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Sharne Watkins and Paul Herrington - Enquiry-based practice: enabling student teachers to take responsibility for their professional learning

There is little doubt that education in Wales is on the cusp of something rather special. The ‘alignment’ and almost simultaneous announcements and pronouncements of the Donaldson review of the curriculum, the Furlong review of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and the Education Minister’s New Deal to support teachers, leaders and other school staff in their professional development throughout their careers is a significant, and some would say not to be missed, opportunity to join up not just thinking but also doing.

In terms of the ‘New Deal’ the Minister has been very clear about his expectations of, and for, the new professional learning model with its emphasis on continuous (rather than one-off) professional development underpinned by the four key principles of effective collaboration, reflective practice, coaching and mentoring and effective use of data and research evidence.

Preparing ‘embryonic’ teachers to become part of the Minister’s ambition of constructing a world-class education system is both an exciting and serious business. Significantly, one of the underlying principles of ITE is to focus on the importance of the inter- and intra-relationship of theory and practice.

As part of the continuous reflection, development and implementation cycle inherent in ITE programmes, and to accommodate the Welsh Government requirement to increase school-based experience to 120 days, the PGCE Primary programme at Cardiff Metropolitan University was revalidated in 2014-15. In the true spirit of partnership, it was designed in consultation with school-based colleagues and student teachers with an emphasis on establishing the professional values, habits and behaviours that will aid student teachers in their future career. It was agreed very early on in the design process that central to achieving this would be enquiry-based learning, where skills of reflexivity and practice-based educational research would be developed.

As a way of cohering an enquiry-based learning approach, university tutors and school mentors created a series of ‘Learning Packages’ aimed at supporting the process of enquiry in a way that could be owned by the student teacher. These Learning Packages contain a series of research-related tasks that enable student teachers to look at classroom-based issues through, what Brookfield (1995) classed as, four interconnected lenses: their own, the views of their pupils, their colleagues and through existing research literature. From this, these packages go on to develop coherence between the education received in university and activities occurring in the classroom, and support student teachers in the completion of their assignments at Master’s level.

Whilst student teachers take the lead in directing their own enquiries, mentors in school and tutors at university play a crucial role, both as facilitators and as co-enquirers, by engaging in learning conversations, facilitating focused observations of pupils or professionals in action, and providing essential reading and video materials to complement specific university lectures and tutorials. From this, the student teachers employ an ‘engage, plan, do, reflect’ model where they use their new-found knowledge in identifying and following their own line of enquiry, the aim being to initiate an intervention that will improve learning in their classrooms. Student teachers reflect on the learning and their own practice by critically analysing data and other evidence, making pertinent links between theory and practice. As part of their reflections, they are required to synthesise their learning into reflective notes where reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action are equally considered (Schon, 1983). The completion of this work later goes on to inform the completion of academic assignments where student teachers are expected to demonstrate their progress as ‘reflective practitioners’.

To support the student teacher, each Learning Package contains a map that outlines the key tasks and their order and timing of completion. However, there is flexibility in the order and timings of the tasks in order to suit the needs of the student teacher, the pupils being taught or, indeed, the school’s own timetable and workload pressures.

By providing direction, whilst maintaining some flexibility in the process of completion, the Learning Packages scaffold the student teachers by giving them the background they need to identify their own areas of interest for the purpose of improving their practice in systematic ways. From this, they are able to more closely examine the issues and acquire new found knowledge that is more readily retained. This is because it has been acquired by personal and relevant experience and in relation to real problems.

The thinking behind the Learning Packages aligns itself well to the National Professional Learning Model, and, in particular, the Reflective Practice resources published on the Learning Wales website this year. From the outset, student teachers take responsibility for their professional learning – a skill that the Education Minister (Lewis, 2014) declared he wanted the profession to do. They learn about the contribution of reflective practice to professional development and develop enquiry skills that are developed not just for the purpose of writing an academic paper but as an inherent part of their professional ‘toolkit’. In a sense, they develop skills that are not just essential for their studies - but may be seen as the cornerstone of their continuing critical engagement with an increasingly enquiry and research focused profession.

Although it is early days, initial indications are such that the ‘Learning Package’ approach to ITE has been a positive development. Reflecting on the first year, a 10% sample has indicated that those student teachers who engaged well with the packages achieved better results in their Master’s level assignments and in their final school placement grades. Unsurprisingly, because the packages were never designed to be assessed as a separate piece of work, there was variability in the level of engagement across the cohort with some choosing, in a time-pressured course, to focus on those aspects that had some kind of ‘external validation’. However, those who embraced the idea of taking professional responsibility for their learning were rewarded by being given the skills to find answers for themselves and to provide questions they wouldn’t have thought of asking. As one student teacher put it: “it helped me to know what it is I need to know”.

The variability of engagement is now a focus for 2015-16. The course team has embedded the Learning Package work much more closely within assessment criteria and have pinpointed ‘show and tell’ sessions throughout the academic year so that student teachers will be motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically. In addition, the course team will need to encourage school-based mentors to embrace this form of learning and training as there appears to be a correlation between mentor and student teacher enthusiasm for this work. As the Professional Learning Model picks up momentum, it is hoped that mentors will see for themselves that the learning through enquiry approach, which begins in ITE courses, is a foundation for a future way of working. As advocated by the BERA/RSA inquiry (2014, p. 6): “A focus on enquiry-based practice needs to be sustained during initial teacher education programmes and throughout teachers’ professional careers, so that disciplined innovation and collaborative enquiry are embedded within the lives of schools or colleges and become the normal way of teaching and learning, rather than the exception.”

From our experience, learning packages are one of the best ways of supporting student teachers to integrate theory and practice or ‘bring a research-informed perspective to their practice’ - something that’s been developed in ITE but could also be equally and effectively applied to Continuous Professional Development.

Sharne Watkins and Paul Herrington



BERA-RSA (2014) Research and the Teaching Profession ; building the capacity for a self-improving
education system. Final report of the BERA-RSA Inquiry into the role of research in teacher
education. London: BERA

Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, H. (2014) New deal to support and raise the status of the education workforce in Wales [Press release]. 10 June. Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2015)

Schön, Donald A. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.



SW Pic for EWC blogSharne Watkins (Deputy Head of the Department for Teacher Education and Training)

Sharne began her career as a primary teacher prior to her appointment at Cardiff Metropolitan University. As well as being the Deputy Head for Teacher Education and Training, she is the Language and Literacy Co-ordinator for the Teacher Education and Training programmes offered by Cardiff School of Education and has chaired the UCET Cymru Literacy Working Group. Sharne has been actively involved in the development of e-learning across the University and as part of a team was awarded a Teaching Fellowship for her work in developing a support framework for students. Sharne has been involved in training at all levels during her career: she co-designed and delivered INSET training for Dynamo, she was involved in the development of training DVDs for Estyn and PISA training materials for the Welsh Government and, in 2009, she co-authored teaching materials for the Sports Council for Wales. Having been a mentor on the Welsh Government funded Masters in Educational Practice programme, Sharne was inspired to initiate and edit the ‘PGCE Primary: learning through enquiry’ learning package materials, which aimed to create a model of initial teacher education and training that put enquiry-based learning at the centre of student teacher development.



PH Pic for EWC blogPaul Herrington (Principal Lecturer: Cardiff School of Education)

Paul is a Principal Lecturer in the Cardiff School of Education, Cardiff Metropolitan University. As a former Head of Art and Head of Creative Arts Faculty in secondary schools his subject discipline specialism is art & design and his research focuses on curriculum development in this area and in creativity and creative pedagogies. He has developed and curated didactic and pedagogical Curriculum Studies Expositions and Artist in Residence Exhibitions for over a decade. These have been nationally recognised in the field of art education as being both innovative and of the highest quality. He has been the Head of Schools Partnership and subsequently Head of the Department of Teacher Education for over a decade; recently he has taken up a more strategic role within the Cardiff School of Education looking at the opportunities and challenges arising from recent key Welsh Government initiatives. He is a member (and former executive member) of the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD). He currently leads the UCET Cymru Arts in Education Working Group. He also has a keen interest in recent educational developments in Wales, particularly Initial teacher Education and Training and Continuing Professional Development of teachers.