“I’ll get by with a little help from my friends”: Learning from the past to understand the significance of opportunities for collaborative teacher learning in ITE

This blog post is drawn from part of a key note that I gave at the UCET (University Council for the Education of Teachers) Annual Conference in November 2016.  I chose to draw on the lyrics of John Lennon for my theme, because while each student teacher has to demonstrate individual competence against Teacher Standards (thus gaining QTS) and submits their own work for Masters level assessment (for the award of PGCE), we know that for many of them the opportunities to learn from and with others is critical in their professional and academic development.  In my keynote I considered the significance of learning through collaboration from initial teacher education, through to career long learning, and indeed our own opportunity as teacher educators for learning through collaboration.

I am drawing on the definition of collaboration which was used in a piece of research that Ulrike Thomas and I undertook a couple of years ago.

‘Collaboration is an action noun describing the act of working with one or more other people on a joint project. It can be conceptualised as ‘united labour’ and might result in something which has been created or enabled by the participants’ combined effort.’

In this blog post I will focus on Initial Teacher Education but with a twist. I am interested in what we can learn from the past, and I will draw on three narrative accounts to illustrate this.  We go back several decades in each case.

In the first story there was a young enthusiastic secondary history student teacher. She was studying at Sheffield University. One day at the start of the session her tutor arrives and tells the PGCE group that they have two hours before a minibus is collecting them to go to school to teach a large group of pupils about the Crimean war. By the time they had been dropped off at the school they were armed and ready. There was history, there was drama and of course some imaginary horses. A couple of decades later this was recounted as a particularly memorable early professional learning experience.

Our second story stars an equally young and enthusiastic PGCE primary student teacher. She attended Charlotte Mason College and on this occasion she was taken out of the Lake District to Manchester alongside her peers. On arrival they staged a school take-over. The student teachers were now in charge. They had to quickly orientate themselves to a new and unknown school and then in groups of five or six they had to work as a team to teach a primary class for three days. What this student teacher remembers are the resulting role-plays, simulations and debates about local issues.  Pupils and student teachers were engaged in an immersive learning scenario and there wasn’t a text book or standardised summative assessment that could help them. Twenty-five years later this school take-over is considered to have been a high impact experience for professional learning.

Both of these stories were shared during a small focus group I was conducting for a piece of research on the relationships between developing educational practices and professional learning. Both of the focus group participants are now teacher educators, and indeed hold senior roles in their respective institutions.  With their permission I can share their identities. It was Kerry Jordan-Daus, now of Canterbury Christ Church University who led the charge in the Crimean War episode, and Sam Twisleton of Sheffield Hallam University who was jointly responsible for the school take-over.  They have clearly never looked back.

Kerry Jordan-Daus

During our focus group we analysed what had made these events stand out in long careers of professional learning.  Kerry believed that there was significance in the “Safety in numbers, which allowed [the student teachers] to be creative, to take risks.” She stated that “Collectively we were experts;

some of us knew something about the Crimean War, some of us were drama queens.  We pooled our knowledge and did something incredibly exciting.” Sam reflected on how “We were working intensively together, we were all in there”.  She went on talk about the importance of “observing each other informally, stopping to talk about what we were doing as the learning unfolded.  This allowed us to get inside the teachable moments, creating a dialogic creative context based on a lot of peer constructed learning.” 

Sam Twisleton

So, what about my memories of PGCE? Well, I am sure it would no longer be the ‘done thing’ for my tutor (then David Leat) to arrive at a school with a spiral notebook to observe my lesson and ask afterwards if I’d like the notes ripped out for their later reference. I have a folder in my attic with these and other artefacts from my PGCE and there are no tracking documents, no standards referenced reports and no action plans.  I do however have very strong memories of problem solving lessons with David, indeed at one point a piece of turf from his garden was drying out on his log burner to simulate desertification for a lesson I was due to teach. Some of my most lasting memories of learning during my PGCE, like Sam and Kerry’s, include those associated with collaboration, with tutors, mentors and peers.

The Geography PGCE cohort of 1990-1, Newcastle University, with our tutor David Leat.

So, by luck, design and desire people like Sam, Kerry and I now have a responsibility for today’s student teachers. Unlike us they are exposed to QTS standards, target setting, the implications of OFSTED, new and not fully tested routes into teaching, and other controls on the ITE system.  Add to that the fact that in any mixed group some are sitting on generous bursaries and others are scraping by. How do we, in this complex and in many ways fractured initial teacher education sector, ensure that our current student teachers learn from the sorts of experiences that Kerry and Sam suggest had so much impact on power? How do we create modern day collaborative learning experiences in which our student teachers will experience solidarity with each other and with the learners, will be given permission to be productively creative and do so in a safe space in which each of them can become the best teacher they can be?

Some of our current Newcastle University PGCE students

In a subsequent blog post I will start to address this question, illustrating how we support student teachers to learn through productive collaborative learning opportunities. You might ask why this matters when it is the individual who is awarded the professional qualification and has to stand on their own feet in their classrooms as teachers.  Well, I will address that too. It’s not just about adding a social experience to build in more fun, but because learning as a social practice can make a world of difference in challenging contexts like the teaching profession.

Written by Dr Rachel LofthouseHead of Education, Newcastle University.

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