Ian Menter

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

There is now almost universal recognition around the world that ‘teaching matters’ and that the quality of teaching is crucial in social and economic development. This is shown by the wide influence of international rankings and reports such as the OECD PISA and TALIS reports that compare the performance of school students, and the Mckinsey Reports that compare the economic performance of nations. Policy makers all over the world quote these reports.

This trend to focus on teaching can also be seen in any general election in ‘advanced’ nations. It appears Australia is headed in this direction for the looming federal election.

However while education and teaching get headlined in elections it is less common for teacher education to be seen in the media as a significant part of this. Nevertheless, politicians and policymakers seem to have no inhibitions in developing their policies in this area.

In spite of all this, there has been remarkably little change in the ways in which teachers’ work in classrooms and schools, or in the ways in which teachers are educated for a lifetime of preparing young people for their future worlds. I believe this is significant and needs our attention.

Policy makers missing the importance of the relationship between teacher and student

Politicians tend to argue and make policy on matters such as where beginning teachers should learn, how their courses are structured and, to some extent, what should be the balance between their subject knowledge, their professional knowledge and their classroom skills. They seem less interested in changing the fundamentals of teaching and learning, the relationships between teachers and their students.

Politicians rarely refer to research or indeed to other evidence – apart from those mentioned above. In my work, I like to reflect on debates about the nature of teaching and teacher education in order to challenge this tendency. I suggest that such thinking is often driven by ideology and prejudice rather than by careful deliberation or by the use of research evidence.

Move to apprentice-type teacher education in England

In the UK, in particular, there is the most extreme form of such policymaking. It can be found in England where there is a move away from the serious study of education as part of teachers’ preparation. The university contribution is being marginalised and schools are being encouraged to ‘go it alone’. That is, schools directly recruit their own students and train them to be teachers on the job. Learning to teach is being seen as a simple apprenticeship rather than a professional programme of integrated theory and practice.

Whereas in Scotland teacher education is moving towards master level

Other UK jurisdictions take very different approaches. For example, in Scotland there is the Donaldson Report which places the university at the heart of effective teacher education and is encouraging moves towards Masters level entry into the profession. In other words teaching is seen as a profession rather than simply as a craft.

Developments in Australia

In Australia you have the Action Now: Classroom ready teachers,  a report by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), which makes several recommendations, such as all initial teacher education programs should be rigorously assessed. And, in relating teacher education to a number of wider issues around teacher supply and educational provision, it is perhaps more constructive than the recent report in England, The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training. Furthermore the TEMAG report also makes a strong call for further research to be carried out in order to inform future developments in creating 21st century teachers.

Also, Australia is very lucky to have a large-scale study of teacher education happening, the multi-institutional Studying the Effectiveness of Teacher Education (SETE). This study is led by distinguished scholar in teacher education, Professor Diane Mayer, from the University of Sydney. This study follows graduate teachers in Victoria and Queensland during their first three to four years of teaching. It will provide great evidence for policy decision-making regarding teacher education and beginning teaching in Australia, including the importance of ensuring continuity in beginning teachers’ learning over the early years of their careers. Such an independent and significant study of this kind has certainly not been done in the UK for the last decade or more.

Research literacy is an essential skill for a teacher of the 21st century

In the UK, part of our response in the British Educational Research Association to the challenges facing initial teacher education was to establish an enquiry which found evidence to suggest that ‘research literacy’ should be seen as a fundamental element of teaching and therefore of teacher education.

The concept of research literacy has two elements. First, that all teachers should be able to access, critically evaluate and use, as appropriate, the educational research that is relevant to their practice. Second, that teachers should have the capacity to engage in systematic enquiry within their own classrooms and schools – that is, they should possess a repertoire of research skills that they can deploy if and when the need arises.

Underlying values of teachers are now more important than ever

My conclusion is that in spite of the many upheavals experienced by teachers and teacher educators as politician juggle their policies, there are important underlying values, such as respect for learners, commitments to social justice and equity, that can be traced through the history of teaching that may now be more important than ever. But the ways in which these values are embodied in the work of contemporary teachers are in need of major reconsideration because of the rapid social and technological change affecting all of us. The responsibilities for teachers today, and therefore for teacher educators, are greater now than they have ever been.



Ian Menter is Vice-President, British Educational Research Association and Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education, University of Oxford.

Professor Menter will be presenting a lecture What Is a Teacher In The 21st Century and What Does a 21st Century Teacher Need to Know? on Tuesday 26th April, 6pm to 7.30pm (followed by refreshments) in the Education Lecture Theatre 351, Education Building, Manning Rd, The University of Sydney. Registration is essential, register here if you would like to attend Ian’s lecture.