Brendan Bentley

Why the future of professional experience is now in peril

Performance funding for initial teacher education, mandating core curriculum and improving the quality of Professional Experience are issues raised in the new TEEP report that require our urgent attention. 

Equally, concerns stemming from teacher workforce shortages, the changing nature of teachers’ work, and the increasing diversity and complexity of students highlight new and additional pressures on employers and initial teacher education providers to prepare the future workforce. 

But let us draw your attention to the language change within the report from “professional experience” to “practical experience”.  This might seem a subtle and slight shift in terminology, there are ramifications for how this positions pre-service teachers, supervising teachers, teacher educators and the profession more broadly. 

This is because this change in language is intentional and is emblematic of the policy shift influencing the work of initial teacher education providers. Practical Experience is an outdated term phased out in the 1990s as it was heavily critiqued for being overly technical and simplistic (LeCornu, 2016). Practical Experience was the terminology used when the field was under-theorised, under-resourced and under-valued. Through a strong research agenda, many academics have worked to define and advocate for the use of the term “professional” as it bridges the theory/practice divide and captures the complexity of the field. 

As leading academics on a national steering committee for Australian Professional Experience (NADPE), we are at the intersection of practice. 

We work in the space where initial teacher education, early childhood education, teaching and school leadership overlap.  Our roles provide us with unique perspectives about teaching and education. Because of this, we are concerned about this language change and what it represents. 

What happens when you take the profession out of Professional Experience? 

We are accustomed to being featured in the many reviews and reports on initial teacher education. Historically, Professional Experience has been positioned as everything from problematic and under-theorised excursions into classrooms, the saviour where pre-service teachers engage in the real work of teaching, or the solution to the theory/practice divide. 

But this report feels different. It positions Professional Experience as a weapon to introduce the core content into schools and is symbolic of the deprofessionaliation policy shift in teacher education.   

Teaching is a profession. It requires a high degree of specialised knowledge, continuous updating through professional learning, and is subject to regulation and registration that mandate standards and ethical behaviour.  

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was established to provide a national framework for strengthening capacity at all career stages within the teaching profession.  The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers were developed by AITSL to raise and recognise teaching as a profession and to map this professional knowledge, practice and engagement across career phases.  The Standards contribute to the status of Australia’s education system as complex, sophisticated and regulated and ensure that it meets the current and future needs of all learners, from birth and within and across life stages.  We see removing the profession from Professional Experience as a backward step in maintaining a high-quality education system as it fails to acknowledge the level of expertise and specialised practice of teacher educators and does not account for the theorising of practice that occurs within Professional Experience and what it contributes to teaching practice across career phases.  

Professional Experience is a well-established term in the literature and within the lexicon of school leaders, teachers and AITSL.  The Institute has developed a range of resources and commissioned valuable work to support initial teacher education providers to deliver high-quality Professional Experience programs through its collaboration with industry and across Australia’s diverse contexts. 

At the core of this approach is educational research and theory that drives contemporary, evidence-based practice.  Over the past decade, Australian teacher educators and educational researchers have contributed to world-standard research into the circumstances and conditions of high-quality Professional Experience within initial teacher education.  This literature and practice have shown to be of significant value to the development of graduates and to the schools and systems that partner with universities around this work.  

Teaching practitioners have a fundamental role to play in preparing future teachers.  Their work in collaboration with teacher educators provides the necessary relationship between the knowledge that underpins contemporary, evidence-based practice and the skills, knowledge and perspectives necessary for effective application.  

The interdependence of these components is inherent in quality initial teacher education around the globe.  

Reducing the role of teacher educators to practitioners does not value the breadth of their roles within this sophisticated interdependence nor the expertise they bring to it.  By replacing “profession” with “practical” in Professional Experience, we risk minimising the moral and ethical decision-making, engagement with social justice concerns, identity work and sense of self-efficacy inherent within these influential components of initial teacher education programs. There is a risk that we return to an approach where there was a greater disconnection between schools and universities, limited resources for research and innovation in the field, and undermined the credibility of those who work in Professional Experience.

We agree with the report that highlights experience in schools as supporting pre-service teachers to develop their skills and expertise in the classroom and agree that it is and should remain a priority area. 

Indeed, the focus, discussion about and support for Professional Experience is long overdue. We applaud proposed investments in mentoring to support school-based teacher educators to continue the important work they do at a difficult time within the sector.  However, de-professionalising the field will not lead to improved outcomes.  It flags an intention to shift this work (and the knowledge that drives it) away from highly experienced teacher educators and educational researchers and into the realm of practitioners. This is problematic as effective Initial teacher education requires contributions from both teacher educators and practitioners. We therefore call for the preservation of the term “Professional Experience” to ensure the legacy of research and advocacy associated with this term is maintained to ensure that the expertise and theoretical underpinnings of Professional Experience are recognised.

From left to right: Jennifer Clifton is an Associate Professor at QUT, President-elect of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) and the Queensland representative for NADPE. Susan Ledger is Head of School – Dean of Education at University of Newcastle and chair of the NADPE Steering Group. Chad Morrison is Associate Dean: Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the School of Education at Murdoch University and deputy chair of the NADPE Steering Group. Brendan Bentley is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Adelaide University and the deputy chair of the NADPE Steering Group.

Header image found at Classroom Observation Specifics to Create Positive Growth