Four Spheres of Knowledge Required: An International Study of the Professional Development of Literacy/English Teacher Educators

Mar. 20, 2015

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1, 52–77, 2015.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study was to study in depth a group of literacy/English teacher educators, with attention to their backgrounds, knowledge, research activities, identity, view of current government initiatives, pedagogy and course goals.

The participants were 28 literacy teacher educators (LTE) in four countries: Canada, the USA, England and Australia.
Data were collected through semi-structured interviews over the period April, 2012 to August, 2013.


This study indicates that professional development is important for both new and experienced faculty. Overall, the faculty continued to grow in the four spheres of knowledge: research; pedagogy in higher education; literacy and literacy teaching; and government and school district initiatives.

This study reveals the sheer scale of knowledge required to be an effective LTE. All three forms of professional development (formal, informal and communities of practice) came into play for all 28 of the participants: each process had value and a place in supporting their development as teacher educators and researchers.
However, some trends and differences among the countries were noted. Some differences in the background of the LTEs were identified, which might influence the forms of professional development in which they engage. For example, the LTEs in England had spent more years as classroom teachers than their American counterparts. As a result, the former often had a steeper learning curve regarding knowledge of research, while the latter had a greater need to learn about government and school district initiatives.

It appears from the data that professional development for teacher educators is quite ad hoc, with much of it occurring through learning while doing. All the LTEs had to construct their own programmes for professional development, which added yet another layer of responsibility.
The most common type of professional development for the new LTEs was informal. Although valuable, informal professional development has limitations because it is often dependent on the goodwill of colleagues; has a strong trial-and- error component; and it is not always apparent what needs to be learned. Induction programmes should outline to new faculty the varied professional development processes and the spheres of required knowledge, with examples of what each looks like in practice; how to go about accessing formal professional development; and strategies for becoming part of a community of practice.

For mid- and later-career faculty, informal professional development was still a major part of their work, but many had greater participation in formal professional development and communities of practice, usually because of the networks they had established. Communities of practice can play a key role in helping all LTEs grow and develop; however, they are time-consuming to establish and nurture. Opportunities to participate in communities of practice within and beyond the home university context are necessary because each provides different kinds of learning. Heterogeneous communities of practice that include new, mid- and later-career faculty have much to offer: new faculty can learn the workings of higher education (both teaching and research), and mid- and later-career faculty can learn about current teacher practices and school district initiatives from the newly arrived faculty. However, with dwindling travel funds at many universities, it is becoming difficult for some of these collaborations to occur. Universities need to support communities of practice because they are a key form of professional development.
By working together, many LTEs found personal and professional support; however, two senior faculty admitted that the strain was too much and they were moving out of initial teacher education and would, in future, only teach at the doctoral level.


This study reveals that the four spheres of knowledge appeared to be interrelated. For example, knowledge of government initiatives informed knowledge of pedagogy in higher education, and knowledge of research informed knowledge of literacy theory and literacy teaching. Conceptualising knowledge for teacher educators as multifaceted, interrelated and dynamic has the benefit of revealing the true complexity of their work. The four spheres of knowledge are relevant to literacy/English teacher education and most likely would apply with modifications to teacher educators in other disciplines/fields. They could provide a framework for both induction programmes and professional development for mid-and later-career teacher educators.

LTEs truly have a demanding role as they teach courses within contexts that are often highly politicised, work with student teachers who have varying interests and abilities, while all the time remaining true to themselves. In order to be effective, they must engage in the three forms of professional development identified here, each of which has benefits. Over the span of their careers, they need to continue to refine their practice; studying their practice and studying their graduates are essential, because it is only through research will they come to understand the impact of their courses on their student teachers and the challenges new teachers face. Working collaboratively with other teacher educators will lessen the isolation some feel, while pooling their efforts may lead to greater insight into being an LTE.

Updated: May. 23, 2016