’t primarily punitive. Such a system will occasionally produce unreliable or unfair results because it is human(e) – which is why the consequences of a single inspection event need to be low-stakes and why the results themselves need to be open to greater scrutiny and challenge.

The argument that parents depend on inspection judgements to make decisions about choices of school is notably weak. For decades research has shown that parents’ decision-making processes about schools are multi-factorial; often, believing their children will be safe, happy and close to home are top of parents’ lists of priorities, along with having good support for any special educational needs. And advocates of the role of inspection judgements in informing parents’ choices also ignore the fact that most parents have limited capacity to choose; if their local schools aren’t ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, most parents don’t have the cash to up-sticks and move closer to another, ‘better’ school (usually in a more affluent and therefore expensive area). What’s needed is a good local school for every child, supported to get better by a school improvement service (along the lines of London Challenge, in Labour’s proposals) and given regular checks by local authorities and, occasionally, by national HMI.

Born in 1992 to John Major’s government, Ofsted is a curious beast. The office of the Chief Inspector has too often been a bully pulpit for the incumbent, most notably for Chris Woodhead. Woodhead was disposed to making things up to fit his personal preconceptions (the figure of 15,000 ‘incompetent’ teachers plucked from the air) or over-turning the inspection results of senior HMI if they didn’t meet with his personal approval (the case of Islington Green School). The current Chief Inspector’s appointment was not confirmed by the Education Select Committee in 2016 with the Conservative MP in the chair saying they were ‘unconvinced’ she was the right person. In the kind of behaviour we’ve become much more used to recently, Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary appointed her anyway.

My own knowledge of Ofsted suggests it can now be a relatively dysfunctional place with HMI complaining to their union (the First Division Association) that they were not consulted about the new inspection framework before key figures in MATs were; that there are significant differences in personal-professional style among senior HMI that are consequential; that some in Ofsted now openly talk about its need to ‘align with government thinking’ rather than maintaining an independent stance; and that former advisors of Nick Gibb have exerted considerable influence on Ofsted’s current direction in ways that continue to trouble some. Ofsted is a relic of a recent historical moment and represents the concerns of that moment. It’s a relic that political parties haven’t had the confidence until now to question so it’s refreshing that Labour has adopted this decisive position.

Abolishing Ofsted is not abolishing inspection. Claiming that doing so is abolishing a critical part of the education system without which it will fall over is nonsense. The education system now is entirely different to the system that existed 27 years ago and most other countries (including many we seem to aspire to be educationally) don’t have anything like Ofsted. Claiming that Labour has been taken over by ‘hardline’ extremists or is too indebted to the teacher unions on this issue is also ridiculous. Changing the ways we quality assure schools is long overdue and must, as these Labour proposals also suggest, be situated within much stronger local improvement services. I would say that the Labour proposals are ‘HMI + local checks and support’. It raises the prospect of a bold new beginning for the system not the end.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to seeing how the current crop of favoured edu-preneurs will pivot to accommodate this policy if Labour do indeed form the next government. They will certainly want a slice of any national version of London Challenge. That’s going to have to be a highly creative dance well worth watching.

Responding to Melissa Benn: ‘We need to bring public education back into public hands’

On 4th July this year, the writer and campaigner Melissa Benn gave the Annual Education Lecture at King’s College London. To a full house in the Great Hall at the Strand, she presented an argument for a ‘new settlement’ around public education, one that has been formed into the case for a National Education Service. You can read more about Melissa’s argument in her recent book ‘Life Lessons’. I was asked to give a formal response to the lecture and this is what I said:

Thank you, Melissa, for a wonderfully critical and also optimistic lecture. It is the combination of insightful analysis and the generous provision of a ‘map that has utopia’ on it that marks out the genuine ‘public intellectual’ and Melissa is certainly one of our most persuasive and necessary public intellectuals. The ‘real thing’.

If the organising committee thought I might be critical of Melissa’s lecture, to excite debate and provoke discussion, then I’m going to disappoint.  I share many of the same commitments – politically and educationally – as well as what I think might be a similar feeling of responsibility to articulate a hopeful plan – or at least enumerate some ideas that are available to be picked up after this current crisis is over. And I do think that it is a crisis, as Melissa has said, nationally and educationally. Crucially, though, none of these discussions should end with critique alone.

Thank you also to the organising committee who invited me to respond. It is a genuine privilege to be given time to present my own comments before we open up a wider discussion through the Q&A. So thank you to Meg Maguire, our chair this evening, and the other members of that committee, including Olivia Beckhurst, our Communications Officer.

I’m going to use the short time I have to make two sets of brief comments. The first are by way of direct response to what Melissa has said tonight – and what she has also written in Life Lessons, which I thoroughly recommend. The second set of comments even more briefly reflect on what Melissa’s arguments might mean for university departments of Education, like ours, that historically have had responsibilities for the initial preparation and continuing development of education professionals as well as to the production of educational research.

In diagnosing the causes of the current crisis in education, Melissa I think rightly identifies pervasive marketisation – or quasi-marketisation – of public services as part of the problem. The failure of the supposed lever of apparent choice – if not exactly price competition – between professional, public services now reconfigured as ‘providers’ subject to the techniques of New Public Management. Addressing the negative effects of marketisation and competition is clearly a strategic part of constructing a National Education Service. But I would also want to isolate some other factors that have led to the crises (national as well as educational) that now confront us here in the UK or, even more specifically, England and so give a different emphasis in my response. One of these factors is central government’s attack on local government that started in the 1980s and that has at times escalated into attacks on public institutions and ‘experts’ more generally. In the 1980s, there were two apparent bases for these attacks: a question of competence (the allegation that local authorities lacked basic organisational competence) and questions of interference (that they, like ‘experts’ more recently, were obstacles to legitimate reforms by central government).

In 2019, the idea that central government alone has a unique claim to competence now of course looks quaint if not downright ridiculous. And in my personal experience, even the most ardent advocate of academisation would accept, within a few conversational turns, that there were – are, indeed – good and effective local education authorities who support their schools to get better just as there are incompetent and corrupt multi-academy trusts who don’t. For me, an essential part of creating a National Education Service would therefore be to strengthen local and regional government and, crucially, broader democratic processes, to ensure that local priorities and community needs are fed in to what might otherwise become the national, statist priorities of a system in the abstract.

One of the often repeated mantras of the ‘New Education Establishment of edu-Twitter’ that Melissa has mentioned is that ‘we are where we are; academisation can’t be rolled back; local authorities are relics of the past’. And the New Educational Establishment has been very successful in promoting that message. But of course they are wrong. As Melissa has said and, indeed, as Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings demonstrated, if you have the political will and energy and the ideas are there, available for you to use, things can change quite quickly.

So in addition to the distortions that market mechanisms produce in a public education service, an important aspect of the current crisis is what is sometimes rather portentously called the ‘democratic deficit’ – the withering away of both representative democracy at a local level as well as opportunities for active participation in democratic processes that affect both the ‘delivery’ and the experience of the service.

Crucially, it’s not only a question of regulatory oversight – so that senior school leaders like the head at a stand-alone academy can’t pay himself £260,000 a year. It’s about much more than regulatory oversight. It’s about the right of people – students, parents and the wider community – to inform the development of their local school and to insist that it is responsive and accountable to them and not only accountable to central government.

Politically, another factor in the current crises is undoubtedly the crisis in Conservatism, something we see played out every day now on the news. On the one hand, a libertarian, relatively free market right, happy to let the market decide and committed to Milton Friedman’s elision of capitalism and freedom. On the other, a paternalistic, culturally nostalgic right, terrified (and I don’t think that’s too strong a word) of letting the market decide in abject fear of getting the wrong ‘outcome’. So right now in education, we seem to have both a ‘reluctant’ state and an ‘authoritarian’ one – a state that regrets ever getting involved in public education and is keen to withdraw and a state deeply afflicted by something that Paul Gilroy has called ‘postcolonial melancholia’ and wishes to turn back the clock to a mythic ‘golden age’. To quote Gilroy:

In the postcolonial twilight, to encounter difference produces only jeopardy. In response to that threat, the historic obligation to conserve culture produces a different conservatism: readily racialized, nationalized and now gene biologized.

So, in the current educational crisis, we end up with an official definition of knowledge that consists of the Arnoldian ‘best that has been thought and said’ (a direct and unattributed quotation) and the promotion of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum without asking whose knowledge – and to what ends?

Some of my own resources of hope in responding to this crisis of culture – of postcolonial melancholia – are some of the youngest people in society, whether school-age young people’s impatient insistence on the declaration of a climate change emergency or university students confidently asking their lecturers ‘why is my curriculum so White?’ And equally impatiently insisting on decolonising the curriculum. However society deals with these legitimate demands from its citizens, they have to be dealt with. As Melissa has said, you can’t just get just put young people in blazers to chant Wordsworth in rows and pretend these questions don’t exist, as much as it is clearly possible to try.

Which brings me to my final point. If we accept that Melissa has given us some of the tools to think about how we get out of the current crisis in education, what role do university departments of education have to play? How can we contribute?

Well, sadly, I think we are currently woefully unprepared to be of any assistance whatsoever. Generally speaking (and I am aware this is something of a generalisation), I think education departments in England are split between two groups of people playing two entirely different games: the REF game and the Ofsted ITE (and perhaps the TEF) game. On the one hand, an ever smaller number of researchers who are producing an ever smaller number of ‘high quality’ papers that very few people actually read and can make use of. And on the other hand, a group of people who help to prepare next generation of teachers and other education professionals who are basically delivering a product that someone else designed (for example, the PGCE and Qualified Teacher Status), whether the designers are the DfE, the former National College, Ofsted or what their colleagues put together twenty years ago. Nationally, across England, I don’t get any sense of there being many vibrant new ideas in initial teacher education, particularly ones that can help to change things for the better.

Personally, I find it deeply depressing that the energy and imagination and the new ideas are coming from those who Melissa terms the New Educational Establishment and who are committed to an entirely different view of education and, indeed, an entirely different view of society. The momentum has been in the opposite direction – focusing on the rehearsal of technical skills without always the cultivation of the professional judgement necessary to use them – and indeed, improve them. Or the promotion of ‘no excuses behaviour management’ policies on the assumption that if only the ‘unruly’ child (disproportionately Black and/or working class) would shut up, all would be well. The New Education Establishment has been very effective at connecting these ideas to the issue of teacher workload – quite misleadingly, in my opinion (you don’t need to ‘flatten the grass’ to make the job of teaching do-able). But where are the other voices being equally adept rhetorically adept at promoting humane and humanising alternatives. I would tentatively suggest they are few in number from within university departments of education, at least, and we kid ourselves if we think this question can be addressed entirely on Twitter.

Of course, there are exceptions – and we have several exceptions in the room tonight from King’s School of Education, Communication and Society. For example, Dr Mel Cooke’s work with teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Or Dr Tania de St Croix’s work with youth work professionals. Both integrating close and mutually beneficial engagements with educational professionals in the context of critical analyses of society. And there are, of course, others I don’t have time to name. But generally-speaking, my view is that academics in English university departments of education, particularly in the context of teacher education, have not even started to renegotiate the terms of engagement with practice, with the professional fields we (at least officially) have obligations to work with every day.

It is the fourth of July today. So before we go home to watch the military parade in Washington DC on the television, I will end by referring to a figure that Melissa quotes from in Life Lessons, John Adams, the second President of the United States. Adams’ famous letter to a British reformer in 1785 is often quoted to remind us of the purpose of public education (something the revolutionary United States took much more seriously than Great Britain, for understandable reasons) and the duty of government to secure this obligation:

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and will be willing to bear the expense of it. …[Schools] not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.

John Adams also wrote the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that included, in its original draft, a ‘paragraph on education’ that might count as a very early example of formal education policy in English. Adams’ ‘paragraph on education’ called for the diffusion of virtues and values as well as knowledge generally ‘among the body of the people’ not because it would necessarily improve their individual economic wealth but because it was ‘necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties’. The ‘duty of legislatures’ was to uphold this entitlement to public (rather than ‘state’) education because it was one of the principal ways through which the publics themselves were constituted. And the ‘whole people’ had to take on this responsibility and burden and use their agency to shape it. The people had to ‘own’ (in more than one sense of the word) public education.

To return to Melissa’ lecture, I want to repeat something she said early on: ‘We are witnessing the slow drift of public education from public hands. We need to bring public education back into public hands.’ That is the strongest and most fundamental message for me from this lecture and one that I believe we have to attend to urgently, whether we like the word ‘crisis’ or not.

Learning, Assessment and Boundary-Crossing in Teacher Education (LAB-Ted): New research project

I recently tweeted about the successful outcome to a research funding application that will bring together a group of researchers to carry out an intervention study in the teacher education setting in Norway (a study we’re calling ‘LAB-Ted’). Here is some more information about the study, its background and the funding.


Reforms of teacher education in Norway from 2010 have emphasized the development of methodological competence for student teachers when working on research and development (R&D) assignments designed to improve their own practice. Subsequently, from autumn 2017, further reforms required all students undertaking upper primary/lower secondary teacher education to follow a Master’s degree programme culminating in a research-based thesis. Crucially, however, the research for this Master’s thesis had to be practice-based and professionally-oriented, developmental in intent and take as its starting point the formulation of a research problem connected to existing practice in the school setting. The overall aim was that teachers improve their teaching by developing deeper and more sophisticated R&D competence; by focusing on student teachers improving their methodological competence for the thesis, the expectation was that, eventually, higher methodological expectations would contribute to improved processes for developing teaching practices in schools on a continuous basis.

The aims of LAB-Ted

The overall aim of the project is two-fold: first, to develop collaboration between universities (teacher educators), schools (teachers and school leaders) and student teachers in order to build capacity for practice-based, professionally-oriented research in teacher education of the kind required by the 2017 reforms; second, to research these processes using an innovative methodology that will uncover obstacles and barriers to change that will be more widely useful across the system in Norway and, potentially, internationally.  Overall, therefore, the project itself is conceptualized as R&D in the tradition of formative interventions (specifically, the variety known as Developmental Work Research [DWR] elaborated by the leading Finnish researcher Yrjӧ Engestrӧm, an advisor to the project). The professional context for the intervention will be teachers’ practices in five school subjects: English, social science, natural science, mathematics and physical education.

Additionally, LAB-Ted will seek to understand the distinct challenges in creating assessment criteria for Master’s level academic work that is practice-based and professionally-oriented, challenges often unaddressed even if frequently recognized in the development of Master’s-level teacher education systems globally. In developing such criteria, the project will also explore new potential new models of supervision towards the thesis. Further, LAB-Ted will seek to test and explore the specific methodology it deploys – DWR, informed by cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). It is often claimed that DWR is uniquely well-equipped to stimulate and study change in practice settings through processes of historicisation and participant conscientisation and so the study will aim to understand the usefulness of a theory (CHAT) in stimulating change in practices in the contexts of educational reform.

Norwegian student teachers just embarking on the new five year Master’s programme

Research team and funding

LAB-Ted is led by Rachel Jakhelln (University of Tromsø) along with Co-Principal Investigators May Britt Postholm (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and Viv Ellis (King’s College London). LAB-TEd is funded by the Norwegian Research Council (FINNUT) to the value of 12 million NOK (£1.15 million) with additional funding of 5 million NOK from key stakeholders. The project will begin in August 2019 and continue for four years.

The Changing Landscape of Teacher Development

The ways that schools have changed in England since 2010 are pretty obvious to see. Ideas like ‘academies’, initially proposed by New Labour for ‘failing’ schools, have become (more or less) normalised as the preferred future for all schools and the marginalisation of local education authorities has been accomplished in many parts of the country, especially in terms of secondary education. Purely from the perspective of policy analysis, the Coalition and then the Conservatives have been very successful in changing how we think about schools and the school system and if it hadn’t been for a ‘little local difficulty’ like the result of the EU referendum and a failed general election, it is likely that their white paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ would have allowed them to achieve even more.

What is less obvious for people to see – especially those without ‘niche’ interests in teacher education and development – are the changes to the ways in which we prepare and the develop the teaching workforce, initially and then in a classroom. It is not only the well-known School Direct initiative that has been significant; indeed, perhaps what makes School Direct interesting is that, despite the political noise at the time, universities are/were still very heavily involved in School Direct, very often behind a curtain, still pulling many of the levers, rather like a cut-price Wizard of Oz. Or Chucky doll, depending on your point of view.

School Direct – who is that behind the curtain?

What is interesting about the changes to the ways we prepare and then develop teachers in the classroom is that a new eco-system has been emerging to replace the local education authorities, on the one hand, and in some sort of readiness to replace existing university provision on the other. I don’t want to over-emphasise the last part as I think those that might have aspired to replace the universities have realised just how hard it is to do that. But when you deliberately change the eco-system the way that Coalition and Conservative governments have, new entities (organisms?!) emerge to take advantage of conditions in the new environment.

For the last year, a research team across King’s College London and, for the first phase now completed, the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, having been studying the new eco-system. Our first paper is about to be published from phase 1. We are now in phase 2 and focusing on the changing landscape for in-service/continuing professional learning.

‘Landscape’ is an appropriate analogy in a few respects: first of all, it suggests that even though the surface features may look very similar, the sub-structure can be profoundly different. Second, the surface features often have interesting relationships to the sedimented layers below. The new grassy hillocks of teacher development are nonetheless laid over geological structure that can lead to some surprising and unintended new features. Another interesting aspect of the landscape analogy is the mix of old and new features, some retained and conserved through protective regulation; others approved by a parallel, more or less systematic planning process. What you end up with in a landscape is never what you initially envisaged. But it is proving interesting finding out how new kinds of developments emerge, are either cultivated or starved of resources and, ultimately, where the energy is coming from.

Teacher research groups in a Chinese primary school: What if …?

Teacher research groups have been a feature of the Chinese school system for over 50 years, including outside the special regions (such as Shanghai and Bejing) with which westerners are most familiar. Sometimes traced to Soviet influence on the Chinese system, they continue to be a contractual feature of teachers’ work for which time is protected on the timetable. They have never been something teachers were just expected to do after school.

As with most things that any employee is contractually obliged to do, they become routine, automatic, to some extent lose their meaning, and can end up as ‘just another thing’ to prepare. From my own observations in Chinese schools and in translated conversations with teachers, Chinese teachers don’t necessarily see teacher research as their salvation from the pressures of a challenging job.

What has always interested me about the way that these research groups are often used in schools, however, is the focus on curriculum development. And in two ways. First, the broad trend underlying curriculum development in China after 1974 (and the reforms of Deng Xiaopeng) has been to embrace the movement known as progressivism. Not the caricature invented as a Twitter device by educational conservatives1 in England but the broad movement informed, in particular, by Dewey and then by ideas derived from western educational research such as ‘problem based learning’. Secondly, this broad, curriculum-focused trend giving direction to the work of many teacher research groups does not isolate the curriculum from pedagogy nor ossify it, again in distinction to some of the uses of ‘curriculum’ we see in England.

In research and development underway at Central China Normal University, Professor Qiming Mao has based an intervention on these teacher research groups in a small sample of primary schools to see how they may (or may not) be useful in the context of pre-service teacher education as well as school-based curriculum development. By incorporating a school’s student teachers into these groups and allowing the school’s teachers to determine the focus of the teacher research group’s work, Professor Mao is studying what and how the teachers are learning and to what ends. Each group meeting is being video- and audio-recorded and he (and I) are using the D-analysis protocol developed by David Middleton at Loughborough University to analyse the interactional data.

teacher talking to class
The teacher begins the lesson

In one group meeting and associated lesson at a primary school in a large central China city, we observed a teacher planning to teach a lesson to (the equivalent of) a Year 5 class. The lesson we observed consisted of a short introduction (using Powerpoint and video clips) of the history of paper-making and then a short demonstration of how to use the materials the teacher had assembled to make paper. The class was then divided into groups (determined by the teacher) and the children started to make paper according to the teacher’s guidance. She intervened in each group’s work then, with an eye on the clock, started to get the students to clean up and pack away. With about 7 minutes left of the lesson, she then asked one child from each group to say something that they had learned about the process of making paper that would be useful to know if they tried again. And then the lesson ended and it was morning break and we all went outside to see the most spectacular but normal (I was assured) morning break I have ever seen….

making paper
Getting very messy

The discussion and debate in the teacher research group that followed later in the day was unremarkable in two ways that I have encountered previously in China. First, the analysis of and feedback on the lesson from many of the teachers was brutal and unflinching in its genuinely open questioning. Second, when Professor Mao contributed to the discussion, his observations were met with the same brutal and unflinching critique. I have seen this response many times in China; the first time I was very anxious about the potential vulnerability of the observed teacher to the critique of her work (and it usually is a woman in Chinese primary schools). I needn’t have worried – and this cultural difference is something in which Professor Mao and I have become interested, comparatively.

The discussion was also remarkable in two ways, though. First, in that the close, shared observational focus on the lesson began with non-inferential judgements that were pedagogic in nature and shifted to the detailed deliberation of curriculum concepts and aims. What did the teacher want the students to learn? Was there a tension between a group activity focused on ‘making’ with the teacher’s avowedly historical aims for students’ learning? Were there missed opportunities in the lesson to raise issue of environmental sustainability (the paper being ‘made’ was, in effect, being recycled) – not in abstract terms but as an immediately useful question (the school was next to a rubbish dump and occasionally swarms of flies would invade the classrooms)? The discussion only ended when the siren went off to signal a lesson change

teacher res group
Teachers in the research group meeting room

Secondly, what became clear in talking to the student teachers at the end of this particular teacher research group meeting – and at the end of the sequence – was that they saw these meetings as an important way into participating in a professional discourse; as an opportunity to see teacher judgement and decision-making in action; and as a realisation that teacher judgement and decision-making are not technical exercises but value-laden ones in context.

What remains to be seen, however, is what is going on in the teacher research groups themselves and what traces of learning are evident in the interactional discourse. Although the Chinese context means this is not a ‘teacher-friendly’ intervention (i.e. one to which they are very likely going to be well disposed because it is new), the perceptions of the student teachers alone are not going to get us very far when trying to understand what is actually going on.

the posse
The CCNU posse/guides/translators/food-finders

Professor Mao’s research is ongoing and – fingers crossed – we will have an opportunity to talk about in at AERA next year.


  1. I use the term ‘educational conservatives’ as it is clear that it is possible to hold views that might be characterised this way at the same time as describing oneself as politically liberal.
  2. The photographs in this post are used with permission of the children, parents and school and the research approved by Central China Normal University.


Transformation: What exactly does it mean?

Transformation has, rather like innovation, become a popular way of describing of change, perhaps especially in public services. There are several books with ‘transforming teacher education’ somewhere in the title and many more articles and papers. In public discourse, transformation, as a description of change, often seeks to invoke a sense of powerful and irreversible progress but, I would argue, not always in ways that also justify the radical sense of the transformative process. In my own use of transformation and transformative, I make three critical distinctions.

First, I distinguish between transformation and reform as qualitatively different kinds of change. Reform, as Williams (1973) pointed out, has at least two emphases. The first is the restoration of an ideal state – to ‘re-form’ lost conditions on the basis of cultural and/or political nostalgia. The second is that it is a kind of change imposed from outside or ‘above’ on the basis of a perceived superior rationality or ethos; historically, as Williams points out, these value-rationalities were religious whereas they became more explicitly political throughout the twentieth century. Transformation, however, I understand as change initiated from within individuals and organisations that is inherently unpredictable in outcome and leads to a profound change in both underlying abstract values as well as the concrete details of practices. Changes in these values and practices will have a dialectical relation to culture and politics but there is a profound difference in the locus of agency and the need for change. I therefore distinguish between exogenous (reform) and endogenous (transformative) change with transformative change in practices and institutions necessarily drawing momentum from participant agency.

Second, within current uses of transformation in relation to organisations and society more generally, I distinguish between, on the one hand, transformation as a kind of radical change where new kinds of practices emerge as a result of participants’/citizens’ agentic interrogation of existing values/rationalities and, on the other, transformation as a change in appearance – or even perhaps direction of travel – but informed by existing values and commitments. I understand the latter meaning of transformation – which I am speculating may well be the dominant understanding in our field today – as one both informed by a mathematical logic and requiring mathematical logic to be operationalised and measured. This meaning for transformation is sometime claimed by those working within a ‘learning sciences’ perspective, specifically as defined by the OECD (2002). With reference to educational and social justice, the latter meaning of transformation plays into broadly neo-liberal equality and ‘social mobility’ discourses. The former meaning of transformation – and the one which I deploy in my work – instead takes an equity perspective and accepts the challenge of an assets-based, culturally-sustaining approach in education (and teacher education, in particular) to broader questions of political economy.

Thirdly, my use of the concept of transformation is explicitly informed by cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and the importance of the concept of the ‘object’ of activity. For Leont’ev (1978), the object of activity was its ‘object-motive’, which he explained as follows:

The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference in their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a predetermined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of the activity is its true motive (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 62)

The object of an activity is both what engages/attracts and motivates the participation of individuals in a collective activity (such as helping to prepare teachers). By initially perceiving a new, potentially shared (or shareable) idea and the reasons for pursuing it – and then by collectively working on it – the object is both fashioned and potentially changed through the volitional participation of individuals from within the activity system. Working on the object involves encountering and negotiating contradictions, conflicts, double-binds and multiple antagonisms – personally experienced, affective, but also structural constraints within social systems (including at the level of society) that need to be overcome and broken away from for new forms of the activity to emerge (see my 2015 book with Jane McNicholl for a longer explanation). Analysing these contradictions and negotiating new forms of collective activity might lead to reconfiguration of social practices through a continual re-working of the object of the activity. That is why learning, change and development, from an activity-theoretical perspective, is sometimes described as the transformation of the object of activity; it is a dialectical process that involves new ideas and new ways of organizing the work by those who do the work. Transformation, in CHAT terms, therefore, involves both cultural-historical analysis and future-oriented desires to produce new organisational arrangements and divisions of labour and to create a new social world of, in terms of my interests, teacher education. A critically important part of a transformative process is to understand it as changing the object of activity – not only what is being worked on but why and for whose interests

So, in the same way that innovation isn’t only about capitalising new products in a market and also isn’t only about uses of technology, transformation has another – and I would say – more precise meaning in theorising change and theorising change in education, in particular. First, it describes change processes that take place within social systems or formal organisations and that require the need-for-change and the work-on-change to be driven by the momentum of participants’ agency rather than only by – or primarily by – external political energy. Second, transformation involves a shift in underlying values and rationalities as well as concrete labour practices on the understanding that these are in a dialectical relation. Transformation is not driven by a mathematical logic of measurement within existing conditions but seeks to change the conditions themselves. And thirdly, transformative change is motivated by a desire not only to do things differently but to have a different object for the activity, to consider not only the how question but the why and for whose interest questions also.


This post is based on a contribution to a paper I’m writing with Mariana Souto-Manning and Jamy Stillman. We’ll be presenting it at AERA this week.



Leont’ev, A.N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Hillsdale, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

OECD (2002). Understanding the Brain – Towards a New Learning Science. Paris: OECD.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords. A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Croom Helm.

The avatars are coming! But is it innovation in teacher education?

It was bound to happen here ….

For a couple of years now I’ve been studying the ‘innovation’ of game-like, avatar simulations in teacher preparation. The spark that lit my interest was a discussion at Teachers College during the Educating the Teacher Educators research project in which colleagues left me dumbfounded when they showed me some of the US programmes exploiting – to varying degrees of sophistication – avatars and simulation technologies in pre-service teacher education programmes. As with most things, it was only a matter of time before one turned up here in England and – hey presto – this term an email came my way advertising an ‘innovative’, avatar-based simulation designed to prepare student teachers to teach, talk to parents and win a top score on Candy Crush. OK, I made that last bit up. Anyway, here is one of their promotional videos from YouTube so you get the idea:

The email and the company’s website (which you can find here) boast that they have conducted a pilot with a large Education Faculty at an English university whose students and Dean seem to heap fulsome praise on it.

The first thing that struck me about the product as it was shown in the video was how crude it seemed technically. The avatars are pretty poorly rendered; they reminded me of the 1990s video games that I didn’t play. Moreover, the avatar seemed to be operated in real-time by someone the company calls a ‘simulation specialist’ – a person with a fairly limited range of voice acting skills, on the evidence of the video – who operated and voiced the figures in response to the live webcam feed of the student teacher teaching (via a connection that looked like it had some bandwidth problems). I might be wrong but I don’t think we’re talking cutting edge Artificial Intelligence here. Indeed, you have to book a time slot with the company so that the simulation specialist is online, presumably, and not auditioning for Emmerdale or a Shake ‘n’ Vac commercial. So in many ways, this product in the video reminded me of some of the early and technically unsophisticated American avatar simulations such as the one reported on in this news video from 2009:

Now these examples – eight years apart – are at the relatively low-tech end of the spectrum. There are some more technically advanced versions that do employ AI in producing avatar interactions with human subjects. They are often associated with inter-disciplinary research programmes that promote a ‘safe to teach’ approach to pre-service teacher education – an approach that seeks to eliminate all risk from teacher preparation whose advocates talk about not ‘letting loose’ new teachers on classes until they are ‘perfect’.

And there lies one of the problems with the approach in general (whether high or low-tech) which is that any form of teacher preparation that seeks to have ‘perfect’ new teachers is doomed to fail. So it’s an extremely good idea to plan; an extremely good idea to ‘practice’ and ‘rehearse’; but any kind of initial teacher education that believes it’s possible to produce ‘perfect’ new teachers who are guaranteed to be 100% safe (or even proportionately more safe than teachers from programmes that don’t use avatar simulations) don’t understand human beings never mind pre-service – or initial – teacher education.

That’s not to say that seeking to make teachers as ‘classroom ready’ as possible is a bad thing. However, promoting a technology on the basis that it will allow prospective teachers to ‘perfect’ their practice before they have entered the practice field of a school pre-supposes that the children, parents and complex situations they will encounter will be as controlled and predictable as, say, flying a passenger aircraft. Indeed, advocates of this general approach to teacher development often make the comparison with flight simulator training in the aviation industry where pilots learn how to fly an aircraft in the simulator before taking control in the cockpit of a real aircraft.

There are at least two critical responses to this analogy. First, while pilots can rely on sophisticated instruments that monitor wind, weather, global positioning and just about every aspect of the plane in flight, at the time of writing this blog, teachers cannot rely on similar monitoring of individual student functioning (e.g. blood pressure, eye movement, galvanic skin response, etc., etc. never mind cognition), parent functioning and the ‘weather’ of human relations in and out of school. Second, even with all the sophisticated monitoring systems and the high-tech simulation training that is available in the aviation industry, there are still situations that cannot be planned for and aren’t simulated: for example, when both engines on your aircraft fail within minutes of take-off and you have to land in the Hudson River or when your co-pilot locks you out of the cabin when you’ve gone for a toilet break. These situations may be the extremes that a pilot may encounter in their professional life but my point is that these situations arise out of either the unmonitored and unmonitorable aspects of the job or the entirely unpredicted and unpredictable. And it is these aspects that characterise teaching as public-facing (rather than technical instrument-facing), professional work.

Two further issues arise for me with the use of avatar simulations in teacher education one of which is a matter of principle. Becoming a teacher is – and should be – a humane process and one where we accept that teachers make mistakes (as human beings tend to, even of the professional variety). There is something for students as well as teachers (and the profession) to learn when we allow teachers to be fallible. We don’t plan on teachers making mistakes that damage people but we should plan on teachers making the kind of mistakes that allow them to improve both their practice and their values and beliefs. To quote Deborah Britzman from an early Harvard Education Review article, it is a ‘cultural myth’ (and a malign one) to persist in the view that there is a state of personal grace and technical perfection that is the final destination for the teacher. Do we wish to see situations where opportunities for teacher development have to be confined to virtual environments because the classroom must be preserved as a 100% safe space?

And secondly, if there are (and there are) those relatively mundane but important aspects of a teacher’s job that can be rehearsed in advance of professional practice (e.g. taking a register, handing out books, telling a child to stop playing with much more sophisticated avatar simulations on their phone), do teacher educators really have to book a time slot for their student teachers with a simulation specialist, rely on a good broadband connection for the webcam to work properly, and then try to interact with a crude avatar voiced by someone who is channelling South Park? Or do they simply ask the student teachers to form small groups and role play their own simulations that focus on these small aspects of practice? With the teacher educator perhaps also intervening in role? And then follow this up with supervised practice in school? In about the second week of the programme. The former option relies on a contract with the avatar simulation company; the latter doesn’t. In terms of their status as an approximation of practice, which is the more reliable?

In the US, these teacher preparation avatar simulations (especially the early ones) have also been criticised for perpetuating crude racial stereotypes. The avatars who have needed ‘behaviour management’ seem to have been disproportionately from African American and Latino backgrounds. And to compound this stereotyping, as you can see in the news video above from 2009, you then have a young white woman operating these ‘avatars of colour’ and opening themselves up to accusations of ‘performing black-face’. Surely what would be more useful for the young white women who still form the majority of the teaching profession in the US and the UK would be opportunities to learn about the different communities they will teach and some training in racial self-awareness. (Incidentally, both of these are offered in an outstanding doctoral-level course for prospective teacher educators at Teachers College led by Professor Felicia Moore Mensah).

So is this teacher education avatar simulation product an innovation?

I would say no. It might claim to be novel but in reality these technologies are almost ten years old in the teacher education setting and much older in digital media generally. Any anyway, in a public sector profession such as teaching, innovation has to mean more than fetishizing novelty or creating a new market for entrepreneurs selling us something we didn’t realise we needed. To use the OECD definition of public sector innovation (Daglio et al, 2015), some new public value has to be created; the way we prepare teachers has to be significantly enhanced for any justifiable extra cost. I would say at this stage, avatar simulations in teacher education don’t meet this test.

Is that always likely to be true? Probably not. A King’s colleague has been working on haptic simulation technologies for dental education for several years now so that dentists can be taught specialised procedures in touch-sensitive ways before working on patients. It has met a need and has likely reduced pain and discomfort. It is an innovation in dental education that is technology-driven but is patient-centred and humane in approach. But I’m not convinced student teachers need to make an appointment with a simulation specialist via a webcam (or even against a green screen background) to practise telling children to stop playing with their pencil cases.

Anyway, the response from the north American, critical teacher education community has been characteristically creative and, occasionally, as in this video made by Juan Carlos Castro, Chair of the Art Education department at Concordia University in Montreal, very funny (with thanks to my TC colleague Mary Hafeli for sending it my way):

Keep it REAL. Happy holidays!


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.

A Different Vygotsky: New Book on Drama, Learning and the Work of Classrooms

There are many different Vygotskies. There is the Vygotsky whose theoretical speculations on the relationship between thinking and speech have sometimes become barely recognizable justifications for ‘group work’ in schools. There is the Vygotsky whose experiments with stroke patients, among others, paved the way for a new methodology in psychology. There is the Vygotsky associated with the Russian field of ‘defectology’; the Vygotsky introduced to English teachers in England by James Britton; the Vygotsky wrongly accredited with term ‘scaffolding’. And the Vygotsky whose work was selected, translated and assembled in an idiosyncratic order by American cognitive psychologists in the 1970s, four decades after the man himself had died. Oh, and the philosopher’s Vygotsky, the one spoken about in connection with Hegel and Kant and, more recently, Brandom and McDowell.

But what of the Vygotsky who was, first, a humanities scholar, closely involved in his local theatre? The same Vygotsky who studied Hamlet for his doctorate and who borrowed concepts from the great Russian director Stanislavsky? It falls to a fascinating new volume edited by Davis, Fertholt, Grainger Clemson, Jansson and Marjanovic-Shane – Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research – to show the life-long importance of drama and theatre in Lev Vygotsky’s work. The book’s great achievement over its 14 chapters is to show how the early interest in theatre set the ground for Vygotsky’s major theoretical and empirical studies of human development. And then how, in his final years (although still a young man: he died at 37) he turned once again to the drama of development and the importance of creativity and play throughout life. And, just for the purposes of full disclosure, Hannah Grainger Clemson (one of the editors and authors) was a doctoral student of mine and did a fascinating study in this area.

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Vygotsky’s approach to human development is characterized by some particularly ‘dramatic’ dynamics. A key characteristic is the importance placed on social interaction and the ‘lending’ of consciousness between individuals in what he described as a ‘zone of proximal development’. ‘We become ourselves through others’ captures some of this dynamic between the inner self and the outer realm of shared experience. The role of artifacts in creating this dynamic is also key: a stick can prop open a door or it can become a horse or, for that matter, a light sabre. In other words, ‘things’ can have functional or symbolic meanings and symbolic meanings can open doors to new ideas and new ways of doing things. And in this process, imagination is central and exercised in the agentic engagement of people both with things and other people as they work together to solve problems or overcome crises. Thinking – cognitive activity, if you like – has a social and material basis for Vygotsky: it is a living and embodied performance that relies on people’s wants, needs and desires as motives. The drama of learning, then, is the drama of human development.

The book’s chapters are organized in four sections. The first takes a generally historical approach to Vygotsky’s life and influences, insofar as they show a relationship between the ‘problem of the actor’ and the problem of the learner’s work. A central concept is that of perezivhanie, a concept Vygotsky appropriated from Stanislavsky, meaning the frame of emotional experience through which we perceive our environments and their opportunities for our development. As with many chapters throughout the book, the contribution by Fertholt in this section draws on empirical research, in this case, an early childhood education setting. Section 2 consists of three chapters reporting on the transformative potential of classroom drama, particularly in connection to motivation and identity formation. The third section continues the emphasis on classroom studies of drama in education, across secondary education generally and with particular attention to second-language learning, multicultural classrooms and the use of new technologies. Section three is generally more successful than section two in integrating the Vygotskian theory with data analysis and Chapter 7 (by Ewing), in particular, offers a good example of how data can be used to illustrate and develop readers’ understandings of these theories. The final section includes two chapters by Jansson that bring together Vygotskian interests in the ‘drama of learning’ and development with the neo-Vygotskian, activity theoretical approach to intervention research in workplace settings, known as Developmental Work Research (DWR). Other chapters in this section (by Franks and Sawyer) draw on theories of multimodality and group creativity.

As an edited collection of 14 chapters, the editors have generally done a good job of building coherence across the whole book as well as within the four sections. This is particularly true of the first section and it is probably one of the reasons why it is so successful. There are one or two referencing issues that should have been picked up during production (missing or incomplete references, for example), especially for an academic book at this price. Personally, I would also have appreciated a final chapter (even if presented simply as an epilogue or ‘afterword’) that brought the whole book together and synthesized what the editors believed to be the key messages: how might we define specifically Vygotskian and sociocultural approaches to drama education and drama education research? These are small quibbles with what is an excellent book, however. It merits serious attention as a scholarly collection dedicated to revealing and explaining the Vygotsky for whom an early interest in theatre provided many of the concepts and underlying social dynamics of his later psychology, a psychology that – for all its limits – has become so influential in education.

A version of this post will appear as a review in Research in Drama Education this year.


Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research

Edited by Susan Davis, Beth Fertholt, Hannah Grainger Clemson, Satu-Mari Jansson & Ana Marjanovic-Shame

London: Bloomsbury Academic; 290 pages

ISBN: 978 1-4725-7689-7

London Conference on the Legacy of James Britton – IOE, 12th March 2016

If you were a newly-qualified teacher of English today, would you know who James Britton was? If you had done a PGCE, it is an interesting question. As an English graduate, it would have been unlikely for you to have encountered Britton in your EngLit course. But would your PGCE tutor, at any stage, have made you aware of Britton’s contribution to English and literacy teaching (a truly worldwide contribution, at that)? Would you have looked at the Bullock Report, for example, even just Chapter 4? Or Language and Learning? Or would you have read his piece ‘Vygotsky’s Contribution to Pedagogical Theory’? For it was Britton, perhaps above all others, who first made the teaching profession in England aware of Vygotsky’s work, soon after the first English translation of Thought and Language in 1962.

Britton was more than a populariser of Vygotsky, however, if indeed he was that. Britton was then and now, in my opinion, the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); intellectually ambitious in ways that crossed the academic humanities and social sciences – in today’s grotesque parlance, a writer of ‘four star’ papers; and a researcher with huge impact, both in today’s reduced ‘REF-compliant’ terms but also over longer timescales and across continents and disciplines. Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense. It’s an aspiration many of us struggle with and fail at – but it’s worth the struggle nonetheless. It is ‘the Blob’, otherwise

The London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE), the longest-standing subject association for primary and secondary English teachers, is organising a day conference on Saturday 12th March at the Institute of Education in Bedford Way to look at the legacy of Britton’s work and what it means for the teaching profession today. A flyer for the event is available here. The organisers of the event – Tony Burgess and Myra Barrs (themselves highly distinguished teachers and researchers in the same mould) – have also produced a really lovely anthology of extended quotations of Britton’s work which they will introduce at the conference. The selection gives you some real insights into the depth and reach of Britton’s thinking.

If you are interested in finding out more about James Britton in the context of teacher education and the HE discipline of Education, he features prominently in an article I wrote called ‘Disciplines as Ghosts’ which is available to download from the Articles page of this site. Karen Simecek and I have also drawn substantially on Britton’s work about the poetic mode of language use in an article that will be published shortly in the Journal of Aesthetic Education.