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Mosaic Book of the Term Prize Draw
Summer 2023

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Written by Rob Caudwell, Co-Founder of Penrose Education

25 May 2023

At Penrose Education we are on a mission to fill the (teacher training) world with thoughtfully designed and effective EdTech. But we also want to fill the (teacher training) world with books.

Each term we will be reviewing a book we have found helpful, interesting and/or thought-provoking in our attempts to develop our understanding of what exceptional teacher training looks like.

Best of all – you could win a copy of one of these books in our Book of the Term Prize Draw!

Our chosen book this term is: Practical Theorising in Teacher Education: Holding Theory and Practice Together (2023), edited by Katharine Burn, Trevor Mutton and Ian Thompson.

Why we chose this book?

Like many who work in initial teacher training and education, at Penrose Education we spend a lot of our time thinking about the best ways to help trainees understand the theoretical underpinnings of the role of teacher alongside their development of their teaching practice in the classroom. We are always looking to learn more about the different ways that people have addressed this challenge.
 
In this book, the editors Burn, Mutton and Thompson have brought together a collection of contributions from a range of teacher trainers that have been involved in an approach to teacher eduction called ‘Practical Theorising’. The approach was first developed by Donald McIntyre in 1993, and pioneered by an ITE programme called the Oxford Internship Scheme, a partnership between the University of Oxford and local secondary schools, that has been using this model ever since.
 
‘Practical theorising’ is an approach to integrating theory and practice within teacher education in a way that celebrates the importance of both, while accepting that they don’t always neatly align. ‘Practical theorising’ argues that learning to teach should be based around “hypothesis-testing”. Trainees should be given the tools to critically scrutinise all potential sources of learning, whether this is practical advice they are given while on placement, or academic research literature they are encouraged to consider by a course tutor.

If you don’t win, you can always buy a copy from Routledge here!

"[T]he distinctive feature of [the Oxford Internship Scheme] was the way in which all suggestions for practice, regardless of whether they derived from research or from practical experience in specific contexts, were expected to be received: not as prescriptions to be followed, but as hypotheses to be tested."

- Katharine Burn Trevor Mutton and Ian Thompson, p17

What we've taken from it

The first thing that struck me was how refreshing it was to read about an approach to teacher training with a realistic and nuanced understanding of ‘theory’. Teaching (and training others to teach!) would be straightforward if everyone agreed what ‘education’ is for and if there were then approaches to achieving this version of ‘education’ that worked perfectly, all-the-time, everywhere. In such a world, all we would need to do, is give trainees some clear instructions, check they understand and can follow them, and let them get on with it. Job done.

"[S]tudent-teachers enter a profession which cannot provide irrefutable, generalisable answers which are true in all contexts and so they, implicitly or explicitly start the process of practical theorising..."

- Roger Firth and Nicola Warren-Lee, p168

The reality is, however, that while there is ever more research into what can make teaching ‘effective’ (and this is wonderful!), we still have to accept that there are different, competing understandings about what ‘effective’ means in a classroom. And even when we do agree on a definition, we still don’t have a list of approaches to enacting our version of effective teaching that are infallible or irrefutable. No matter how much we wish we did! (See the EEF’s evidence summary on the impact of feedback on pupil progress for an example of this. Feedback “has high impact on learning outcomes” but also “can have negative effects and make things worse”.)

This leaves teacher training providers in a difficult position. We of course want our trainees to be able to function (or at least survive!) in the classroom as quickly as possible – and to do that we need them to have confidence that our programme will prepare them well. But surely we have to do this without simply pretending (read: lying) that we know everything about what makes great teaching.

The contributors to this book offer a way of addressing this challenge. Instead of either dismissing research evidence as something irrelevant to real-life practice, or positioning it as a source of truth that teachers just need to apply, ‘practical theorising’ conceptualises theory as offering “suggestions for practice”, that should be tested. That way trainees learn to understand ‘theory’ as potentially useful, without being told to blindly put their faith in something that doesn’t warrant unquestioning trust.

A second (and related) key takeaway are the questions ‘practical theorising’ raises about whether trainee teachers should be encouraged to have their own opinions and make their own decisions. By giving trainees tools to critically evaluate “hypotheses”, rather than simply accept new ideas at face value, trainee teachers are positioned with considerable agency.

Some in teacher training are understandably hesitant to give trainees so much say on what they think ‘good teaching’ is. Many will (fairly!) argue that as novices in the profession, trainees have very limited understanding on which to base opinions, not knowing what they don’t know. Instead of spending time encouraging or indulging trainees’ naive views on the profession, we should be correcting any misconceptions as soon as possible to give them the best chances of avoiding unnecessary mistakes. We don’t need them to ‘discover for themselves’ things that we could just tell them.

However, the contributors to the book offer a few counter-arguments:

  1. ‘Practical theorising’ proponents are realistic that teacher training programmes will initially have to focus on simply helping trainees to understand the fundamentals of competent teaching. There is not an expectation that trainees will be able to critically scrutinise things meaningfully from the start of a programme, before they have even a basic understanding of classroom practice.
  2. However, there is also an acknowledgement that trainees are going to form their own opinions anyway. Trainees do not enter the profession as blank slates, but as adults with their own beliefs, experience, preconceptions and motivations. Regardless of whether we explicitly encourage trainees to do so, they are going to interpret the content of their course through their own lens. And often they are going to want to test things out for themselves.
  3. Trainees are more likely to question their own opinions within an environment where they are also encouraged to test all sources of knowledge. If they see experts modelling critical scrutiny about their own practice and ideas, they are more likely to look for flaws in their own thinking – and it won’t be so unsettling when they inevitably find them.
  4. If we accept that the evidence-base for ‘effective’ teaching is contested and not perfect (as discussed above) we do need to consider how we are preparing trainees for this reality. Anyone who has had to un-learn (or help others un-learn!) the now generally abandoned theories of ‘Learning Styles’ will understand the dangers of encouraging teachers to accept current definitions of ‘best practice’ without also preparing them for the possibility that they may need to eventually update (or even forsake) opinions/beliefs/positions in light of new research.

"Discussing how different schools and teachers reconcile... challenges in different ways allows student-teachers to better understand the professional decisions which have been made, and to start to consider the decisions they will have to make in due course, based on their own professional knowledge."

- Judith Hillier et al, p78

The final thing I really liked about the book is that it is upfront and honest about the potential shortcomings of the approaches it advocates, and the criticisms that ‘practical theorising’ has faced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given everything above, the contributors do not pretend to have developed a perfect approach to teacher training and education that the rest of us simply need to copy, solving every possible challenge we face. Instead, in a similar way to how they propose working with trainees, the contributors offer what they have learnt as suggestions for practice that the rest of us can critically scrutinise and test in our own attempts to offer our versions of fantastic teacher training and education.

"Practical theorising is clearly the worst way of managing the relationship between theory and practice, other than all the others that have been tried."

- Katharine Burn Trevor Mutton and Ian Thompson, p28

How Mosaic supports teacher training, education and development

At Penrose Education, we are committed to creating thoughtful and powerful technology to support and improve teacher training, education and development. We build in dialogue and partnership with the sector, embracing diversity in approach and strive to reflect this is in the online solutions we provide.

Mosaic for ITT providers is our online platform for the effortless/streamlined management of successful teacher training, providing an easy-to-use space for trainees, mentors and staff to record, track and personalise every element of the trainee journey, seamlessly encouraging critical reflective practice; supporting highly effective mentoring practice; and all within the wider framework of the provider’s curriculum delivery.

Our other online platform – Mosaic for Appropriate Bodies is our solution for the effective management and monitoring of ECT progress. Mosaic’s unique automation tools, customisable reporting mechanisms and smart analysis tools ensure  all ECTs are supported appropriately in their individual journeys while reducing workload.

If you would like a closer look at either platform or an informal chat please get in touch.

How can I win a copy?

We are giving away three copies of Burn, Mutton and Thompson’s book to anyone working in positions related to teacher training and development.

Click the button below to be in with a chance to win.

We will randomly select the lucky winners on 1st of July. Entries will close 11:59pm on 30th June.

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