It is a truth universally acknowledged that a school system in possession of a large achievement gap is in need of better quality teaching. According to Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute and global educational ‘change’ guru, “School Improvement and Pupil Improvement depend on what teachers do and think. It is as simple and as complex as that”.
The simple version of this complex truth –the idea that a school system is only as good as the quality of its teachers – has become ubiquitous, being routinely voiced by politicians on all sides of the debate. Michael Gove was so keen to emphasise the Importance of Teaching that he made it the title and dominant theme of the 2010 Schools White Paper, which pledged to recruit more ‘high calibre’ graduates and increase the proportion of time that trainee teachers spend in the classroom.
The theme of teaching quality has also been taken up by the Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg. Speaking at the RSA this morning, he stressed the importance of driving up the quality of teaching – and not undermining it by allowing unqualified teachers into the classroom, as the Government’s policy on Free Schools and Academies currently allows.
But while it is a relatively simple matter to define a problem of ‘educational failure’ – often accompanied by some selective statistics from international comparative surveys – and then attribute it to poor quality teachers, what is more difficult is to offer a sophisticated account of the problem and solution which does justice to the complex nature of teaching as a profession, and offers a convincing account of what it takes to improve the quality of teaching.
This urgent but complex question is the focus of a new inquiry which the British Educational Research Association (BERA) is undertaking in partnership with the RSA. Focusing on the relationship between research, teacher education and school improvement, the inquiry will investigate the role that research plays in improving the quality of programmes of teacher education and hence in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning outcomes for students.
At a time when teachers are regularly urged to pay more attention to the evidence of ‘what works’ in the classroom, but policy-makers are themselves often selective in their use of research findings, the Inquiry will clearly need to be rigorous in its approach and explicit in both stating and testing its assumptions against a thorough-going review of the research evidence.
For example, one of the starting points for the Inquiry is the assumption that teacher education is strengthened by the contribution of academic expertise and the accumulated knowledge and professional experience located in university departments of education. Rather than simply asserting or assuming the superiority of a university-led model, however, the Inquiry is committed to testing the assumptions against the available evidence and filling gaps in the knowledge base where possible.
As part of this process, the Inquiry has commissioned a number of papers from external experts to review policy and practice on teacher education in different parts of the UK and internationally, and to consider the contribution that different models of teacher education can make to developing teachers’ professional learning and expertise at each stage of their career.
This formal review of the established literature is being accompanied by a general Call for Submissions (no longer active), open to all organisations and individuals with an interest in research and education, based upon a set of key questions:
What do you see as the MAIN strengths and areas for improvement within teacher education as a whole in your part of the UK today, and why?
When thinking about initial teacher education (ITE) in your part of the UK today, what contribution do you think that research currently makes to ITE, and what role do you think that it should play?
When thinking about continuous professional development (CPD) in your part of the UK today, what contribution do you think that research currently makes to the professional learning and development of teachers, and what role do you think it should play?
What do you think are the main barriers faced by teachers when it comes to (a) engaging with research evidence and (b) undertaking their own research? What support do you think schools or others (such as colleges and universities) could provide to help to overcome those barriers?
What impact do you think that research can make to improving the quality of teaching and learning outcomes for students?
As a third strand, we are also exploring options for consulting more widely with teachers from across the UK, through a dedicated survey of teachers’ views and experiences of the strengths and weaknesses of different models of teacher education, which may be accompanied by detailed focus group discussion (for example, of the barriers teachers’ encounter in accessing and engaging in research).
Ultimately, the Inquiry's research and analysis may produce the evidence to justify a campaign in defence of particular models of teacher education and lifelong professional learning. But the first step is to review the evidence - and learn from the experiences, good and bad, of expert practitioners, in schools and classrooms throughout the UK. Influencing what teachers do and think is not a simple task, but by better understanding the complex nature of the question, the Inquiry may provide some more profound insights and possible solutions to the problem of patchy teacher quality.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director, Education at the RSA and secretariat to the BERA-RSA Inquiry on Research and Teacher Education.