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Reuben Moore
Executive Director for Programme Development for Teach First

From novice to expert

How can new teachers become experts capable of helping all children to achieve their best? This post breaks down the three stages they have to go through.

Reuben Moore is the Executive Director for Programme Development for Teach First. He is an experienced teacher and school leader with many years’ experience working in initial teacher education. Here he shares his thoughts on teaching novices to become expert teachers, so that they can more effectively work to unlock the potential in all children.

"Doing the simple things well and kicking for the corners” - People say I'm obsessed with this phrase – and I think that’s possibly true – but for good reason. As a rugby fan I hear it often, but I also feel it sums up so much about the challenge of teaching and the benefit of expertise within the profession.

Turner (1995) found that great teachers took 4.5 years to learn how to teach. As 50% of new teachers are training on employment-based routes and teaching our children from day one, how can we shorten the time it takes to move from novice to expert?

At first, learning to do the ‘simple’ things well is really important. Passing in rugby, for example, is the first thing children learn to do in the game, yet pro rugby players continue to practise it in every training session. Just like passing, the simple act of introducing yourself to a new class is a basic part of teaching, but it’s important and can reveal a lot more than just your name. It can show confidence, clarity and even trust – yet teachers rarely practise it. In rugby, if you’re worrying about the pass, you’ll miss opportunities that might open up. In teaching, mastering the everyday basics will free up the working memory to focus on the ‘corners’ – those opportunities to accelerate the progress of your pupils. This is why the first thing we focus on at Teach First is mastering the basics – doing the simple things well.

The first three things our trainees master are what we call ‘gatekeeper skills’: planning, behaviour management and assessment. These are obviously not, in their entirety “simple”.  These are broad and complex themes but we prioritise the elements that are needed for success in the first few lessons. For example, in behaviour management, we look at establishing classroom routines and how to use body language and voice to minimise low-level disruption. We don’t teach how to create a whole school behaviour strategy yet, or how to manage extremely complex needs for pupils with particularly challenging behaviour, as this relies on highly developed mental models that our trainees don’t have yet.

We then use an instructional method to help our trainees master these skills as quickly as possible. Glaser (1996) proposed three stages of expertise development:

  • Stage 1 - externally supported – highly coached, deliberate practice and short feedback cycles
  • Stage 2 – transitional, decrease in scaffolding
  • Stage 3 – self-regulatory – own their development, able to critique and reflect

Stage 1 – Training novices

When our trainees first start, we focus on practice, modelling and feedback. For example, we teach ‘cold call’, a technique outlined in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, on the fifth day of training.  We dedicate around 2 hours to this technique, which is:

1.    Ask a question (we provide the questions)
2.    Wait
3.    Call a particular pupil to answer the question.

We run through this technique at least three times, using videos and live demonstrations from the teacher educator who is leading the training. We show what success looks like to deepen the trainees’ understanding of the examples.  We then give each trainee time to script and prepare to practise before putting them into groups of three to rehearse. Each trainee is given feedback linked to the success criteria by a peer, and then they repeat the ‘cold call’ using the feedback they have received. The teacher educator listens to each group to make sure feedback is specific and supports individuals struggling by identifying themes in the feedback.  Once every trainee has ran the ‘cold call’ twice, the teacher educator brings them back together for a debrief:

  • Were there any common errors or misconceptions that needed unpicking (for ‘cold call’ this is often the length of the wait time between asking the question and getting the answer)?
  • Did the teacher educator notice any issues with the feedback given by peers – was it linked to the success criteria?  Was it detailed enough to ensure improvements?

These three steps may sound simple to an expert or even a beginner teacher, but to a trainee a lot of thought is required. This can send the working memory into overload.  We make sure our trainees rehearse so much that it becomes automatic, so their working memory can be freed up to respond to things happening elsewhere in the classroom.

Stage 2 – Moving from novice to greater expertise

Scaffolding is another technique we use to help our novice teachers progress. One of the scaffolds we’ve developed is the ‘conceptual framework’, which helps our trainees reflect on their practice.

First, we ask trainees to reflect on their values, knowledge and any cognitive bias they have. We then ask how this influences their decisions in the classroom – especially in their philosophical approach to teaching. For instance, one trainee said they wanted their pupils to develop a love of reading as they felt this was the foundation of success for them.  They decided to build a reading corner which would be inviting for pupils and hopefully encourage them to read more.

As the training progresses, we increase the complexity of the ‘conceptual framework’. Trainees begin to reflect on evidence, their pupils and their own experiences in relation to their teaching. The trainee mentioned above researched parental engagement in reading, which helped her to evaluate the success of her interventions. She realised developing training for parents to support their children to read at home would probably be an effective strategy. The reading corner remained, but with a more structured approach to using it mirroring their home experience – pupils had the opportunity to read to an adult in class at least once a week with increasingly complex texts.

Stage 3 – Becoming an expert

Within our two-year programme, the majority of trainees will not become experts in every element of teaching. However, we want to make sure they all develop the same self-regulatory approach used by experts.

All trainees complete a postgraduate diploma in education as part of the Teach First Training Programme. There are two modules in the second year of the programme:

  • In the first, trainees choose an area of their practice to develop. This choice is made by self-evaluation and a structured developmental framework. Trainees work for four months with a group of peers to accelerate both their own progress and the progress of others.  
  • The second and final module is about extending their impact. Trainees take on a piece of action research on a chosen issue in their school.

Both of these modules require an understanding of the school context, as well as skills in both education and research. The teaching methods used in these modules are much more exploratory, providing time for critical reflection and analysis of the impact they’re having. In one-to-one interactions with their teacher educators, trainees are asked open coaching style questions rather than the instruction and modelling given at the start of the course.

Conclusions

Over 16 years, we’ve developed ways of training great teachers, as quickly as possible. This takes careful planning of both the ‘what’ (content) and the ‘how’ (instructional method). As we train 1,700 teachers a year, not all of them will follow the curriculum in the same way – some will need longer to master the basics than others – so providing flexibility in the course is vital.

By helping novice teachers to do simple things well, they will be calmer and more efficient in their work, leaving space for them to ‘kick for the corners’ and make a lasting impact on the pupils they teach. For me, that’s a win all round.

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