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Does the Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research exemplify what is wrong with teacher preparation?

This volume of JoTTER offers yet another slice of evidence for the quality of new entrants into school teaching and the calibre of members of the teaching profession. I reflect on this as the future of initial teacher education - and the involvement of universities in supporting new entrants to teaching - in England faces uncertainty in the light of the government establishing a far reaching review. That is not the first time I have heard University involvement in teacher education is under threat, but this is no reason for complacency. Indeed when I read that the review looks to ensure that  “the ITT [sic initial teacher training, not education] market [sic] maintains the capacity to deliver [sic] enough trainees” (Department for Education, 2021) I am more put in mind of the need to ensure a steady and cheap supply of carpet tacks than a process of facilitating personal and professional growth.

There is a feeling that if current government thinking is enacted as a result of this review the involvement of the higher education sector in initial teacher education may cease to be viable. That is at least where Universities see their role as designing and staffing programmes offering research-informed professional education - rather than being seen as market product suppliers who may have an offer of training inputs that can be advertised to budget-holders putting together components of a programme. After all, when I go to the supermarket I may choose to buy one band of baked beans because I like the taste, but perhaps a different brand of tomato soup because of lower cost, and I may even do some of my shopping in a different store because I prefer some of the options there. Perhaps initial teacher education programmes can be compiled as bricolage, if that can reduce costs? 

A distraction from learning to teach?

Some observers may feel that, if anything, the JoTTER (Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research) demonstrates this would not be such a problem. After all, initial teacher education should be about preparing new entrants for the day-to-day work of a classroom teacher - teaching in effect - and yet JoTTER demonstrates how teacher education within a research intensive university deflects from this to distract new entrants by engaging them with research. The critic might suggest this reflects that common trope that university academics are primarily focused on (obsessed with?) research and only value teaching as very much a secondary activity. The argument goes that what new teachers need is support in learning the craft of teaching, not time spent writing academic assignments or engaging in their own research studies. (Such a position would be very hard to maintain for anyone who actually engages with the range of studies in this volume - all focused directly on aspects of classroom teaching or on features of learners themselves that impinge on their learning.)

Similar notions have been in the air at least since my own time as a PGCE student at a time when it was felt by some that universities were hotbeds of revolutionary politics and more interested in radicalising students than providing teaching skills. I do recall Friday morning education seminars where we waited for the first reference to Marx or some other supposedly radical thinker. Of course in many ways Marx was radical for his time, but if Karl Popper - said to be Prime Minister’s Margaret Thatcher’s favourite philosopher - found much to respect in his work and thought (see the editorial to Volume 10) then admission of his perspective, inter alia, into educational discourse hardly seems to be a harbinger of the end of civilisation. Yet, that weekly session was the outlier as nearly all of my sessions were focused on how to best teach secondary students science. But of course, that included considering such matters as ensuring their engagement and appreciating their background knowledge and cognitive capabilities - not just assuming teaching is something done in a classroom by teachers almost without relevance to the rest of the ‘teaching-learning system’.

I recall that it was said that a former Professor in this University, one Isaac Newton, was expected to give one lecture a year (how times have changed!), but if no one turned up, which apparently was not unknown, he would cut it short and only lecture for 30 minutes. Even if this story is apocryphal (like the very common belief that Newton was hit on the head by an apple - although this is not usually seen as causally connected to his poor reputation as a lecturer), it may remind us that today teaching is understood as something much more sophisticated and challenging than simply presenting information, and is a process that inherently involves some particular learners as well as a specific teacher.

That focus on teaching was not, of course, a matter of being given lists of instructions or algorithms for how to act in the classroom. Study involved a reading of diverse sources, and recommended research studies which offered insights into aspects of student learning difficulties and evaluations of innovative pedagogies. The lecturers offered their guidance based on their own classroom experience and their work with previous cohorts of PGCE students, and their networking with other professionals through subject associations (such as the Association for Science Education in my own area) and professional bodies (such as, again in my area, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics).

That is, we were treated as professionals - we not told what to do, but offered advice, recommendations, exemplars, modelling, guidance, and so forth. That is ‘professional’ in two senses. One is that a professional is expected to use their own professional judgement and not simply to follow a rule book or a set of instructions. However, this is not just an arbitrary distinction - it was recognised that teaching could not be just a skilled enactment of craft knowledge as contexts vary considerably, and teachers need to make judgements in their diverse particular contexts where algorithmic rule-following simply would not work. This is why teaching needs [ital] to be a profession. 

What makes for a profession?

A profession - such as medicine or law - has its own professional body (e.g., the General Medical Council, the Law Society) that regulates its own affairs and sets standards and norms for itself. Teaching in England falls short in this respect due to the extent to which it is subject to prescription (and sometimes proscription) and regulation by central government. Governments (here at least, if not everywhere) are democratically elected and have responsibility for the school system and its public funding. It is right that education policy should be directed by elected politicians.

We might draw a parallel with the National Health Service. If health policy was handed over to doctors then we might find that many more hospitals were suddenly being commissioned, many more doctors trained, and much more of tax income was being directed to new diagnostic equipment, treatments and drug therapies. Some might welcome this, but, even so, most people might feel that it was not for the medical professionals to make such decisions. As a parallel, imagine the Chief of the Defence Staff was put in charge of deciding how much tax income should be spent on new warships, nuclear missiles and larger fighting forces without any political oversight! (As happens in some states, of course.)

Induction into a profession

Yet what most people would recognise is that even if the government should determine health policy, it should keep out of clinical decisions. It is not for the governments to tell the medical profession how to treat peptic ulcers, or indeed how to train the next generation of doctors in how to treat peptic ulcers. If government did interfere in such matters the General Medical Council and the Royal Colleges would rightly make a fuss, and this would be front page news.

Medical education puts a great deal of emphasis on clinical training, and no one would be likely to suggest a doctor should be allowed to practice based purely on passing an academic course of study. However, it is generally accepted that this professional learning needs to be informed by a prior level of knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and so forth, before learning from working with patients alongside registered doctors. It also seems to be widely accepted that university hospitals that have active research programmes at the cutting edge of medicine are excellent places to train.

No English government has yet suggested that ‘market supply’ can be enhanced and training costs reduced by having a pathway for learning to be a doctor by direct graduate entry into a GP practice, initially taking on a reduced daily list of patients, being mentored by the senior partners, attending weekly seminars, and having monthly observation visits by a ‘Heal First’ trainer. I suspect any such suggestion would be treated as being as absurd and dangerous as it sounds.

“Our country needs [doctors], now more than ever. Join our most important cohort for a generation. Earn a salary and pay no fees. Gain internationally recognised [medical] qualifications…You’ll earn from the outset - no fees, no debt…As soon [you start] you’ll be in the [consultation room]. Not just observing [consultations]. Actually [treating patients]. You’ll be helping [patients] from the [sickest] backgrounds reach [full health]. It’s far from your average day job - expect surprises, challenges, and an unmatched sense of fulfilment.” (Teach First, 2021)

One does not have to have any specialist knowledge of medicine or medical education to ask the obvious question: how can you expect these new entrants to medicine to start treating patients without substantive courses in medicine and extensive time working alongside qualified practitioners? The answer that the Heal First entrant has a mentor who will usually be treating her own patients in another room not far away and who can be consulted at the end of the working day would surely not satisfy many.  

Ideology with a veneer of expert authentication

However, in England successive governments have wanted to determine what should be taught in schools, and how it should be taught, and how we should prepare the next generation of teachers to do this. Even though experts are invited to advise, the final product is often shaped by ideological parameters and/or betrays the lack of relevant expertise of those actually writing the documentation. This has certainly been very clear in my own subject over a number of years - as when quite sophisticated pedagogic approaches become represented in advice presented to teachers as simply following a sequence of straightforward steps (Taber, 2010), or in the most recent revision of the science curriculum which was not only a retrograde step in its overall direction (that, of course, may be dismissed as just my opinion), but resulted in an incoherent treatment of some major conceptual areas (in my own view, certainly, but based on an analysis which has bene published in a peer reviewed journal) and even some rather embarrassing errors which should be noticed by anyone with any expertise - or, indeed, anyone who has actually paid attention in school science (Taber, 2020).

The PGCE at centres like Cambridge is in effect a kind of hybrid, synthetic (perhaps even symbiotic) course, as with some ingenuity and a great deal of effort on the part of the responsible teaching staffs the University works with trusted and experienced schools in a stable and well-established teacher education partnership to simultaneously satisfy all the central, and periodically shifting, requirements of government, whilst at the same time preparing new teachers to work as professionals who can draw on a broad range of research-informed perspectives in carrying out their classroom work. 

That certainly does NOT simply mean the university focuses on theory whilst the schools offer practical guidance: the inputs at university are usually classroom focused and the mentoring and tutoring in schools draws on research and theory as well as professional experience and local knowledge. However, it is the case that the nature of the programme allows for iteration between faculty and school sites, which supports learning by offering plenty of opportunities for reiteration and consolidation of ideas in different contexts, and opportunities (and space and time) to reflect on practice. There is certainly a sense of apprenticeship in the mentor-‘trainee’ relationship in school, but it is a professional form of apprenticeship - not just learning about a craft.

The place of research in teacher preparation

Engaging with research is necessary on a post-graduate course (it is an expectation for any course at master’s level) but this not the main reason for spending time on a PGCE reading published studies, learning to critique research, and engaging in small-scale classroom-based enquiry. This is again linked to why it is so important that initial teacher education provides professional preparation, and reflects the nature of enquiry in social contexts. 

The point is that it is simply not possible to teach by numbers, as context is so important. A lesson which could be carried out quite safely and would be very productive on one day, may be inadvisable and need to be postponed with the same class on another day (perhaps after lunch on a very windy Thursday) - something the teacher judges on meeting the class that day, and which cannot be readily codified in any government guidance, examination specification or school scheme of work. The analogy which worked so well with that Y9 class last week may not be helpful to this Y9 class today, and the teacher may have to improvise in real time and make a different teaching move in response to the ongoing classroom interaction. And successful improvisation, whether in music, sport or teaching, of course, draws upon on a wealth of relevant and successful experience in the field and sensitivity to present contextual factors (Holdhus et al., 2016).

Of course, there are some general tenets. Teaching that follows constructivist principles is always likely to be more effective than teaching which is informed by a notion that knowledge can be transferred/copied from one mind to another in bringing about meaningful learning (Taber, 2011); dialogic teaching is always likely to be superior to an approach based on purely presenting the canonical account by fiat (Warwick, Cook, Vrikki, Major, & Rasmussen, 2020). Diagnostic and formative assessment will generally support more effective teaching (Black & Atkin, 2014). But these are principles at a strategic level, and need to be translated into the specific tactics that will work with this class in this room on this day in this school (perhaps on the morning after the national team has had a major sporting success, or the main employer in the town has just announced it is going into administration, or the day after a member of the class has lost one of their parents to cancer, or any one of a myriad of other arbitrary and unpredictable contingencies). 

Generalisation from educational research is not automatic

Thus we come back to research. Teachers can learn from published research, certainly. But educational research tends to be of two kinds. There are myriad small scale studies that tell us what happened when someone tried flipped learning or peer assessment (or whatever) in some very particular context that is likely quite like your classroom in some respects, but very unlike it in others. Often these studies are context-directed (Taber, 2013), like many of the studies reported in JoTTER, and offer limited generalisability. What worked there may also work in your context - but the best you can do is make a judgement (i.e., reader generalisation) about whether the two contexts are similar enough for that study to inform your work (Kvale, 1996). However, even if such a comparison suggests strong contextual similarity, a professional cannot simply assume the relevant innovation can unproblematically be effectively transferred to their context without some local research and development.

The other type of research offers results from across many contexts. It may be a review of previous studies (often each based on somewhat different implementations of the innovation, and evaluated by somewhat different research designs) which looks to see if a general pattern emerges from across the literature, or it may - occasionally - be a large scale study where something was implemented and evaluated across a diverse spread of teaching and learning contexts: a wide range of classrooms across different kinds of schools. At best these studies tell you about average outcomes. ‘At best’:  given the inherent difficulties of doing fair testing in education (Taber, 2019). That is informative when an innovation is found to be effective virtually everywhere (or virtually nowhere). Usually however, innovations work very well in some contexts, less well elsewhere, and not at all in some other contexts (Caro, Lenkeit, & Kyriakides, 2016).

What makes for a professional?

This is why it is so important that the preparation of professional teachers involves sufficient research training to give new teachers the confidence, skills and expertise to carry out their own enquires into their classrooms. If some pedagogic innovation that could be relevant to our teaching seems to have strong research support then the professional teacher wants to be able to implement it in their classroom - but not only to implement it, also to evaluate for herself to check that it can be effective here (ital), and to be able to fine-tune the implementation to local conditions.

The teacher makes a professional judgement because she has the background knowledge to understand the rationale for an innovation (which is necessary for meaningful rather than algorithmic implementation), the teaching skills to implement it, and the research skills to be sure it is indeed an advance on previous practice. That is what makes a teacher fully professional (Taber, 2013). This is what a course like the Cambridge PGCE provides. This is what the articles in JoTTER demonstrate. This is what makes teacher education so much more than just training in how to do a job.


Black, P., & Atkin, J. M. (2014). The central role of assessment in pedagogy. In N. G. Lederman & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science Education: Volume II (pp. 775-790). New York: Routledge.

Caro, D. H., Lenkeit, J., & Kyriakides, L. (2016). Teaching strategies and differential effectiveness across learning contexts: Evidence from PISA 2012. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 49, 30-41. doi:

Department for Education. (2021). Policy paper. Initial teacher training (ITT) market review: overview.   Retrieved from

Holdhus, K., Høisæter, S., Mæland, K., Vangsnes, V., Engelsen, K. S., Espeland, M., & Espeland, Å. (2016). Improvisation in teaching and education—roots and applications. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1204142. doi:10.1080/2331186X.2016.1204142

Kvale, S. (1996). InterViews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Taber, K. S. (2010). Paying lip-service to research?: The adoption of a constructivist perspective to inform science teaching in the English curriculum context. The Curriculum Journal, 21(1), 25 – 45. 

Taber, K. S. (2011). Constructivism as educational theory: Contingency in learning, and optimally guided instruction. In J. Hassaskhah (Ed.), Educational Theory (pp. 39-61). New York: Nova.

Taber, K. S. (2013). Classroom-based Research and Evidence-based Practice: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Taber, K. S. (2019). Experimental research into teaching innovations: responding to methodological and ethical challenges. Studies in Science Education, 55(1), 69-119. doi:10.1080/03057267.2019.1658058

Taber, K. S. (2020). Conceptual confusion in the chemistry curriculum: exemplifying the problematic nature of representing chemical concepts as target knowledge. Foundations of Chemistry, 22, 309–334. doi:

Teach First. (2021). Training programme.   Retrieved from

Warwick, P., Cook, V., Vrikki, M., Major, L., & Rasmussen, I. (2020). Realising ‘dialogic intentions’ when working with a microblogging tool in secondary school classrooms. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 24, 100376. doi: