Students talking to teacher

Curriculum, Policy, Teaching, Well at Work

A Future Wanting to Emerge

Challenging assumptions about teacher education

The changing demands on the teaching profession require a serious rethink to our approach to teacher preparation – perhaps most importantly, from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning.

Each year I have the opportunity to meet a new class of aspiring teachers. I ask the teacher candidates, “What is a teacher’s particular expertise?” Almost without hesitation a number of them answer, “Teaching.”

“Really,” I respond. “And physicians are expert in physicianing, and lawyers are expert in lawyering?”

The answer to the question, “What is a teacher’s particular expertise?” is not as straightforward as it might first appear. Similar to other professional disciplines, the professional landscape for initial teacher education is in a continual state of flux. Impacted by often competing forces – global, political, economic, technological, social, linguistic, and cultural – the institution of schooling in Canada has evolved and changed over the past 150 years, both regionally and nationally. And it continues to evolve.

From the mid-1840s to today, local control of teacher certification was assumed first by colonial and then provincial authorities. Normal schools were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Canada to “standardize both instructional content and teaching methods to ensure quality.”1 Teacher education has evolved from requiring a few months of formal education to requiring a university degree. There was a time when it was sufficient for a teacher candidate to hold a few years of high school and good moral standing to obtain a teacher certificate. Seen as agents-of-the-state, teachers were initially trained to meet the basic need for functional literacy and numeracy, create a common citizenry, and establish a suitable workforce for an emerging industrial economy.2 This teacher training was generally undertaken at a normal school requiring applicants to provide certificates of good moral standing and records to verify that the individual completed high school. Today, teacher candidates in Canada undertake four or more years of university study. Many teacher candidates hold a four-year bachelor’s degree prior to entering a Bachelor of Education degree program. Some take a five-year concurrent Bachelor of Education program alongside a bachelor’s degree in another faculty. Still others complete a four-year Bachelor of Education degree program.

In addition to an increase in the years of university education required by teacher candidates, Alcon indicates there have been common trends across teacher education programs globally.

A rise in academic standards for entry into teacher education; an expectation that teacher educators should be researchers as well as teachers; a widening scope for teacher education from early childhood to post-secondary; an assumption that teachers need professional and academic development; and changes to concepts of professionalism, accountability and standards.3

These trends have also impacted initial and ongoing teacher education in Canada. In sharp contrast to the 1950s, when only two percent of Canadians aged 15 and over had university qualifications, the expectation today is that all young people will have the qualifications to carry on to post-secondary education. Teacher education programs across Canada have increased their academic standards in various ways over the years. Some universities have increased the length of time required to obtain a bachelor’s degree in education. Others have created master’s programs for after-degree teacher candidates. Most, if not all, have increased entry requirements into teacher education. In addition to the rising expectations for teacher education, at least one provincial government has introduced new standards for teachers, leaders, and superintendents. While universities strive for teacher education programs that cohere with contemporary research in the field, they must also ensure these programs meet the provincially regulated requirements so graduating teacher candidates are eligible to apply for teacher certification. The tension created by rising provincial expectations and global trends, combined with the need for universities to also ground their teacher education programs in contemporary research in the areas of learning, curriculum, pedagogy, diversity, etc., can be daunting.

A shifting landscape

While it is important to establish the various historical, global, local, political, and economic forces that impact teacher education, it is also essential that faculties of education across Canada take a serious look to determine how these shifts are reflected within their programs. Those involved in teacher education should remember that shifts, in fact, are not a problem and are instead indicative of how education, as a living practice, is alert to the issues of what is called for in initial teacher education. Moreover, because of education’s relationship with the young and the newness of the demands they bring with them and that shape their lives, such responsiveness is itself part of the nature of education as a living, intergenerational project. Echoing a phrase from the late Dr. William Doll, “keeping knowledge alive” is therefore in the very nature of education itself. Understanding teacher education with an eye to this inevitability is the key to understanding the challenge and opportunity for those responsible for designing and redesigning teacher education programs for our contemporary society.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teacher education emerged to meet the needs of an agrarian and industrial society – hierarchical, bureaucratic, and highly segmented. The shift called for in contemporary teacher education requires us to design teacher education that effectively addresses the needs of our time. The shift is from a focus on teaching, teaching strategies, and classroom management, to a focus on learning that includes:

  • creating the conditions under which learning occurs
  • making important concepts and content learnable
  • designing for disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary engagements in learning
  • examining whether and to what extent learning occurs
  • adapting teaching approaches to meet the learning requirements in response to the diverse learning needs of students – linguistic, cultural, social, and cognitive
  • continuing to invest in strengthening and improving the practice of teaching.

For the most part, tinkering won’t work. A pattern of minor revisions and changes have created teacher education programs in which overall programmatic cohesion is lost.

Shifts from a teaching-focused program to a learning-focused program might at first appear fairly straightforward. In an attempt to respond to the pressing need to re-examine teacher education, a common approach is to tinker at the edges of existing programs by adding new courses, increasing time in field experience or moving the placement of field experience, or adjusting the credit structure in order to make room for the new courses. Such tinkering can be observed in the addition of courses such as Indigenous education, inclusion, diversity, and assessment, which are frequently added while at the same time clinging on to all the courses previously offered. As a result fewer hours (and fewer credits) are assigned to each course and students must complete more courses to meet the requirements of the degree.

While each of these changes to existing programs has met with varying degrees of success, it is also true that for the most part, tinkering won’t work. A pattern of minor revisions and changes have created teacher education programs in which overall programmatic cohesion is now lost. Instead, students take a bit of this and a bit of that, recreating an assembly-line image and its premise of fragmentation and isolation. Some teacher education programs have become incoherent combinations of old and new forms and ways, frequently pitting faculty member against faculty member, with each arguing for the value and necessity of a particular course and vying for time within an already overburdened curriculum. Alternatively, a program may try to appease everyone by creating a teacher education program with a few core courses, on which all faculty members can agree, and a series of options and electives. While giving the initial appearances of responding to the new landscape, such responses do not adequately address the shift that is needed. Against such a backdrop, teacher candidates are left with no choice but to make sense of the entire endeavour on their own – constructing their own knowledge and meaning out of a series of disconnected courses. And as strange as that might appear at first glance, there is a hint here of trying to put the initiative and involvement of individual students, which had been previously effaced, back into the educational mix. However, if the presumption of a teacher education curriculum constituted by a series of unrelated and disconnected courses is left in place, efforts at responsive changes to teacher education will eventually collapse.

Challenging assumptions

Within each of these efforts at changes to teacher education programs, there is what could be called a “future wanting to emerge.” Each of the responses is a genuine and well-intended effort to make the difference that will provide teacher candidates with a coherent teacher education program appropriate to meet the challenges and opportunities of a 21st century society. However, a serious and deliberate rethinking of the entire endeavour is needed, one that examines the underlying set of assumptions that underpin many teacher education programs. Currently many of the attempts to change curriculum, pedagogies, or time leave undisturbed the need for a more radical change to teacher education. A few of these assumptions include:

  • Candidate teachers will make sense of self-contained and disconnected courses designed and taught by those in academically disconnected units.
  • Learning is a rational, consciousness-mediated process.
  • Cognition is an individual, mental process separate from social interactions and cultural influences.
  • The way to understand teaching practice is through reflection.

More frequently than not, these unexamined assumptions silently drive reactionary responses underground. Left in place, they serve to undermine and sideline the ability to pose the question, “What might constitute a vibrant, coherent 21st century contemporary teacher education program?”

The recent rise of ideas of ecological interdependence, sustainability, living systems, learning systems, knowledge as dynamic, and the like provide an analogy for how to reimagine the enterprise of teacher education for a contemporary society. These ideas require those involved in redesign efforts to be attentive to the obligations toward dynamically evolving social, cultural, and ecological circumstances. Ecology offers a way of thinking about things and systems that does not begin with isolated bits and pieces, but with webs of relationships. These relationships are not simply contextual of individual things but constitutive of them. So a particular life form, for example, is not simply “surrounded” by other things in an “environment” but is constituted, formed and shaped by those surroundings.

In the educational context, too frequently a response to this emerging understanding of interdependence is to add courses on sustainability, diversity, and/or inclusion, which get inserted into the curriculum of teacher education as simply one more thing to be covered. However, when understood as constitutive of the environment itself, mechanical efficiencies give way to systemic complexities and open the space for new understandings and the emergence of new organizing principles on which to create teacher education programs.

The Association of Canadian Deans of Education released a revised Accord on Teacher Education in 2017. This Accord is based on a vision for teacher education in Canada “that fosters skilled professional educators who cultivate knowledge, critical thinking, and responsible action among learners, in order to foster an inclusive and equitable society.”4 The Accord is based on three principles:

  • effectively and skillfully foster learning
  • support collaborative approaches to teaching and learning, and
  • foster social responsibility.

The Accord “asserts that effective teacher education programs demonstrate the transformative power of learning for individuals and communities.”5 I suggest that those charged with teacher education in universities attend not only to the various contexts impacting contemporary education, but also examine the assumptions about learning that underpin many teacher education programs.

Within many universities, teacher education programs are undergoing processes of revision, renewal, and redesign to adapt to ever-changing conditions. As we consider the transformations required for a contemporary teacher education program, we need to acknowledge two things: 1) As a society, we have been in this place before; and 2) no one is to blame for the current need to change. The world has once again changed, and teacher education needs to be “set right anew.”6 Within teacher education, we need to once again direct our efforts by asking, what does a teacher candidate need to know, do, and be in a diverse, inclusive, and equitable society where the demands to create highly educated youth are at the top of everyone’s agenda?

Returning to a question that I asked at the beginning of this paper, “What is a teacher’s particular expertise?” Teachers are experts in learning. As experts in learning, students in initial teacher education programs need to know how to create the conditions within which rich powerful learning emerges, flourishes, strengthens, and deepens. They need to know how to adapt their teaching in response to learning. They need to understand that learning occurs in formal and informal environments and settings. Teachers who know how to learn, are inspired to continue learning, and collaborate with each other, know that learning individually and collectively is essential in today’s world. To meet this challenge and seize this opportunity, teacher education programs need to go about the work of creating highly connected, collaborative, and intellectually robust contemporary programs that are sharply focused on learning for teacher candidates.

Photo: Mary Kate MacIsaac / Werklund School of Education

First published in Education Canada, September 2018



1 H. Raptis, “The Canadian Landscape: Provinces, territories, nations, and identities,” in The Curriculum History of Canadian Teacher Education, ed. T. Christou (Routledge, 2017), 7-22.

2 A. Sears and M. Hirschkorn, “The Controlling Hand: Canadian teacher education in a global context,” in The Curriculum History of Canadian Teacher Education, ed. T. Christou (Routledge, 2017), 241-258.

3 N. Alcorn, “Teacher Education in New Zealand 1974–2014,” Journal of Education for Teaching 40, no.5 (2014): 456.

4 Accord on Teacher Education (Association of Canadian Deans of Education, 2017, 1.

5 Ibid., 2.

6 H. Arendt, “The Crisis in Education,” in Between Past and Present: Eight exercises in political thought (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 192-3.

Meet the Expert(s)


Dr. Sharon Friesen

Professor, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary

Sharon Friesen is a professor and President of the Galileo Educational Network at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Her research interests include the ways in which K-12 educational structures, curriculum, and pedagogies need to be reinvented for our contemporary society.

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