In September 2017, Dom met his first cohort of secondary PGCE students. He was delivering the subject-specific module, Teaching and Learning in Science. James was one of the PGCE trainees on the School Direct route into teaching. This is some of their reflections on the year with a particular focus on the planning of the course, the use of cognitive scienceThe study of the human mind, such as the processes of though... More and how the course content was received and enacted.
Perspectives from a teacher educator
As a new teacher educator, I was guided towards the Carter Review of 2015, which highlighted the need for Initial Teacher TrainingAbbreviated to ITT, the period of academic study and time in... More (ITTInitial teacher training - the period of academic study and ... More) to develop ‘evidence-based teaching’ and support trainee teachers to become ‘intelligent consumers of research’ (Carter, 2015). This echoed my own personal development as I engaged with research at school, although I think ‘evidence-informed’ is a more realistic approach than evidence-based.
The Learning and Teaching in Science module was based on the premise that ‘if you want to understand teaching, you need to understand how children learn’ ((Nuthall, 2007), p.154). Recognising that pedagogical knowledge might be harder to acquire than subject knowledge is an important step for trainees, as is recognising the complexities of each different classroom and the learners within it. As Marzano ((Marzano, 2007), p.4) writes:
No further research will provide an airtight model of instruction. There are simply too many variations in the situations, types of content, and types of students encountered…
Understanding that there is no single right way to teach at all times, in all contexts, is an important message to communicate to trainees. Nevertheless, certain principles can be taught explicitly that can give trainees a sound grounding in the learning process. You have to start with what students in the classroom know already (see (Ausubel, 1968), (Nuthall, 2007), p.80 and (Brown et al., 2014), p.5).
This can then be extended using the principles of learning outlined below by the Deans of Impact in their 2015 article, ‘The Science of Learning’ (Deans for Impact, 2015). How do students understand new ideas?
- How do students learn and retain new information?
- How do students solve problems?
- How does learning transferThe processes of applying learning to new situations More to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
- What motivates students to learn?
- What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?
I discovered the Deans for Impact when I was working as a Head of Science. I was immediately impressed with this American organisation’s use of evidence and how the paper made explicit reference to how students in the classroom learn, which enabled me to plan lessons that were more sympathetic to how students learn.
A key strength of these recommendations by the Deans of Impact, supported by Rosenshine’s work (Rosenshine, 2012), is that they provide concrete examples of how trainee teachers can get started in the classroom. If these principles are respected, it is possible to construct lessons in all subject areas that can take into account the enormous variations between subject areas but still lead to a persistent change in long-term memory.
Once trainee teachers understand these principles then teaching is more likely to become exciting and creative. It is at this point that the trainees should be developing ‘activities that the learner engages in during learning intended to improve learning’ (Fiorella and Mayer, 2014).
Perspectives from a trainee teacher
The initial impact of teaching in a classroom was cognitive overload, which arose as I tried to address and react to a multitude of unfamiliar stimuli, both subjective and objective in nature. Initial priorities necessarily centred around simple aspects of communication, such as appropriate voice projection, assertion of reasonable confidence and authority, behaviour management and logistical management of activities.
These aspects remained high priorities throughout the whole of initial teacher training course. But once I became more acquainted with the core processes involved in teaching a class, my ability effectively to deploy and incorporate learning strategies in my practice began to emerge. I felt it was important to be equipped with appropriate learning theories and pedagogical tools by this stage. However, I found the transition towards the use of these tools tended to be more continuous than discrete – as the more basic aspects became automatic I was able to give more thought to structuring lessons in an effective way.
The needs of the trainee teacher are complex and, as James points out, there is a delicate balance in managing the different variables within the classroom.After 20 years of teaching, that challenge does not go away but does get easier. Thankfully within school the trainee also has a teacher mentor who teaches the same subject specialism. During weekly meetings and lesson observations they identify and discuss the needs of the trainee to support their development against the Teachers’ Standards (DfEDepartment for Education - a ministerial department responsi... More, 2013). A teacher mentor who uses resources like Impactto reinforce an evidence-informed approach to teaching is worth their weight in gold.
Initial teacher training is a challenging year. The course can be like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with the added complication that each trainee is making a slightly different picture. As James and the other trainees developed their identities it was fascinating because they are often putting similar pieces into the jigsaw at different times. But if the edges are all the same then it is quite exciting to see how the picture develops over the year. It is even more interesting to consider whether the picture would be the same in another 12 months? But using a set of principles to construct lessons that are favourable towards the learning process should be an integral part of a PGCE year.