Tessa Blair, Doctoral Teaching Fellow, University of Oxford; Strategic Lead, Early Career Framework, East London Teaching School Hub, UK
The role of self-regulation in effective learning is increasingly accepted (Muijs et al., 2014). This article draws on my doctoral research to consider the self-regulation of beginning teachers on employment-based routes (Teach First and School Direct (salaried)). In the challenging context of learning teaching ‘on the job’, I observed as a senior leader ‘professional mentor’ that beginning teachers and mentors rarely considered how they were learning. My close-to-practice study (Wyse et al., 2018) drew on a research-informed framework of the approaches that beginning teachers take to learning, from experience from the Developing Expertise of Beginning Teachers (DEBT) research programme (Burn et al., 2015). Mentors and beginning teachers used the framework to make sense of the ways in which they approached their learning by analysing their mentoring conversations together. Both the mentoring conversations and the ‘mirror meeting’ conversations in which the participating teachers undertook the analysis were recorded and qualitatively analysed. There is little peer-reviewed research examining empirical data from mentoring conversations in employment-based routes in England (Clarke et al., 2014; Hoffman et al., 2015). The limited research that there has been often relies on mentors’ reports of their practice.
This article will consider the findings in relation to intentionality, one of the five dimensions of the framework that I used. Intentionality focuses on how deliberatively the beginning teachers approached learning through experience. Did they plan their learning, setting targets for themselves and considering how they would make progress? Or did they essentially assume that learning would arise from experience and only look back to identify what they had learned? While the participants of this study were beginning teachers, the findings may be relevant to other early career teachers and their mentors.
While the DEBT research had found varying levels of intentionality among student teachers (Hagger et al., 2008), all the participants in this study were highly intentional in their learning overall. Strong intentionality was supported by the initial teacher education (ITE) programme structures, which included regular review points and an expectation that the beginning teachers would set regular targets in their mentor meetings. Catherine, one of the beginning teacher participants, claimed that ‘Teach First makes you intentional even if you’re not.’ The extents to which the mentor structured these conversations and the subsequent learning opportunities varied. Yet, even by the end of the year, when the beginning teachers claimed to be leading their own learning more, the mentor’s influence over the shape of the conversations and opportunities for learning remained profound.
Features of conversations with higher intentionality
Despite the high levels of intentionality overall, there were significant variations across the 24 mentoring conversations that I studied, prompting me to examine the differences more closely with two participants (and four mentoring conversations). I identified five features of the conversations with higher intentionality.
1. Intentional learning is valued and the conversation is seen as an opportunity for planning learning and active retrospection
While work-placed learning isn’t always planned, beginning teachers can demonstrate a deliberative approach in planning learning and actively regulating during and after learning opportunities. In highly intentional conversations, Dave conceives the conversation as being a valuable opportunity for planning learning. In the ‘mirror meeting’, where he analyses the transcript of this mentoring conversation, he makes the link between opportunities to plan and the value of the meeting explicit:
‘Really good meeting… a lot of targets and objectives came out of there… very clear… I think that last conversation definitely felt the most productive and beneficial for me.’ – Dave, Mirror Meeting 4
‘Although the conversations are useful and it does get me to think about it more, I think if there was a specific target that I had to meet in two weeks’ time then it would be more beneficial to my practice.’ – Dave, Mirror Meeting 5
At this point in his career, Dave values conversations that result in explicit targets, but he is less able to self-regulate in recognising the learning opportunities where they are not operationalised as targets. Interestingly, in his NQT year, Dave refers back to the mentoring conversation discussed in Mirror Meeting 5, suggesting that it had influenced his actions. But at the time, and shortly afterwards, he cannot see the benefit and takes no responsibility for identifying his own goals from it.
2. The beginning teacher has an active, agentic role in the conversation
In conversations with high intentionality, beginning teachers play an active, agentic role, with some autonomy. They may initiate the agenda, or make suggestions, suggesting a degree of self-regulation rather than external drivers. They are given space to talk and their voice is heard.
In a highly intentional conversation, Dave set the agenda and led the target setting, whereas in a less intentional conversation, the agenda was negotiated and less clear. The role of Dave’s mentor, Eric, in the former was to elicit information through questioning, rather than instructing or ‘telling’. There was little of what Hobson and Malderez describe as ‘judgementoring’ (2013). In Catherine’s case, her mentor not only asked questions, but she also provided detailed guidance, modelling and positive encouragement. Yet the proportion of the talking done by the mentor was less in the conversation that featured high intentionality. Word counts are a crude way to evaluate a mentor’s contribution – it’s what you do with the words that count – but in the two conversations that featured high levels of intentionality, mentors’ words accounted for 51 per cent or less of those spoken, which is indicative of the voice of the beginning teacher being present.
3. The beginning teacher demonstrates high self-efficacy: they feel that they can achieve the targets (and that this will result in an improvement)
Conversations with high intentionality brimmed with a sense of high self-efficacy. Bandura identified four sources of self-efficacy (cited in Pfitzner-Eden, 2016), all of which were present in the conversations. In terms of what Bandura describes as ‘physiological and affective states’, in Catherine’s least intentional conversation she described feeling ‘quite deflated’, ‘feeling anxious and like it was my fault it hadn’t gone well’ and ‘overwhelmed and like I can’t do it’. In contrast, in a more intentional conversation she built on her own ‘mastery experiences’ and those of her mentor (‘vicarious experiences’). The action was described in low-stakes terms as an ‘experiment’ and her mentor encouraged her to ‘give it a go’, a form of ‘verbal persuasion’. Interestingly, while reviewing negative experiences is seen by Pfitzner-Eden (2016) as contributing to low self-efficacy, the participants were often motivated by these to improve. There may be more opportunity to build on positive mastery experiences to help build self-efficacy. This feature also reminds us that effective mentors create an emotionally safe place to risk learning.
4. The conversation is focused on identifying specific and action-based targets, directly linked to their evidence of their current practice; the impacts on the learners are made explicit
At the end of the data collection, Dave identified the most important learning point for him:
‘concrete next-steps for each learning episode because otherwise – it goes back to acting on it: if you don’t have next steps, it’s easy to forget about them. And then at the next meeting we follow up and discuss how successfully I achieved those goals.’ – Dave, Mirror Meeting 6
What he seems to be describing here is a model of deliberate practice in which performance or ‘acting on it’ is paramount. It’s important to point out here that this deliberate practice is not the form described by Lemov (2015) and others as incremental coaching of repeated, discrete drills, where feedback comes from a coach. Instead, I draw on the model of ‘continuous progressive refinement’ as defined by Bronkhorst et al. (2013, p. 16). Feedback could be ‘any information [such as the students’ responses] that the student teacher meaningfully interprets in relation to their own performance’ (p. 14). This has links to models of clinical practice in teacher education (Kriewaldt et al., 2017).
5. The mentor recognises the judgements required in teaching and encourages the beginning teacher to have confidence in their developing judgements and take risks in their learning, developing preparation for adaptive expertise
In conversations with high intentionality, beginning teachers were not given concrete drills to rehearse; instead, the mentor was encouraging them to develop their own judgement. The beginning teachers were urged to make their own decisions, innovate, take risks and experiment.
The beginning teacher’s sense of agency and self-efficacy was mediated by the culture of learning encouraged by the mentor. Feelings of anxiety about their performance resulted in low self-efficacy and intentionality. But mentors can support beginning teachers’ own judgments as part of a recognition that expert teaching requires judgement. Catherine’s mentor stated:
‘It’s always a load of trade-offs isn’t it. These are not very easy decisions.’
‘Experiment with not circulating.’
The notion of trade-offs and experiments recognises the role of judgement in decision-making, which aims for adaptive expertise (Von Esch and Kavanagh, 2018) in response to specific local and personal situations, rather than merely socialisation into existing cultures or efficient delivery of pre-assembled ingredients.
The study revealed that a focus on planned deliberate practice risks overlooking the importance of a deliberative, but unplanned, approach to learning that recognises the value of learning through workplace activities and a focus on students. Mentors can support beginning teachers to recognise that self-regulation occurs at the planning stage, but also, importantly, in the action and afterwards in the review.
While teachers’ emphasis on student progress and outcomes can be seen in terms of an imposing accountability agenda, it also serves to focus beginning teacher attention on the students whom they teach, rather than their own performance. This is vital in terms of students’ learning opportunities and social justice. However, there is a risk that beginning teachers eschew their own identity as learners and prioritise ‘getting the job done’. This risk may be reduced if experienced teachers act as role models, embracing further development opportunities in a strong culture of professional learning.
The study further reinforced the importance of a broad definition of teacher self-regulation (Endedijk, 2014), which includes recognising how beginning teachers draw on others, particularly their mentors and school departments, as a resource, or what the DEBT authors described as a broad ‘frame of reference’ (Burn et al., 2015).
Suggestions for beginning teachers and those who support them
- Recognise the nature of work-placed teacher learning by supporting the beginning teacher to value both planned and unplanned learning opportunities. Recognise that self-regulation occurs before, during and after learning opportunities.
- Support beginning teachers to set the agenda when planning learning.
- The goals that teachers have will inevitably focus on their learners, rather than their own explicit learning, so they should be encouraged to adopt an enquiry or clinical practice approach, investigating their impact using a range of sources and developing their own judgements and rationale for evaluation.
- We can encourage the self-efficacy and agency of teachers by being aware of the four sources according to Bandura, and perhaps pay more attention to building on strengths –their mastery experiences.
- Most importantly, we need to elicit beginning teachers’ thinking and allow them voice through carefully pitched questions. At the same time, we must try to be explicit about our own tacit and situated understanding.
With thanks to my colleagues for their informal feedback: Hannah Chetcutie, Sian Bradley and Katharine Burn.
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