We’ve all heard the aphorism ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’; originally coined by George Bernard Shaw in 1903 in his drama ‘The man and superman’. Surprisingly, there may be some truth to untangle from this statement, because quite frankly, many of those that teach, particularly in Further Education, currently ‘cannot’ in my opinion. Not through lack of ability, rather the paradox that currently exists in FE.
Following the Lingfield Report (2012), the 2007 Further Education Teachers’ Regulations were scrapped, leaving the FE and Skills sector without the legal requirement to have qualified teachers. This was a controversial and ironic decision due to the update of the Common Inspection Framework (2012) in the same year which laid out a relentless focus on teaching and learning. Consequently, teachers in FE were required to fulfill the dual role of being a vocational expert and expert teacher (though not necessarily a qualified one). 2014 saw the introduction of a shiny new set of professional standards courtesy of the Education and Training Foundation. They consisted of a set of values, skills and knowledge that all FE teachers should aspire to. Yet much of the focus is pedagogical.
Shulman’s (1986) framework for effective teachers characterises three knowledge bases. This includes; content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Content knowledge is the specialist subject knowledge applicable to the vocation (i.e. vocational expertise). General pedagogical knowledge to the layperson is essentially knowing about teaching and learning theories and practices. PCK was coined because not only do teachers have to know and understand the content knowledge, but also how to teach that specific content effectively within the context of the learning and be able to adapt for alternative conceptions.
So, in order to teach effectively, teachers have the challenging task of trying to become experts in three fields. It is said (Berliner, 1994) that experts generally excel in a particular domain, develop automaticity and have a faster and more accurate pattern recognition, compared to novices, but becoming an expert is difficult and it takes time in one domain, let alone three!
All teachers must be aware of these three knowledge bases and be given the opportunity to develop each aspect. However, FE teachers are at a disadvantage compared to their primary and secondary counterparts. Whilst core knowledge of traditional primary and secondary subjects arguably remain stable, FE teachers are teaching content that is constantly changing. Take for instance Automotive teachers. The industry is undergoing a significant change (with hybrid and electric cars). In some cases, teachers haven’t been a technician for over a decade, so they may well be experts when it comes to traditional motor engines, but need to upskill with modern engines. In many cases, their experience of teaching may have allowed them to develop their PCK and general pedagogical knowledge however, which leaves the sector with a dilemma. Do the current teachers train in this new area of the automotive industry, without the experience of working with the cars, but possibly with a good knowledge of pedagogy, or do FE providers recruit new teachers with fresh content knowledge, but no general pedagogical knowledge, thus no PCK?
This evolution is not exclusive to automotive industry, think hair and beauty, engineering and construction. All of these vocational areas are undergoing regular changes. There is a real need to upskill and evolve the content knowledge.
Then there is the general pedagogical knowledge and PCK to contend with. Without compulsory teacher training, FE teachers are at risk of not having the underpinning pedagogical knowledge to allow them to be reflective practitioners and ‘work out what works’ with their learners. Even with qualifications, CPD in the sector leaves much to be desired, often having little emphasis on pedagogical theory, rather practical strategies with limited evidence base are prescribed and their impact measured immediately. How can FE teachers become pedagogical experts?
Firstly, there needs to be investment of time and space for teachers to work with one another and engage in a community of practice. When referring to the well-established Teacher Learning Communities, Dylan Wiliam contends that teachers need at least two years to change their habits and see improvements in learning. Therefore, unlike the expectations of traditional models of CPD, expecting immediate returns from investment would be absurd.
There also needs to be accountability. A set of standards is not enough. This article highlights the complexity of teaching in the FE and Skills sector and therefore, teachers within the sector must take responsibility and be accountable for making improvements. This might be done through internal professional development schemes with a focus on:
- Improving technical expertise. To do this, teachers need to be given the time to work in industry at least a day per term. This, will allow them to upskill and maintain their knowledge of industry.
- Improving pedagogical knowledge. Aside from ensuring that all FE teachers become qualified, this also requires teachers working together in teams to discuss, action and practice things that have demonstrated more effectiveness in the classroom. There must be an evidence base and opportunities for teachers to critically assess each theory/practice for its suitability, not be told how to teach.
- Improving PCK. This comes from reflecting on the above. Within Teacher Learning Communities, teachers should work out what works in their context. They should aim to explore the common misconceptions with the specific learning material and develop alternative ways to deliver the concepts.
As can be seen, teaching in the FE and Skills Sector is an extremely complex task and it is not always appreciated, yet given the right conditions, it might just be possible to have expert FE teachers.