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Strong Beginnings: Reforming initial teacher education

Barriers we face, and how we can begin to overcome them, to change ITE for the better

The final report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel was recently released. It’s focussed on initial teacher education. It’s essentially a massive review of how we can ensure that we’re doing a better job of preparing teachers for the rich yet challenging profession ahead of them.

So, is it any good?

Yes. It’s excellent! The 14 recommendations in the final report are eminently practical, and based on a large consultation and analysis of the major barriers that people wanting to enter the profession face, as well as the best evidence about what teachers need to know to be effective. (For a summary of the recommendations, see pg. 17 of the report here)

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to agree about how great the report is. And even if they did, we still face a number of implementation challenges. In this EdThread, I will:

  1. Highlight what I’m most excited about from the report

  2. Outline (then rebut) one common argument against the report

  3. Discuss two challenges to implementation that we face, then

  4. Finish with some ideas for how we can all play a role in improving initial teacher education in Australia

What I’m most excited about: Establishing ‘core content’ for initial teacher education

The set of recommendations that I’m most excited about are those that (based primarily on the work of the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO)) deal with the required content of initial teacher education. Here they are (from pg. 17 of the report):

Here’s a little more detail about what is meant in terms of these four core content areas (from pg. 29):

If this content on Cognitive Load Theory, retrieval and spacing, neuromyths, explicit instruction, the science of reading, MTSS, and more was systematically and effectively built into the initial teacher training for every pre-service teacher in the country, this would be a massive boon for the profession and for every student in Australia.

One argument against the report: ‘We’re already doing this’

Some teacher educators in the media have written in response to the report to the effect of, ‘We’re already doing this’. Here’s one author’s commentary.

The argument that ‘effective pedagogy’ is ‘central to all teacher education programs in Australia’ is unfortunately not based in fact.

I frequently hear teachers say things like, ‘Why wasn’t I taught this stuff at Uni?’ after attending PD, reading a book or listening to a podcast on evidence-informed practices.

In fact, I received an email from a pre-service teacher just this week in which she shared:

‘…the [University’s name] lecturers pushed constructivism very strongly in the history and geography, maths and science units, and they taught 'multiple intelligences,' 'learning styles' and massively pushed co-operative learning and Bloom's taxonomy in the 'planning for effective learning' unit (with no mention of cognitive load theory or any science of learning teachings). However, as I'm located in [Suburb] NSW and half way through the degree I figured I'd just push through and get it done.

[Shared with permission]

If you’ve had a similar experience, please feel free to write to me too : )

Further evidence for the fact that this core content isn’t taught in all universities is the sheer volume of organisations (e.g., Think Forward Educators and SoTLA), conferences (e.g., Sharing Best Practice), podcasts (e.g., Education Research Reading Room), practitioners, and events (e.g., SOLLA) that have sprung up around the country in an attempt to give desperate educators much needed access to this key information.

If there was no demand, there would be no supply. But Aussie educators are hungry for this info that’s vital to their students’ success. Info that they didn’t get in their ITE.

Encouragingly, those schools and systems who are implementing evidence based practices, are seeing positive results.

For those committed to reforming initial teacher education, we still face a number of challenges to implementation. Here are two that I feel are particular salient.

Implementation challenge 1: The expertise challenge

For ITE courses to be improved, the people tasked with teaching this new core content need the expertise to do so. Unfortunately, that expertise is hard to find. After decades of ITE that has missed much of this vital content, there are very few university faculties that have lecturers with the requisite knowledge.

To address this challenge, Jennifer Buckingham makes an excellent suggestion on the Five from Five blog:

“In England, initial teacher education is increasingly provided by non-university providers that have been accredited and approved by the Department for Education, often in partnership with schools. These providers have to deliver the core content framework and meet other standards. There is room for greater variety in initial teacher education provision – either complete degrees or specific content – in Australia.”

Jennifer Buckingham

As it stands, much of the expertise in science of teaching and learning practices in Australia is in the minds of passionate educators who have gone out and done the hard work themselves to gain the knowledge required to help their students succeed.

Most of these educators don’t have PhDs and are therefore restricted from teaching in Universities, which are currently the sole providers of ITE in Australia (apart from a couple of exceptions).

Adding flexibility to ITE in the way that Buckingham suggests would enable these educators to more easily contribute to passing on that crucial knowledge to the next generation of teachers.

Implementation challenge 2: The oversight challenge

Another challenge with implementing bold reforms like those outlined in the review is that of oversight. As Bill Louden highlighted in my recent podcast discussion with him, the bodies that accredit teacher education programs in Australia have a very limited ability to truly assess what is going on within them.

In the UK, the situation is completely different. Accreditors physically go on-site to evaluate ITE programs. Here’s an excerpt from the UK’s ITE Inspection Framework Handbook that provides a bit of insight into what these inspections look like:

They’re thorough!

In contrast, accreditors in Australia never even visit the universities that they are supposed to be accrediting!

This is like trying to work out how good a teacher is by simply looking at their lesson plans* but never seeing them actually teach… doesn’t make a whole heap of sense to me!

(*In some cases, it’s even more like, ‘Asking them to talk about their lesson plans, and not even looking at the lesson plans, let alone seeing them teach’!)

What can we do?

With this review as a springboard, we have a fantastic opportunity to begin to bring Initial Teacher Education in Australia into line with the research evidence. But we do face barriers. As highlighted above, those barriers include:

  1. A lack of expertise within faculties of education to deliver programs to the required standards, and

  2. A lack of true oversight of what is truly going on inside teacher education programs

What we can do is try to address each of these challenges. Here are a couple of ideas for personal action…

To address challenge 1, step up. If you’re a teacher who has been doing the hard work and educating yourself, pass on that knowledge. Fight hard to gain positions in your school where you can influence practice. Run PD for your friends and colleagues. Put your hand up to present at conferences. Write about what you’ve learnt. And ensure that the PD that you’re engaging with is evidence based. If you’re really keen to step up, start a PhD and begin to build the qualifications required to be a university lecturer. If these reforms gain the momentum that they deserve, we will need more people with the expertise and the qualifications required to pass this knowledge on to our pre-service teachers.

To address challenge 2, speak up. If you’re a university student and you’re not getting what you need, tell someone about it. Start with a gentle inquiry to your lecturers about whether they’ll be covering the science of reading, retrieval and spacing, explicit instruction, cognitive load theory, or practical classroom management strategies. Take it higher if you’re unsatisfied with the response. You deserve to get what you’re paying for and our students deserve teachers equipped with best evidence, practical teaching knowledge, and skills.

Let’s hope for, and work towards, a stronger beginning for every teacher in Australia.

More good responses to the TEEP report recommendations

Jennifer Buckingham: Teacher education reform: Where will all the experts come from? (The 9 articles below were also compiled by Jennifer)

Rebecca Birch: On Standards (capital S)

Announcements and Opportunities

On the topic of training teachers, I’m extremely excited to announce that the UKs leading thinker, writer, and speaker on Instructional Coaching, Josh Goodrich, is coming back to Australia in October to run a series of Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensives in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. And it isn’t just Josh who is coming, we’ll also be joined by Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood for a couple of them too! Here’s the info…

Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensive - Melbourne (Fri October 13th) with Josh Goodrich, Ollie Lovell, and Sam Sims.

Steplab Instructional Coaching Intensive - Sydney (Wed October 18th) with Josh Goodrich, Ollie Lovell, Sam Sims, and Harry Fletcher-Wood

Here’s what principal of Challis Community Primary School, Lee Musumeci, had to say about the last intensive run by Josh and Ollie in March 2023

We have reviewed many coaching frameworks in search of the most effective way for our coaches to develop instructional practice in classrooms. Attending the Steplab Instructional Coaching PL as a leadership team has left us in no doubt about our implementation of Steplab as our key strategy to develop teaching and teachers. Our instructional coaches now have a consistent language and fine grained, actionable steps to support teachers in their instructional practice. This is essential PL for any leadership team looking for school wide consistency. A clever blend of theory and practice will leave you with both the knowledge and skills to return to your school tomorrow and improve instruction."

Lee Musumeci. Principal of Challis Community Primary School

Thank you to all those who filled out the poll a couple of weeks ago to help us decide which cities in which to run these intensives. If you filled out the poll but your city wasn’t selected, I’ll be sending you an email with a discount code very soon to say thank you for completing the survey, and to make it easier for you to make it along to your nearest Intensive, even if it isn’t in your state : )

Other threads to pull on…

  • Craig Barton and I run a monthly podcast, Tips and Tools for Teachers, in which we discuss three key takeaways each from the month just gone. Here’s the most recent ep, touching upon formative assessment, effective PD, sharing resources for teaching, giving good advice, and past mistakes!

  • An excellent twitter thread by John Kirkman on how to give whole class feedback on mini-essays

  • A (pretty meaty) twitter discussion on whether or not neuroscience has anything of practical value to teachers. Prompted by Dylan William’s assertion that it doesn’t!

  • Sarah Cottingham’s new book, Ausubel's Meaningful Learning in Action, is now available for pre-order. I’ve been waiting on this one for a long time and can’t wait to dive deeper into Ausubel’s work through Sarah’s interpretations of it!

Quote of the week

‘Weighing the pig does fatten it*, because retrieval is a powerful memory modifier.’

Dylan Wiliam

*i.e., Testing (weighing the pig) does support learning (fatten it).