(1) Setting the Scene

This is the first extract from our Book of the Week How do Expert Primary Classteachers really Work? A Critical Guide for Teachers, Headteachers and Teacher Educators by Tony Eaude.

The regular classroom teacher is confronted, not with a single patient, but with a classroom filled with 25 to 35 youngsters. The teacher’s goals are multiple … Even in the ubiquitous primary reading group, the teacher must simultaneously be concerned with the learning of decoding skills as well as comprehension, with motivation and love of reading as well as word-attack, and must monitor the performance of the six to eight students in front of her while not losing touch with the other two dozen in the room … The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.

(Shulman, 2004, p 504)

I wonder how you respond to this quotation. Do you see the role of a primary classteacher as comparable to that of a Doctor? Or a lawyer? Or a scientist? Most people would think that teaching a class of young children is far easier, as reflected in status and salary. This book argues that Shulman is right and explores why. This is not a manual of how to teach reading, or science, or art, but an exploration of how classteachers with a high level of expertise with young children really work and the challenges they face. It is based on three core beliefs, that:

  • as Fullan (1991, p 117) writes, educational change depends on what teachers do and think. It’s as simple and complex as that;
  • teaching young children is profoundly important and complicated, but poorly understood; and
  • ideas related to expertise are helpful in understanding how this is done well and encouraging classteachers to think more deeply about their work.

This book is therefore written to encourage teachers, headteachers and teacher educators, and others outside the profession, to think critically about how classteachers can enhance young children’s learning and their lives; and to help raise the status of those who teach them.

Long regarded patronisingly as women’s work, and often linked more to care than education, teaching young children was long seen as not requiring much training, qualification or intellect – or certainly not as much as teaching older children. In case you think that this attitude has disappeared, you need only recall the idea of ‘Mum’s army’ in the early 1990s or look at the pay structure where those teaching the youngest children earn least. Stories of those moving to teach younger children being asked why they have been demoted are still common.

This book presents a very different view and challenges many widely held assumptions. These, and the language in which they are framed, shape how we have come to think about teaching and learning. For instance, an emphasis on ‘what works’ and ‘effectiveness’, however seductive, fails to recognise that these make sense only in reference to what one seeks to achieve; and that the aims of education are multiple and, at times, contradictory.

To see teaching as reducible to a series of competences underplays the extent to which expertise consists of subtle and interlinked features, hard to assess on the observation of one lesson, or even a few. The language of ‘delivery’ implies a view of knowledge as factual, like a box of groceries, and of teaching as mainly involving transmission. All of these assumptions should, I believe, be questioned.

Compliance and prescription

My interest in teacher expertise stems from my own experience as a teacher, a headteacher and someone involved in leading professional development for teachers and students. I became concerned about how children in primary schools were being taught and how their teachers approached and understood their role. This involves what the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010) has called a culture of compliance, where teachers are told how to teach and children expected to conform.

Most teachers in primary schools have come to accept being told (often by those with little knowledge or recent experience of teaching young children) how to teach, with a prescribed model based on simple and largely non-negotiable guidance, with a strong emphasis on content and outcomes in literacy and numeracy. Ofsted inspection teams and the new Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2012) tend to see ‘outstanding’ teaching as based on ‘what works’ in raising scores in literacy and numeracy, without distinguishing how individuals may work in different ways, depending on the age of the children, the context and the objectives to be met. In contrast, this book suggests that teachers should constantly reflect on these for themselves and with other colleagues, to make judgements about how to teach, based on practical and theoretical knowledge and experience.

Teachers’ suspicion of pedagogy 

As the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010, p 55) argues, teachers should work towards a pedagogy of repertoire rather than recipe and of principle rather than prescription. This involves teachers exercising choice and judgement based on a wide and deep knowledge both of learning and teaching, constantly developing this and not being inhibited from doing so. Without this, it is hard to see how teaching can claim a status comparable to other professions.

No one would consult a doctor who did not keep up with medical research, or go to a lawyer who ignored recent judgements. And it would cause an outcry if the government prescribed how a doctor conducted an operation. Yet, such an approach seems acceptable in teaching. This appears to be linked to teachers’ suspicion of theory and research – and to being so busy that there is little time for reading and reflection. This leaves the profession open to the view that ‘anyone can teach’ and makes it harder for teachers to argue for ‘a high level of autonomy’ and to provide a rationale for practices which will ‘prioritise the client’s welfare’, two characteristics of professionalism which John (2008, p 12) identifies.

Teachers, especially in primary schools, have always found it hard and been reluctant to articulate what constitutes good practice, especially in teaching a class over a whole year, and to engage with the detail of pedagogy. This is reflected in the titles of Simon’s article ‘Why No Pedagogy?’ (1981) and Alexander’s ‘Still Why No Pedagogy?’ (2004). Yet mastery of a knowledge base requiring a long period of training is another characteristic of a profession identified by John (2008, p 12). Teachers’ distrust of the term ‘pedagogy’ was illustrated by the comment of an experienced ex-colleague (and friend) who said that she would not read my book, Thinking through Pedagogy for Primary and Early Years (Eaude, 2011), as she had always avoided any reference to pedagogy.

The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010, p 280) provides a useful definition of pedagogy as:

the act of teaching together with its attendant discourse of educational theories, values, evidence and justifications. It is what one needs to know, and the skills one needs to command, in order to make and justify the many different kinds of decision of which teaching is constituted. 

This frame of reference, which does not equate teaching with instruction has, as the Review continues, been taken for granted for centuries in other countries, but not in England. The stronger traditions of pedagogy in systems such as those in Germany and the Scandinavian countries have provided a greater degree of assurance among teachers of how to teach; and with it some protection from the demands of politicians to teach in particular ways. Teacher expertise I was introduced to the extensive literature, mostly from the USA , on expertise and teacher expertise, which provides the basis for this book, by reading chapter 21 of the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010, pp 406–36). You may be uneasy, as I am, with the idea of a teacher ‘being an expert’, and not just because of the self-deprecation characteristic of most of those who teach young children. The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010, p 416) cites research which characterises five different stages of the development of expertise, on a continuum from novice, to advanced beginner, to competent, to proficient and to expert. But the idea of ‘novices’ and ‘experts’ in an activity as complex as teaching does not feel quite right to me. It is unlikely that someone will teach geography and maths equally well to the same group of ten year-olds or will have the same level of expertise with nine year-olds as with five year-olds, or that those in an affluent area will operate as successfully in an inner-city school – or vice versa. Any teacher’s expertise will differ according to subject area, context and the children’s background and culture. This leads me to talk of teachers with a high level of expertise rather than expert teachers, as such. However, when not specifically discussing teachers, I tend to stick to the term ‘experts’.

Another significant influence in writing this book has been the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP ), a large-scale, cross-phase project, which suggested three fundamental changes of thinking, applicable to learners of all ages (TLRP , 2006). These are that:

  • learning processes, as distinct from learning contexts, do not fundamentally change as children become adults and that pedagogy has the advantage of highlighting the contingent nature of effective teaching i.e. the interventions of teachers or trainers are most effective when they are planned in response to how learners are learning;
  • the conception of what is to be learned needs to be broadened beyond the notions of curricula and subjects associated with schools; and
  • more prominence needs to be given to the importance of learning relationships.

I shall suggest that all three are especially important in teaching young children. However, neither the TLRP nor Pollard (2010), which draws on its work thoughtfully and succinctly, address what is distinctive about particular phases. This book tries to open up discussion on the challenges of teaching a class of young children, drawing on research on:

  • expertise in general and teacher expertise in particular; and
  • young children’s learning and development from infancy upwards, emphasising the social and emotional aspects of learning and the personal and interpersonal aspects of teaching.

This is in the belief that these provide a sounder basis for understanding learning and teaching since the underlying patterns of learning and behaviour are established in the early years of life; and that teachers have to take account of such influences in how they teach.

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