Harry Fletcher-Wood, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

In our previous post I suggested the planning of teacher education should begin by looking at what we hope teachers will do and where their current strengths lie. So having identified the goals, how can we go about designing learning that enables teachers to meet them?

We might need to look at:

  • Improving knowledge: the ability to make good decisions as teachers
  • Changing behaviour: the way we put those decisions into practice
  • The social setup and the context: ways to tailor decisions and behaviours to the school, the class, and the moment

Designing learning for teachers is little different to designing for anyone else. What’s being learned may be specific to teaching, but how teachers will learn is not. So we can use what we know from cognitive psychology – the science of learning – to design great learning for teachers.

Two examples stand out for me:

  1. Novices think differently to experts

Experts – just like top sports players –  seem to act fluidly and intuitively. Their experience and knowledge allows them to perceive what’s happening differently. Experts can look at a problem and just ‘know’ how to respond, whereas novices have to painstakingly work out the solution.

A novice benefits from seeing models and being explicitly taught and supported in their thinking. An expert can learn from experience and solving problems, linking them to their existing knowledge.

Teacher educators need to respect the knowledge and experience teachers have, but that doesn’t mean treating newer teachers as experts. When planning, teacher educators may want to design clear instruction for novices, with carefully chosen models of good practice; whilst planning different activities for the more experienced teachers that are more suited to experts.

  1. Expertise is specific to a field

A great doctor may make a poor teacher, and vice versa. Expertise is even more specific than this: effective heart surgeons will struggle if asked to operate on the ankle, and a secondary history teacher will find teaching maths, Reception or even an unfamiliar course challenging. This is because it’s very hard to transfer knowledge and skill to a new context: what I know about helping students understand the causes of the English Civil War will do little to help them understand how to divide fractions.

We need to make sure our teacher education is taking this into account, by fitting it to teachers’ subjects and schools – as much as we can. New learning is linked in our minds to the context in which it’s learned: rather than asking teachers to transfer new ideas to their subject and their classroom, wherever possible we should teach them in that context.

If you’re interested in reading about this subject in a bit more detail have a look at the third section of my paper, Designing Professional Development for Teachers, Designing learning for teachers

In our next blog….

We explore the use of deliberate practice in supporting teachers.

Find out about how we’re putting our research on professional development into action on our Fellowship in Teacher Education, run by Harry.