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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Expertise in being a generalist is not what student teachers need

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 December 2021

Caroline Daly.

The Government response to the initial teacher training (ITT) market review report is deepening the muddle about what is meant by ‘expertise’ in teaching and initial teacher education (ITE). The new requirements to become a provider of ITE are based on a distorted view of subject specialist expertise as something to be added to an extensive generalist preparation for teaching. It is for this reason that subject specialists in ITE need to be heard and taken seriously, while the sector digests the new guidance to become accredited providers of ITE programmes.

Our new IOE Blog series will provide insights by subject specialists in ITE, highlighting the specific expertise required to develop excellent teachers across disciplines and phases.

The ITT Core Content Framework (CCF) places the development of generic knowledge and practice of teaching at the heart of ITE and is the centrepiece of the new requirements. Yet it is a fundamental flaw to suggest that teaching is first and foremost a generalist practice. Instead, there is a need to scrutinise what it takes to make a great teacher of mathematics, say, or history (or several subjects in the Primary phase), and to look at the consequences of increasing the investment in generalist teacher preparation.

The accreditation requirements ask for subject teaching elements to be added to the new ITE curriculum designs for submission to the DfE by institutions wishing to continue (or begin) offering teacher education. In reality, the extensive Framework demands leave much reduced space for the meaningful, in-depth development of subject teaching expertise in which so many outstanding providers are accomplished.

It is disingenuous for the DfE to advise that providers must first design provision around compliance with the CCF and then ‘move beyond’ it and ‘design a curriculum appropriate for the particular subjects, phases and age ranges that their trainees will teach’ (p. 16). The point is that expert teacher education is grounded in learning to teach a particular subject or phase, with all its forms of specialist knowledge and methodologies that inform new teachers’ practice.

Think of learning to teach science, music, PE, drama, modern languages – each of which has its own specialist relationship between a subject and the ways in which it can be learned by pupils at different ages, informing relationship-building, class management, teaching approaches, concepts of attainment, curriculum design and so on. This is not something to be ‘added’ to a core teacher training curriculum – it is the essence of learning how to teach something worthwhile. It is rooted in subjects. Expert teacher educators are creative and adaptable professionals. They have the capacity to produce complex curriculum maps for the accreditation panel, by pouring a quart into a pint pot if that is what it takes. This avoids, however, what is really at stake: while providers may meet the demands, the risk is that generalism becomes the dominant indicator of effective teacher education in the English system.

Why does this matter? As a researcher, examiner and advisor, I have the privilege of watching many lessons taught by new English teachers, where the teaching of writing is clearly based on expert initial teacher preparation. They know how to nurture genuine writer ‘voice’. They can combine teaching the technical features of writing with developing powerful ideas in young writers, frequently drawing in highly creative ways on stimulating reading material. This relies upon the teacher’s deep understanding of the relationship between thought and language, the role of talk and reading in producing writing and the integration of technical knowledge with meaningful drafting habits.

I also see too many lessons where it is the norm for new English teachers to use formulaic templates to teach writing, using generic teaching skills that can be employed by a competent supply teacher or non-specialist, resulting in thirty set pieces that all look the same and generating pupil disengagement. We have to talk about specialism. All English teachers deserve to develop the specialist knowledge and skills that expose learners to the delightful complexities of learning to write well. Both pupils and teachers can now ‘cover the curriculum’ through applying generic skills to the ‘delivery’ of template lessons. This is not English teaching, however. It is the opposite of expertise.

The crisis in retaining teachers makes it dangerously persuasive to prioritise the building of generalist competence over expertise. The way in which the Market Review has positioned the CCF increases this risk, by making subject specialism the secondary consideration in planning ITE provision. This should not be the basis for expectations of what ITE can do.

The DfE requirements give the nod to developing subject specialism, but this needs to happen at the core of ITE design – not by a conjuring exercise to fit it in.



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