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Teachers – training? education? learning?

When I lived in the countryside many years ago, I felt the need for dogs, so I acquired a German Shepherd pup and a Border Collie.  Like almost everyone else at the time, I had watched the TV show ‘Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way’ and thought I had better take the dogs to obedience training classes. These were based on behaviourism, the sort of thing promulgated by people like the B. F. Skinner. Through the systematic use of rewards and punishment, the dog becomes obedient.

Education or training?


Around that time, I was a schoolteacher and, in 1986, was seconded to the university to teach on the Post Graduate Certificate of Education course which led to a qualification to teach.  The university had roped me in because of pressure from the government for teacher educators to have ‘recent and relevant experience’ in schools and classrooms. I felt privileged to play such an important role in preparing young people for entry into the teaching profession. It wasn’t long before I became drawn into the debate about the terminology; was it teacher education or was it teacher training? Government ministers seemed to prefer the term Initial Teacher Training, but most of my fellow PGCE tutors were more comfortable with the term Initial Teacher Education. We were not interested in training teachers the Woodhouse way.


This difference of usage continues still. ‘Training’ remains the preferred term in government documents, and it continues to feature in reports from OECD and UNESCO. Alongside that, the term ‘teacher education’ is still used in many academic and professional contexts. For example: The Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) or the European Journal of Teacher Education (EJTE). Sometimes, the terms teacher education and teacher training are used interchangeably implying that there is no difference between them.  Perhaps this is one of those angels-on-a-pin-head questions, but I think we need to examine the language we use to think about how teachers can improve their capacity – their knowledge, understanding, skills and values. So, why do I care about this particular lexical issue? I care because the choice of terminology may tell us something about the nature of the experience for any teacher participating in a particular programme.

The problem with ‘training’


The term ‘training’ is ubiquitous and glosses over so much.  Typically, a report will simply highlight the need for more or better training, for example the ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ included this statement: “All teachers need to receive training to enable them to meet the learning needs of all children” (UNESCO, 2014: 51). The problem is that this tells us nothing about the kind of framework of support that ought to be provided; nor about the kind of professional learning that might result. Instead, it commodifies, as if training is a taken-for-granted thing that we all understand. Actually, we need to problematise it and design programmes with care.


For me the word ‘training’ has behaviourist connotations which are antithetical to the notion of extended professionality which I have argued for. It reminds me of the dog obedience classes. I realise that some providers will protest; they will say: ‘No, that’s not the kind of training we do.’  However, the feedback I get from teachers is that the kind of training that they experience most often is where the provider is external to the teachers’ school and constructed as an expert in whatever the content is. This content, along with the expected learning outcomes, has been specified by the provider or the organisation to which they belong. This is likely to lead to the use of an instructional style of what they irritatingly call ‘delivery’. Protesting providers will claim that they are empowering participants, or should I say ‘trainees’, because they use active learning strategies, but this is bogus. It is a common error to assume that if the learner is active – moving about, playing a game, etc – that they are somehow self-directed. 

A typical activity used in active learning scenarios is the one where everyone is asked to build a tower out of drinking straws. The hapless learner has to engage in this silliness without any rationale. When it’s over, we get to see who has built the tallest tower and the trainer might ask us to reflect on why. The trainer remains in control. I dare say we have all experienced even more embarrassing activities, perhaps ones in which we have been asked to use our bodies to make a human sculpture to represent an idea. Let me hasten to add that I am not suggesting that active learning methods are to be avoided but if they are used, it is crucial to clarify the aims of the activity, secure agreement from participants – do they agree that it is pertinent, relevant and legitimate? - and handle the debrief skillfully. The debrief is where everyone is able to reflect on what they have learnt; it isn’t just an opportunity for the trainer to tell them what the activity signifies.


The problem with ‘education’


If a programme is billed as education, I might reasonably expect, as a participant, to engage in what might be called ‘applied scholarship’ in which I would be enabled to think deeply about a wide range of issues underpinning the practice of teaching. I would expect new information and practical experiences that make me think and help me work out how I might behave in my practice, whether this be in the classroom or a leadership scenario. I would also expect opportunities for reflection and dialogue through which I come to consider the values and principles underpinning my professional identity and test out my thinking with peers and those with more experience and expertise.  

As with the characterisation of training sketched above, it is vital that sessions are designed with sensitivity to the needs and expectations of the participants, or should I say ‘students’?  A teacher is an adult with a fully formed package of professional knowledge and practical wisdom. A skilled seminar leader will be able to work with that rather than ignore it. As a professional you don’t want to be subject to a pedagogical assault by Professor Muggins from the Lecturing and Hectoring Department at the University of Superior Minds. Then of course there is the old chestnut, the theory and practice divide; is it really an epistemological chasm, as Sarah Gravett put it? She cites my late colleague, Donald McIntyre’s ideas about ‘practical theorising’ in arguing against the unhelpful binary.


This educative approach to teachers’ professional development requires a facilitative approach.  Facilitation aims to empower and enable; it is respectful in tone and it relies on the use of tools to scaffold reflection, discussion and deliberation, as I have written about often and most recently in a contribution to a leadership handbook.


Above all else, I would expect the programme providers to work with, and strengthen, my agency and protect my wellbeing. Why does this matter?  Well, we have all come across those who say that they went through mud and bullets at the start of their careers and it was character forming. The problem with this sort of Darwinistic thinking is that so many good people drop out - what a waste, as Ian Dury use to sing; but even worse, it shapes teachers’ professional identities in very negative ways.  It can lead them to adopt pedagogical values which undermine students’ agency and wellbeing. It can also make for lousy leadership practice.

Teachers’ professional development, agency and wellbeing


Paying attention to teacher’s agency and wellbeing isn’t just about making them feel better – although there is nothing wrong with that; no, it is about self-efficacy, a concept that has been with us for quite some time, at least since 1977 when the eminent US psychologist Albert Bandura presented it in an article: Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. The basic idea is that your ability to achieve something depends on your belief that you can do that sort of thing and that you have confidence in your ability to take the next steps. The idea has been applied to the teaching profession over the past thirty years or so and the literature is now considerable (Gordon et al., 2022; Hussain & Khan, 2022). The evidence of the link between teachers’ self-efficacy and students’ performance is stacking up.

For me the link between agency, wellbeing and self-efficacy are key to enabling teachers to continue to learn, so language does matter. In some contexts, the term ‘teacher preparation’ is used instead of initial teaching training which seems more sensitive to me.  With regard to qualified and practising teachers, we often see the use of the term ‘professional development’. My preference would be for the term ‘professional learning’; this foregrounds the concept of learning which, in the teaching profession, we should all be fully committed to. It also opens up the possibility that teachers can learn through their everyday interactions within the school as an organisation.  If programmes to enable and support professional learning are provided, whether within the school or by external agents, I would want to ask what kind of organised experience would enhance teachers’ professional learning?

Looking on the bright side, I detect a shift in the discourse. One encouraging sign is the OECD’s Teachers' Professional Learning (TPL) study launched in 2019 and the other is a recent call from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) / Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) for proposals for research on teacher professional development, agency and wellbeing. Perhaps there is scope for optimism.

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What a brilliant sentence! ' As a professional you don’t want to be subject to a pedagogical assault by Professor Muggins from the Lecturing and Hectoring Department at the University of Superior Minds.'

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