On “Armchair Teacher Education”: Some observations and humble suggestions

Teaching is an embodied practice. You get your hands dirty with chalk and board markers, or by collaboratively annotating a document with your students in a Zoom room. You go around in the classroom in-between desks, receive questions, respond to students, laugh out loud together with your learners. For your own professional development, you think about these experiences and write (about) them, or speak to a colleague, to a friend, or to someone you see as a mentor or supervisor. We know that teaching is a highly embodied craft and profession, but how come one think that teacher education can be performed without spending time in classrooms (online or in person)? Who thinks that one can sit in a university office, produce only theoretical work without spending time in schools with teachers and pupils, and write articles on what teachers do and say? Armchair teacher educators* do.

Armchair teacher education is a delusional act of affiliating oneself as a teacher educator while sitting in an office and producing only theoretical work. Armchair teacher educators write about what teachers do, without observing, exploring, and taking part in the performance and craft of teaching and learning in schools or informal learning environments. Armchair teacher education is a product of failed policies in various countries, in which the gap between schools and universities has widened to the extent that the teacher educators rarely see or talk to teachers. Some armchair teacher educators do not perform any kind of teaching even at their universities. Armchair teacher education thus fails to address the needs of pre-service teacher education and student-teachers. The damage to student-teachers gets worse in countries where practicum is not integrated well into teacher education curricula. The damage to student-teachers may sometimes be irreversible.

Those who are involved in both research and teacher education have at some point been armchair teacher educators, at least once, in their professional lives. In fact, no matter how much time we spend on NOT being an armchair teacher educator, we sometimes step out of our practice-oriented teacher educator zone. We then call ourselves researchers and academics, may engage with our teacher educator selves in a very limited way, and may do things that armchair teacher educators do. Yet, we can always stop being an armchair teacher educator and get our hands dirty through close collaboration with student-teachers, teachers, and mentors whenever our time allows. It is actually our duty as academics who claim to be teacher educators. However, it is more difficult to do this in teacher education contexts where practicum is not equally spread to the whole initial teacher education curriculum and where mentor teachers are not properly integrated in the process of initial teacher education. The gap needs to be closed to reach global goals in education.

I can speak about the teacher education curriculum and practice in two of the countries (out of 4) I lived in, where I was actively involved in teacher education. In one of these contexts, I observed that:

– student-teachers spend a lot of time in practice schools, under the mentorship of one or more experienced teachers.

– the practicum time is not limited to the “final year” in undergraduate studies. It is distributed in the curriculum from year 1 to the final year.

– subject studies, general didactics, and practicum time are (relatively) balanced in the curriculum.

– practice is not limited to practicum courses. Each course may include a “field” study in which the student-teacher visits the school to do some kind of field work. “Purely” theoretical courses are not encouraged.

– reflective practice is at the heart of teacher development.

– there is a(n) (relatively) independent unit at universities that administers the practicum and coordinates the links between the schools and the university supervisors in different subjects

– university supervisors make supportive visits, which involve post observation conferences

– post observation conferences are triadic and involve the student-teacher, school-based mentor, and the university teacher.

– eliciting reflection is prioritized over power-led advice-giving

– research by teacher educators involve qualitative and ethnographic investigations that provide insights from schools

– student teachers write independent degree projects that draw on school-based problems that they observe. This practice-driven research paper (around 10.000 words) is supervised by one academic with (relatively) relevant experience.

In the other teacher education context:

– practicum takes place only in the final year of the undergraduate degree

– courses are heavy in theory, sometimes delivered by academics who have little or no experience, or practice-based research interest, in school-based teaching

– the number of student-teachers assigned to an academic is not manageable

– there are no structured guidelines on how post-observation conferences will be carried out

– many academics assume the main teacher educator role, with little space for a mentor

– there are, in my knowledge, little or no formal procedures or training to become a mentor

– most research related to teacher education is quantitative and survey-based. This research mostly investigates university students and university teaching, and reflects little insights from pupils and teachers in schools

In one of these two contexts, there were many more armchair teacher educators. Armchair teacher education, in my humble opinion, is not only about the actions of academics involved in teacher education. It is also an outcome of:

– problems in national teacher education curricula,

– lack of standards and a sound quality assurance,

– limited research-base in education and policy-based decision making,

– unstructured or lack of internal and external evaluation, and

– an uneven distribution of power between universities and schools in practice.

Each country has its own political and social dynamics that may lead to armchair teacher education. It is the responsibility of those who hold the power to alter the imbalance. Decision makers and academics who are involved in teacher education, in my humble opinion, may consider the following suggestions to facilitate change and limit armchair teacher education:

–  increase guided practice time for student teachers throughout the curricula and create practice-based research initiatives for school-mentor / university-based teacher educator collaboration

– identify and support (the training of) emerging mentors and involve university-based teacher educators to the process

– create initiatives to support classroom-based research and encourage classroom interaction research that shows what actually happens in teaching and learning environments

– create sustainable university-school collaborations that mutually address the needs of the schools as well as teacher education programmes at universities

– support research that describes and explores teaching and learning practices, instead of supporting just those that “claim” innovation

– consider at least some of the items I listed in example 1 (the first country) to see which ones could be relevant to your context and are feasible in long term

I am aware that the armchair teacher educator is an individual, so blame me for not just talking about that individual but for providing yet another list of policy recommendations. However, I do think that the individual armchair teacher educator is, mostly, an outcome of the armchair teacher education in some contexts. In my closing paragraph, I do, therefore, want to repeat my call for more practice-based research in teacher education, more involvement of teacher educators in schools and other learning settings, and closer collaborations between student-teachers, mentors, and university teachers. We do also need more research on teacher educator identities, especially focusing on those academics who proudly act as researchers, teachers, and teacher educators in the same body. The simultaneous, changeable, and dynamic interplay of these three roles (researchers, teachers, and teacher educators) carried by the same person is not just an interesting future research topic, but also can be the answer to some of the deep-rooted problems like armchair teacher education.

                                                                                                               Last edited – 24.05.2022

Olcay Sert

  • * I was inspired by the term “armchair linguistics”, which I first encountered during my undergraduate studies. My use of the word armchair does not correspond fully to the original use. For some insights from linguistics, please download this piece from C. J. Fillmore.

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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