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The vital nature of context

Teach East Director Henry Sauntson gives his views on the need for context in the application of generic Teacher Training frameworks

Context as king - the need for nuance

One size fits very few, as we know. All frameworks for the education of teachers are generic; broad sets of standards and statements that can be translated into different settings, but that need interpretation in order to be successfully realised. There’s nothing at all wrong with the Teacher Standards, but they aren’t for Novice educators.

For example, the Teacher Standards themselves are a requisite benchmark for any Qualified Teacher, be they specialising in EYFS or A-Level; the new ITT Core Content Framework is a well-researched and highly detailed document but again comes with a generic stamp - ‘this is the evidence, these are the skills’ - that sweeps across all phases and domains. In the introduction to the her play ‘My Mother Said I Never Should’, Charlotte Keatley states; ‘being asked to study a play on the page seems to me like being asked to read a cookery book and then describe how the meal tastes’, and I like this analogy; teaching is a live profession enacted in classroom environments, not a standardized set of generic statements - you can’t read the Teacher Standards and from that visualize the ‘perfect’ lesson.

Graham Nuthall, in his excellent ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ emphasizes the importance contexts; students learn lots from their peers - motivation, interests, attention and involvement are all influenced by ongoing relationships; teaching is sensitivity and adaptation, adapting to the here-and-now, what works for one doesn’t work for another… ‘In order to navigate the complexity of the circumstances in which a teacher works, it is not possible just to follow a recipe’; ‘The danger I fear is that teachers will be required to follow teaching recipes. Research will be used by educational authorities to tell teachers what they should be doing, regardless of the particular needs of their students or the circumstances in which they are teaching’ - wise words indeed. 

When Zimmerman (1983) published his social learning theory on the back of the work of Bandura he summarised that people learn by observing others. Learning occurs through imitation of modelled behaviours and routines, but also is highly contextual; previous knowledge based on social experience is a greater determinant of performance than age, and trainee teachers come armed with much in the way of social experience!

Brown & Collins (1989) (in their work on situated cognition) determined that students’ learning at school is context-free, based on logic, algorithm and definition; learning in work and everyday life is highly contextualised and experiential, dependent on the different situations (situated learning) and there is far more vagueness and ambiguity of what is ‘correct’. Authenticity of learning environments help the translation from theory and classroom to practice - much like the trainee teacher in the core curriculum classroom; we must avoid fragmented, compartmentalised approaches sometimes inherent in the overt reliance on the Teacher Standards as explicit statements; through our Core curriculum we must enable the trainees to access the full suite that is the ITT CCF, but we must also promote individuality and dialogue. I love to think back to Paulo Freire in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ and his considerations of dialogue as a vital aspect of development; it cannot exist without humility; it requires a faith in people; it cannot exist without hope; and, above all, it is essential to foster critical thinking. Dialogue is fluid, adaptive and not beholden to set scripts, rules or checklists - it is, as Freire reminds us, an act of creation - something new and entirely unique emerging from a situation - much like teaching itself.  

Ultimately, as teacher educators we must understand that context and individual style and approach to implementation are the gloss or top coat on an undercoat of frameworks and statements; we teach in classrooms, not on paper.