Navigating the Maze

The struggle to map the landscape of teacher education in Canada

With the rise of accountability measures in public education around the world, the quality of teachers and the institutions that prepare them has been the subject of considerable scrutiny.

Educationally speaking, is Canada competitive with the rest of the world? The media bombards us with headlines describing how Finland and China are leaving us behind and suggests that this will ultimately have a negative effect on our economy and way of life. This kind of negativity persists despite Canada’s positive comparative ranking on international tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). All levels of education are blamed in media reports, but teachers and the institutions that prepare teachers receive much of the scrutiny and vilification.

One response to concerns about teachers and teacher education has been the development of programs like Teach for America in the U.S., Teach First in the U.K. and Teach for Canada here at home. Operating on the assumptions that the best students are not choosing teaching as a profession and that BEd programs are largely ineffective, these initiatives recruit high GPA graduates with bachelors’ degrees, provide them with short, intensive summer teacher preparation training, and ask them to commit to teach for two years in “high needs” areas. However, despite media hype regarding these initiatives, there is little if any evidence to demonstrate that these teachers have a greater impact on K-12 student learning as compared to teachers who have earned a Bachelor of Education degree. If improving student learning is directly related to improving teachers and teaching, we need more than media hype and public critique to determine what teacher education should look like.

 The need for national data

 One proactive response to the critique of teacher education has been a growing effort among teacher educators around the world to study and report on what makes for quality teacher preparation. In many jurisdictions, this takes place at the national level but, unlike most other countries – including federations with diffuse, multijurisdictional education systems like Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. – Canada has no federal agency that can stimulate study and debate of educational issues of national concern. Setting Canadian educational policy-making in the context of OECD countries, Heather-Jane Robertson observed, “Among the OECD’s member states, Canada stood alone. Every other nation, including those which, like Canada, are structured as federations had devised a vehicle for articulating, debating, and adopting national policies and for coordinating education research.”1 We argue the lack of national research on initial teacher education (ITE) in Canada is a problem for two reasons: it mitigates against teacher educators learning from each other, which Robertson and others have identified as a perennial issue in Canadian education; and the lack of substantive knowledge of the effectiveness of various approaches to ITE leaves the field open to criticism.

There are some national education bodies in Canada, like the Association of Canadian Deans of Education, who have collaborated to write a number of accords (e.g. the Deans’ Accord on Initial Teacher Education), and the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, which influences legislation related to teacher education (e.g. Work Mobility Legislation), but these organizations have little financial or regulatory clout when it comes to shaping national educational priorities. Researchers who wish to study the 62 ITE programs in Canada must find their own resources to support their investigations and must work, institution by institution, to garner cooperation from each particular program.

We are one such a group of researchers and over the last few years have sought to ask and answer the question: “What are students learning in teacher education programs across Canada?” (See sidebar: The Teacher Education Canada Project.) In this article we outline some of the obstacles we have encountered in attempting to study teacher education on a national scale. We hope that by discussing these issues we will foster a conversation about how to better study ITE, and other important educational issues, at a national level in Canada.

Obstacles to studying teacher education nationally

Issue 1: Repetition of Research Ethics Requirements

Even though processes for the adjudication of research proposals for their conformance to ethical standards is regulated nationally in Canada and all major universities are audited for compliance, we have often had to secure ethics approval from our home institution(s) and then from those where we wish to conduct research. While most host institutions permitted a relatively straightforward protocol for this, some have extra steps in their processes as compared to our home institutions. For example, one institution required a copy of a certificate indicating completion of the Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans Course on Research Ethics. Although this documentation can be accessed online and is not onerous, additional steps like this can add significant time, organization and energy to the research process. Some of the additional ethics requirements are far more onerous than this.

Issue 2: Vulnerability

A national project seeking to map the landscape of ITE across Canada can be intimidating for a number of reasons. In the past several years, quality applications to ITE programs have declined in many parts of Canada. Although teacher educators across institutions often see themselves as colleagues, we are also competitors for the same students. A cross-jurisdictional study could result in comparisons of programs, which raises the possibility of unfavourable appraisals. These and other factors often cause a heightened sense of vulnerability when outside researchers call and thus, a decrease in their motivation to participate.

This is particularly true at certain times in a program’s life cycle. At any given time some institutions are in the midst of program revision or of rolling out new initiatives. While those we have approached often express interest in participating in the research, they also indicated that immersion in the re-visioning required for program renewal is intense, leaving little time or energy for other projects. With policies and programs in flux, they often expressed reluctance to participate because they felt that, at present, we would not garner a strong sense of their program or that their program was not established enough yet to be compared to other institutions.

Issue 3: Costs

Part of our project has been to build and maintain a national database of program structure and other key information representing all 62 ITE programs in Canada. This information is available to researchers and policymakers from the institutions involved, but the site requires a significant commitment of money and time to construct and maintain. In addition to the database, our study includes case study site visits to a range of institutions in diverse contexts across Canada. This also involves considerable financial and human resource costs. Finding the funding necessary for national scale educational research on any topic in Canada has never been easy, given the absence of a national body that seeks to coordinate and fund such research. The title of a previous article in Education Canada vividly described the effects of this absence in the area of citizenship education: “Canada dabbles while the world plays on.”2

Issue 4: Perceived Value

Given all the possible apparent risks to programs described above, including overloading already busy faculty and staff, the possibility of losing students to other institutions, and suffering reputational damage from poor (or poorly reported) results, institutions will have to see the potential for substantial value before participating in a national study.

This brings us back to where we began: teacher education is under intense scrutiny around the world and in Canada but little is known about the various approaches to ITE used in our country or how effective these are. In the face of criticism and the lack of an evidence base, research on a national scale has the potential to greatly enrich the understanding of the field and improve practice. The authors of a comparative study of citizenship education across several national jurisdictions concluded, “… countries where national debate about citizenship and citizenship education was encouraged and conducted were more likely to produce substantial and widely implemented programs in the area.”3 We believe the same could be true for ITE, so we approach the issues we identify above as challenges rather than barriers. While it will take concerted effort on the part of national educational stakeholders and funding agencies as well as the will and enterprise of research teams to overcome them, we think it is possible and necessary to do so.

The Teacher Education Canada Project

Research Question: What are prospective teachers learning in teacher education programs across Canada?
Project Elements:
  • A regularly updated database, containing basic program structure information for all 62 education programs in Canada (www.teacheredcanada.ca). The website contains information and social media links to national and international ITE sources.
  • Site visits by research teams to institutions with programs indicative of other similarly structured ITE programs. Site visit data is developed as case studies and made available through database above.
  • Invited conferences in which the structures of Canadian ITE programs are discussed, and common issues being faced are identified.

Other research challenges

There were many challenges encountered while conducting this national study, but not all the challenges are unique to studying teacher education programs on a national scale. Examples include: establishing who is an appropriate contact to work with at each institution; conducting site visits in alignment with the cadence of each program’s on-campus and practica components; and ensuring that the study was not invasive to the point of inhibiting the work of the faculty and students at each institution.

En Bref – Les mesures de responsabilisation en éducation publique s’étant multipliées à l’échelle du monde, la qualité des enseignants et de leurs établissements de formation est scrutée. Cet article traite des défis que doivent relever les chercheurs travaillant dans le cadre du projet portant sur la formation des enseignants au Canada pour répondre à la question : qu’apprennent les futurs enseignants dans les 62 programmes d’études en enseignement au Canada? Ces défis comprennent le chevauchement des procédures en éthique de la recherche des établissements, la vulnérabilité ressentie par le corps professoral de différentes universités face aux données comparatives défavorables qui pourraient découler d’une étude nationale, ainsi que l’insuffisance de fonds et de visions de recherche transcendant les frontières provinciales et territoriales. Nous soutenons que la recherche à l’échelle nationale peut rehausser la connaissance de l’éducation au Canada et qu’il faut donc déterminer comment relever efficacement ces défis.


Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

1 Heather-Jane Robertson, “An Idea Whose Time Keeps Coming,” Phi Delta Kappan 87, no. 5 (2006): 410-412.

2 Andrew S. Hughes and Alan Sears, “Citizenship Education: Canada dabbles while the world plays on,” Education Canada 46, no. 4 (2006): 6-9.

3 Andrew S. Hughes, Murray Print, and Alan Sears, “Curriculum Capacity and Citizenship Education: A comparative analysis,” Compare 40, no. 3 (2010): 297.

Meet the Expert(s)

Lynn Lemisko

Dr. Lynn Lemisko is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan. She was the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Research for five years and is a teacher educator with research interests in the areas of social studies education, the history of education, and teacher education.

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Rob Blanchard

Alan Sears

Professor, Faculty of Education, University of New Brunswick

Alan Sears is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick. His research interests are in civic education, history education, and teacher education.

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Mark Hirschkorn

Dr. Mark Hirschkorn is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, N.B., and Director of the Teacher Education Canada Research Program. He specializes in teacher education program design and reform and is also a science educator at that institution. 

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