Teacher education reform in the North

… by which I mean the ‘real’ North, the far North, the Arctic.

Norway’s current teacher education reforms are highly distinctive internationally. They take a bi-directional approach that is unusual: they extend the main professional preparation for primary and lower secondary teachers to five years leading to a Master’s degree while also taking a ‘practice turn’ and challenging schools and universities to work together more closely, deepening the understanding of professional practice, and trying to ensure that new teachers are ‘practice-ready’. And if you factor into this process, a major restructuring of the Norwegian higher education system – with several new, larger institutions being formed through mergers of smaller colleges – you get an extraordinarily complex setting for some extraordinarily complex policy enactments.

NOKUT, the Norwegian government’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, is supporting the implementation of the new, Master’s-level teacher education programmes through an international advisory panel (APTE) of which I’m a member. So for the last two days I’ve been working with Auli Toom of Helsinki University facilitating a workshop for HE-based and school-based teacher educators here in Tromsø, northern Norway. Tromsø is the third largest urban area in the Arctic circle; the largest is the Russian city of Murmansk. It’s also a city to which tourists flock to see the Northern Lights and, in recent years, to go whale-watching (the whales have become fond of Tromsø for the herring).

The view from the workshop room at the University of the Artic in Tromsø

For me, the dynamic core of the second day of the workshop has focused on the following two questions, questions we asked the HE-based and school-based teacher educators to address together:

  1. What should be prioritised in student teacher learning at the Master’s level?
  2. How do schools and universities collaborate to build a research-oriented culture and a pedagogy that supports Master’s level teacher education in the long run?

The italicised phrases gave really important emphases to the questions and raised, in response to the first question, the challenge of deciding whether and how to assess high quality teaching through the academic credit system (ECTS) and, in response to the second, how you first initiate and then sustain the kinds of relationships between academic and professional partners that would allow for a research-oriented culture to flourish. And I have to say that it was refreshing to leave behind in England a narrow and polarised discourse around ‘research’ and evidence in teacher preparation. Norway understands research (‘science’) in multi-disciplinary terms and also understands that science has many purposes, audiences and modes of production. There is no cack-handed promotion of ‘progressive eugenics’ by self-regarding ‘reformers’ nor naïve fetishisation of randomised controlled trials. So there’s reassuringly little reformista flatulence up here.

Thinking through progression in student teachers’ learning at the Master’s level

It was also very refreshing to participate in genuinely open discussions about the pedagogies of teacher education and the division of labour between HE- and school-based teacher educators at national and regional levels. Do we expect all HE-based teacher educators to be able to model – or ‘approximate’ – good teaching (I.e. school teaching) opportunities in university classrooms? Is school the place where the practices of teaching can be most effectively ‘decomposed’  and different elements rehearsed by student teachers during collaboration with their mentors in ‘real-time’? Do school-based teacher educators have to support the academic, research-based Master’s thesis or is this activity best left to the HE-based teacher educators? Do Master’s-level teacher dissertations have to involve original data collection or is it just as appropriate (or more so) for the students to analyse existing data sets at a very high level?

Also refreshing was the inclusion of the student teachers’ perspectives in these deliberations. We actively sought their insights into their experiences during the first year of these new Master’s programmes. Again, it left me wondering where the student teachers’ perspective has gone in English, national-level discussions of teacher education.

Some of the fantastic Tromsø students who took part in the workshop (with their ‘thank you’ mittens – Sarah Lund pattern)

We also benefited from the participation of the Sámi Allaskuva, the university and teacher education programme dedicated to the language and culture of the Sámi, the indigenous people of the North now living across Norway, Sweden and Finland. Questions about the place of indigenous culture in transnational settings problematized concepts such as ‘internationalisation’ and ‘race’.

The advisory panel will be continuing its work with Norwegian teacher educators over the next three years. Soon, we will move from ‘listening’ and fact-finding mode to advice and support mode. There will be a national conference for all the institutions involved in making these changes work in Oslo in May next year. It really is a privilege to be involved. It is one of those jobs where you take away as much or more than you give and a reminder too what a serious, non-polarised, non-self-aggrandising discussion about teacher education can offer.

The reforms in the North have made me believe even more strongly that, in England, we need an association of teacher education/teacher educators as is the case in so many parts of the world. I know that in some local partnerships in England and elsewhere in the UK, there are some equally lively and thoughtful discussions of issues that are critical to our field. But nationally, the level of discussion about teacher education is often extremely restricted, dominated by reactions to Tory policy lunacy or by deeply compromised, self-appointed ‘saviours’ of ITE, and by those who continually bait the exhausted and vulnerable on Twitter. Neither UCET nor policy-makers can offer the kind of forum for these discussions that is needed. Indeed, I would say that our current government, especially, would actively not want a teacher educators’ association in England; the present situation is highly beneficial for them.

So perhaps until we can do policy and reform like a country like Norway, teacher educators in England (perhaps with the support of a transformed organisation like TEAN) can do this for themselves? A UK Association of Teacher Educators? Let’s see.

The Induction and Development of Teacher Educators: Responding to the InFo-TED Symposium at BERA

InF0-TED is an emerging European (and increasingly international) cooperation between teacher educators interested in the improvement of their field, particularly in relation to the induction of and continuing professional development for the large number of school teachers who, in so many countries, begin second careers in higher education settings to work on pre-service or initial teacher education programmes. You can find the InFO-TED website with information and resources if you click here.

The three papers to which I responded at the BERA conference were all based on an initial questionnaire survey across teacher educator populations in the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Norway and England and then, specifically for these papers, follow-up interviews with smaller samples in Ireland, Scotland and England. These samples of teacher educators were essentially self-selecting but, given the alignment of the findings with previous research, I think the papers gave a reliable sense of how teacher educators generally can talk about their work and their situations as academics. Each paper presented rich data about these teacher educators’ feelings about their positioning in universities. There was some variation in their perspectives on this positioning – for example the overwhelming majority of the Irish sample (83%) had their doctorates whereas the majority of the Scottish and English samples didn’t – but mostly, these interviewees reported a lack of a sense of direction; felt more or less inadequate in relation to some unarticulated idealised norm; also sometimes expressed guilt that they were not research active with some, implicitly perhaps, regarding this as a personal failing rather than as a consequence of structural constraints. These perspectives were advanced to varying but fairly consistent degrees across the three papers with the overall implication – and one that drove the symposium – that better induction and professional development will improve the teacher educators’ lot. This seems to be the aim of InFo-TED as a movement and InFo-TED will be offering such induction and CPD opportunities across Europe in summer schools and through other means, funded in part by the EU’s Erasmus + programme.

Together, these papers – and the InFo-TED idea as a whole – raised some really interesting questions for me which I tried to articulate in my contribution to the discussion. Here they are:

First, teacher educators are a heterogeneous group of academic workers even within the same country – actually, even within the same institution, in my experience. So, I’m wondering whether the InFo-TED project as a project inevitably has to assume a homogeneous group whose professional development can be planned for across not only a single country but across Europe? Or not? Do the arguments of these papers lead, for example, to proposals for a set of professional standards for teacher educators, a move that has been apparent in some countries like the Netherlands? Is the implication that there is a single, transferable ‘skill-set’ for teacher educators that can be generalised and planned for transnationally? Does attention to teacher educator development necessarily require a degree of standardisation that people would feel very uncomfortable about in other parts of the university, and across professional schools particularly? I’m reminded of the introduction to AERA’s report Studying Teacher Education (that huge door-stop from 2005) in which the editors suggested this idea even while they noted that no other professional school (law, accountancy, etc) was going down this route. Their suggestion at the time – I think their opinions might have changed on this – is that developing common standards and expectations around the essential ‘knowledge-base’ for ‘effective’ teacher educators would address and perhaps fend off the challenges of unwanted politically-driven reforms. So standards for teacher educators become a protective or defensive measure in high-accountability regimes.

You can also argue for greater standardisation and for having common expectations for reasons of  equity and social justice and I have heard Professor Etta Hollins from the University of Missouri – Kansas City and a former AERA Division K Vice-President make just this argument at this year’s conference. Preparing teachers for racially and culturally diverse schools, so the argument goes, requires essential content and skills and – vitally – dispositions such as racial self-awareness that nice, privileged, white people (still the majority of the teaching profession) generally don’t have when they arrive in Ed school. “So my goodness, you student teachers are all going to have to meet this basic threshold level of competence before you might be regarded as ‘safe’ to teach in racially diverse, sometimes but not always ‘high-needs’, schools. And you, the teacher educators, are all required to be able to deliver that. Period”. This is a slightly different argument to the standardisation argument in the face of accountability pressures but, again, one worth considering for good reasons of justice – social and educational – that I see as related to InFo-TED’s broader aspirations.

Secondly, if InFo-TED’s interest is in teacher educators’ induction and CPD, what are these people being inducted into and to what ends are they being offered development activities? There are two aspects to this question. First, fundamentally, they are being inducted into a job, into work, work that is at least nominally academic work (only the Irish paper really gets at this key issue in reporting on a strike by teacher educators over their conditions of service when their college was being amalgamated with the National University of Ireland). Where in these papers overall is the sense of what these people are doing, will be doing, or should be doing in their job of preparing teachers? What does the work of educating beginning teachers involve but more importantly what should it involve? Because what it currently involves might not be very good; it might be silent or worse about issues of ‘race’, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religious faith and so on. Why would we want to build a professional development structure that had an inherent conservatism built into its architecture? What if, as many of us increasingly believe, teacher education is overwhelmingly implicated in the maintenance of White privilege, an activity in which teachers of colour have to leave their identities, languages and indigenous knowledges at the classroom door alongside those of the young people they are there to teach?

So the question of what should the work that teacher educators do becomes really important and it’s then not only the teacher educators in universities who should be consulted about what that is. Who else has the right to contribute to a vision for what kind of work teacher educators should do and to what ends and therefore the work that an organisation such as InFo-TED is supporting them into and helping them to become more advanced in skills and also more critical? One would hope that the teaching profession is involved, simultaneously helping to make some useful distinctions between the work of a school-based teacher educator and that of a university-based one. But I’d hope it went wider than that and that teacher educators were accountable, albeit indirectly, to communities in local contexts, taking the democratic responsibilities of what is still a programme of higher education more seriously.

But the second aspect of this question is related to the job as a university-based one: what should teacher education as academic work look like? And why, if indeed it is, is it important that teacher education remains at least in part university-based or university-partnered? What’s the ‘higher’ part of the education? Some of the usual arguments are that university-based teacher educators get teachers to reflect – which I’ve always found incredibly patronising. Another argument is that teachers come into contact with cutting edge researchers if they do a university-partnered programme. When Jane McNicholl and I studied the work of teacher educators in England and Scotland – published as Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work (2015) – we found that the defining characteristic of their work was what we called ‘relationship maintenance’ – making complex, multi-levelled, high accountability and distributed partnerships with schools work relationally rather than producing research of any type, never mind ‘cutting edge’ work. In terms of research and how they are valued in the academy we described teacher educators as proletarianised – by which we meant that as a class of worker, they were denied the opportunity to accumulate academic capital (publications, grants, fellowships, promotions, prizes) etc. within the academic staffing system. This phenomenon has been observed in many countries including Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, where the New Zealand Research Council funded a national replication of Jane’s and my study led by Prof. Alex Gunn from Otago University.

Available from all good booksellers – makes an ideal Christmas present

So if we want to induct and develop teacher educators into a form of academic work and design a system in which they might thrive, we could perhaps follow the Norwegian example of a National Graduate School for Teacher Education (NAFOL, currently led by InFo-TED Council chair Prof. Kari Smith) through which over 150 university-based teacher educators in several cohort groups have been supported on a fully-funded basis to do their PhDs with expert supervision from successful Norwegian teacher education academics and regular summer and winter school workshops featuring international researchers. I think this is a fantastic initiative and one to which I have been fortunate to contribute. But research production by teacher educators is not the whole story about the job of preparing teachers in the university setting.

Which brings me to my final question: if we think the induction and professional development of teacher educators are important activities and that it’s also important to study this phenomenon, why? Who gains? I’m assuming the teacher educators do – but who else? And to what ends – who else’s benefit? Because as much as it is a worthwhile aim to improve the opportunities and job satisfaction of people who work in higher education, I think there needs to be stronger arguments about why policy makers, tax-payers, university and school leaders and others should make this investment – and arguments that go beyond the flourishing of the teacher educator as an individual academic. I don’t want teacher educators to be unhappy or feel unfulfilled. But who are the eventual beneficiaries of this increased attention to teacher educator professional development. I don’t think it can be just teacher educators alone if we describe them as professionals nor, indeed, if we want to win the argument. Professions have relations of both trust and responsibility to the wider society for a start.

In fact, the new private teacher education outfits in the US and the UK take this question of teacher educator development very seriously because they see the ultimate beneficiaries as the students in schools and, particularly, whatever we may make of the connection, their ‘social mobility’. In both the US and the UK they have prepared (or are preparing) certificate courses for intending teacher educators and they are recruiting these people now in relatively large numbers. I would disagree with the easy link these start-ups often promote between training people to train intending teachers in easy moves (on the Doug Lemov model) or even in using ‘high-leverage instructional practices’ (on the Deborah Ball model) and social justice. Ripping practices out of their sociocultural and historical contexts as tips or ‘things to do’ without them being embedded in what Schwab called, in another context, the ‘syntactic structure’ of the professional knowledge of teacher education short-circuits something that can’t be short-circuited if the activity is going to be sustainable at any level of quality over time. I also think, ultimately, these approaches are both anti- and de-professionalising in terms of both the work of the teacher educator and the job of being a teacher. But these private, self-styled ‘reforming’ teacher educator organisations have nonetheless argued the link between inducting and developing teacher educators and improving teaching and improving schools in a way that I think any organisation interested, like InFo-TED, in teacher educator induction and development needs to. And it probably has to do so on the basis of having a worked-out view of what the job of preparing teachers in a university should involve and also acknowledge that the job and its demands have probably changed enormously in the last twenty years – even if we don’t always acknowledge this fact.

So I am looking forward to what’s next for InFo-TED because, together, I think these papers identify amongst the teacher educators interviewed what is sometimes called, in social psychology, a ‘need-state’, a felt need that something has to change, that things need to be done differently, even if the direction of that transformation isn’t yet clear. A need-state is an indicator of emerging change conditions and endogenous innovation. So, recognising that teacher educators are a heterogeneous group, how will InFo-TED respond to this need-state among a highly distributed and diverse occupational group? Not just across Europe but within countries and within the different sectors of higher education; in the distance between Sligo and Galway, for example?

Failing to innovate? Failing to communicate

The response to Transforming Teacher Education has been really encouraging and it’s had some great coverage and produced real interest. A piece in the Times Higher published last week captured some of the argument of Jane’s and my book and I have been thanked, criticised and, of course, strategically ignored following its publication. Although mostly thanked, it has to be said. I didn’t quite realise how widespread the feeling was. You can read the piece by John Elmes here and I’m grateful to him for doing such a great job. I did actually say those things.

The focus in John’s piece on failing to innovate is something Jane and I emphasised in the book. The last real innovations in initial teacher education in England that were led by universities took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three innovations stand out: the Leicester experiments in IT in Teacher Education and the focus on school-based research; the mobility of school teachers and university lecturers between sites for student teacher learning that took place at Sussex University; and the profound reconceptualisation of the design of ITE within the Oxford Internship Scheme. Everybody always talks about the Oxford scheme but the other two were also really important. (Ann Childs and I are currently working on an historical piece about the Internship Scheme).

The other failure, though, that didn’t come out in the interview and is worth restating loudly, is that universities have also failed to communicate – with the profession as well as the wider society – about why things like PGCEs or university involvement are important and why they make a difference. This failure to communicate has been strongly highlighted by the entry of Teach First on the scene. Teach First really knows how to communicate. They are very persuasive in their call to young graduates and their presentation of teaching as having a moral purpose. You can disagree with them – and the basis on which they argue – but at least there is a basis to argue with. Most of the time, universities have just assumed they are a good thing or that just because they are universities they have a right to continue as they are. Or worse, they have assumed that the teaching profession needs universities in order to reflect. Duh!

So having some strong arguments about what universities can contribute to ITE and the strengthening of the profession is something long over-due and urgently needed. I was part of a meeting yesterday afternoon that may well lead to such arguments appearing as we enter the general election campaign proper. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

PUBLISHED! ‘Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work’

After a really, really rapid turnaround in Bloomsbury’s production department, Transforming Teacher Education is now published and on sale in good bookstores everywhere (OK, UK bookstores now; Europe in a few weeks; rest of the world in a month). Discount coupons for different markets are available here for the USA and here for everywhere else. Today we noticed that amazon.co.uk had sold out of paperback copies on day one. Kerching? Probably not but promising nonetheless.

Although Jane and I knew that the book addressed a key topic, we didn’t realise that it would be quite so topical given the recent publication of the government’s Carter Review of ITT and the chaotic destabilization of the system that took place under Michael Gove and his allies. Now, in England, we are facing shortages of primary school teachers and specialist STEM teachers; regional teacher shortages; several universities have withdrawn from initial teacher education with others considering their own future; we’re seeing probably the greatest risk to quality in the last 30 years consequent to the fragmentation of provision and the largely failed experiment of School Direct (if it worked, it worked because the universities baled it out behind the scenes, snaffling most of the £9K fee). In sum, teacher education in England is now heading in the opposite direction to that taken in countries whose schools systems we seek to emulate (e.g. those in east Asia and Finland), led by a neo-Victorian rhetoric of pupil apprenticeship and missionary work.

I’ll be posting something about the argument of the book in the next few weeks, prior to the launch seminar on 16th March in London. The preface and Introduction will soon be available to download in the Chapters section on this site. But, in essence, Jane and I are arguing that while teacher education certainly does need to change, reformers’ ideas have not achieved and will not achieve the kind of systemic change in relationships between higher education and the profession that we need. We need to transform teacher education – not ‘reform’ it; not defend it. Transformation means changing the basis on which we understand the activity; changing the frames and terms of reference, the values as well as the rhetoric.

We were absolutely thrilled to get the following endorsements from many of the key thinkers in the field. I think Bloomsbury were thrilled also and they decided to print a selection on the back cover and all of them on the inside front pages. Jane and I are honoured. Thank you.

 ‘This book is an insightful and highly readable analysis of the work of

teacher educators in England, but its value extends far beyond that

setting. Combining original studies of teacher educators with trenchant

critique of education policy trends in England and elsewhere, this book is a

must-read for those who reject the “defend or reform” dichotomy and instead

want genuine transformation of teacher education.’

Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, USA

‘This excellent book is a very timely and insightful analysis of some of

the consequences – both intended and unintended – arising out of a time

of unprecedented change in the teacher education sector.’

Samantha Twiselton, Director of Sheffield Institute of Education, UK

 ‘In this thoughtful volume, Viv Ellis and Jane McNicholl offer a deliberate

plan for the transformation of initial teacher education. Transforming

Teacher Education represents a vision that neither defends nor reforms but

uncompromisingly takes bold steps towards collaboration and collective

creativity, a vision for remaking initial teacher education such that another

future for our work is possible – not just in England but elsewhere in the world


A Lin Goodwin, Vice Dean and Evenden Professor of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, USA

‘The politics of teacher education have been destabilized in most countries,

often resulting in derisory discussion of both teachers and teacher educators.

This book provides a helpful framework to think pro-actively about teacher

education as a field and offers a seriously challenging agenda for transforming

that field of practice. It considers the much neglected daily work of teacher

educators and their positioning in higher education institutions and comes

up with an important agenda in which public universities and the profession

might better work together to develop and change the practices of teacher

education. Such a provocative agenda offers the potential for researchers and

practitioners in many countries to build both scholarship and practice in ways

that invite multilateral international networks to develop.’

Marie Brennan, Professor of Education, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia

‘Written by authors with a deep understanding of developments in teacher

education, Transforming Teacher Education is a timely and important book that

captures the complexity of the work of teacher educators. Based on their

extensive research and offering a transformative agenda, it is an important

source for practitioners, managers and policymakers who are dedicated to

transform teacher education and improve the work and academic status

of all those who work within the field.’

Anja Swennen, Researcher and Teacher Educator, Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy, VU UniversityAmsterdam, The Netherlands

‘This is an important book. The authors offer a rich, complex and detailed

approach to an alternative “transforming” perspective, drawing upon a

wide range of theory and research which they link to practical outcomes.

They have put forward versions of this analysis at conferences in different

countries – notably the USA and the UK where the neoliberal alternative to

“transformation” has been prominent – but now the publication of the book

can provide teachers and scholars with a substantial basis that will enable

them to review and build on these constructive ideas in their own work.’

Brian Street, Professor Emeritus of Language and Education, King’s College London, UK