Teaching Teachers – a silly idea? (ResearchED 2016)

Here’s a rough outline of the talk I gave at ResearchED 2016, on Saturday 10th September.



As I move further into teacher education, I feel it behoves me to know something of its history.  To that end I’ve begun a tentative foray into its story, and although I don’t know enough yet to speak about it with the same degree of confidence that I would my usual subjects, there are a few points that have informed or even surprised me, and I would like to share them now to see if we can’t get a sense of where we’ve been, which explains where we are, and informs where we need to go next.

Here are some of the books and papers that I’ll be referring to.  The dominant ‘narrative’ I’m relaying is provided by Elizabeth Green – with a little of my own thoughts and feelings mapped onto it.  Many of the points I make or the quotes I use are referenced in her work.



First, I might argue that the perspective of a trainee teacher today looks a little like this:


ITE Today

We have no codified body of knowledge for trainees to study, and instead we place them in front of a few dozen people with experience or even expertise, who them proceed to dispense with bits and pieces of accrued wisdom.  Disjointed, and unrelated.  The result is noise.

I would suggest we need to structure our work better so that the experience of the trainee looks a little more like this, where a structure to the ‘bits and pieces’ can be seen, along with a relationship between them.  This can be studied and developed systematically, over time.


ITE as it should be

Next, here are a few quotes that tell a certain story.

“No-one can really tell you how to teach… you have to figure it out for yourself.”

This one is from my own training, and it might be familiar to you.  Perhaps it was said to you; perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.

“I’m so happy I don’t have to work with those dumb-ass teachers!”

This one is taken from the early 80s, and probably won’t be familiar to you.

We’ll come back to that one later.

“Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.”

This is over a century old now.

We can thank Bernard Shaw for that.  And of course we’ve seen modified to:

“Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

And what I see here, is a running theme of disdain.  Disdain for teaching, for teachers, and for those who associate themselves with the work.  This will be important in understanding how on Earth we come to where we are after a hundred years of universal education.

If we go back to the early 18th century, we will find that there are no schools.  Not really, not as we understand them, at least.  There may be a handful of church run institutions concerned with instruction in the Bible, but serious education was the preserve of a wealthy elite, usually delivered through one to one tuition.  This is important, because of course if you’re drafted in to teach the children of the wealthy, they are probably of above average intellect.  Furthermore, in a one to one setting you can directly interrogate what the pupil has and has not apprehended, question them, engage in discussion, much of which will likely be Socratic.

Of course, when you’re attempting to teach every child, and you’re now attempting to do it in batches of 20-50, suddenly those same simple methods cannot work, and its necessary to think deeply about how to manage that group environment and about how to deliver instruction such that every child has a high probability of correctly understanding your meaning, immediately.  Strategies must also then be in place for assessing a mass of pupils, and responding to a potential range of misconceptions.

As we progress across the 19th century we build an increasingly universal system of education, one thus requiring inquiry into the above.

Fast forward to 1948, and enter Nathaniel Gage.  Nate Gage is described as a man of charm and charisma, that seems to evaporate the moment he tries to teach.  Wishing to rectify this, and reasonably assuming that after half a century of study the literature must have something to say about effective teaching, he looks at the existing research.


Nathaniel Gage (1917 – 2008)

What he discovers, is a hodgepodge of work that says little at all about good teaching.  Instead, it tries desperately to draw correlations between good teachers and their personal characteristics.  Good teachers might be, for example:

  • Warm
  • Organsed
  • Radical
  • Enthusiastic
  • Sociable
  • Interested in their subject
  • Emotionally sensitive
  • Bohemian
  • Worryingly suspicious…

Alternatively, we could look at:

  • Age
  • Experience
  • Eye colour
  • Clothing style
  • Strength of grip…

5 - Strength of Grip.png

Is strength of grip important to good teaching…?

Conclusions, if they existed at all, were often completely contradictory (sound familiar…) or vague and unhelpful.

One paper, for example, concluded that teachers must be:

“Friendly, cheerful, sympathetic and morally virtuous…”

And if you’re worried that that doesn’t offer much advice, worry no more, its authors clarify:

“…rather than cruel, depressed, unsympathetic and morally depraved.”

My favourite, however, concluded that the best teachers exhibit:

“Teaching skill.”

See here for a quote from Herbert Simon criticising this kind of circular reasoning.

So this is the world Nate Gage found himself in.  In his words:

“The simple matter of fact is that, after 40 years of research on teacher effectiveness during which a vast number of studies have been carried out, one can point to few outcomes that a superintendent of schools can safely employ in hiring a teacher or granting him tenure, that an agency can employ in certifying teachers, or that a teacher-education faculty can employ in planning or improving teacher-education programmes.”

Why?  Why had all this work so supremely failed?

One suggestion Green makes is to look back to the origins of educational psychology.  There, we see the roots of that disdain I mentioned earlier.

William James (1842-1910), for example is quote as saying:

“Educational psychology? I think there are about six weeks of it.”


William James (1842 – 1910)

While his student, Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) is quoted as saying:

“The bane of my life is the practice school they stuck me with.”

7 - Ed Thorndike.jpg

Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949)

These were men who didn’t seem to take school teaching seriously at all.  They were working at a time when experimental psychology was still struggling to have itself taken seriously as a science, and I can only assume the last thing they felt they needed was to be associated with low-level school teaching!  It’s fascinating, as Thorndike is otherwise considered one of the earliest thinkers in human learning, even creating ‘the law of disuse‘ that Robert Bjork has much more recently co-opted into the far more powerful ‘New Theory of Disuse.’  (Try this for something far more accessible.)

So, these serious psychologists struggling to be taken seriously had no interest in really researching and working with school teachers.  To them, it was a chore to be stuck with a school; they wanted to get on with the serious business of psychological research.

This left Gage with the task of figuring this teaching stuff out for himself, and to understand what happened next, we need to take a quick look at his lineage.

8 - Behaviourists.JPG

The Behaviourists

Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, Gage.  Nate was a behaviourist.  Behaviourism held that to be an objective science, psychology could only seek to measure that which was objectively measurable.  It could observe inputs (stimuli) and outputs (behaviours) and correlate the two, but the ‘mind’ was a black box, impervious to observation.  While later behaviourists such as Skinner did allow for a concept of mind, it was viewed only as a convenient fiction to help understand the correlations, not as a real object of study in its own right.

This means that Gage’s approach was to assemble a team, record good teachers teaching, and then analyse hundreds of hours of footage looking for common behaviours.

Just like Doug Lemov.

Here we get to my first surprise.  How could it be that Lemov found himself needing to 60 year old work of Nathaniel Gage…?!

Even worse, as I watch Lemov’s detractors argue that the approach is ‘behaviourist,’ or ‘shallow,’ or that we cannot write ‘a simple formula’ for teachers to follow; and I think of my own experience and just how much Lemov’s work supported and developed me as a teacher, and all the great teachers I’ve seen who are where they are thanks to Lemov; as I consider just how clearly necessary this work is, and then I consider that we are replicating forgotten work, decades on… I cannot help but feel anger and pity towards those who would see it brushed aside, again!  We made this mistake once – are we really going to make it again, and wait another half century for someone to realise how important it is?

Why did we forget it?

Enter Lee Shulman.


Lee Shulman (1938 – Present)

To Shulman, Gage’s work is almost passé.  Behaviourism… really?  Shulman is at the forefront of what becomes known as The Cognitive Revolution.  Dismissive at first, he would later work with Gage in developing his own ideas about teacher expertise, but from a very different perspective.

The Cognitivists believed that not only was it possible to measure and map the structure of the human mind, but that it was indeed essential in order to understand human behaviour; trying to understand behaviour without understanding the mind was naive.  In this case, you would only be observing the surface structure, the output, and failing to understand the historic inputs that allowed a teacher to behave in the way we observe.  It’s equivalent to a Cargo Cult analysis.

Shulman started out interested in decision making.  He began by analysing the decision making processes of doctors, and was fascinated to discover that they didn’t match the supposed decision-making process set forth in flow charts in the medical texts.

When he was given the chance to work with teachers, he saw it as a great opportunity; after all, teachers had to make quick decisions under extreme pressure.  Through his work, he found that the decision making processes of teachers were even more complex than those of doctors.

If you’ve never heard of Gage, you may have heard of Shulman.  I’ve seen Shulman cited in more modern academic work, but never Gage.  Shulman’s enduring legacy is the invention of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK).  It’s Shulman who first suggests that teachers of mathematics, or history, have knowledge that other expert mathematicians and historians don’t: how to teach it.  It’s Shulman who brings an end to the idea of ‘mere expert’ as teacher.  Now, the teacher must be both expert and pedagogue.

As I tell this story, in my mind the narrative swings from one focus to another:

10 - Mindset.JPG

Before Gage, there was only Mindset.  That’s a word I often use, but you can call it whatever you want: qualities, characteristics, beliefs.

Gage moves us on to look more scientifically at Craft.

11 - Craft.JPG

And Shulman refocuses our attention on Knowledge.

12 - Knowledge.JPG

Yet something else has gone wrong in this history.  In 1982, this paper was published by Harry Judge, an Oxford professor visiting American schools of education.

Judge found that the supposed professors of educational psychology were publishing papers with titles like:

  • The history of the family
  • The role of the media in the formation of public opinion
  • The structure of higher education
  • The changing shape of macro-economics
  • The evolution of organisational theory

How is any of this of use to a teacher?!  And this doesn’t feel all that too dissimilar to the kinds of papers I was asked to read for my PGCE.  What on Earth was going wrong?

As hinted at in Thorndike’s quote above, the teacher education system used to operate through ‘practice schools.’  Slowly, this changed.  The universities set up schools of education and began to train teachers.  Why?  Money.  It was lucrative business.  And how ironic, I thought, upon reading this.  Here we are today with critics of academies and free schools pointing the finger and crying ‘profiteering,’ when, naturally, the academic establishments are not immune to the siren cry of money.

So the universities would set up ed schools, and then stock them with begrudging academics who had little love or time for such trifles.  Judge parodied the process in writing about a fictitious college, Waterend:

“The dominant tactic was to make a foray into the disciplines, to track down a scholar of achieved distinction or of sparkling promise, and to carry him triumphantly through the gates of Waterend.  Thereafter, the professor would be careful to explain that this was the first appointment he had ever held in a school of education, that he was unsullied by contact with the lower worlds of educational practice, that he was first and foremost a Waterend Professor – with at least a courtesy appointment in another department as well.”

And there again is that thread of disdain.  And they did it en mass, with dozens of academics.  It’s from this paper that the quote about working with ‘dumb-ass teachers’ comes.

Worse still, where people did care about education, and about making great teachers, their incentives were directly aligned in opposition to that goal.  As Green writes, a member of the school could be a brilliant teacher trainer, but if she didn’t have something like ‘Sex stereotypes of secondary school teaching subjects‘ on her CV, she wasn’t going to find herself a post-doctorate appointment anywhere.

Finally on knowledge, Shulman was at the forefront of the Cognitive Revolution, and yet, where is all the cognitive psychology in teacher education…?  There is none!  I’m not entirely sure how, yet, but we somehow switched tracks and got lumbered with a fetid diet of nothing but Developmental Psychology.  Piaget, Vygotsky et al.  I can only speculate that this happened when the pedagogic conclusions derived by some fit neatly with the ideological aspirations of many.  As much as I too would love discovery learning to work, it doesn’t, and we just have to accept that and move on.

Then enter what Green calls ‘The Entrepreneurs.’  The Entrepreneurs include Lemov, and much of the KIPP, TFA and the wider charter school movement in the US.  Where do they focus?  Back to Craft.


Here now in the UK I know many schools, MATs and even some training institutions that are beginning to do great things in the instruction of teaching Craft, or Practice, often making use of the Instructional Leadership model.  But even in these places I againstill, see a dearth of Knowledge!  Where is the commitment to teachers as experts in their subject, rather than being interchangeable between subjects?  Where is Sweller and Cognitive Load Theory?  Engelmann and Theory of Instruction?  Baddeley’s models of cognition?  Bjork and Long Term Memory?  Hirsch and Core Knowledge?  Young and Powerful Knowledge?

Until we have all three, mindset, craft and knowledge, we will never have a system that fully develops teachers, and we will keep fighting and swinging from one pillar to the next post.


A more comprehensive model of teacher education

(the many acronyms at the bottom are taken from Deborah Ball’s work)


I’ve borrowed a story from Green, and through it highlighted what I see as a shifting back and forth between important features in teacher development, which has made little progress in over a century due in part to an historic disdain for the work, amongst those who were responsible for it.


So my call to action is two-fold:

  1. Let’s take the act of teaching, and therefore training teachers, seriously
  2. Let’s start to train teachers in all three necessary components


Many people today already do take teaching seriously of course, within and without the universities.  Let’s be sure we’re holding everyone to account on this.

On point 2, though, I know of very few places that might be making any headway


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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11 Responses to Teaching Teachers – a silly idea? (ResearchED 2016)

  1. Dan Meyer says:

    “On point 2, though, I know of very few places that might be making any headway”

    Very few places? Deborah Ball is arguably the most famous teacher educator in the United States. Her work centers entirely around high-leverage practices and high-leverage content. She hasn’t been marginalized for her views. Rather she’s the president-elect of the largest education research body in the US. That’s just one example among many.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for the comment. Ball is of course a central character in Green’s narrative, and I’ve come across her published work before and found it useful. But does she represent the realisation of the vision I have for subject depth in teacher education? I’m not yet convinced.

      I’m coming at this from a perspective of only knowing a little of her work, so maybe I have this wrong: I’m not saying that there isn’t lots of research into things like ‘how to teach maths’ or the structure of mathematical knowledge. I’m saying that what exists tends to be highly academic, fragmented, and of little or no practical use to the full-time classroom teacher. A published treatise on the hypothetical structure of a teacher’s knowledge, on its own, does very little for the maths teacher who’s still never even heard of the unit circle.

      I see lots of bits and pieces of ‘stuff,’ but perceive the reality of teacher education to be such that, in actuality, we get close to nothing in terms of subject knowledge development. It’s not assessed, it’s not mandatory, there is no structure in place to develop it over the many years it should take. Nothing. Just a whole lot of over-intellectualising while the mass of the real teacher workforce carries on oblivious, and uninvolved.

      If I’m wrong in this, why isn’t it the case that we have mathematical subject ‘geniuses’ in every classroom?

      • Dan Meyer says:

        “If I’m wrong in this, why isn’t it the case that we have mathematical subject ‘geniuses’ in every classroom?”

        Are you arguing that ‘mathematical genius’ is the bar a prospective teacher should clear before being allowed to teach (eg) Year 7 maths? Is that realistic?

        “I see lots of bits and pieces of ‘stuff,’ but perceive the reality of teacher education to be such that, in actuality, we get close to nothing in terms of subject knowledge development. It’s not assessed, it’s not mandatory, there is no structure in place to develop it over the many years it should take.”

        In California, maths teachers who want a credential to teach secondary maths require either a university degree in maths or a passing grade on the CSET exam, a set of three content exams, the latter of which covers university-level calculus. It’s assessed, it’s mandatory, some people take years to pass all three subtests.

        I’m sure the message that “no one but us cares about content” was received quite well by your ResearchED audience. I can’t speak to teacher preparation in the UK, but that just isn’t true everywhere else.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nihilist. If there *are* bright spots out there then I want to know about them, and I’ll be sure to look into the example you’ve given from California. As I’m sure you’ll appreciate, the US education system is vast, far bigger than what we have the UK. On the one hand, that means it’s more likely for bright spots to emerge – some of the best examples of teacher education I’ve seen come from the US, I just haven’t, yet, seen the same zeal applied to craft development in those programmes be applied to subject and theoretical knowledge. On the other, we need to challenge the scale of reform that those bright spots represent; even as big as California is, it only reflects a small portion of the system as a whole.

        There are other problems. ‘University degree in mathematics’ sounds like something I’d approve of, but it isn’t enough. At Wellington 2014 I made that point, which I then wrote up here. I haven’t seen what the CSET exam looks like, but admittedly I *do* find that the maths graduates have a deeper appreciation of mathematics than even a physics graduate might have, but in either case, I’d like to see us have real clarity as to precisely what we expect maths teachers to know, as a baseline, and assess that directly.

        Finally, as for ‘mathematical genius,’ I put the word ‘genius’ in inverted commas because you have to take it with a pinch of salt; it’s open to a degree of personal interpretation, but my point is that yes, the bar certainly should be high. To shed light on what I mean, I spoke with a Year 5 teacher recently who talked about how she hated teaching column addition and subtraction; how boring they are. And that’s fair, on the surface they do seem like mechanistic procedures that, while very useful, don’t have any of the awe of mathematics about them. When I explained, though, that the process meant that her 9 year olds could compute numbers in a way that would blow Pythagoras’ mind, this changed everything for her. She couldn’t believe that something so simple that a child can do it, would be a real challenge for even a real genius, using inferior tools. That led to a conversation about different number systems, their relative pros and cons, and why Roman Numerals have probably been reintroduced into the UK maths curriculum (to highlight these distinctions, and the power of our hindu-arabic system), something that was incomprehensible for her, since we never use them.

        Just having that kind of knowledge, the ability to bring mathematics to life and appreciate why we have it and why we find it worthy of our time, that’s the kind of ‘genius’ I have in mind.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Quick additional: Just skimmed the CSET, and while I can’t comment on whether or not it covers everything that I feel is important, I *can* say that if this were a requirement in the UK we would have hardly any maths teachers!

        Few questions: Do you know how many maths teachers there are in California? Do you know what the pass rate is? When can teachers reapply if they fail? Do you know how many other states require an assessment like this one? Do you know if schools in California are asking / making teachers teach maths who don’t have this qualification, or any experience of teaching mathematics? (something that is quite common in the UK.)

  2. jemmaths says:

    It is interesting to read a history like this and see how not much changes. The idea of teaching as some kind of immanent ability has been expressed on numerous occasions to me, especially in regards to behaviour management (“they’ve either got it or they haven’t”), but also to teaching in general. Thank goodness we are seeing a more pragmatic approach appearing again. Behaviour management and teaching generally, like almost anything, can be learnt and studied. Some people start off better than others, as is the case in any pursuit, but to suggest therefore that only those with a head start should continue is ridiculous, and to have a system where the quality of your instruction is highly variable, as is the case in England at the moment, is similarly ridiculous.

  3. Hi Kris,

    I’ve been enjoying working my way through some of your posts recently. It’s not that I agree with every single point, it’s more that I’ve found them to be clear and thought-provoking.

    I agree with your points in the comments that, “we get close to nothing in terms of subject knowledge development. It’s not assessed, it’s not mandatory, there is no structure in place to develop it over the many years it should take. Nothing. Just a whole lot of over-intellectualising while the mass of the real teacher workforce carries on oblivious, and uninvolved.”

    I’m not completely sure on exactly what GPs have to do throughout their career, but I believe that they have mandatory structures in place to keep up-to-date with medical advancements. They are assessed regularly (from what I understand), and a larger proportion of the literature is written by practitioners. Whilst I think that educational researchers should exist, I agree that research should be written in conjunction with teachers, and for teachers, as Dylan Wiliam has campaigned for.

    I agree that teachers should have good subject knowledge, at least relative to the levels at which they teach, but Dan seems to be referring more to subject content knowledge rather than subject pedagogical knowledge. I realise that pedagogical knowledge is not easy to assess, but teachers should continue to show that they are engaging with subject pedagogy throughout their career. I guess, without thinking too hard about it at this moment, this could take the form of an online journal or portfolio which contains some prescribed content but also provides a wide range of choice into what teachers choose to develop their practice on. I’m not necessarily saying that this exact structure is the way forward, but its clear that teachers can go their entire career barely engaging with developments in education – whether that be subject content knowledge, subject pedagogical knowledge, psychology of learning, neuroscience developments, etc.

    Obviously there are many facets to this debate, most of which pertain to economic viability. Indeed, I look at Singapore and wonder how they maintain a system in which teachers appear to teach so little throughout the day and therefore have so much time to discuss, act on, and reflect on pedagogical improvements. I wish every part of the world were so lucky, but since that is not the currently the case, I feel that we should have higher expectations of ourselves in terms of continual development throughout our careers in the teaching profession.

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