Who asks the educational questions in Teacher Education?

This post follows on from the previous post entitled The Craft of Teacher Education that could have alternately being named as Who does the work of teacher education? It is a provocation that draws heavily upon Gert Biesta’s excellent 2015 paper, On the two cultures of educational research, and how we might move ahead: Reconsidering the ontology, axiology and praxeology of education. Biesta packs many ideas into his papers and I urge you to read the full paper to capture the elegance of his thesis.

Male Regent Bowerbird in Bower
© State of New South Wales and Office of Environment and Heritage 2018

Like the Bowerbird I am, I have picked out one idea with which I can decorate this post of my bower. This idea is encapsulated in the following quote from the paper:

“When we look at education through the lens of what in the English-speaking world are known as the disciplines of education, we can say that the philosophy of education asks philosophical questions about education, the history of education asks historical questions, the psychology of education asks psychological question and the sociology of education asks sociological questions, which then raises the question ‘Who asks the educational questions?’. ” (Biesta, 2015, p.15)

If you read my post from yesterday you may be already making the link between Biesta’s provocation and my own. The part-time army of professional experience supervisors we employ in teacher education may be the expert others who are asking the educational questions to our students. This is going on whilst full-time tenured faculty pursue their own equally important psychological, sociological and philosophical about education. These questions are more likely to receive funding and their answers published in the elite journals that faculty need to get into if they want to get ahead.

This is not a bitter rant from an academic who has been marginalised by the political economy of university-based teacher education. I have worked (survived!) in elite research-intensive universities for over 12 years. I am just very curious about Biesta’s provocation that education should be regarded as a discipline in itself rather than as a context for other disciplines to work in. At the centre of my curiousity is a desire that the expert pedagogues we employ on our margins be given the space to ask the educational questions of which we don’t know the answer. These answers may give practitioners a view of a different praxis in education:

“it is important not to forget that research can also be of tremendous practical relevance if it provides practitioners with different ways of seeing and talking about education” (Biesta, 2015, p.19)


The Craft of Teacher Education

I was very excited to be invited along for a supervision of a teacher education student in a Dublin school yesterday. Visiting, assessing, supervising and sometimes consoling teacher education students on professional experience has been a constant in my work for over 20 years. It is the part of my work that I cherish. This is the craft work of teacher education that has been largely resilient in the evolution from teacher colleges to universities. My UCD colleague Kathleen is one of the many expert craftspeople of the profession who make such an integral, and largely unheralded, contribution to initial teacher education.

To call professional experience the craft-work of teacher education is a provocation on my part to have you think about what it means to be a practice-based profession as well as to interrogate the culture of teacher education in universities that marginalises this work.

The Sahlberg Report into initial teacher education in Ireland in 2012 made sensible recommendations for the rationalisation of teacher education. It is hard to disagree with their arguments that teacher education be research-based, that teacher educators be researchers and that our graduates be teacher-researchers. The report also suggested that having a large part-time workforce of supervisors and methods tutors was counter-productive to the achievement of their aims.

I am writing in 2019 in Ireland and the part-time army of teacher educators remains fundamental to the effective operation of teacher education as it is in my own country of Australia. The political economy of universities means that that education schools must employ part-timers to do the hard work of school visits and evening methods classes to balance the budget.

To speak of the economic imperative of employing part-timers is not to denigrate the real work of teacher education they achieve. This speaks to my argument of considering the craft expertise of colleagues like Kathleen to be fundamental to research into the practices of teaching and teacher education. Kathleen and her colleagues should be the vanguard of our research efforts into the practices of teaching as they engage our students into the art of critical reflexivity. The artificial separation of researchers and teachers in university schools of education has meant that often we overlook the richest source of philosophical, practical and ethical wisdom in our expert crafts people.

I will continue to enjoy the craft work of teacher education and value it as the most important aspect of my role as a teacher educator.

Pedagogy: from Inputs to Impact

I am very fortunate to be over in University College Dublin on a two-week Erasmus Teaching Fellowship. The Master of Teaching cohort at UCD are not so fortunate as they have to listen to two lectures by me on pedagogy over the fortnight. The first lecture was yesterday and the theme I took from a great paper just published by my colleagues at the University of Tasmania. The paper discusses the change in teacher education from the discourse of inputs (plans, schemes of work) to impact upon students. I obviously endorse this shift in the focus of teacher education but not in the spirit of the corporate Big Data, Deus Ex Machina machismo of the Global Education Reform Movement.

Photo of lake at UCD
Lake at UCD

Instead I examined what it is to be responsive to student learning in the classroom, to be a dynamic designer instead of a scripter.  A dynamic designer in my lexicon is an adaptive teacher reviewed here by a very smart colleague and myself and beautifully explicated in this paper by my Finnish colleagues.

I spoke about a key aspect of moving from a script to dynamic adaptation is the adoption of planning models that allow for a teacher’s pedagogical repertoire to be employed when and where and to what student that requires it. These might resemble tree diagrams or if-then flow charts rather than the traditional introduction-body-conclusion genre.

The UCD MTeach students were a generous audience and I look forward to talking to them again next Monday about generating and telling a story about the evidence of your impact as a teacher on your students.

The challenge of adaptive teaching

blood moon

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

I was lucky enough today to have the opportunity to teach Stage 3 Science again. It was the other stage 3 class so I got to teach the phases of the moon lesson again. My colleague, Jodi, who is the class teacher rated my lesson using the newly modified teacher adaptive practice scale (below)

# Descriptor    (1-low) (5-high) 1 2 3 4 5
1 Teacher modifies learning goals in response to formative assessment          
2 The teacher modifies their instructions during the lesson to increase learning opportunities          
3 The teacher uses formative assessment to differentiate their responses to individual students          
4 The teacher negotiates learning activities with students, ensuring these are aligned with learning goals          
5 The teacher prompted students to discover key concepts through responsive open-ended questions.          
6 The teacher prompted students to express their thinking and used this as a springboard for learning activities          
7 The teacher prompted students to demonstrate open-mindedness and tolerance of uncertainty.          

Jodi gave me some very kind, specific and constructive feedback but what set me thinking was her comments on the use of questions in the lessons in relation to items 3-7 on the scale.

Students at this PBL school are no strangers to the use of questions in pedagogy so I felt emboldened to use them in this lesson. I was trying to convey the scientific method as being driven just as much by rationalism as it is empiricism. The topic of the Phases of the Moon is ideally suited to this as it is steeped in stories and myths and is not amenable to conventional modes of scientific experimentation.

I started the lesson by displaying an image I had taken of the most recent full moon and posed a question about the source of the light. The students discussed their answers with their shoulder buddies. At this point I was ‘checking in’ with the students’ current understandings of the topic (items 1-4 on the TAP scale above). The ‘change’ I made in my teaching in response to what I heard was to ask the students to draw the relative positions of the sun, earth and full moon. As a result I now had a clear view of which students held existing conceptions that were different from the current scientific explanation.

The mini-whiteboards are a real blessing as they allow the teacher to scan the whole class to get a handle on their current thinking. Doing something about the diverse understandings of the topic is the challenge of adaptive teaching. It was time for me to experience the challenge that I had witnessed so many teachers go through over the last three years of me being the observer!

At this stage I needed a question that might trouble students’ existing conceptions so I asked them to depict the position of the new moon in their diagram. As I posed questions to students it was patently obvious I needed more than 2-D photos to use as evidence to challenge their conceptions. I failed here because I did not bring the basketball, lamp and tennis ball required to do the 3D demonstration required at that moment. So I displayed the diagram of the phases of the moon instead (below)

Phases of the Moon

Image from https://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/astronomy/moon/Phases.shtml

This 2D diagram was not as powerful as a 3D demonstration but it is all I had so I used it. I asked the students to compare and contrast their own diagrams with the one on the screen. At this point there were many students who were puzzled by the accepted version and these students needed the 3D demonstration.

I also asked the students to generate further questions that they had about the moon. These questions were rich and could be easily used as starting points for further exploration:

  1. What is the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse?
  2. What causes a blood moon? (hence the image at the beginning)
  3. What keeps the moon in orbit around the earth?
  4. What is the difference between a waxing and waning gibbous?

So I failed with my lack of teaching repertoire in the lesson but succeeded in portraying science as being as much philosophy as evidence.  In terms of my adaptability as a teacher I am developing my skills at ‘checking in’ through the use of questions but need to be able to change up my repertoire both at the individual and whole class level as required. I need to do a little more research on each topic to develop a wide enough repertoire to be able to be more adaptive.

Today I taught

Yes, Dr Loughland, the former self-proclaimed Dark Prince of Pedagogy, darkened the doorstep of a primary classroom. This is the raw account of my uncensored feelings and thoughts of my first foray into classroom teaching for five years. 

I taught because I was goaded by my teacher colleagues and gently encouraged by my lovely partner. I taught because I read David Didau’s great blog post on modelling and observation. I taught because in my conscience I thought I needed to. I taught because I was desk bound and sick of writer’s block. I taught because I have a wonderful colleague who is a principal of a nearby primary school (thanks Michelle!).

I taught a lesson. 45 minutes of stage 3 science on phases of the moon. A guest gig that is ridiculously easy compared to the everyday relentless teaching/learning  cycle heroically enacted by real teachers everywhere.

I need to let you know that I research adaptive teaching. I have been observing wonderful adaptive teachers for 3 years. Today I taught. I was not adaptive. I was so nervous I felt sick. I stuck to my time-honoured repertoire. I engaged. I entertained. I interacted with the students who were keen and avoided the students who had no idea. A leopard doesn’t change its spots.

So what did I learn from my brief foray into real classroom teaching? It is still enormously rewarding to think through challenging topics with  enquiring young minds.  It is humbling to sit with students as they wrestle intellectually with tough questions. It is great to think on your feet and make teaching decisions on the hop.  It really is fun without all of the extra-curricular responsibilities that sometimes make teaching onerous. 

I get to teach the same lesson to the other stage 3 class in a fortnight. I am lucky. I taught. I teach. I am alive again.