Discussion: 1: The importance of teacher expertise (GTCE)

Evidence is accumulating from around the world that the single most significant means of improving...

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Andrew Pollard
3 May 2010

Evidence is accumulating from around the world that the single most significant means of improving the performance of national educational systems is through excellent teaching (e.g.: Barber & Mourshed, 2007; OECD, 2005). The quality of pedagogy, of what teachers actually do, is thus firmly on the contemporary agenda. Since the UK already has a qualified and trained teaching workforce, relatively modest investment in supporting teachers’ professionalism could be very cost-effective. There is both a need and an excellent opportunity for the profession to demonstrate and strengthen its expertise and to improve its status in the public mind. 

The relative lack of reference to pedagogy in educational discussion in the UK, compared with practice in many other successful countries, has been the focus of academic debate for the best part of thirty years. The concern was first raised by Brian Simon’s 1981 paper, Why no pedagogy in England? and was further developed by Robin Alexander (2004) in his response to the Government’s 2003 Primary Strategy, Still no pedagogy?  

In a world-class educational workforce - Finland might be used as an example - teachers are the ones who initiate discussions about pedagogy, and then evaluate and critique the ideas they develop. This ‘pedagogic discourse’ aspires to be explicitly grounded in the scrutiny of ideas, theories, ethical values and empirical evidence. It goes well beyond simplified prescription, for instance of ‘what works’, and supersedes reliance on centrally-imposed performance targets. In their place is greater trust in teachers’ capacity for self-improvement as an inherent element of their professional identity. However, this trust has to be earned – hence the focus in this Commentary on the nature of pedagogic expertise. 

The GTCE is keen to stimulate a debate with teachers and other partners on developing a shared pedagogical language for teaching. Indeed, we believe that teachers should be the main creators of professional knowledge as the basis of their practice. 

Our work in this area, as the professional body for teaching, originates from the GTCE’s remit to contribute to improving standards of teaching and the quality of learning in the public interest. We therefore have a role in strengthening teacher professionalism, a theme which we have developed through our Corporate Plan for 2009-12, Teaching in 2012. 

In addition, the Code of Conduct and Practice for registered teachers, developed by the GTCE with teachers and others, sets out a professional expectation for registered teachers that they will: ‘make use of research about teaching and learning’ and ‘actively seek out opportunities to develop their knowledge, understanding, skills and practice’ (from principle 2, GTCE 2009). 

In 2007 the GTCE began collaboration with Donald McIntyre, then Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, on a BERA Review of pedagogy and professional practice. Very sadly, he died before completing the work. Facilitated by Lesley Saunders, then GTCE’s Senior Policy Adviser for Research, the task was then taken up by the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme, led by its Director, Andrew Pollard – hence the present TLRP Commentary and associated web resources which have been produced as a GTCE-TLRP collaboration.

Teaching is a professional activity underpinned by qualifications, standards and accountabilities. It is characterised by complex specialist knowledge and expertise-in-action. In liberal democratic societies, it also embodies particular kinds of values, to do with furthering individual and social development, fulfilment and emancipation. 

‘Pedagogy’ is the practice of teaching framed and informed by a shared and structured body of knowledge. This knowledge comprises experience, evidence, understanding moral purpose and shared transparent values. It is by virtue of progressively acquiring such knowledge and mastering the expertise – through initial training, continuing development, reflection and classroom inquiry  and regulated practice– that teachers are entitled to be treated as professionals. Teachers should be able and willing to scrutinise and evaluate their own and others’ practice in the light of relevant theories, values and evidence. They should be able to make professional judgements which go beyond pragmatic constraints and ideological concerns, and which can be explained and defended. 


Furthermore, pedagogy is impoverished if it is disconnected from the capacity and responsibility to engage in curriculum development and to deploy a range of appropriate assessment methodologies. Indeed, in most European countries, these elements are treated as a whole, enabling a broad conception of pedagogy. Teachers should be knowledgeable about curriculum and assessment principles as a part of their pedagogical expertise. To promote the further development of professional expertise in the UK, we have included these dimensions, and the interrelationships between them, in the conceptual framework later in the Commentary.

 Pedagogic expertise can be thought of as a combination of science, craft and art; this notion helps us to understand the complementary needs for collectively created knowledge, professional skills and personal capacities. It is also important to remember that all these are grounded in ethical principles and moral commitment – teaching is never simply an instrumental activity, a question just of technique. 

One of the challenges for pedagogical discourse is to distinguish between what is known in a scientific sense of being explicit, cumulative and generalisable, and what are the irreducibly intuitive and creative elements of teaching. 

It is generally accepted now that good teaching requires strategic decisions informed by evidence. But it also requires a large number of implicit and often instantaneous judgements and decisions. These are  responses to the dynamic situation in the classroom, often shaped by the ‘community of practice’ to which the teacher belongs. They are also expressions of each teacher’s individual relationship with his or her pupils: how s/he generates a positive classroom climate or takes advantage of unexpected teaching and learning opportunities. This is the ‘craft’ and the ‘art’ of teaching.

And we all need to acknowledge this paradox of teaching – that the more expert a teacher becomes, the more his/her expertise is manifested in sensitivity to contexts and situations, in imaginative judgements in-the-moment sourced from tacit knowledge. The importance of these forms of expertise is often underestimated.  Indeed, they often become so embedded, instinctive and taken-for-granted that they are barely recognised. 

Such behaviours need to be analysed and discussed, so that the profession can become more confident about its expert practice, its professionalism. The development of a conceptual framework for the discussion of pedagogy in this Commentary is a contribution to that goal.

 The GTCE believes that in the future teaching needs to be based on the development of a pedagogic discourse that arises from teachers sharing and scrutinising the practices and kinds of knowledge which they build, and the values in which these are rooted. The issue is not about theorising about practice since many teachers naturally do this. It is more about whether: 

The theories they espouse…have been justified and developed by being exposed to the critical scrutiny of other practitioners, whether they are based on a consideration of evidence from research…whether they have been interrogated in terms of the values and assumptions on which they are based’ (Furlong, 2000, page 13). 

This integration of theory, practice and values into a discourse of pedagogy would mean amongst other things:

  • strengthening the shared professional language for talking about teaching, learning and children so that it can stand up to scrutiny in terms of argument, evidence and espoused values;
  • developing communities of ‘warranted’ practice (discussed later in the Commentary) which contribute to the development of this language in dynamic ways; and
  • enabling teachers to present their theories, practices and language in more confident and accessible ways.  

Such an undertaking needs to be viewed in the context of the commitment within the 2009 DCSF White Paper, Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future, ‘to lead a debate on world-class pedagogy’, initially in conjunction with the ‘social partners’ (teaching workforce organisations and the TDA and NCSL). 

With the support of the TLRP and others, the GTCE is keen to contribute to this debate through the work that it has already developed with teachers during 2010.

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