Sydney Ideas: What is a teacher in the 21st century
and what does a 21st century teacher need to know?

An evening lecture with Professor Ian Menter,

Vice-President, British Educational Research Association
Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education, University of Oxford

These are my reflections. Any mistakes in quotation, interpretation or basic logic are mine.

Should teachers be researchers? Should there be stronger relationships between researchers and teachers? Who should instigate and maintain the relationship? Who makes the decisions about practice? A teacher in the 21st century is bombarded with a range of views from those founded in deep research through to the superficial “quick fixes” sold to teachers that have little ongoing impact on their students’ learning. Even when the research is deep and ongoing, there are contradictions and debates such that a practitioner who is keen to apply research findings to their practice may only ever be standing on shifting plates of academic discourse.

Research and researchers are often seen as ‘the other’ in the education world by classroom teachers, sometimes even outside of the education world itself. The daily experience of a researcher (or consultant, or even non-teaching school executive) being often so very different from that of a classroom teacher, there is at the very least a perception of a gap in understanding of the core purpose and function of a teacher.

Sometimes, unless teachers take a step into a postgraduate degree or high-level professional learning experience conducted by a tertiary institution, teachers may go through their entire career only ever being the passive receiver of filtered research-based advice from a lone visitor to the school or perhaps by stealth through a charismatic presenter who has done the research themselves.

It is rare that classroom teachers initiate, conduct, endorse and publish the research on which teaching practice is assessed by the wider community. The general feeling – based on the many discussions I have had with colleagues on this topic both in Australia and overseas – is that time is of the essence, and often our best intentions are pushed aside by immediate demands of our contexts.

And so it was that the relationship between teachers and research was explored by Professor Ian Menter, visiting the University of Sydney as part of the Sydney Ideas lecture series. Seeding his lecture with historical precedents of prominent – and mostly female – educators of the previous 150 years certainly appealed to someone who is a passionate History teacher. It served as a solid reminder that despite the rapid and rabid arguments over everything from global education inititatives through to micro-level interventions in a precise moment of a learner’s life, we have been debating the merits of almost every facet of education for a very long time.

It’s impossible for me to condense his message into a few dot points, but I did want to focus on one or two particular aspects of his talk.

The first is his assertion that there are four paradigms of teaching:

The paradigms of teaching by Ian Menter
The paradigms of teaching by Ian Menter

These terms or perspectives are formed through a research lens, suggesting those attributes that will assist a teacher in harnessing research to inform practice. I would like to have seen more exploration of the practical implications of this, and worked examples of this in practice. On the surface, these attributes align somewhat with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Thinking practically, there is no sense of impact in these attributes – they end once the teacher can demonstrate the capacity to do things rather than going the extra step and executing the reflection/inquiry/transformative understandings into practice.

As mentioned above, I’m sure a deeper exploration of these paradigms would have brought these ideas to the fore. Though from a learner’s point of view, it might seem as if a teacher could be wholly transformative on paper, in their own mind and within the staffroom, but never actually affect changes to curriculum and pedagogy.

This is where Professor Menter’s conclusions come into play. He had two which he stressed at the end of his talk:

  1. That teachers should be research literate (not necessarily researchers in an academic sense i.e. requiring a research degree or majority focus on research on/about practice)
  2. That teachers need the time and space to engage with these modes of thinking, research and adaptive practice

Teachers are the praxis of research (theory and evidence) and practice. They are the ones that affect the learning lives of students. I agree wholeheartedly that teachers should be research literate, but only so as to have the best impact we can as appropriate for our context. These contexts shifts day to day and sometimes minute to minute. The teaching day is very rarely neat and orderly. Students and teachers alike walk into a room carrying with them their immediate concerns, motivations, ambitions and attitudes and this may be in complete contrast to the lesson plan. Should we, as some researchers would have us do, ignore that and push on with the most effective strategies as dictated by The Research? Or is it more important for the teacher to be aware of, to be able to, to be adaptable in deploying a new mixture of approach(es) that suit the situation in front of them? This is not something that can be taught through reading papers and attending lectures. It is something borne out of human interactions and the building of experiences.

Research only touches students through the voice, thought and action of practitioners. So whilst a 21st century teacher should indeed be aware of the most relevant research (often via a third party translation), it is just as important for teachers to have the time to learn about and learn to apply, in context, what it is that The Research indicates might work. It is therefore the responsibility for the researchers to communicate in a way that makes sense to teachers, as much as it is the responsibility of teachers to try and absorb the conclusions of The Research for the best learning outcomes of their students. Therefore, I would also argue that part of research literacy is the ability for teachers to reject research that is not conclusive, or out of date, or simply not relevant.

All of this requires time. This elusive and essential resource is depressingly absent from the days of the teacher in the 21st century. It is therefore essential that we find ways to give teachers time, as expensive and hard to measure as they may be. This is the only way to harness the growing body of understanding we call The Research.

I hope we can value teachers in the 21st century enough to give them the time, remuneration, trust and public respect to add this dimension to their work.

Here’s the challenge: which school or system will adopt as standard practice a model of professional learning which allows teachers 20% of their “face to face” time (not an extra burden) to be spend face-to-face with researchers, their colleagues or their students and wider school community to pursue truly transformative practice? It will require bravery, innovative thinking and a sustained effort.

Some sparks of examples are out there, but I’d love to hear if it has been more than just a fleeting project, susceptible to the whims of a leader, distraction of other priorities or the instability of funding.