By Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell
The recent Carter Review has raised a number of questions about teacher training, and one of these is how to ensure that, on a teacher training course, a sufficiently large amount of time is given to developing a trainee teacher’s knowledge. As John Howson’s blog explains, it was Clarke’s review of teacher training in the 1990s that cut back on subject knowledge development and knowledge of child development in order to allow more time in schools. As Howson correctly points out, if the current balance between school practice and university tuition is maintained (currently around 2:1) then how can more knowledge be crammed into an already packed curriculum?
The answer is that we need to break this idea that teaching knowledge is done only in universities.
This is, in practice, how on the Cambridge History PGCE we have managed to cover so much in the time we have available. The role of building knowledge about the subject, about subject pedagogy and about child development is not left solely for the university to do. On our History PGCE, we see this as part of the responsibility of the mentors.
Let’s take some examples.
(1) Subject knowledge development
History mentors frequently set historical scholarship for trainees to read, and discuss this as part of their weekly hour of one-to-one mentoring. The following slide were presented by Rachel Foster last year as part of the bi-annual mentor training day, in which we looked at this precise issue. She was sharing with the other mentors the history she was getting her trainee to read in preparation for teaching a scheme of work on the First World War.
On top of this, since 2006 the Cambridge History PGCE has run the ‘trainee-mentor joint historical scholarship reading programme’ where both mentor and trainee exchange journal articles or book chapters to read, before discussing these in mentor meetings.
(2) Knowledge of subject pedagogy and child development
On the Cambridge History PGCE we expect all of our mentors to have read everything that our trainees will read. If we have a new mentor join the team, it can take a couple of years of training (and a lot of reading!) before a mentor is ready to take on his or her first trainee. During ‘serial’ placements (two days a week in school, two in university and one reading) the trainees are required to discuss with their mentor in school during their mentor meeting what they read for their university sessions. Keen to keep up this reading during the ‘block’ placements, when trainees are in school full time, the Mentor Panel (that is made up of university tutors and experienced mentors) developed ‘fortnightly reading themes’ on different aspects of the history curriculum and history pedagogy. An example of one of these from the handbook is copied below.
You’ll notice from the scan (apologies for the poor quality) that the history mentors are expected to read a variety of things with their trainees, ranging from blog posts, to literature from the field of history education, to works of historical scholarship. These fortnightly reading themes are an entitlement for all trainees and are reviewed regularly by the Mentor Panel, and all mentors at mentor training days.
The ‘child development’ area becomes more complex in secondary school, but as mentors we would be reading subject-specific articles on how children get better at history (we would always have fun critiquing the Project CHATA research tradition) and in the last few years we have included more of an emphasis on cognitive psychology. Last year the mentors voted to have an extract from ‘Make It Stick’ as one of the readings.
The key to all of this is training good mentors and, crucially, this means making sure that knowledge resides in our mentor community. Mentors are not just there to help trainees do the ‘practical’ things in school (managing behaviour, teaching a class, marking work, etc.), but are key individuals in developing a trainee’s knowledge. We could not do what we do at Cambridge without highly knowledgeable mentors who take on a significant part of the teaching workload while the trainees are in school.
By way of example of what we expect of mentors, you might find this document useful. It is a self-evaluation questionnaire that we give to new mentors, helping them work out whether or not they are ready to take on a Cambridge trainee. If a new mentor does not feel ready (and is not put off!) then the rest of the community (both university staff and experienced mentors) take time to help build up a new mentor’s knowledge to the necessary level.
This does not fully answer the problem: time is limited and we squeeze huge amounts of content into a very small period of time. It is unsurprising that so many of our trainees come back to the History MEd, and indeed a large number of our mentors have this qualification. Nevertheless, by building up the capacity of the mentor team, and ensuring that the knowledge we want trainees to have resides in that team, we have partly overcome the problem of having a limited amount of time on the course.