What makes an effective teacher of vocational science, engineering or technology (SET)? How can a teacher’s effectiveness be improved in an education system under increasing pressures from changing economic, political and technological circumstances? These questions have an important bearing on current debates and policy concerning technical and vocational education – not least the recent Sainsbury Review – and are the focus of a three-year research project based in the School of Education and Professional Development.
Subject Specialist Pedagogy in Initial Teacher Education for Vocational Science, Engineering and Technology (ITE-VocSET) is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which has a long-standing interest in improving teaching and learning in SET subjects. This interest connects with a wider UK context of ongoing concern about the supply of scientists, engineers and technologists, not only of graduates but also at technician level where further education colleges – and their technical teachers – play a critically important role.
With its long tradition of teacher development for the further education sector, and its strong record of research in this field, the School of Education and Professional Development is uniquely placed to host the project, which combines research into subject specialist pedagogy with application to teacher development.
The project has a semi-experimental methodology based on a series of “interventions” – short programmes of study for trainee teachers in addition to their main teacher education programme. Based on a theory of change in which specific aspects of teacher development are identified as possible consequences of the intervention, the team then aim to evaluate its impact on what teachers do and how they think about their actions.
The research began in October 2015 with a literature review aimed at building a conceptual model of subject specialist pedagogy appropriate to the teaching of vocational SET subjects. The resulting model of pedagogy was then used to develop and refine learning resources for use by trainee SET teachers taking part in the interventions. These resources include structured video materials based on teaching sessions in further education colleges, animations to explain and illustrate key concepts of pedagogy, and a website providing structured pathways through the conceptual model.
Alongside the resource development, the team has worked with partner universities and colleges to identify trainee SET teachers – and teacher educators – who would like to take part in the interventions. A key issue has been the shortage of SET trainee teachers across the country, which has meant approaching the project on a national basis, using online sessions and “Saturday schools” based in Manchester to facilitate participation.
The first of the interventions is now approaching completion and evaluation is under way. Working with colleagues from the Education and Training Foundation (the national body for further education teaching) the aim is to include up to 70 participants by early 2018. In addition to evaluating the specific approach used in the intervention, the research will provide a rich source of qualitative data on how SET specialists think about their teaching, their students and the relationship between the college and the workplace. This research should be the basis for a range of publications for the 2020 Research Excellence Framework.