When did you learn to teach? Seems like a simple question but I bet it’s a convoluted answer. As far as every employer I’ve ever had knows I learnt to teach between September 1995 and June 1996 when I completed my Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) in physical education at West London Institute of Higher Education. That’s what my CV says anyway. 

But that’s far too simple. I learnt from my days as a pupil. I learnt what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teaching was and then I made a lot of stuff up. I learnt during my undergraduate degree and during my two years working in my old school prior to my PGCE and then I learnt during my secondary school teaching career. Fine. But when did I learn to teach teachers? 
My daughter explains to people that I am a PE teacher who teachers PE teachers. Which is an accurate representation of my role but when did I learn to do this? The truth is, I didn’t. I taught my first teacher before I learnt how to do it. My fifteen years of secondary school teaching, my masters’ degree and my soon-to-be-finished PhD were learning enough for my employer. Instead, I walked into the existing curriculum, took up my designated lectures, and adopted the sessions used by my predecessor in the previous year. 

Tim Fletcher and I wrote about this type of experience in our 2012 paper “Trading Places: From Physical Education Teachers to Teacher Educators” in the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education so I won’t elaborate too much here. It’s enough to say that we drew on diverse sources of knowledge and understanding to develop our practices and trusted what had gone before. But was this the right way of learning to teach teachers? I think I’ve done some really good work, but I do regret the convoluted and haphazard way I’ve come to my understanding and developed my personal pedagogy of teacher education and shaped our institutional approach to teaching teachers.  That said, it’s never too late to learn. You can teach an old dog new tricks and this paper certainly made me think. I’d like to thank the anonymous respondent who recommended this week’s paper to me, as I don’t think I would ever have read it and I am better for the experience. If you have something you think I should read and blog about please let me know. 

The Paper

Kennedy’s work challenges teacher educators in particular to think about the ways in which we teach teachers. While the paper is aimed at teaching teachers, I think there are some great “takeaways” for teachers as well because they have all gone through programmes that will, in all probability, have adopted one of the three ways Kennedy talks about for splitting teaching as an action into individual and teachable parts. 

The earliest attempt to partition teaching occurred in the 1920s when researchers sought to “identify all the activities teachers did.” This resulted in more a than a thousand items that were then sorted into seven broad categories: classroom instruction, school and class management, supervision of extra-curricular activities, relationships among staff, relations with the school community, professional advancement, and maintenance of the school plant and supplies. While this list identified “common teaching activities independent of students, settings and subjects” it failed to distinguish between what good and bad teachers did.  In addition, it failed to say why teachers did these things or why they were so important in the overall process of teaching. 

Another attempt to partition teaching came in the 1960s and 70s when researchers tried to determine the process-product of teaching i.e., what teachers did while working with students. In doing so they developed a to-do-list of 22 moves that mattered in terms of student learning. For example: “the teacher should use a standard and predictable signal to get the children’s attention” or “the teacher should have the children repeat new words or sounds until they are said satisfactorily.” While these moves were small and easy to use, they were mainly focused on student management and motivation and didn’t address instruction nor learning. 

Most recently, researchers have tried to identify core practices and then articulate what they might look like in a classroom. Using history as an example, Kennedy suggest that core practices lead historians, as an example, to select and adapt historical sources, model and support historical writing, employ historical evidence etc. In presenting these core practices, proponents argue that teachers need to use more judgement and are required to adapt their practices to different classes and students. Despite the advantages, teaching these practices to novice teachers is still “procedural” and their “ultimate purpose is overlooked.”  

In arguing for an alternative approach, Kennedy contended “throughout our history, we have tried to define the practice of teaching in terms of lists of specific bodies of knowledge or lists of specific behaviours rather than in terms of what those behaviours are intended to achieve… we have misplaced our focus on the actions we see; when what is needed is a focus on the purpose those actions serve.” In shifting our thinking towards actions Kennedy proposes five universally persistent challenges face by nearly all teachers:   

Portraying the Curriculum – The first persistent challenge is how to present the inert curriculum, contained as it is in books and curricula documents, to naïve minds. Teachers need to bring life to the ideas on the page. They do this through reading, solving problems, writing, gathering data, and so forth. The process begins before the school year begins and continues each semester, term, week and day. The plans teachers make represent their vision for the lesson and are neither correct nor carbon copies of what has been done before. No lesson plan nor lesson is the right way of bringing the curriculum to life as, we could argue, we would all do it differently. “Focusing on approaches to portraying a piece of curriculum dramatically shift conversations about best practice away from prescribed moves and towards analysis of how well different alternatives serve this broader purpose.”   

Enlisting Student Participation – The second persistent challenge focuses on the idea that “education is mandatory, but learning is not.” Put differently, the success of education depends entirely on the willingness of students to learn. Some may engage, some may resist, and some may cooperate by agreeing not to disrupt a lesson. If a teacher is unable to engage then they need to foster cooperation. Some of that comes from the teacher themselves and some from the school’s systems. The biggest problem is that “school learning requires what Kahneman (2011) called “slow thinking”; the kind of thinking that requires concentration and effort.” It’s hard work, especially when compared to the “fast thinking” that occurs in life outside the classroom. 

Exposing Student Thinking – The third persistent challenge is that teachers can never be sure what students have learnt. What do they understand, not understand, partially understand? Without this knowledge do teachers repeat, move on or elaborate? While end of unit tests give us some answers they are often too late to impact on learning as the moment has passed. The most important knowledge for teachers, Kennedy argues, is the knowledge they have in the moment for this helps them to take their next steps. But how to garner that knowledge? By exposing students thinking. 

Containing Student Behaviour – The fourth persistent challenge is containment. Teachers need to ensure that lessons are safe and that students aren’t distracting their peers nor their teacher from the lesson. This involved rules and routines. It involves preventing and pre-empting misbehaviour and then dealing with any that occurs. 

Accommodating Personal Needs – The final persistent challenge for teachers is doing all of the above whilst remaining consistent with their own personalities and individual needs. Some teachers, for example, need a well ordered and quiet classroom while others thrive in noise and chaos. As such, the teacher needs to feel able to create their own environment rather than being forced to either stick to a departmental or school norm or answer questions about “how they can work like this?”

By focusing on these persistent challenges, teachers and teacher educators are considering the aspects of teaching that they will face in their classrooms. Where previously we have looked at the core practices and to-do-lists now we can look at the individualised challenges teachers face and help them (and ourselves) to find bespoke solutions. Knowing and understanding that teaching takes place in local contexts, each of which is different to even its closest neighbour, means we can focus on individual practices and not on tips and tricks. In short, we can see the whole and not just the bits and pieces. 

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Kennedy, M. (2016). Parsing the Practice of Teaching, Journal of Teacher Education, 67(1): 6017