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Theory, practice and professionalism in teacher education

Nora Hughes, Anne Paton and Irene Schwab outline the principles that underpin the professionalising of the Skills for Life workforce.

The emerging professionalisation of the Skills for Life workforce has prompted two key questions:

  • What does it mean to be a professional?
  • How can teaching skills and subject knowledge be integrated in teacher education programmes?

When developing the PGCE Adult Literacy/ESOL at the Institute of Education, we came up with the following principles:

  • An important part of being a professional is adopting an open, questioning approach to the field in which we work, including our own contribution to it.
  • Being an effective teacher - or teacher educator - depends on integrating teaching skills and subject knowledge, and applying them creatively.
  • Teacher education must enable teachers to develop and sustain the confidence and skills to be creative, critical, reflective practitioners.

We have aimed to embed these principles in our PGCE programme.

Adopting a questioning  approach

Hard-pressed teachers do what they feel works for them and the learners they work with, thinking, perhaps, that they do not always have time to explore the theoretical basis of a chosen approach. Yet every teacher's practice is informed by beliefs and theories, whether self-generated or learned from elsewhere. One of our aims on the PGCE is to enable teachers to uncover these underlying beliefs and reassess them in the light of theory and research. 

Teachers need access to ongoing debates in their field, and the confidence to make choices based on a full understanding of available options. For example, in order to use the Core Curriculum effectively, we need to understand its theoretical basis and to know how this fits with other viewpoints. 

Teacher educators also have a role to play in enabling teachers to explore their subject in its social, political and historical context. To be effective practitioners, we must extend the same critical tools to the contexts in which we work - the classroom, the institution and the wider society. While welcoming the funding, resources, status and training opportunities offered by the current government initiative, it is our professional respons-ibility to examine this too through a critical lens and compare it with other options. 

A central goal of the Skills for Life strategy has been to set out, in the form of 'subject specifications', the subject knowledge that professional teachers need. In the PGCE Adult Literacy/ESOL we take a positive, critical approach to these, seeing them as working documents to which we have a responsibility to contribute. For example, we aim to redress what we see as an imbalance in the 'theoretical frameworks' section of the documents, by adding 'discourse', as a category in its own right, to the current ones of 'grammar' and 'lexis', which on their own create a distorted picture of the nature of language.  

All this demands openness and a spirit of enquiry, which are the essence of professionalism in its broadest sense. Education is not an exact science but a complex human process, and we, the trainers, do not have all the answers. Our role is to raise questions, to elicit responses and to suggest positive ways forward. 

A teacher education course provides opportunities for the productive exchange of ideas, enabling us to scrutinise received wisdom and consider our responses. The PGCE Adult Literacy/ESOL is designed to provide an additional opportunity for exchange, by allowing ESOL and Literacy teachers to learn from each other's work in their separate, but closely related, fields. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, they offer a range of experience and expertise, and look to each other as well as to their tutors for ideas and insights, particularly those relating to practical teaching. Theoretical knowledge may be sought primarily from tutors, but the group is a valuable resource for developing it. 

Integrating teaching skills and subject knowledge

The specialist nature of ESOL and adult literacy methodologies makes any separation of pedagogy from subject knowledge artificial. Language and literacy, as the basic tools of communication, require a specific repertoire of teaching skills and approaches. Examples include techniques for teaching aspects of pronunciation (in ESOL) and using the 'language experience' approach with beginning readers and writers (in both literacy and ESOL). The lack of emphasis on methodology in the subject specifications makes it particularly important to approach it in a specialised way through the generic aspects of teaching and learning. 

Developing understanding of an aspect of language can, in the words of one teacher, 'change the whole landscape'. As teacher educators, we need to ensure that the ways in which the subject knowledge can be put to use are consistently made explicit.  Possible strategies for training sessions include the following.

  • Using  activities related to teachers' working lives, such as evaluating published resources, analysing learners' use of language, or devising  materials or activities. 
  • Including learning activities which can be used, or perhaps adapted, for ESOL or literacy students, such as sorting activities or revision games.
  • Modelling strategies for instruction-giving, checking understanding, using different interaction patterns and feedback techniques.
  • Using the strategy referred to by Tessa Woodward (1991) as 'loop input', where course participants learn, for example, about writing through a series of writing activities, or about group learning through a sequence of group tasks.

We often ask participants to experiment with an approach or technique and to report back on their findings in an input session. This strategy has been further developed in research-based course assignments in which teachers apply theories to their own practice and report their findings. 

Becoming confident, critical, reflective practitioners 

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of ensuring that theory is embedded into practice is the observation of teaching, where trainee teachers are encouraged to experiment with new ideas and to address undeveloped aspects of their own practice, and are confident that they will receive feedback which acknowledges their areas of expertise and takes their stated concerns as a starting point. Their managers are not involved and the process of lesson observation during a teacher training course is relatively non-judgmental (as far as it can be within the framework of assessment and quality assurance). A dialogue can take place between the observed and the observer, in which both parties learn more about the contexts of teaching and learning and the links between theory and practice. For example, the observed teacher may have more expertise than the observer in working with particular groups of learners, such as the 14 to 16 age group, or they may be more skilled in using infomation and learning technology.

Such an approach to the observation process is vital in developing the self-confidence, open-mindedness and analytical skills which underpin the best professional practice and ensure development beyond the confines of the course. Through the observations, assignments and course sessions, teachers are invited to recognise themselves as contributors to our field of knowledge and expertise rather than as recipients or consumers.   

Learning and teaching as dialogue

Adult literacy and ESOL learners bring with them a rich store of knowledge, understanding and skills, which teachers must recognise and celebrate. It is the learners who are the real 'experts' on the meaning and purpose of language and literacy in their lives. Effective pedagogy draws on the insights and expertise of both learner and teacher. In the PGCE Adult Literacy/ESOL we aim to put this principle into practice.  


Woodward, T. (1991) Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies, Cambridge University Press

Nora Hughes, Anne Paton and Irene Schwab run  teacher education programmes at the Institute of  Education, University of London.

Do you have suggestions how these principles might be further embedded in the development of teacher education in this field?  Please contact us at n.hughes@ioe.ac.uk

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