There seems little doubt that teachers are spending more time in the classroom today than in the past. When I was working in FE 20 years ago, the typical contract specified a maximum of 23 hours in the classroom per week. Some 10 years ago, one of my in-service teacher trainees showed me his timetable: 35 hours face-to-face teaching. Preparation, tutorial work, marking and attendance at meetings had to fit into what was left.
Common sense suggests that this volume of face-to-face teaching will make it more difficult for teachers to do a good job. Arguments about greater efficiency, new technology or flipped classrooms don’t really take us very far: many students need the kind of personal support from their teachers that takes more time, even if some of this work is nowadays “delivered” by generalist support and welfare teams who don’t have specialist subject knowledge.
Furthermore, new government policy initiatives such as apprenticeships or T levels require changes to schemes of work, assessment systems and procedures, and timetables – and these need to be planned and prepared for by teacher teams.
CPD: A waste of time?
Then there’s the question of time for continuous professional development (CPD). Many teachers’ formal experience of CPD is limited to mandatory attendance at college training days, which are typically filled up with briefing sessions from managers on topics such as GDPR or the latest merger plans, or with bought-in consultants lecturing on topics such as formative assessment or cognitive load theory to large groups of frustrated teachers who are thinking about all the lesson preparation they could be doing if they weren’t attending this session.
The idea of “informal learning through work” has been suggested as a possible solution to the difficulty of finding time for CPD, notably by former Department for Education ministers Michael Gove and John Hayes a few years ago under the coalition government. They extolled teaching as craft, with expertise gained through the traditional method of working alongside more experienced practitioners. Predictably, neither went into detail.
New recruits to FE teaching do indeed work alongside older hands – that is, in neighbouring classrooms. But it’s not clear how this leads to any transfer of expertise: in practice, for better or worse, new teachers learn mostly from what are euphemistically called “critical incidents”, through a learning process known by educational theorists as “being thrown into the deep end”.
Learning through work
My research into learning through work, carried out in two high-performing organisations – an outstanding-rated FE college and a globally-successful UK engineering company – suggests that informal learning through work is indeed essential, but that the key to making it productive is informal, unstructured time for talk.
Practitioner teams in these organisations demonstrated clearly that in order to make effective adaptations to their work, either in response to externally-driven changes in systems or procedures, or so as to design, test and implement innovations (designing new courses in response to emerging markets, or improving assessment processes, for example), they needed sufficient autonomy as teams to plan and organise their own work schedules, and time for the kind of unstructured thinking and talking between team members without which expertly-informed ideas for new ways of working can never emerge.
Teams need to be able to decide for themselves about the best balance between informal and formal interactions between them, and when it would be helpful to cross boundaries and consult with experts in neighbouring specialisms.
'Unstructured time for talk'
Ideally, the organisations these teams work for have value-driven strategic objectives to which the practitioners are committed (improving the educational attainment and job prospects of young people in the area, for example), but they also avoid imposing highly-specified targets on practitioner teams, because these tend to reduce their scope for exercising professional expertise creatively and innovatively.
Learning through work, the research suggests, is optimised under these conditions, in which productive work, expertise-informed innovation, and practitioner learning, are entangled – which is to say, they are integrated and it doesn’t help to try to separate them out.
The research also suggests that autonomy and unstructured time for talk within practitioner teams will support learning through work in any context, and whether externally driven change is an issue or not. I think that this is because work is almost never simply a matter of repeating procedures, but always in some sense renewing them.
'Water running off a duck’s back?'
No group of students is the same as another, as all teachers know: all the expertise and experience of teachers needs in a real sense to be recontextualised every time they enter the classroom. Finally, this account of learning through work does not suggest that formal CPD cannot be valuable too: for better or worse, all experiences contribute to learning.
But without enough autonomy and sufficient unstructured time away from the classroom, formal CPD events will often be like water running off a duck’s back.
Jay Derrick is a teacher educator and senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education