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Teach East SCITT Director Henry Sauntson's ResearchEd Norwich 2022 presentation

In May 2022 SCITT Director Henry Sauntson presented ideas around creating shared language for Mentors and Trainees to ensure positive dialogue and development. He has written up his thoughts as a slightly rambling narrative; enjoy...

ResearchEd Norwich – Towers of Babel

‘Without understanding the different arrangements that both form and are formed by practices, professional development of teachers cannot be fully realised’ – Windsor et al (2022)

I have paraphrased G B Shaw many times, shamelessly; the single biggest problem with teacher professional development is the illusion it has taken place…

The aim of the talk was to focus on the necessary alignment of language and fundamental principles behind the successful realization of early career teachers’ development; how we can support those in the early stages by ensuring there is a shared language at play, and that core principles of learning are appropriately understood and explained by all. The idea was to draw on the work of a range of researchers and thinkers to explore the evidence base related to professional development in ITE, an also to provide tips to mentors embarking on their duties with an unconscious ‘curse of knowledge’ that may hinder trainees’ progress. So, let’s see how that worked out…

As usual, with any piece I endeavour to create or present, it will be littered with quotations, starting with this one:

‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other’ – Genesis, 11:7

Here’s another lovely one – very much the opposite of what we want our mentors to say (at least out loud): ‘Listen to me then, with attention, and learn, so that you will have no more need to blush at your creations’ – Brillat-Savarin (he was an epicure, but I like the point)

In essence, there is a need to create and foster the use of a shared language in ITE to avoid confusion, trainee cognitive overload and, worst of all, misuse of pedagogical or theoretical terms formed out of mere surface-level understanding. We see lethal mutations take place because people adopt a syllogistic approach to determining an intervention to quickly solve a problem; opting for the fairy cake over the fruit cake. By syllogistic I mean the following thought process:

‘Something is wrong; something must be done.’

‘Ah, this is something’

‘Therefore, we must do it’.

This shallow implementation leads to misunderstandings or dilution of effective strategy, where terms are paid lip-service and then deployed inaccurately to describe what is supposedly going on – Instructional Coaching anyone?

We can refer here to the Deans for Impact ‘Building Blocks’ programme of 2020, to establish the root of our problem: ‘coordinating when and how feedback is provided from multiple teacher-educators – faculty, mentor teachers, fieldwork instructors – is another challenge….At multiple programmes, teacher-candidates told us they received contradictory feedback from instructors in these three groups, and often had no chance to reconcile the conflicts… Teacher-candidates at another program (sic.) complained of receiving feedback in very different formats, leading to uneven quality’ (DfI 2020).

How do we solve this problem? Or, better still, how do we prevent it from being a problem?

I will start with a definition of a key word – dialogue. According to Chambers, dialogue is ‘a conversation, especially a formal one’. It is also a ‘discussion or exchange of ideas and opinions, especially between two groups, with a view to resolving conflict or achieving agreement’. Its etymology is Greek – dialogos, meaning ‘conversation’. Synonyms also abound – communication, talk, chat, discourse, interchange, debate, colloquy, interlocution…

Dialogue is an essential tool in teacher development; it is ubiquitous, necessary – it translates thoughts and feelings into reflections and possible actions; it allows for critical thinking. This brings me on to the work of Paulo Freire – a regular port of call for my references – and his views: ‘dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world’ (ignore the sweeping gender generalization), thus ‘dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person “depositing” ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be “consumed” by the discussants’. Food for thought – dialogue is a two-way necessity. Freire goes on: ‘dialogue, as the encounter of those addressed to the common task of learning and acting, is broken inf the parties (or one of them) lack humility. How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others – mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s?’

Freire argues that dialogue demonstrates not only the positive connection between people but also the constant drive to transform themselves, as well as reality; what better way to exemplify the desired state of the relationship between trainee teacher and mentor? For Freire, dialogue becomes the sign and the central concept of a true education – ‘without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education’. To further explore Freire as a basis for these ideas, he also tells us that ‘critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise, theory becomes simply “blah, blah, blah” and practice, pure activism’. I like too the Yogi Bera motif – ‘In theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is’. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, will tell us that there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip…

Freire explores the foundations of dialogue as follows – look at them through the lens of trainee and mentor reflecting together on observed practice:

  1. Humility – ‘people who lack humility or who have lost it cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world… dialogue cannot exist without humility’
  2. Hope – ‘dialogue cannot be carried on in a climate of hopelessness. If the dialoguers expect nothing to come of their efforts, their encounters will be empty, sterile, bureaucratic and tedious’
  3. Faith – ‘faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue; the dialogical person believes in other people even before meeting them face to face’
  4. Love – ‘if I do not love the world – if I do not life – if I do not love people – I cannot enter into dialogue’
  5. Critical Thinking – ‘only dialogue is capable of generating critical thinking’

It may seem overly-simplistic, but so much of what Freire extols here is a vital aspect of trainee teacher development; creating positive, critical environments where challenge is inherent but progress is facilitated, and mentor and trainee feed off each other using a language and vocabulary that reflects their shared understanding of the central goals around which they are centring their feedback. Graham Nuthall reminds us of the fact that there are ‘enormous difficulties involved in effective teaching’, and that they ‘cannot be undertaken alone’; trainees know they need mentors, and mentors must appreciate and value the experience, taking pride in the support they can give. If ever a mentor is strong-armed or coerced into taking on the role then they shouldn’t be doing it; humility, hope, faith, love and balanced critical thinking will not be incubated in an environment where disengagement is the desired state by either party. Mentors must also be aware of the potential Icarus – the early high-flyer who tries to go too far, too fast, without the safe foundations of experience and sufficient prior learning; Berliner considers 5 – 7 years is necessary to acquire ‘high levels of skill as a teacher’, if one works hard. Mentors have to keep their trainees grounded, not through a desire to clip their wings but to prevent their wings from being burned – this again can only happen when hope is inherent within the relationship.

‘Hic dissonant ubique nam ebril sic diversis Cantilenis calamari solent’ (Here there is dissonance everywhere, as all the drunks are bellowing different songs) – Franz-Bieber

There is, perhaps, something of the feeling of the overwhelmed trainee in the above quotation, if we omit the reference to drunkenness; so many voices shouting so many different pieces of ‘advice’ or ‘feedback’ from so many different perspectives that it all becomes too much – they do yet have the filter of reflective professional identity to enable them to judiciously select what to heed and what to ignore. It is the presence of this filter that is one of the many assumptions it is easy to make when dealing with those entering Initial Teacher Education – we can’t just assume that a trainee is capable of individual, self-regulated evaluative thought. Dewey indeed tells us this:

‘Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on general principles – there is something specific which occasions and evokes it. General appeals to a child (or grown-up) to ‘think’, irrespective of the existence in their own experience of some difficulty that troubles them and disturbs their equilibrium, are as futile as advice to lift themselves up by their bootstraps!’

Add, from this, then, to Freire’s list – experience. Dialogue needs experience to draw evidence from, to make inferences from – experience as a catalyst for thought and reflection. Shulman puts it beautifully – ‘the neophyte’s stumble becomes the scholar’s window’. Through that window the scholar – the mentor, in this analogy – can observe and support the trainee, but framing that support using the shared language that both understand, and focussing on the hope and faith within the situation. To return to Nuthall, he spoke of three worlds – his were of the classroom, but trainees are students too – that must be considered by the educator: the public world, consisting of observable behaviour, mimicry (more on this later), outward identity; the semi-private world, made up of social behaviours, peer groups, interests and relationships; and the private world, forged in the mind of the trainee from their core beliefs and vision (see the work of Korthagen here – worth reading). The Mentor and ITE provider can have a semblance of control over the first world, but can only influence the others – as Herbert Simon said, ‘learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only what the student does and thinks; the teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn’…

In 1995, Furlong & Maynard laid out their Five Stages of Student Teacher Development;

  1. Early Idealism
  2. Personal Survival
  3. Dealing with difficulties
  4. Hitting a plateau
  5. Moving on

This work is worth a paper of critical analysis in its own right but all those invested in the development of trainee teachers must be aware of it; to link back to the ‘mimicry’ mentioned above, Furlong & Maynard describe the ‘Early Idealism’ phase as trainees having ‘clear, if idealistic, ideas about the sort of teachers they want to be’ and that these ‘idealised beliefs or images about teaching and learning at this point, are, it seems, often influenced by students’ own histories, including their own experience as a pupil’. In essence, trainee teachers start out by endeavouring to emulate or mimic their inspirations, or at least the version of their inspirations that they have chosen to believe. This mimicry influences the outward behaviours, which are often aligned to how the trainee teacher wants to be perceived by their pupils – personality and relationship dominate over pedagogical prowess. As we endeavour to take our trainees through these stages we need to cultivate, curate and control environments that are inherently supportive, both professionally (Kraft & Papay, among others) and personally – the mentor as supporter as well as acculturator (Hobson & Malderez) – by having that judgment-free, progress-focussed dialogue built out of shared language, understood by all; we look to create a Hermeneutic Circle where theory shapes the interpretation of practice, which in turn informs the redevelopment of the theory, and on we go…

Back in 1982 Joyce & Shower stated that ‘the conditions of the classroom are different from training situations; one cannot simply walk from the training session into the classroom with the skill completely ready for use – it has to be changed to fit classroom conditions’. An old reference, but a relevant concept – we have to build the language bridge that transverses the valley between theory and practice, paper and the classroom, the training room and the real-life manifestation. However, let us not also forget the need to see this situation as one of education, not just of ‘training’; training perhaps carries connotations of mechanisation – ‘working through a set of mechanical tasks in a routine way’ (Ashby et al 2008) where ‘understanding and intelligent awareness’ are not required (Tomlinson, 1995); we must avoid the possibility of a shared language or glossary of terms becoming a script or rubric that begets compliance – it must be used to stir the waters of progress, lest they stagnate into habitual puddles of that personal survival (see Hobbiss & Sims for more on this).

We know that progress is not a snapshot; it is an unfolding panorama, a vista of a journey as opposed to the different stops on the way.

So, let’s dive further into the language itself; as mentioned above, we must look to avoid lethal mutations where concepts are dealt with or implemented with only surface level understanding – those who use them without understanding them dilute them or destroy them, as we see with many a Malapropism. Our training must support that necessary fundamental understanding, not just of the term but of the principles on which it is built – its pedagogical or cognitive etymology, if you will. For example, how many more experienced teachers out there who come to mentoring built around the entitlement of the Core Content Framework would refer to TS5 as Adaptive Teaching?... If that’s what the trainees are learning it is called, then the mentor too must use the language; there are no new ideas in education but not everybody knows the old ideas…

To return to Nuthall to augment the point – ‘method labels only approximately describe the realities of the classroom’; ‘ a great deal of misunderstanding comes from assuming that activities given the same name are the same activities’. See here again how that bridge must be forged; if the bridge is built from the ‘wrong’ materials then it is structurally unsound and the crossing from theory to practice will be fraught with danger. So what? Well, all ITE curricula must ensure the pre-service teacher (trainee, or what you will) gets  a full entitlement to the Core Content Framework statements – Learn That, Learn How To – but I see this as the undercoat, the sealant; it is not the gloss or top coat that represents the ‘finished product’; to create unique teachers we most foster that dialogue that enables that critical thinking and reflection, allowing those core beliefs and visions for teaching to shine through.

If we take the language of the CCF itself we encounter two types of statement; Learn That, which is the declarative intent of the framework, the theory, the generic core; and Learn How To – the procedural implementation, the practice, where the generic becomes domain-specific and is therefore adapted – with guardrails – to suit the environment. The language used in crossing that divide therefore must bring the theory to life in practice – it must enliven it, make it real. Remember, Frankenstein was the Doctor, the theorist; he wasn’t the Monster.

I next turn to the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer; Gadamer argued that successful communication requires that interlocutors (one of our synonyms for dialogue) share a common language. Gadamer felt that what makes ‘coming to an understanding’ possible is language, which provides the ‘mitte’, the middle ground, the place where understanding happens. For Gadamer, language becomes the ‘vermittlung’, the communicative mediation which establishes common ground. Gadamer stressed that the ground is not established by any explicit ‘social contract’ or agreement that can be negotiated in advance, nor by any psychological processes such as empathy or sympathy; it rests instead on a willingness of the participants in conversation to lend themselves to the emergence of something new – the subject matter that manifests in conversation. We know from the work of Erricsson and of Deans for Impact, among many others, that deliberate practice – which in essence much of a trainee’s progress towards targets is formed around – needs a shared language; feedback and the subsequent target guidance is received better when both giver and receiver have a common sense of what ‘success’ looks like and how to get there – shared language anchored in curriculum content. The agreed and shared language increases efficiency of dialogue and therefore removes the illusion of assumed communication; both sides of the formative dialogue need to understand what’s being said, with no hierarchy present or know-towed to beyond that of perspectives built on experiences. The curriculum itself must become the Lowest Common Denominator for the dialogue between mentor and trainee; the curriculum is Gadamer’s ‘vermittlung’; don’t dumb down the content for the trainee, but bring the trainee up to the level of the language – create a shared base on which can then be built targets and professional development.

It is important, nay essential, to maintain both internal and external curriculum coherence; internal coherence as the relationships and connections between the taught content and external coherence the relationships between the taught curriculum and its multitudinous implementers and enactors. Curriculum goals direct practice, which leads to observed performance - evaluated against those goals – which in turn allows for targeted feedback – shaped by the goals – that then guides further practice; a cycle of improvement. The curriculum becomes the lead weight to which are tethered the various helium balloons that represent stakeholders in trainee development; without being secured to the curriculum through the string of shared language and understanding they will float away.

To look at Kennedy, in her excellent ‘Professional Schools for Teachers’ paper; ‘content provides the stuff of deliberation; the frames of reference for interpreting situations, the value judgments for selecting goals, and the principles for choosing among competing actions.’ She goes on to remind us that ‘even a decision to reject a particular principle or concept requires awareness of the principle and how it could be applied to a situation’; we are confident to reject or dismiss ideas only when we understand them truly. She summarizes nicely by telling us that ‘content provides the language for describing and interpreting experiences. If each teacher were left to deliberate in private, conversations among teachers would resemble a Tower of Babel’.

One elephant in the room is that sometimes the act of mentoring can come with the threat to ones own practice or self-efficacy; there is a natural assumed hierarchy, as we have acknowledged, that comes with the Mentor / trainee relationship; however, to foster the dialogue that can drive mutual development – for that is what mentorship gives – that hierarchy must be removed; back to Freire and his call for humility. If we know we can always improve then mentorship becomes both a vocation and a gift; we are rewarded for our endeavours by having our practice gently questioned and our own classroom habits examined by someone who perhaps just wants to emulate us; we have to be sure we are modelling well, and modelling ‘right’.

Eraut looked at how thinking about knowledge – the declarative ‘Learn That’ element of the CCF perhaps – is focussed on codified knowledge; books, formality et al. He argued that performance is based on both this codified knowledge and the uncodified, the cultural knowledge; this latter is found in participation. Eruat’s thinking might manifest in ITE through a greater frequency and richness of collaborative working between mentors and trainees, sustained and greater coverage, greater access to the professional knowledge – and indeed pedagogical content knowledge – of teachers, and more frequent opportunities for dialogue and feedback. The mentor and trainee are co-workers here, not instructor and student. They work together to manifest those two magnificent ‘eff’ words in teaching – efficiency and effectiveness. On them is expertise built.

Like students with new content, trainees need multiple exposures to language in its many forms – they need to observe, understand and know the ways in which the language manifests in practice, striving for what Shulman referred to as ‘standards, not standardization’; ‘the great danger occurs, however, when a general teaching principle is distorted into prescription, when maxim becomes mandate’. Through this process we must remember that the mentor has to be ‘right for the role’; just because someone is a good teacher of children does not default them into being a good teacher of adults; if we align and support from the outset, allowing for context, nuance, an element of autonomy, professional trust and critical thinking, then we stand a greater chance of the union of Mentor and trainee being a positive one. In practice, this involves framing and orientation of all observable elements, especially those on which feedback will be given; all aspects of the implementation of the taught curriculum examined through the lens of the shared language – daily, weekly, monthly exposures and refreshers, and streamlined feedback methods using the mentor as an informed conduit for any ‘external’ comment or critique; if we offer training for all to calibrate and align communication (the vermittlung) at each level then we avoid Chinese Whispers or flawed filters; we seek the understandable truth.

Ostensibly, mentorship helps avoid professional and pedagogical stagnation and helps also to promote inquiry; habits can form in even the most experienced practitioners (Simms and Hobbiss), and mentorship encourages new framing of ideas – it’s the stick that stirs that aforementioned puddle. By promoting and consistently using a shared language in ITE we instil ‘good’ habits early on in the careers of teachers; we foster critical thinking, we make collaboration a positive strategy as opposed to a shared shifting of accountability. Beware collaboration, my Lord – it is often a myth, glimpsed in the aftermath of perceived success; ‘workload is increased through fragmentation, duplication of effort, proliferation of new ideas and a reluctance to challenge colleagues’ (Timperley & Robinson).

So, my rambles conclude; my final message being that these ideals of shared language, alignment, calibration and positive dialogue need not be a Utopian vision; by establishing a clear language base around curriculum concepts and their implementation in various settings we tune the respective sections of the orchestra. We must trial, test and practice our language use to develop fluency and efficiency; regular use, iterative refresher training, multiple exposures – all these mechanisms help reinforce the intention. Robin Alexander stated that teachers should be able to give a ‘coherent justification for their practices, citing i) evidence, ii) pedagogical principle, and iii) educational aim rather than offering the unsafe defence of compliance – anything else is educationally unsound’. By deepening understanding, mitigating lethal mutation through shallow implementation, providing training and a knowledge base that supports the use of language appropriately, we give purpose as opposed to ‘performance’; we believe in what we are saying in formative, professional dialogue – we aren’t just paying lip-service to terminology. Language identifies individuals but also helps to build coherent communities; trainees and mentors can still maintain their own identity and autonomy but operate within professional frameworks built on a core of shared understanding.

Let’s end with some quotations…

‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’; Ephesians 4:29

‘Craft is what enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired. The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. Art feeds my soul; craft feeds my family’ – Brain Eno

And, for luck, a favourite of mine: [on Teacher Educators] ‘our calling after all, is to shepherd and enable the callings of others’ (Ayers 2001).