teacher education

Understanding educational theory: vital or a waste of time for student teachers?

My student teachers often question the value of educational theory in their initial teacher education. Also often early career teachers tell me that the theory they were taught at university holds no value in their day-to-day practical lives.

I understand this point of view. The first years of teaching are largely about finding our feet and working out the system. The first years are also caught up in personal priorities such as finding permanent positions and railing against the casualisation of the workforce.

But this does not mean that theory does not underpin every decision a teacher makes. Theory even underpins the curriculum we are asked to teach. As I see it, understanding educational theory is a part of knowing why we teach what we teach and how. The theories that are taught in initial teacher education are aimed at helping beginning teachers understand who they are and why they want to teach. One of my motivations for wanting to teach History is so that I could work at helping students to be empathetic in their everyday lives. History is an excellent example of how this relationship works.

The Australian Curriculum Humanities and Social Sciences ( HASS) History strand is underpinned by what the curriculum writers have termed concepts (another word for theory). In the following, I am going to tease out some of these concepts to show how they are examples of theory in practice.

Sources

The location and interpretation of sources is the primary skill of an historian. There are many different types of sources, some more useful than others. Despite what you may think, there never is really a “bad” source. The decision to use a certain source or not is contextual. It may not be FACT but it can reveal a lot about a historical context depending on how the historian interprets the source within their study. So most sources are included or discarded according to the idea of usefulness, rather than whether they are good or bad. This is a subjective practice. The selection of a source is determined through the historian’s point of view of the world – theory. Furthermore, only a minuscule amount of human history has ever made it to the page or the gallery or the archive. Much has been destroyed. Much was never even recorded. So the job of an historian is to make connections between the sources available. This is a process of logical and rigorous imagination. The conclusions drawn are based on corroboration through continuity, change, cause and effect, but it is imagination none the less and subject to the historian’s theoretical point of view.

Cause and effect, and Continuity and Change

When historians use their imagination, they are using ideas of cause and effect, and continuity and change. For example, the reason we have the society we have at the moment is the result of cause and effect. It is very easy to trace the cause and effect through a lens of war and economy, but it is also through the concept of cause and effect that we can begin to show students that the deliberate forgetting of marginalized groups is in decision making and it is a reason that governments continue along the same homogenous pathways they have for centuries.

While society seems to be moving through a time of rapid change, the continuity of certain ways of knowing and understanding history have remained the same. The world seems to be speeding up but the way it has been governed has changed very little. White wealthy males, for example, are still the most powerful leaders, industrialisation and technological advancement are still seen by governments as the most important industries, and fear of other unknown people has been used as a method of mass control for centuries. Historians realise these theories of continuity and make their imaginative decisions about what happened in the past by through them.

Significance

There are too many events in the past to include them all and many history wars have been fought over which ones to include in the History strands of the HASS Curriculum. These history wars are most often about the inclusion and placement of histories of Aboriginal peoples, Torres Strait Islander peoples, and non-European peoples, and the theoretical lens through which those histories are taught. The choosing of significant histories can influence the civic attitudes of generations of people so is often hard fought.

Perspective

The choice of those histories is influenced by theories often called perspectives. One of the more famous media and political wars fought over which perspectives are allowed within the Australian Curriculum was a stoush between prime minister at the time, Paul Keating, and John Howard in the early 1990s when Keating was pushing for the inclusion of Australian History which showed how the nation had been built on the blood of the Indigenous and non-white immigrant/indentured labour population. This view was pitched against Howard’s view that wanted children to know and celebrate the achievements of the Australian nation. What both these perspectives denied was the voice of the people who lived the histories they were talking about including or excluding.

Empathy

A key reason for teaching History is the theory that it teaches children to have empathy which means that they will be able to more than understand other peoples’ points of view, they will know what it might be like to be another person. The theory is that students will only begin to understand historical empathy (and in turn social empathy) if they have enough exposure to differing perspectives, can interpret their own partiality, understand that their ideas may be based in modern thought, understand that there are gaps and silences in the historical record.

There are many interpretations of what it means to teach empathy in the classroom and some believe that it cannot be taught at all. But the personal theories that a teacher takes into the classroom will also influence their ability to teach students to be empathetic. For example, if a teacher’s personal viewpoint is that students do not need differentiation, it will be harder to teach students empathy because inclusiveness is based on empathetic thinking.

I hope this post opens up some clarifying statements and discussion about the usefulness of theory in Initial Teacher Education, but also educational training, qualifications, and professional development. I believe theory is a vital component but probably needs more clarity as to why and how (as I have demonstrated in this blog post). What do you think?

 

 

Naomi Barnes is an adjunct postdoctoral fellow at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research. Her key areas of research are transitions and social media in educational research.

 

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are useful to teacher education students, here’s how

There is a strong critique of the impacts of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers from educational researchers. They argue teaching standards force teachers to focus too much on producing proof of classroom successes and leadership development. At the same time policy makers, who advocate and implement the standards, claim the standards provide a common language of teaching: making it easier for teachers to talk about and share their work.

Whilst both groups are equally entitled to express their informed opinions on such an important issue for education, as we see it, there are common omissions from both accounts. Both reply on persuasive arguments rather than evidence and both do not consider the views of teachers and prospective teachers. Also, educational researchers and policy makers are not the subjects of the performance standards. For these reasons we decided it was worthwhile to seek the views of teacher education students.

We wanted to develop an understanding of the actual impact of performance standards on the practice of teacher education students, specifically in relation to the assessment of their professional experience. Our study is a small and humble contribution offered as an invitation to a debate with all interested stakeholders.

Use of teaching standards in NSW

The use of teaching standards as a performance measure for teacher quality is now more than a decade old in the state of NSW in Australia. The process was introduced gradually from teacher education programs to new graduates who were labelled the ‘new scheme teachers’.

The first generation of these new scheme teachers are now into their twelfth year of teaching. In the interim, the NSW policy has been augmented by the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers in concert with a nationally audited accreditation process for teacher education.

The progressive introduction of the standards in NSW from initial teacher education programs out into the profession has meant that teacher education courses have been a testing ground for their implementation. In schools and faculties of education, the often small group of teacher educators were given the task of integrating the standards into course and program outlines. At the same time, their colleagues in critical policy research in education were typically engaging in robust debates about the overall purpose of the standards. Despite these debates, the standards had to be implemented as a condition of accreditation for providers of initial teacher education in Australia.

The biggest initial impact of the standards was on the high stakes performance assessment required in professional experience for student teachers. This is where a large group of supervising teachers, untrained in the use of the standards, had to apply the new graduate teaching standards as criteria for assessing teacher education students on professional experience. Understandably, it was difficult for the providers of initial teacher education to achieve consistency in judgment across so many assessors and with unfamiliar assessment criteria.

Criticism of standards

There has not been a lot of research on the impact of having standards for teachers in Australia. Even the definition is not clear, in that we have gone from talking about standards for teaching to talking about teacher standards. (At the same time we seem to have shifted from talking about teaching quality to teacher quality in the past decade.) It is interesting to note that NSW introduced professional standards for teaching in 2005 whilst at the federal level, more recently, they were named the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

This might be interpreted as a mere semantic shift from teaching to teachers but there is a view in critical policy research that this signals a significant shift in focus from the collective to the individual. The implication of this redefinition is that it will be easier for authorities to hold individual teachers to account for their performance, thus positioning the standards as a way to regulate and check on teachers rather than a way to help them develop their professional skills.

If you want more detail of the arguments against the teaching standards offered by critical policy researchers please go to our full paper (find the link at the end of this post).

Standards as a common language

The promotion of the teaching standards as a common language to describe teaching as a profession is so commonly heard that it now could be regarded as a meme. The meme was evident in the findings of our study (more about this below).

What we did in our study

Our study examined the application of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to the assessment of professional experience in teacher education at a point more than ten years on from their first implementation in NSW. We gathered empirical data via a survey of 229 secondary teacher education students from a program based in Sydney, NSW. We followed the survey with focus groups in an endeavour to record the students’ perceptions on the use of the standards as assessment criteria for professional experience.

We focused on the application of the graduate level of the standards to the assessment of the students’ professional experience. Within this focus we acknowledge the benefit of the standards acting as a common language for teaching, their supporting role in the formative assessment of teacher education students and the variable quality of their application as assessment criteria by supervising teachers.

Our findings

Standards as a common language

The meme was evident in our study in an interview response of one of our teacher education students:

It also does give me a language to discuss those things with colleagues. It gives me a language that I can easily call on if I want to discuss any of those things, maybe I just think are intuitive or obvious, but I can still speak those things with colleagues with a language we share.

Some teachers were not au fait with the standards

Members of the focus group which took part in this study specifically identified three “groups” existing among teachers, namely the “resistors and cynics”, “middle ground”, and “converts and advocates” of the Standards. As described by one teacher education student:

I feel like there are a few levels of the use of the Standards. There is the sort of lip service, “I have been teaching for a really long time, I am not really interested in looking at them”, level. There is thelevel of teachers who are slightly versed with them but not completely and so they touch on them maybe and will have a brief conversation perhaps with you about them and be able to refer to the Standards in general but maybe not specifically. And then there are teachers -in my experience, these are the sort othree groups of conversations I have – and then there are teachers and students also, colleagues of ours, who maybe are in any of these groups. It do not think it is necessarily age -related although generally the older, more long-teaching people are probably less, at this point, anyway, until they have to be accredited, generally less familiar with them in specifics. The third one is that group that really embrace them and really use them as a tool, because it is a really useful tool.

It was evident from some of our interview responses that the teacher education students often had to guide their Supervising Teacher in their understanding and application of the standards. This is exemplified by the following quote:

I asked my Supervising Teacher to give me a report midway through so that I could work on his feedback in the last two weeks. From this a number of the standards were unknown to him and we had to look up the meanings at the back of the prac’ book.

Where a Supervising Teacher did not relate feedback to the Standards, individual TES would implement a strategy to compensate for this:

I’ve basically started to highlight individual standards and attaching them to the lesson plan so that my Supervising Teacher specifically focuses on those standards in that lesson which made him provide a little more useful feedback.’

Although the Standards perhaps have not been internalized as a common language or are consciously understood by all teachers, none-the-less many teacher education students were of the firm opinion that the majority of teachers are highly proficient and innately capable of meeting all the Standard Descriptors.

Feedback and self relection

Another of our findings related to the standards being used effectively for formative or ongoing assessment during professional experience. This theme is evident in the following response from another teacher education student:

I did relate [the feedback given] back to the Standards mainly because my teacher did use the form, and the form is related to the Standards, and I really like that. I really found it very useful. I find the Standards useful … [because] I am able to use them as a structure for reflection … no matter how much I think I am doing it, or intuitively I am doing it anyway, I still find it reassuring to be able to check myself against it.

We feel that the proactive approach on the part of the teacher education students in our study is great preparation for the ongoing accreditation now required from teachers across their career span from graduate to lead teacher. In this respect, we are heartened by the response of another student who acknowledged that “it has been my own personal reflections that led to my progress.” As well, it seemed that the standards supported the development of the teacher education student in the absence of focused mentoring from the Supervising Teacher. This is an encouraging finding for teacher educators in this interim period where not all supervising teachers are conversant with the standards

The findings presented in our paper confirm some of the arguments presented in favour of the standards by their promoters. These are the worth of the standards as a common language, their role as an explicit framework for teaching and their value in promoting self-assessment, reflection on practice and professional conversations. The findings also lend weight to the argument that the application of the standards to the practice and assessment of professional experience is variable in quality, given that not every supervising teacher on professional experience will have the necessary skills and understanding of the standards to provide constructive feedback to our students.

 

loughland

 

Tony Loughland is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. Tony is currently working on the validation of a teacher observation instrument based upon the construct of teacher adaptive practices.

 

 

n-ellis-2

 

Dr Neville John Ellis is a Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. His teaching and research interests are in teacher professional learning, classroom-based research, and comparative studies in education.

 

 

Full text of our paper

Loughland, T., & Ellis, N. (2016). A Common Language? The Use of Teaching Standards in the Assessment of Professional Experience: Teacher Education Students’ Perceptions. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(7), 4.