Practice and Progress

I’m just on my third cohort of trainee teachers at Southampton. Each year, I’ve cut back the amount I’ve tried to cover, for reasons similar to the ones mentioned by Harry Fletcher-Wood in this thought-provoking post, but I think the picture is a bit more complex than the one he (in that particular post), and I guess Doug Lemov, present.

I think he is absolutely right that too much, too soon, is unhelpful. Now that I am acting as tutor for a couple of TF participants it’s very clear to me that most of the summer institute work needs to be focused on getting them to the start of September with the basics in place as far as that is possible – an understanding of the curriculum, how to plan and teach a well-structured lesson, simple questioning, some practised responses to good and poor behaviour, and some idea of how to assess, mark books and give feedback. This is exactly the same as for our UL trainee teachers although there is a bit more riding on the immediate outcome with TF.

However, I think there are some issues with the way in which these skills are practised because they have to be applied in different school settings. As an example, Harry got his trainee teachers to produce differentiated LOs. But what about two trainee teachers, one of whom goes into a school where the expectation is to have “All, Most, Some” differentiated LOs, and another who goes into a school where the view is that “All, Most, Some” is the work of the devil? That would be an inconvenience to an experienced teacher but could be a major obstacle to someone who had only seen one approach. Dealing with behaviour is often where things are most strongly context-specific. I have a lot of respect for Lemov’s work but if you spent a few sessions practising getting a class to SLANT on command and were then deployed in a typical secondary school, that could easily go pear-shaped.

One of the strengths of supernumerary UL ITT routes ought to be the possibility of taking on whole class teaching gradually in order to refine these basics in context but ironically one of the weaknesses of UL routes is that it can be difficult at a distance to get mentors to implement this – they have a tendency to want trainee teachers to run before they can walk. One of the strengths of SD and SCITTs ought to be that the training is already context-specific but, again, sometimes school-based tutors don’t come down to basics, or limit initial expectations enough – perhaps due to inexperience. I guess TF misses out on either of these options, so mentoring quality, and a very effective focus on appropriate targets is even more crucial.

What I really want to see is initial training that is restricted to the basics, with opportunity to practise, but enough flexibility to allow for different contexts. Then partial but increasing engagement with whole-class teaching that is designed to allow trainee teachers to develop confidence, and practise skills in context. For example, if a trainee teacher tends to ask closed, or very poor open, questions they could do 10 mins of questions with half-a-dozen classes, without having to plan and teach the whole lesson; if they are struggling with behaviour then the class teacher could take a few of the most difficult children aside for small group input to take just enough pressure off the trainee teacher for their management to be successful. This period of practice in context would end with full, whole-class teaching for long enough to embed the basics. Next, would come training sessions that re-visit and develop the basics now that there is some experience to allow reflection. (Here could come the rest of Harry’s AfL training, but also some broader ideas. For example, in science this would be a good point to get trainee teachers to reconsider the purpose of practical work and what the research says about making it more effective; in maths, this might be the point to consider the importance of worked examples, what mastery might mean, and the pros and cons of drilling and rich tasks, fuzzy maths or whatever.) Then, after that opportunity to reflect would come a more typical teaching period with responsibility for planning and teaching sequences of lessons, working on specific small steps all the way through, and building up to a secure, professional standard.

At the moment, I don’t think any training routes reliably achieve this kind of progression and I guess it will never be possible with some routes. We get somewhere near it with UL by having a first placement in the autumn term on a 35% timetable, then a couple of weeks back in university, and then a longer second placement on a fuller timetable; SDs and SCITTs have regular training days in school; TF has their Super Saturdays and other occasional training days. For me none of these quite nail it but all routes provide some opportunity for starting with the basics and then developing. I don’t have an immediate answer to this problem of building more slowly, practising better, but then not restricting trainee teachers later, but it seems to revolve around the strength of partnerships between experienced tutors who have the advantage of this being their main area of expertise, and school-based mentors who have the advantage of working with trainees in the classroom. At the moment, as a tutor, I feel like I have to cover too much early on with the trainee teachers because when they are on placement there seems to be an expectation that they will either have a good understanding of assessment and differentiation and behaviour, etc., or that there isn’t much to understand and they should just be able to pick it up as they go along.  I don’t get anything like enough time to support mentors, really, and then despite giving their time with unbelievable generosity, the mentors don’t really get enough time to work with trainee teachers. This leads to a situation in which inexperienced mentors get too much input all at once, from me, and then trainee teachers get the same, from me, and then again from their mentors.

I don’t want to give the impression that what we’re doing is poor. It’s so many times better than my own experience of teacher training it’s almost unrecognisable and we consistently work with a broad range of trainee teachers, and produce mostly good-to-excellent NQTs. It’s just that I think it might be possible to support our trainee teachers, and our mentors, even better, but I’m not quite sure how we get there.

Harry’s blog is great, and I think he’s right about that initial training, but we need to also get trainee teachers to practise in school contexts, and we need to re-visit later, reflect, and explore the bigger picture too, so they have the “where next?” steps covered as well as the first steps.

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4 thoughts on “Practice and Progress

  1. Hi there, thanks for a very interesting blog. I thought it might add to your thinking if I gave a quick comment from my perspective as someone who did a 4 year BEd, taught in all the different phases, and who now works a lot with new and trainee teachers.

    As you say, the ability to adapt to context is essential, and this is where I think a lot of the faster ‘straight into school’ routes miss out an important chunk, because the very best way to understand the impact of context on approach is to go and observe teachers in lots of different schools. Not only are there lots of different contexts, but there are also very many different teacher ‘styles’. If you only see a couple of styles and then model your approach on that, I think this could lead to a mismatch between the teacher’s personality and the style they adopt. Similarly if you are taught a technique that would work in one context but not in another, again as you identify there could be a pretty serious mismatch. Personally I would really struggle to use the SLANT thing as it goes completely against my personality, teaching style and philosophy to use that approach. I’m always very careful to point out to trainees that a particular strategy *works for me* but might not work for them. I sometimes wonder what happens when a school based trainee moves on to a very different school, later in their career. I remember very vividly moving to my third school and finding that *none of the behaviour management techniques I had used before worked*!

    One of the approaches that I find is very successful with NQTs and trainees, is for me to act out part of what might happen in my classroom, and then get them to pick apart what I am doing as I do it, so they can reflect on why it works and whether they are using similar techniques. I think Harry is trying to use a very similar approach. So, for instance, I will model giving instructions when I set a group task, and pause between bits of the instructions so that the trainees can identify all the strategies I am using. I will also get them to try out the technique on a partner, so that they experiment with it and can consider whether it would work in their context. I think this helps in them understanding how various strategies work, but again they are only having access to my style, so ideally I would want them to see several different teachers giving instructions in order to make their own decision about how they want to do it.

  2. Thanks Sue. I sadly missed the session you did last year with our PGCE students (I think I was away on a residential) but I agree with what you are saying about modelling and dissecting as you go – I do that quite a lot, I think – but I find it difficult to then get trainee teachers practising the thing I’ve just modelled. Maybe that’s a science problem; if you asked me to practise something like giving instructions with a partner I would feel self-conscious and cop-out and I think my trainees are the same, so that’s why I see practise in context (if there are real children needing real instructions, I don’t have a problem) as so helpful. Employment-based routes vary a lot in how much variety trainees are exposed to; some are very good at getting trainees around the school or Alliance to observe and can tie training sessions to focused observation better than university-led, but I do think the very short second placements are a weakness.

  3. Pingback: Practice Files: A culture of practice | Improving Teaching

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