How to choose a good teacher training course
If you are someone who is thinking about applying for teacher training this year, then this blog post is for you! Similarly, if you know someone thinking about going into teaching, then feel free to pass this post on. Over the last nine years I have had the pleasure of experiencing a wide variety of teacher training provision both as a trainee, a mentor, a university-based tutor and, now, as a senior manager working in a school with Schools Direct and Teach First students. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly and I have written a fair amount about it on this blog already (see my Trainees page and Developing Teachers category). This post is designed to use some of those experiences to help future applicants.
The key message is that the precise route you take is less important than the experience you get on that route. A university-led PGCE is not in and of itself any better or worse than Schools Direct (salaried or unsalaried) or Teach First. In practice, nearly all routes include input from a variety of institutions, including schools and universities. This means that you have to probe more deeply in making your choices, which involves asking some quite specific questions of providers. I would suggest that the three most important things to ask about are (1) your mentor, (2) subject-specificity in your training and (3) behaviour management.
The most important person in your training is your mentor. Here are some questions to ask a future provider.
- Who will my mentor be?
- What teaching experience will my mentor have?
- What mentoring experience will my mentor have?
- What subject-specific training has my mentor received?
- What can I assume my mentor has read?
- How much contact time will I have with my mentor?
- How much input have mentors had in designing this programme?
(2) Subject-specificity in your training
Secondary teacher training needs to be as subject-specific as possible. The following questions will help you find the diamonds in the rough.
- What programme is in place to help me develop my subject knowledge?
- What will I be expected to read to develop my subject knowledge?
- What will I learn about curriculum and assessment construction in my subject? (make sure this is subject-specific and not generic)
- What will I read that has been written by other teachers of my subject?
- How will you introduce me to my wider subject community?
(3) Support for behaviour management
This is famously poor in many providers, though there are several who do this very well indeed. Start by asking the following.
- How will I be coached in managing a classroom?
- In what precise ways will I be supported when I encounter challenging behaviour?
- What is the whole-school behaviour system and how do you know it is applied consistently in my placement school?
- If my school is not supporting me in managing behaviour, who can I go to?
The answers you get to these questions will help you decide very quickly what kind of quality your provider will be able to give you. Do not let those answering the questions off the hook with vague or generic answers. If someone says “we work with a wide range of schools…” then what they are saying is they cannot guarantee what your experience is going to be like. If they speak in vague or generic terms about “we’ll give you support” or “our mentors are experience” then push for detail. Ask for examples. Drill down.
The current range of routes into teaching is currently quite confusing. This set of questions will help you find the right one for you.
The first question, ‘Who will my mentor be?’, would perhaps be the most problematic for university ITT providers. Although my PGCE prepared me well both in behaviour management and in subject-specific training, experiences of myself and fellow course mates with mentors was more mixed. The reason? Logistics. There is more demand than supply. I read with admiration your post how nurturing a mentoring community but this was not my experience. My own course appeared to struggle with finding necessary placements – some schools drop out as a result of staffing changes, workload, taking on of SD students and so on – a strong mentoring team was not the primary concern. Even within one placement I was ‘passed around’ three mentors. With such a lack in continuity it’s becomes difficult for them to become familiar with the structure of the course when just anyway takes up the role as required by circumstance. This meant that the next few questions about mentors become almost impossible for PGCE courses. I was bringing up basic, seminal readings from TH that my mentors had never seen before.
This is depressing to read, Chris. If mentors haven’t read ‘basic, seminal readings’ and don’t know what you are talking about as a trainee, then that is shocking. That must have been immensely frustrating for you as a trainee. Training cannot proceed on that basis. This issue was written about 25 years ago (trainees having to ‘translate’ across two settings) and it is tragic that despite all that was written about it, all that time ago, the problem is still occurring.
I don’t accept, however, that the provider and the schools together can’t be held to account for this. It is very, very difficult, it is true, in some settings, finding good placements, or finding placements at all, but there are always ways to make sure that the subject mentors are ready to mentor that subject. I spent my first ten years doing this at Cambridge; It isn’t easy – very often it feels impossible and it often feels like one step forward two steps backwards, …but it can and must be done, and it gets easier when you get started because a community grows and builds – a mentoring, researching, talking subject-passionate mentoring community that reads and writes, and, above all knows the course inside out (yes, the university parts of it) because they collaboratively write it. A group of subject mentors who own the course, its content, its standards. That, I would say, is the job of the university/central provider subject leader – to build such a community of expert subject trainers, and to inspire them to fight for their course and, through it, their wider subject community.
If there were really a premium on this, i.e. if providers/partnerships *knew* that prospective trainees would not touch their courses if they were going to be mentored by a mentor who did not know the basic literature that had shaped subject-teacher debates in the last 20 years, did not know key research texts, did not know (for example) how the NC for history had changed over the last 20 years and why, and why it matters, or did not regularly read historical scholarship as well as history education scholarship, then providers/partnerships would jump. Such a market would, in effect, fix it.
This is why Michael’s post is so important. Quite apart from the poor deal trainees get if one hand isn’t in touch with the other (i.e. university/central provider session content that the mentor doesn’t know about and isn’t building on or preparing for), it is inefficient. It is inefficient to be training trainees to re-invent round wheels and square ones. Yet this is what is happening all over the country. e.g. History teachers working out from scratch how to teach essay-writing, or drawing on a couple of recent, random bits of advice or research only, or some latest fad, when, in history, we have a 25-year-narrative of sophisticated debate on this, of trial and error, of teacher-led, teacher-debated reflection, enquiry and research, often interacting with more generic work on literacy, but usually focusing specifically on the nature of historical analysis and argument and how to teach it in the interests of rigorous history. Such a narrative of published professional experience doesn’t provide easy answers. Teachers still need to think, enquire, explore, judge. But it does give a narrative of where the profession has been and it should be basic for new teachers – read, explored, used, critiqued by mentor and trainee in tandem.
Or how can we call it teacher training? We all stand within traditions, and the knowledge of that tradition, for a new professional, is basic, especially if that tradition is to be strengthened, renewed or challenged.
I think its the need for universities to be in touch with school-based mentors and vice-versa that is so key – something you have spoken of before in relation to the success of Cambridge’s PGCE. It did frustrate me when being asked ‘What have you done at uni around x?’, ‘What has uni told you to do about y?’ It annoyed me in observation feedback from school-based colleagues (university-tutor feedback was much more productive) that the actual enquiry questions I was constructing, or the sequencing and structure of the knowledge within the lesson and across its series, were not once questioned. Instead calls were made along the lines of ‘let’s try out some group work’, or… ‘make it more engaging with x gimmick ‘, or… basically anything that related to Bloom’s. “Why!? To what end!?” I cried. To quote your mantra, the pedagogic ‘how’ was very much the focus with the disciplinary ‘what’ nowhere in sight. My complaints, I appreciate, are not unique.
Changing this through trainees’ expectations is an interesting thought. I wonder how this could be achieved. How much can we expect a trainee to know about this discourse before they embark on their training? To evaluate a provider’s responses to the questions Michael poses requires some understanding. Thinking back to when I went through this process, boy was I clueless. I obviously had some good thoughts that resonated with my tutor who interviewed me, but the importance of the disciplinary structure of history was not then at the forefront of my mind. It was only through teaching, discussions with my tutor, my own research, that I was quite quickly turned on to this way of thinking and became more aware. Consequently these were exactly the type of questions I was able to ask when searching for an NQT position. When applying for a place on a PGCE course though, my understanding was rooted in the generic. I recall talking about the reasons for studying history, the importance of enquiry, ways of engaging pupils and overcoming some of the difficulties pupils might face in their study of history. This was, however, all very vague compounded by my hitherto experience in schools which had disposed my understanding of school history towards Blooms, group work governed by De Bono’s Thinking Hats, traffic light cards. Heck, I believed in a ‘skills-based subject’. Whilst to those familiar with these debates these distinctions are more clear, I fear for prospective trainees that they are not and would struggle to separate strong answers from weaker ones.
Michael’s questions are a great start. Should we be arguing about their importance specifically for the trainee audience? It would be interesting to hear others experiences as well as yours at Cambridge. I know you have rigorous entrance requirements… how much would you expect prospective trainees to know around these issues? How often have you been asked the questions Michael poses?
Really interesting questions Chris, and in answer to the last two, not much and not very often. We do provide a huge amount of detail on our PGCE history recruitment webpages though. Of course, that’s marketing blurb, and they are bound to read it as such, but it does mean that they arrive with some slightly better, more-history-specific, course-specific questions. It actually means they can hold us to account in a more informed way, allowing them to ask, ‘So how do you actually do that?’ a question which one of the mentors will often field. When they come for the selection day, we (me or my colleague + 5 history mentors from various schools) begin it by spending an hour talking about the history-specific character of the course, and how the mentor-trainee weekly interactions will work. But you’re right: we drive it but giving them info up front to set the questioning process going.
But perhaps therein lies the answer. Yes most prospective trainees would struggle to separate strong from weak answers, but they wouldn’t with a bit of help (provided, at least, they are strong history graduates with a passion to teach history, that is). Both those who have experience of rigorous, subject-specific and well-integrated PGCEs (whether trained in them or being mentors for them) and those who have had poor experiences and have analysed the deficit that mattered, can work together to give prospective trainees a really good set of questions and an indication of the sorts of things they might want to probe on. This is what is motivating Michael to share this stuff and get the ball rolling.
But I agree that working through prospective trainee expectations probably wouldn’t ever be enough. We need to think harder about how and why the forces that push the empty genericism you describe (yes, the distracting nonsense of Blooms, Thinking Hats, traffic lights, group work as some sort of self-evident ‘good’ etc) keep renewing themselves. I can’t see how things are going to change in ITT until there is a fundamental cultural shift in school senior leadership where what is valued at every level is the generation and mobilisation of subject knowledge, knowledge of subject pedagogy and curriculum knowledge. I see the root cause as deficit in that realm – that there is rarely premium on *curriculum* leadership in schools, as in ‘What sort of knowledge are students gaining in history? How does it differ from geography/science in its disciplinary structures, patterns and curricular stages? What does it mean to pace and stage knowledge in history? What is ‘indirect manifestation’ of earlier knowledge and tacit knowledge and how might these shape an enquiry or an assessment structure? How does the relationship between generalisation and particular instantiation in history differ from / run parallel to that in science? What balance or integration of substantive and disciplinary knowledge is appropriate in history, and in different Year groups?
Because there is a vacuum where these ‘what?’ questions are concerned, the ‘how?’ seems to move in to replace it. If the whole school culture veers toward treating the ‘what?’ as already given, quite straightforward, not in need of problematising or active renewal (at any level – whether curricular theorising about distinctiveness and commonality across subjects, about the nature of knowledge boundaries, or the history department deciding what chunks, layers or types of knowledge to blend and sequence), then teacher education, whether the trainee is SD, TF, PGCE or whatever, is going to be profoundly influenced by that culture. At best, really strong subject mentors, well-trained (or self-trained by reading), can fight it, ignore it or neutralise it, but that isn’t very healthy to be constantly at odds with one’s school, it’s wasteful of time/resource/energy, and it’s not sustainable. I know many mentors, and other heads of history, totally exhausted by trying to explain to SMT (for example) that a causal explanation in history is an argument, a very particular kind of argument, and nothing whatsoever to do with the generic ‘explain’ in Blooms and therefore they will have no truck with using ‘explain’ as some kind of stage in a lesson, let alone as a progression model!! These subject specialists shouldn’t feel as though they’re constantly having to ‘manage upwards’ in this way. Heaven help the trainee who has to ‘manage upwards’ where it is the mentor or head of history who has never read anything on causal explanation and is as muddled as the non-specialist manager.
Sorry – more problems than solutions, but to end on a more positive note, I am encouraged by some schools becoming a little more interested in questions of knowledge and disciplinarity (especially those genuinely interested in both) and by bold theorists (such as Michael Young) shifting debates towards the ‘What?’, putting knowledge centre stage and linking it to questions of social justice.
Let’s keep working on it.
Thank you Christine, some interesting thoughts as ever and has made me think more about how I discuss history teaching with those wanting to enter the profession. Michael ‘s post is certainly a resource I’ll be directing people towards.
I could not agree more with your points about the wider culture shift needed. To continue you’re positive note, this is working on some level. I am testament to that. Last Summer as I was preparing for my PGCE I stumbled across this blog and onto the post that shared the Cambridge reading pack and I began to work my way through it. I gained a strong grounding in what it means to teach history through that and the kinds of questions I should be asking. Through the rest of my PGCE, I was able to engage well with more specific lines of enquiry, helped massively by my university tutor and continued readings of Teaching History. So the work you, the Cambridge mentor team, and Michael has done through his superb site is having that impact.
An embarrassing “you’re” mistake slipped through there. Please forgive me.
That is immensely encouraging Chris. Thanks very much for the feedback. And, yes, hats off to Michael. The wider situation is indeed dire (I’ve just read David’s comment above; and yes, it all rings true) but the way through is subject-passionate, subject-knowledgeable teachers building communities that study their own traditions and work out how to bring novices into the conversations of those traditions. When we have school and para-school structural and systemic patterns that harness, liberate and reward that culture, rather than working against it, there will be more hope. The pockets of activity that show this working are exciting. Not just Cambridge – e.g. Bristol Uni, too, i.e. Kate Hawkey, Paula Worth, Rich Kennett and co are cultivating a terrific community of really active history-passionate mentors who are starting to develop a shared reading programme and write thought-provoking stuff for TH.
I agree and sympathise with the comments above. Whilst this is an admirable approach to encourage, and could represent a powerful mechanism for potential applicants for training courses, I’m not sure many would be either confident enough to raise these questions or knowledgeable enough to make informed judgments on the basis of the responses.
But of course it’s important for applicants to find out as much as they can about the quality of training before they make a commitment. Could some of this come from scrutinising Ofsted inspections of ITT providers, which often comment on the quality of school placements and mentoring? Alternatively, could you provide (perhaps in a follow-up blog) some specific examples of ‘good’ and ‘concerning’ responses to these questions.
There remains, however, the problem of how far HEI providers in particular can control the nature of in-school experience – which might mean anything from the quality of training provided by mentors, the experience of those mentors and how (or even, if) mentors are matched to trainees. It sounds like Cambridge has a really well-developed partnership model (as do other providers, e.g. Oxford) but in many cases the accountability structures of ITT partnership models – where HEI partners are responsible for the quality of training whilst schools are not explicitly required to engage in ITT – lead to underlying tensions and subtle power issues between HEI tutors and school-based mentors. This was particularly apparent when I was working in this area a few years ago, where *not even* Teach First managed to crack the problem of inconsistency in their school-based mentoring provision.
That said, I haven’t been closely involved in this area recently and it may be that the rise of School Direct and Teaching Schools has changed the landscape of school-based ITT entirely and we are seeing more mentors with the level of knowledge and confidence in PCK that Christine outlines. But recent recruitment patterns don’t fill me with confidence. I have a suspicion that many HEI providers – perhaps without the pedigree of Oxford & Cambridge – are encountering something of an existential crisis in the face of arbitrarily reduced PGCE allocations and the shift of funding to SD and schools.
The wider picture is certainly as challenging, and often as dire, as you relate David. Some examples of ‘good’ and ‘concerning’ responses to Michael’s questions would certainly help prospective trainees, for sure. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend looking at the Ofsted ITT reports if they really want to find out answers at the level Michael is exemplifying. They will not show anything of depth at the subject level, nor go into the important issues of the nature of the knowledge taught, let alone the extent to which trainees are inducted into the traditions of a subject community or the knowledge-base of the mentors. They are superficial on the ‘what?’ questions and, to a large extent, on the ‘how?’ of mentoring. I say that as a member of a provider that secured straight ‘1’s in everything and no action points and glowing praise, so this isn’t sour grapes. Our inspectors did a good, professional job within the framework they enacted, but these reports tell future trainees very little which would allow them to discriminate between providers – and could even profoundly mislead – on the subject-specific areas Michael is trying to open up.
I might recommend that the prospective trainee looks at the Carter Review report. In my view, their team did manage to drill down into some of the things that really matter. It could furnish some good questions for first-time enquirers?
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.