Who is the expert? School teachers and university teachers in Swedish teacher education

Teacher education in Sweden and other Nordic countries is highly practice based. Student-teachers spend a significant amount of time in schools during their studies, engaging in teaching and other daily school activities under the supervision of school-based mentors. This is, in my humble opinion, one of the success drives of Northern European countries in education. Schools and school teachers are at least as influential as universities and university teachers during initial teacher education for student-teachers. The better an education system closes the gap between theory and practice in teacher education, the more ready the student-teachers would be in their first years in the profession. The well-deserved value of school teachers in teacher education, especially those who are also mentoring, should of course be celebrated. However, is it possible that the role of school teachers in teacher education has been taken to an extreme in countries like Sweden?

A recent policy in parts of Sweden is that faculties of education should hire practicing teachers to teach university courses. Faculties of education have also been advised to hire a specific number of “currently practicing” teachers to teach at university level. Although it is only natural to expect that teacher educators at universities should have previous teaching experience in schools, it should not be taken for granted that being a school teacher is enough to secure a teacher educator role at universities, due to, at least, two reasons. First, people who teach at universities should always have an eye on research, even when they are on full-time teaching contracts. A “researcher training” past (e.g. a second or third cycle degree) and motivation to carry out research should be expected from teacher educators working at universities. When it comes to what is known as subject-didactics (e.g. TESOL), it is important that a teacher educator has a broad knowledge of the field and has research & subject expertise. Second, primary or secondary school teachers cannot be expected to transfer their knowledge of teaching immediately to teaching at universities, in the same way as a university-based teacher educator/teacher cannot be expected to teach in a primary or secondary school without training.

After the “practice” turn in teacher education, the discourse in teacher education circles has devalued, in my opinion, the expertise and knowledge-base of university teachers with PhDs, who also function as teacher educators. While trying to close the theory-research gap and enable a healthy practice-based teacher education, we would not want to risk loosing the scientific base in teacher education. We need research-practice partnerships more than ever. The solution, I argue, requires both university teachers (with PhDs) and school teachers (who start working at teacher education departments) to take mutually beneficial steps towards professional development for teaching and research. The school teachers who start working at universities should be encouraged (and financially supported) to become researcher-practitioners while also going through higher education pedagogy training. University teachers with PhDs who are involved in teacher education (and who, preferably, are former school teachers), on the other hand, should be encouraged and financially supported to spend more time in schools in partnership with teachers and student-teachers, increasingly developing more ties with school cultures. Finally, I do not think that theory and practice are two separate entities – they are and they should be intertwined, constantly being informed from each other, contributing to the never-ending professional development of student-teachers, teachers, mentors, teacher educators, researchers, and those individuals who are at the intersection of some of these roles at the same time.

Olcay Sert
Last edited: 16 March, 2022

Published by Olcay Sert

I work as professor of English language education at Mälardalen University, School of Education, Culture and Communication (Sweden).

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