How do new teachers develop their knowledge of teaching, and how do they also engage with research?
This Finnish research surveys 75 teachers aged 19 to 55 years; published by Heikkila et al (November 2019) examines elements of professional practice in student teachers.
How is epistemic agency developed in student teachers’ expressions when they are provided with the tools for teaching, and educational research?
Self-regulated, expected or a choice?
In the early 90’s when I trained to be a teacher, part of the 4-year Bachelor of Education degree course I completed required new teachers to engage with research. Once qualified, throughout much of my time in the classroom, engaging with research then became sporadic, leaving any development of my own epistemic (knowledge) agency (voice) part of my every day (subconscious) classroom work.
In essence, I was given no time by my employers to continue learning.
Since the growth of social media, there is a huge number of teachers now expressing how they develop their teacher agency online, and more teachers are actively engaging with educational research to develop their pedagogical approaches in the classroom by their schools.
Yet using social media for professional purposes or ‘teachers conducting researching’, in general, isn’t for everyone, even if a school does set aside time for this.
And what about new teachers? In regards to their social media profiles, how do teachers use social media for professional reasons, as well as actively seeking to engage with research or the sharing of classroom ideas? Is being informed by educational research something which is self-regulated, expected of, or a choice individual teachers make?
Questions, questions, questions.
Teacher agency and four dimensions of practice
Teacher agency forms a huge part of my doctoral studies at Cambridge and I hope to start sharing what I have learned about teachers using social media over the coming years.
The focus of Epistemic Agency in Students’ Teachers Engagement with Research Skills focuses on 4 dimensions:
- The self
- The class
- The research literature
- The everyday life.
The researchers suggest that there is “a lack of thorough understanding and empirical evidence on how research-based teaching education can support teachers in their professional development.”
This article examines how exposure to research skills can support student teachers’ agency.
Note, “Finnish teachers have a high degree of autonomy in the work.” In April 2020, I reported that teachers in England have one of the lowest autonomy in OECD countries across the world, with some reporting that the government steer pedagogy from a distance.
No school inspection system exists in Finland, and a climate of trust in academic teacher education and a high level of expertise among qualified teachers have been established (Mikkilä-Erdmann, Warinowski, and Iiskala 2019).
Developing research skills
This literature review highlights “the development of research-based education could be seen in the light of society becoming more knowledge-intensive.” We have access to much more information, unsolicited in some cases, and all others are constantly refining our ability to filter information.
One challenge identified is that research-based education serves many purposes. Measurable improvements in achievements, a deeper educational purpose, human virtues and many others.
If trainee teachers are taught knowledge created by others, the students merely acquire knowledge and remain passive towards research. The research recommends that if those teachers could be provided with the research skills to participate in creating knowledge actively themselves, this would improve teacher agency.
In Finland, teacher education is a five-year academic program leading towards a Masters degree. Student teachers rehearse research methods, such as observations and interviews. They also study information on classroom strategies, literacy, ethics, data analysis methods and scientific writing. They also practice having scientific discussions and working in a group.
In the teaching practice, student teachers are assumed to show the agency and applying theoretical knowledge to practice, adopting “a rich array of didactics with research-based groundings.”
In some of my work with initial teacher training providers in schools and colleges across England, particularly school direct programmes, this thinking is emerging. The challenge for all of us is how do we support new teachers with limited resources…
Here are the four dimensions highlighted in the research, identified as research skills all teachers should work towards in their own professional development.
1. The self
The development of a teacher’s professional self-understanding and identity is critical. Often personal reflection is generic rather than specific pedagogy; being critical in modifying and applying knowledge.
2. The class
Part of developing teacher agency is about the teacher having a secure overview of the pupils in the classroom. Teachers in this study reported knowing pupils is important to develop knowledge by listening to the pupils to support their learning and wellbeing.
Agency was most visible when trainee teachers interpreted first-hand impressions about the pupils.
3. The research literature
The research highlights that this particular dimension of the study was not as dominant as the others above. Trainees argued that educational literature could not be assumed and much of the work rested in the interpretation of the research into the classroom.
4. The everyday life
What phenomena and facts should a teacher be aware of?
All teachers need to be updated on current matters going on, not only in the classroom and in educational literature, but also what is going on in society. In this research, the students exercised their epistemic agency “by examining the validity of different knowledge sources and evaluating the information.”
How often do we evaluate research in our everyday teacher training?
- Self: Developing research skills serve as a tool for questioning oneself
- Class: Teachers should focus on what happens in the classroom and the characteristics of the children
- Research literature: It is significant that teachers think critically of oneself to existing research-based information
- Everyday life: Teachers need to see the work of all teachers in a larger context.
The crux of this study analysed which dimensions (listed above) trainee teachers focused on, yet highlights what we all should focus on throughout our career. “Questions, repetition, evaluative language and other evidence of expectations show the interconnectedness of agency and general societal expectations.”
A teacher’s epistemic agency is crucial in fostering a pupil’s agency, and research can become the vehicle through which trainee teachers could begin to develop their own interests and needs. If our teachers are not provided with these tools, the risk is that student teachers will go through teacher training without gaining a sense of autonomy in which to thrive.
I suspect this is also the case if schools do not engage their teachers in academic research.
All of the above dimensions are critical for all teachers, not just newly qualified teachers, to develop a sense of epistemic agency.
This is an interesting paper for those involved in initial teacher training education; download the paper.