Transposable habitus not disposable habitus

We discuss epistemology frequently here at the university and one thing we look at is whether knowledge is disposable or transposable. If you prioritise knowledge, you want to learn it. You make a conscious effort to recall it. If you don’t value the knowledge, you might comply with holding the knowledge within a context, but then throw it away once you leave the context. Quite simply, it becomes disposable knowledge.

I coined disposable knowledge in my book on technology-led learning. The premise is quite simple and still holds – some knowledge is disposable. E.g., if I want to do something on the computer, I don’t attend a ten week course on Microsoft Word. I google or YouTube some direct instruction, I learn just enough temporarily to undertake the task and then I throw this learning away. I deprioritise it and forget it. Why? Because if I really need it again, I’ll look up the direct instruction again. I perceive that it has little value for me in future unknown situations and therefore it does not get added to my store of highly valued transposable knowledge. There is also no escaping that some knowledge can become more disposable as time passes. Scientific and technological advancement can transfer knowledge from the science domain to the history domain.

Transposable knowledge, habits and skills combined equates to habitus, that term coined by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has attracted more attention since Ofsted embraced the idea of cultural capital. These ideas all explore a central theme, the unknown future. We build up cultural capital and a transposable habitus that enables us to be successful in different, unknown future areas of our lives. We accept, always, that there are limitations to these concepts of Bourdieu, but this concept of transposable habitus does have a place in education.

We now turn to our teachers and teacher education – where we find trainees are building knowledge, habits and skills for future unknown schools – their transposable habitus which will equip them for a career in teaching and education. However, if they are in a school with a very fixed way of teaching and, even more, if it is a way of teaching that the trainee doesn’t believe in or feels is not evidenced, then it becomes a disposable way of teaching. Instead of moving from one school to the next with a large transposable habitus, they throw portions of it away and enter their next school with a much smaller amount of transposable habitus about teaching. We are fortunate in that our partner schools and mentors understand this and help the trainees explore different ideas about teaching beyond that in their room, department or school. If the mentor doesn’t use a projector, they understand that another school might be passionate about dual coding and so ensure the trainee explores this approach as well as not using a projector. Group work is another example. A good mentor explores both teacher-led and student-led work with their trainee regardless of their personal opinions.

One assessment on our course is that the trainee has to design a sequence of learning (a scheme or unit of work) and accompany it with an essay written at Masters level justifying their designed sequence of learning. They will cite both subject-specific pedagogy, such as the teaching of inference, and they will cite non-subject specific theories of learning: such as cognitive science, constructivism and behaviourism. They can draw on their school placements, the pre-existing planning they have seen and their wider reading for this assessment and it helps them crystallise their professional and autonomous ideas about teaching their subject. The planned learning that makes it into this assessment is the planned learning that they believe in. We are, through this assessment, trying to create in the trainee, transposable habitus that they can take to any school in England.

In designing this sequence of learning they can draw in the ideas, teaching and planning they have undertaken in their school placements. They hold these ideas up to the robust criticality of writing at L7 and justify their personal choices. They begin to make evidence informed decisions about their design of a curriculum. This habitus is transposable. They will hold their future planning up to such standards.

When a recently qualified teacher arrives at your school to begin their early career you have to be careful not to be too judgemental. What if much of what they learned was not valued by them and thus not transposable? What if the ideas they have learned to value aren’t valued at your school? They could have a miserable first year which could end with them leaving the profession. They might write their training and first job off as evidence that they were not cut out for teaching and we might lose an otherwise excellent practitioner. This debate also shows the need for entrenching teacher autonomy. If we want to keep teachers in the profession then we need to think about how to utilise and develop transposable habitus.

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Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Are you a PGCE mentor or PGCE trainee? Read on…

woman writing on dry erase board
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee is preparing to meet their PGCE mentor in a few weeks. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter  ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’

You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring to do this for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever.

The first thing to think about is that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious

What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?
Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?

Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly. And really? I think as a profession we would rather that weekend communications were kept to a minimum these days.

You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like. But don’t ask them to plan lessons from scratch at the start of their placement. Give them the plans and ask them to learn with you how to adapt them to their class. When it comes to planning from scratch, co-plan with them before letting them progress to full solo planning.

How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?

Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.

What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?
What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?

Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:

If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?

And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.

There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.

How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment?  Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.

I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. The DfE says that teacher education should prepare someone to teach in any and all schools in England. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit. Indeed, if your department or school eschews a particular pedagogy then you should ensure your trainee gets an opportunity to develop this area. What happens if they go to another school that is opposite? E.g. some schools have projectors in every classroom and expect the trainees to be comfortable with using well designed and dual coded materials. Other schools have gone the opposite way and stopped using projected materials. Both schools would need to work with their trainee to practice both approaches.

What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously?  Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?

That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.