What if?

What if, in teacher training, we had the same amount of time and funding available as for the training of new doctors? Okay, I know that comparisons between medicine and education are a cliché, and yes, I know that this is an imaginary scenario that is never going to happen. But what if it did? What would it look like? If you are willing to indulge me in this for a while, then read on.

Let’s take the Cambridge medical training as the model. As I understand it (I have had several friends go through the course and have looked up details, but excuse errors here) it works on the following basis:

  • Year 1 and Year 2: study of medical sciences
  • Year 3: option year
  • Year 4 to Year 6: clinical training

I think most medical schools do not include Year 3 and instead offer five-year courses, but this is my imaginary world and so this is what we shall have. If this model were to be used in education, then what might that look like?

Here’s my ‘back of the envelope’ model. Apologies to primary school colleagues: this is a model for training secondary teachers. I would love to see what a six-year primary education course would look like.

Year 1 and 2 – Undergraduate Disciplinary Study 

Undergraduate training in an academic discipline such as mathematics, English literature, history or chemistry. In these two years, students on our course would be in lectures, seminars and supervisions with those students intending to study for just a BA (in Cambridge all undergraduates take a BA – even scientists).

Year 3 – Option Year

Option 1 – continue disciplinary study, resulting in the production of a substantive dissertation.

Option 2 – complete a one-year course on one of the disciplines of educations (philosophy, history, sociology or psychology). This would exempt students from one of the Year 4 courses.

Option 3 – complete a one-year course in another field (e.g. physicists might complete first-year maths).

Option 4 – for those studying foreign languages, this is the year abroad

(Updated – 2015) – Option 5  – subject knowledge breadth modules (e.g. chemistry for intending science teachers, historical overview for intending history teachers)

Year 4 – Teacher Education Part I

Paper 1 – Subject Didactics – I am using the German/Scandinavian term because it best encompasses what I mean here. In short, this paper encompasses how your discipline might be taught in the school classroom. Course closely linked to Paper 2 and taught by a combination of university- and school-based staff. This would be taught for eight hours a week when students are not in school.

Paper 2 – Professional Practice – each term the student would complete a four-week placement in a partnership school including some teaching experience from the outset. One hour per week of one-to-one mentoring from a subject specialist who has observed your teaching regularly. In addition, the school would organise internal seminars, which qualified staff would also attend, on whole-school issues. Specific training – such as in use of voice and behaviour management – would be taught in school.

Paper 3 – Disciplines of Education – an introduction to the philosophy, sociology, psychology and history of education. This would be taught for eight hours a week for when students not in schools (i.e. two hours per discipline).

Paper 4 – Option Paper – with choices that might include primary-secondary transition, secondary-university transition, school accountability or outdoor education.

Year 5 – Teacher Education Part II

Paper 1 – Subject Didactics – eight hours a week when not in school

Paper 2 – Professional Practice – each term the student completes a six-week placement in a different partnership school to Year 4. One hour per week of one-to-one mentoring from a subject specialist who has observed your teaching regularly.

Paper 3 – Special Educational Needs – three hours a week when not in school including fifteen days spent working in a special school spread, either as a block placement or spread over the year.

Paper 4 – Educational Research 1 – an introduction to educational research, including different forms of research (randomised controlled trials, case study, practitioner reflection). Main focus on using research findings.

Year 6 – Teacher Education Part III

Paper 1 – Subject Didactics – three week-long workshops scheduled for half-terms

Paper 2 – Professional Practice – 70% teaching timetable throughout the year. One hour mentor meeting every fortnight.

Paper 3 – Educational Research 2 – production of a dissertation based on completion of a piece of research which could be part of a wider study.

Graduate with some letters after your name such as BA (Hons) MTL


So, a few quick questions:

(1) Why the disciplines of education? Hargreaves said years ago that they’re a waste of time.

I disagree and, for me, the proof is on the internet. One has only to glance through many of the blog posts that people write to realise that teachers care enormously about the history, philosophy, sociology and psychology of education. We cannot expect all teachers to be psychologists: we can, however, expect them to know enough about psychology to spot the next ‘Brain Gym’ or alike. Teachers do, I think, need to be ‘informed amateurs’ in those disciplines. Sixty or more hours in one year on each discipline should be enough to give all teachers a sufficient grounding to be professionally discerning.

(2) Why bother getting trainee teachers doing educational research?

Again, look at the current discourse. Calls have been made for decades for teachers to be more involved in educational research, and this has taken many forms. Ben Goldacre’s call for more randomised controlled trials in education needs teachers who can do the basic statistics needed to calculate an effect size. Teachers need to know what forms of research can solve what problems. Most importantly (see above) they need to be able to discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ research, and some grounding in research is needed for that.

(3) You could cut out the option year and save money.

Yes, but this is my imaginary world. I think also that the opportunity to broaden one’s disciplinary grounding is important – many history teachers get asked to teach some geography; biologists teach chemistry; those doing modern languages need a year abroad to reach fluency.

(4) Are you not creating a theory / practice divide here?

Only in the sense that it matters. In some cases you want teachers to be theoretical, in the sense of moving beyond idiosyncrasy and immediacy. Sometimes there is value to be gained from wandering up the stairs into an ivory tower before coming back down again. The main thrust of Years 4-6 is, however, the double-act of subject didactics and professional practice. My own experience in the Cambridge PGCE was that those two things are inseparable. Mentors in school and tutors in university need to be working very closely together.

(5) Where are the modules on assessment / critical thinking / literacy and numeracy? 

I think these are best taught through the lens of the subject. Assessing history is different from assessing maths and both are different from assessing art. Some general issues might arise in, for example, the disciplines of education module in Year 4, and school-based professional practice will certainly focus on these issues from a whole-school perspective. Philosophers and psychologists might touch on ‘critical thinking’ but I would argue that this is always ‘thinking critically about something’ which to me is usually the same as ‘thinking about something’; this is why it is part of subject-specific training. Similarly, one would expect issues about literacy and numeracy to arise in terms of how one’s subject contributes meaningfully to developing these basics, and pupils of secondary age who struggle with them would be addressed in the special educational needs paper in Year 5.

(6) You haven’t mentioned structural issues, such as types of schools or size of university departments?

No, and partly because I think there are several models that could work. An academy chain could, for example, team up with a university. I always find it frustrating when people say that PGCEs are not school-based. On the Cambridge PGCE head-teachers and professional tutors from the partnership schools have an equal say in running the course and subject-specific mentors interview applicants for the course. One needs quite large university departments to have a sufficient number of people to teach the disciplines of education – my preference would be for a small number of large courses, not least because this makes quality assurance an easier task.

(7) What about the length of year?

For Years 1 to 3, this could be standard undergraduate. In Cambridge this is two eight-week terms and one seven-week term. For Years 4 to 6, it should be the school year, so 40 weeks or thereabouts. I would not give student teachers a half-term break as that is an ideal time to work on subject didactics. This could be compensated by giving them an extra week on each of the main holidays. When based in university, I would envisage half of the time spent in seminars, lectures and supervisions, and half spent reading. I have gone with block placements for professional practice here, but these could equally be divided up different, such as having some time spent on a couple of days a week in school followed by shorter full-time placements.

(8) It’s all rather a lot isn’t it?

Yes, and shouldn’t it be? Look at what we expect student doctors to do. But imagine what kinds of meaningful professional discussions we might be having in twenty years’ time…

So, there we have it: my dream system for teacher education. What is interesting, of course, is that none of this is radical. We already have disciplinary training for undergraduates. We already have subject didactics. We already have an extremely high emphasis on professional practice. We already have the disciplines of education on education undergraduate courses. We already have a strong emphasis on teachers-as-researchers in MEd and MTL courses. What we do not have is all of these things brought together in one coherent package. The restrictions we have in terms of time and money leave us asking ‘what can be removed without too big an impact?’ This is clearly the reality from which I have allowed myself a moment of respite; thinking about ideal worlds, however, can help us reflect on what we value and why we value it.

5 Comments on What if?

  1. Philip Crooks // 26 September 2013 at 22:01 // Reply

    One problem those who teach medicine are also still practitioners, still get their hands “dirty”. How many education lectures would ever dream of going back to a classroom?

    • Yep, age-old issue. As someone who has recently moved from school teaching to a university post, I’m having to think about how I ‘keep my hand in’ – this year I’m doing it by running a debating society and teaching a few lessons at my local school. It’s quite difficult to organise, but those I know in same position are all keen to be back in the classroom. What we need is a structural model that allows and rewards university-based staff to teach in schools (the other way works much better – for four years I worked full time in school – well, 0.8 last year – while teaching on some university courses and doing my research). For example, academic staff are under huge pressure to publish research for university research rankings and no head of faculty in their right mind would say ‘sure, don’t worry about that journal paper, go and spend a couple of weeks teaching 8k’. It is possible to fix this, but it requires a bit of a culture shift.

      • Philip Crooks // 27 September 2013 at 02:21 //

        I must admit I had not thought about the publish or perish aspect of modern university life. I was thinking more about the lecturers I had who appeared to be refugees from the classroom. Also those who have not taught for at least ten years or who only taught briefly before running away because they either were no good or didn’t like teaching.
        I do think it vital that those who teach teachers have relevant and up to date experience of schools as they are today.
        By the way a really good post a great way to educate teachers. I do like it.

  2. Brilliant post Michael….I agree 100% with what you write.

    Only thing now is to convince those in charge of the merits of it and get such a system in place!!!

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