Missing the point? The dilemma of ‘best evidence’ and the ITT Market Review
This is a blog post which is a personal, professional and research-informed response to the ITT Market Review. It does not cover all of the review recommendations in detail, but instead suggests some of what seems to be missing. The review is said to be based on the ‘best evidence’ of how teachers learn, but the status of evidence as ‘best’ is questionable.
Conceptions of learning to teach
Let’s start with student teachers and their beliefs about learning to teach. I recently contributed to phenomenographic/variation theory research to identify variations in trainee teachers’ conceptions of learning to teach (Lofthouse, Greenway, Davies, Davies, and Lundholm, 2020). We found four variable phenomena in student teachers’ conceptions of learning to teach which can be summarised as follows:
• The knowledge they considered to be relevant in learning to teach, and the degree to which the expected to have certainty about what works in teaching.
• The focus of their reflections, which included the specific situations they faced on placement, broader teaching themes (e.g. diﬀerentiation) or how they were developing as a teacher.
• Whether they typically reflected ‘in flight’ (making an immediate evaluation of their performance as a teacher) or whether their reflections were more representative of the ‘struggle over time’ of learning to teach.
• Their level of self-determination, with some privileging copying other teachers, others adapting teaching methods, and others evaluating approaches in context and aiming to understand the rationale for different ways of teaching.
Our analysis of these variables led to an identification of two meta-phenomena of ‘adherence’ (learning to do the right thing) and ‘enquiry’ (learning to make sense of teaching). The difference can be seen in these two quotes from our research interviews,
‘‘I think I just went in there, I just followed what the teacher said to do for the lesson, it wasn’t really me thinking”.
“there will be many other ways of doing it (teaching) […] it makes you think about how you can put what you’ve learnt into practice […] it’s critiquing, it’s analysing, criticising the literature you’ve found in more detail and depth and then proposing new ideas”.
Teachers as research-engaged professionals
In 2014 BERA and the RSA published their inquiry into the role of research in teacher education throughout the career stages (BERA-RSA, 2014). They recommended that teachers and teacher educators need to be equipped to engage in enquiry-based practice, which means having the capacity, motivation and opportunity to use research-related skills to investigate what is working well and what isn't effective in their own practice. (p.37)
The BERA-RSA Inquiry included seven specialist research papers, and I was a co-author of one of these which focused on teachers’ perceptions of engaging in research (Leat, Lofthouse and Reid, 2014). This literature review demonstrated that engaging in and with research can balance the instrumental and managerial discourses prevalent in English schools and support the professional development of teachers by encouraging them to [think] beyond the accountability culture of a performative system, towards a more sophisticated working understanding of an ecology of learning [and] be more accepting of challenge and difﬁculty, allowing them to step out of their comfort zone (p.8).
Context is critical
Most recently I co-authored a research paper (Hollweck and Lofthouse, 2021) on contextual coaching as a means of levering school improvement through a focus on teaching. Two case studies, one in Canada and one in England, provided the evidence base for the research. We concluded that the following are critical in creating opportunities for professional learning through coaching:
• Deliberate yet flexible designs and structures of support
• Responsiveness to school culture and context
• A shared purpose and understanding
• Teacher autonomy and leadership
• Long-term commitment and resources
Why is this research relevant to the ITT Market Review?
First let’s deal with what might seem to be a red herring – the research on contextual coaching. While acknowledging that this is not focused on ITT there is some resonance. At a recent DfE meeting Ian Bauckham, the chair of the ITT Market Review panel, made several claims which might at first seem persuasive. One was the reiteration of that the ‘best evidence’ underpinned the recommendations. However, under even mild scrutiny it is clear that much of this ‘best evidence’ is either not specific to teacher learning (being based on research related to pupil’s learning) or is drawn from research outside of the context of English schools. For example there is a strong cognitive science bias to the training content. The application of cognitive science to the curriculum has now been critiqued in an Education Endowment Foundation research review, who state that the ‘evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science) is limited, with uncertainties and gaps about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges.’ (EEF, p7) which leaves questions about the quality and relevance of the ITT core content and market review evidence base.
So, although Bauckham closed the meeting by stating the rhetoric that changes in ITT were necessary to ‘level up’ and ‘close the gap’ by linking the recommendations to school improvement we need to be aware that at best this can be a tentative claim. There is proven risk in simply transplanting effective programmes into new jurisdictions or organizations without considering the contextual and cultural features (Hargreaves and Skerrett, 2008). As such the universal core content and the requirements for ITT partnerships to be configured in more prescribed ways than is currently the case take is into this this transplantation danger zone. The five bullet points related to contextual coaching above might offer insights into the design features of successful teacher professional development (of which ITT is the start), all of which are missing in the recommendations.
Secondly, it is appropriate to consider whether promoting a conception of adherence in learning to teach should be our collective ambition. Adherence might plausibly be associated with the way that teaching and teacher training is being framed by DfE policy, including the ITT core content framework and the Early Career Framework. Both frameworks refer to the need to ‘know that’ and ‘know how to’. In the recommendations in the Market Review the ITT core content is positioned as non-negotiable and the basis for ITT re-accreditation, partnership provision, mentor training and Ofsted inspections. In our research we found that shifts between conceptions of adherence and enquiry were strongly associated with student teachers’ experiences of mentoring in school. The ITT Market Review recommends ‘new minimum training expectations for mentors, emphasising the importance of mentors’ deep knowledge of the training curriculum, the evidence behind it, and support for trainees’ progress through it.’ This mentoring and fixed curriculum discourse runs the risk of further reinforcing the adherence concept of learning to teach.
Once again this seems to be missing the point. Pupils and students are not all the same, and they also change between the early years and the end of their school life. Schools are not monolithic - they are complex and diverse. It could be hoped that a teacher will stay in the profession for a decent career-span during which we could anticipate new research supporting better practice, that they might be employed in a number of different schools and that there will be changes to education policy. Currently the plans are to train teachers through a curriculum to match the demands of the current ideology of attainment and achievement and how it should be judged which pays no attention to nuance or context, or indeed to the diversity of new entrants into the teaching themselves. This is a poor preparation for a sustainable profession.
Finally, the framing of the ITT core content and Market Review recommendations as indicative of ‘best evidence’ is a discourse which bids the student teacher and their mentors to adopt it without asking the questions ‘best for what?’ and ‘best for whom?’ and indeed ‘judged best by which criteria?’. It is asking these sorts of questions that support the development of an enquiry concept of learning to teach and would increase the capacity for student teachers and their mentors to be research-engaged professionals. Questions such as these drive professional education and learning and take it beyond training. It is being able to deal with uncertainty, work tentatively at times, be open to the expertise of others, be motivated to resolve complex dilemmas and to be active contributors to (not just consumers of) the professional knowledge base that are at the heart of teachers’ most effective practice. I think this basic understanding is what is most missing from the ITT Market Review. And I am not alone.
The public consultation on the ITT Market Review closes on 22nd August. The link to contribute to the consultation can be found here https://consult.education.gov.uk/itt-policy-unit/initial-teacher-training-itt-market-review-recomme/
See embedded hyperlinks for EEF, BERA and DfE sources
Hargreaves, A. and Skerrett, A. (2008), “Engaging policy: neither a borrower nor a lender be”, European Training Foundation Yearbook, Vol. 45, pp. 913-945.
Hollweck, T. and Lofthouse, R.M. (2021), "Contextual coaching: levering and leading school improvement through collaborative professionalism", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-01-2021-0019
Leat, D., Lofthouse, R. & Reid,. A. (2014). Teachers’ views: Perspectives on research engagement. Project Report. BERA/RSA. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/BERA-Paper-7-Teachers-Views-Perspectives-on-research-engagement.pdf Accessed 17 August 2021
Lofthouse, R., Greenway, C., Davies, P., Davies, D., & Lundholm, C. (2020). Pre-service Teachers’ conceptions of their own learning: does context make a difference?. Research Papers in Education, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2020.1767181
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.