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Becoming a teacher in an age of uncertainty: lessons from our Cambridge PGCE trainees

Historically, the world has been through several ‘ages of uncertainty’: the bubonic plague pandemic that happened across Eurasia, North Africa and Europe in the 14th century; the European colonial periods, from the 15th to the 20th century; the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century; etc. In the past few years (if not decades), some argue that we have been going through another of those periods, summarised through the anacronym of VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Valladares, 2021). In this ‘VUCA’ scenario, global challenges facing our diverse communities encompass environmental breakdown, several and constant refugee crisis, the rise of fascism, the pressures of financial breakdown on the cost of living and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic (Malm, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). And while responses vary across the world, in massified education systems like we have in England, teachers are often positioned as having an important role to play in addressing these challenges, with the teaching profession tending to constitute an ‘essential workforce’ in many societies (Schleicher, 2018).

So how does one become part of this profession, positioned as essential in addressing challenging scenarios, when our communities are already immersed in an age of uncertainty? In the specific case of the current COVID-19 pandemic, several studies in England have been published about its impact on teachers’ (Kim & Asbury, 2020; Kim et al., 2021) and school leaders’ (Fotheringham et al., 2022) work, the teacher labour market (Worth & Faulkner-Ellis, 2021), teachers’ wellbeing (Kim et al., 2022), etc. That also includes impact on Initial Teacher Education, especially during the school closures in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 (La Velle et al., 2020; Ellis, et al., 2020), the latter period being the one in which the authors of the articles published in this JoTTER Volume 13 took part in their Primary and Secondary PGCE courses here at the University of Cambridge.

The articles published in this volume can then be seen as academic pieces that offer us an insight into those who have become part of the teaching profession while already deeply immersed in this age of uncertainty: what are their interests and concerns, as early career practitioners of education, around their students’ educational experiences in these challenging times? What have they set out as priorities for their early career practice, and how have they positioned themselves, through their PGCE research projects, when attempting to address these interests, concerns and priorities?

In this editorial I pose that these kinds of questions – and the potential answers to them that we can gauge from the articles published in JoTTER – should be asked by all of us involved in educational practice (schoolteachers, teacher educators, etc.). And that is made even more important not just due to this current age of uncertainty, but also when we face top-down reforms in teacher education that attempt to prescribe what teachers should be interested in and concerned about in a ‘one-size-fits all’ manner [1]. Such kinds of reforms, as already argued by several researchers and educators working in the field of teachers’ agency and professionalism (e.g., Biesta, 2010, Mockler, 2011), often position teachers as “an occupational group that just does what it is told efficiently and, even more importantly, actually needs to be told what to do as it has lost the capacity to determine a course of action for itself” (Ellis, 2011, p. 9). On the contrary, our hope with the Cambridge PGCE is to support a profession where teachers can find themselves having “scope for judgement and discretion, not [being] merely a ‘factor’ within an ‘educational system’ that can be encouraged to work more effectively and efficiently” (Biesta, 2015, p. 75). In this scenario, we see our trainees as people becoming part of an educational workforce that, in these challenging and uncertain times, can “initiate discussions about pedagogy, and then evaluate and critique the ideas they develop” (GTCE, 2010, p. 266). And it is in this spirit of a workforce that is trusted in their “capacity for self-improvement as an inherent element of their professional identity” (GTCE, 2010, p. 266) that we seek to publish some our trainees’ own research here in JoTTER.

So, going back to the questions above about what their interests and concerns – and proposals – are as agentic professionals who can contribute to both intellectual and pragmatic discussions and practices within education (Halpin & Moore, 2006), two salient areas emerge from the articles published in this volume 13 of JoTTER – pupil voice, and learning in society – both which I believe to be of extreme importance to our practice of education in a ‘post-pandemic’, but still deeply challenging world (UNESCO, 2021).

Pupil voice and the practice of education (research)

Our Faculty of Education has a longstanding tradition of scholarship around ‘pupil voice’, such as the seminal works of our late colleagues Jean Rudduck and Donald McIntyre (e.g., McIntyre et al., 2003; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007). That broad area has continued to expand around here through the work done, for instance, by the group ‘Cambridge Educational Dialogue Research’ (CEDiR) [2]. At the core of ‘pupil voice’ as an area of educational research and practice we find principles put forward by historical thinkers and practitioners of education across the world, such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire, who positioned children and young people – and learners, more generally speaking – as important members of educational experiences, who should be encouraged and given the means to contribute to these experiences themselves. According to Rudduck (2005):

Pupil voice is the consultative wing of pupil participation. Consultation is about talking with pupils about things that matter in school. It may involve: conversations about teaching and learning; seeking advice from pupils about new initiatives; inviting comment on ways of solving problems that are affecting the teacher’s right to teach and the pupil’s right to learn; inviting evaluative comment on recent developments in school or classroom policy and practice.

Pupil voice – as research and as practice – then engages with important constructs within modern Western education, such as democracy, participation and agency, dialogue, inclusion, co-construction of knowledge, etc., also connecting with a wider socio-political 20th century landscape of advocating children’s and young people’s rights (e.g., UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [3]) and with the field of Childhood and Youth Studies in the social sciences. And, within this landscape, it has often been positioned as a key component of thinking about the present and the future of education, especially within challenging and uncertain periods. Take, for instance, several research pieces using children’s and young people’s voices about the current COVID-19 pandemic, such as in relation to their wellbeing (e.g., Branquinho, et al., 2021; Efuribe et al., 2020; James et al., 2021) or their hopes for a ‘post-pandemic’ world (e.g., Larcher et al., 2020). In their report “Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education” launched towards the end of 2021, UNESCO also argued that any reimagination of the future of education within this age of uncertainty and persistent global challenges “cannot fail to centre on the voices of children and youth” (2021, p. 139).

Another example is the most recent – and, in my view, most exciting – work around the challenges facing education in this age of environmental breakdown. In the past years we have seen an increase in youth-led calls for more consistent and meaningful engagement with environmental issues as part of their educational trajectories, as exemplified by Fridays for Future [4] and Teach the Future UK [5] movements. In response, several educators have added their support to these young people’s calls via research (e.g., Dunlop et al., 2021; Rousell & Cutter-Mackenzie, 2020), and workings groups and manifestos [6], with pupil consultation and the facilitation of youth-led initiatives being at the core of these endeavours. Young people were also present at COP26 last year in Scotland (although important concerns have been rightly raised about “youth washing” being done by those in position of authority [7]).

It is in this wider landscape of children’s and young people’ voices and participation around their present and their future that several articles published by our former trainees in this JoTTER volume 13 can be positioned. Articles published by our former Secondary PGCE trainees in this volume have employed, to different extent, data collection methods that elicited the perspectives and feedback of their students around specific classroom-based interventions which they were proposing, such as promoting creativity in KS3 Music lessons or investigating year 12 students’ use of metacognitive skills in Physics lessons.

And following their longstanding tradition of positioning pupil voice at the core of their work, the articles by our former Primary PGCE trainees are especially insightful in illustrating the ways in which pupil voice can be used not only to inform academic research (i.e., methods of data collection, such as surveys and interviews), but also in the day-to-day practice of teachers. Following the ethos of our PGCE programme of ‘teachers as intellectuals’ (Giroux, 1988) outlined above, these practitioner researchers outlined the relevance of such approach to understanding, for example:

•    ‘Reading for pleasure’ in an age of growing gaps in access to reading opportunities along, for instance, the socio-economic status axis;
•    Assessment for Learning in this period of increasing number of formal and summative assessment activities in the primary education level;
•    Children’s experiences of their classrooms’ physical environments and their perspectives on play-based activities, especially important after almost two years of lockdown, isolation, and online learning;
•    Children’s approaches and concerns around intellectual risk taking, also of great value to better understanding the growing number of wellbeing, mental health and self-belief challenges among children and young people.

Among these articles, what we then see is our trainees’ commitment to “bringing the learner back in”, as recently asked for by Terry Wrigley (2022, p. 112) in his call for a reimagination of mainstream education in our contemporary challenging societies: an approach to schooling that values learners’ experiences and dialogic teaching. And when “bringing the learner back in”, the teacher’s role is not diminished by the valuing of the learners’ input and activities: as illustrated by our former trainees’ articles in this volume 13, their role shifts from “from direct instruction to initial preparation (establishing the situation, introducing a problem, assembling resources), dialogue and feedback” (Wrigley, 2022, p. 112-113). I then argue that this not only enhances pupils’ participation in their own learning experiences, but also teachers’ own agency and professionalism, since it asks of them a high level of reflection, evaluation and critique, instead of being positioned as ‘delivery systems of facts’ – i.e., a group that “just does what it is told efficiently” (Ellis, 2011, p. 9) – within a “banking model of education” (Freire, 1972).

Learning and society: against a banking model of education

It is linked to this goal of ‘bringing the learner back in’ that we also find our trainees’ research projects engaging with another aspect that has been positioned as central to our practice of education within this period of uncertainty: a reminder that educational experiences in mainstream schools are also social experiences and that they cannot be detached from the realities of our wider societies. As argued by several scholars across the education field, including in Lev Vygotsky’s seminal work ‘Mind in Society’ (1978) cited by several articles in this volume, the connection between learning experiences and students’ own realities is an important aspect of teaching and learning, not only in terms of cognitive development, but also in creating positive classroom environments that also work as spaces of socialisation and community building (Biesta, 2015). After two years of back-and-forth lockdowns, school closures and online learning, we are starting to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on children’s and young people’s educational experiences and wellbeing (e.g., Branquinho, et al., 2021; Efuribe et al., 2020; James et al., 2021), and initial findings have highlighted, among other things, the negative impact of the lack of these socialisation and community-building opportunities on these children’s and young people’ learning, self-belief and metacognitive skills, to give just a couple of examples.

As argued by Wrigley (2022), it is not that educational experiences should forgo learning of conceptual or abstract knowledge in favour of only being a ‘socialisation’ or ‘community-building’ endeavour. The argument here is actually that these social experiences of education – the ones happening in classrooms and across the school environment – can be a dialogic avenue to ‘bring the learner (and their realities) back in’ to work closely with their teachers as part of their educational experiences. In other words, recognising that learning happens grounded on lived experiences and people’s realities can help us, as educators, open our students’ worlds to new and exciting ways of understanding them (i.e., developing knowledge): “young people’s development is richer and more authentic when cognitive development is grounded in experience and activity and when disciplinary knowledge is used to illuminate reality” (Wrigley, 2022, p. 113). Within this perspective, learning experiences then become dialogic and communal, instead of simply being a process of ‘depositing knowledge’ onto students (Freire, 1972) with no acknowledgement of who they are, their lived realities, what they might already know, what they might be interested in or concerned about, etc.

It is within this view about the importance of recognising that learners come to our classrooms with their own lived experiences and understandings of the world and that, as spaces where socialisation happens, these classrooms can engage dialogically with these learners’ backgrounds and realities, that several articles by our former trainees in this volume 13 can be positioned. We see, for instance, Primary PGCE trainees engaging with the physicality of classrooms as spaces for socialisation, or with the role of play in these social learning experiences. We can also read about, for instance, the role of year 9 students’ own ‘sense of place’ in their learning about historical narratives; or the relevance of language (both everyday/informal and disciplinary), in all its diversity and blurred interpretations, to classroom mathematical speech between a teacher and their year 9 students; or about the relevance of historical and social ‘contexts’ to year 10 students’ engagement with GCSE English poems.

Going back to my questions at the start of this editorial around the interests, concerns and priorities of early career teachers who are entering the profession in middle of this age of uncertainty and global challenges, it is then clear to me where their priorities lie: on ‘bringing their learners back in’, i.e., on creating educational experiences grounded on the diversity of lived experiences, interests and voices of their students, and making sure that these students are not seen through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ lens that homogenise their backgrounds, interests and support needed in their classrooms. But this perspective from our PGCE cohort is only tenable if they themselves are not viewed as professionals within a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner: if we aim to have a teaching profession that is flexible, creative and resilient enough to face this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, we need teachers to be prepared and valued as reflective practitioners who can have scope for judgement and discretion.

Haira Gandolfi, Cambridge, 2022

*With thanks to my colleagues across the Primary and Secondary PGCE programmes here in the faculty, whose insightful lecturers, workshops, reading lists and informal conversations have inspired several of my comments above.


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[1]  See more about our thoughts and position as a Faculty of Education here: