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The Core Content Framework and the fallacy of a teacher training ‘curriculum’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 September 2021

Clare Brooks.

One of the controversies to arise from the discussions about the government’s ITT market review is the role and place of a government mandated curriculum for initial teacher education.

In 2019 the government introduced its ITT Core Content Framework (CCF). This was promoted as a minimum entitlement for trainees, and as representing the best evidence for what teacher training programmes should contain (The claim that the CCF is based on the “best evidence” is highly contestable). The Ofsted ITE Inspection Framework emphasises fidelity to the CCF and the Market Review recommendations would reinforce this as the central point of teacher education programmes. This highlights the question of the value and efficacy of a mandated curriculum for teacher
education, at least one in the form of the CCF.

What a new teacher needs to know
Teachers require a combination of practical knowledge, sometimes referred to as skills, and conceptual or research-based knowledge, for example about how children learn. There is much debate about how and why these two knowledges work together and the best way for new teachers to be inducted into them.

This is sometimes referred to as a ‘theory and practice divide’, reflecting common perceptions of each element, with theory seen as abstract and disconnected, and practice as tacit, behavioural and observable. We see, for example, a scientist as living in the theoretical realm, the sports person or musician operating in the practical realm.

In reality, of course, in most occupations, theory and practice mesh together – but since the practice dimension is the most observable part it is the easiest place to spot where amendment, adaptation or improvement are needed. It is also the one that is used to distinguish between new or novice practitioners and those who are more experienced.  Teaching is often seen as highly practice-based, with the theoretical part of a teacher’s knowledge relatively hidden. When teachers do refer to their theoretical knowledge, concerns are often raised as to its validity and evidential base, and when knowledge stems from conceptual argument it is often criticised as ideological.

Repertoire and reservoir
A different way of thinking about the relationship between theory and practice is to use Bernstein’s terms, repertoire and reservoir.

A new teacher requires a repertoire of strategies, techniques and behaviours to enable them to operate effectively. This repertoire might reach from the (important but) mundane (e.g. how to get students to enter a room in an orderly manner) through to the complex (e.g. the setting up and execution of an assessed performance). All teachers need a repertoire from which they draw their teaching practice.

However, repertoires alone are not sufficient. At times, old tricks stop working, classes change and circumstances demand a new approach. It is here that teachers need their reservoir: a pool of ideas and knowledge that helps them to understand and engage with what is going on in their practice. Their reservoir might help them to understand why one of their students has started behaving or engaging with their work differently; why a favourite strategy no longer seems to have the impact it had; how to support the learning of an area which appears to be blocked for some students. The reservoir is the knowledge, understanding and expertise of the teacher that informs their choices.  And it is not generated by experience alone, but also from what they understand of theory and research.

Notably, this distinction is not the same as the “Learn how to”, and “Learn that” statements in the Core Content Framework. Both the terms repertoire and reservoir have an implicit element of choice: the use of judgement by the teacher. “Learn how to” and “Learn that” do not. One must select from a repertoire and draw upon a reservoir – as and when needed. It is the process of developing an adequate and sizeable repertoire and reservoir, and knowing when and how to draw upon it that marks out the new professional from the unthinking technician.

This is also reflected in the lack of distinction between the CCF and the Early Career Framework curriculum for new teachers’ ongoing professional development (the content of the “Learn that” column and reference list is identical). This suggests that from the point of view of these two frameworks there is no development expected in what teachers should know between the pre-qualification year and the years that succeed it. Using the repertoire and reservoir distinction we can easily suggest that a teacher in their post-qualification years would broaden their repertoire, and deepen their reservoir, particularly as they encounter new classroom situations and engage with wider networks of colleagues. Part of this distinction is the development of situated judgement.

So how do notions of repertoire and reservoir translate into a curriculum?

To construct a teacher education programme that enables new teachers to develop both a repertoire and reservoir is a complex undertaking requiring consideration of the specific type of experience (both practical and theoretical) that they will encounter. This is why many ITE programmes, whilst having similar components (mentoring, practical sessions, workshops, etc) are not the same: they are designed around the specific experiences the new teachers encounter. Taking into account the specificity of these individual contexts, as well as the individual’s journey towards making those situated judgements, is why high-quality teacher education programmes take local context and individual progression routes so seriously. It is also why a prescriptively sequenced, one-size-fits all curriculum which focusses entirely on the layout of the CCF will not, and cannot, be high-quality.

Of course, if the CCF is not the answer to the provision of a high-quality teacher education framework then it is important to consider what could be. New research into high quality teacher education programmes in five different countries suggests that the answer is not just dependent on the curriculum of teacher education programmes, but in the infrastructure that surrounds teacher education: and in particular, the ways in which Teacher Standards are owned by the profession, and are considered a shared responsibility.

The literature on curriculum making shows us that such a curriculum is anyway a pipe dream, however tightly it is prescribed and inspected. As Mark Priestley demonstrates, curriculum policy is distinct and quite different to curriculum practice, and we need to differentiate between the macro level (“development of curriculum policy frameworks; legislation to establish agencies and infrastructure”) and the nano level of the individual classroom.

In the case of the CCF, the risk is that curriculum policy will lead provision in the wrong direction and away from what is needed for new teachers to develop their repertoire and reservoir.

The Ofsted inspection framework for ITE and the Market Review proposals – and the ITE system – would be greatly strengthened if this was more readily acknowledged.



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