Informing thinking of teacher educators using value dilemmas of primary school teachers.

St Andrew's Building UofG

Educational researchers Berlak and Berlak (2012) introduce us to language that can be used to talk about a variety of value judgements that primary school teachers make which underpin their day-to-day practice. In this post the use of this language by initial teacher educators in a higher education context, will be considered.

The language introduced by Berlak and Berlak (2012: 22) is described as ‘dilemmas’, each of which has two bounded extremes. For example, in their dilemma of setting and monitoring performance standards one extreme position is that of entire teacher control and the other extreme of entire child control. Within these two extremes an educator can take a value position which, Berlak and Berlak (2012) explain, is linked to our background assumptions. The impact on decisions for practice due to pragmatic, prescriptive, and causal assumptions is well documented by a range of educational authors including Brookfield (2017) whose work is often drawn on in initial teacher education (ITE) courses. Since our underlying assumptions can be different for groups of students, the subjects being taught, or for the times of day, an educator’s value position about each dilemma is inconsistent (Berlak and Berlak 2012). They also indicate that an educator’s value position about a dilemma is inconsistent over time. One may speculate that reflective practice, as exemplified by Brookfield’s (2017) exploration of hegemonic assumptions, may have a role to play in such changes.

Berlak and Berlak (2012) introduce us to sixteen specific dilemmas. As an educator reflects on their value position about each of these, they may find that their positions conflict with each other. For example, an educator’s position about the dilemma of equal vs differential allocation of resources may be at odds with their value position about each child being unique versus children having shared characteristics. In this case, an educator could conceivably consider children to be unique yet distribute resources evenly in the interests of ‘fairness’. This idea of conflicting values between dilemmas is also reflected in the work of other authors on the impact of values on practice. Cuban’s (1992) description of dilemmas includes competing morals and Fransson and Grannas’ (2013) conceptualisation of dilemmas includes a clash of ethics and values. Whilst Berlak and Berlak (2012) do not use the terms morals nor ethics the confusing messy situations that all of these authors describe are very much part of Schön’s (1983: 42) ‘swampy lowlands’ which can be navigated by educators with the help of reflection.

Berlak and Berlak (2012) group their potentially conflicting dilemmas into three distinct but interconnected categories. The categories they introduce are control dilemmas, curriculum dilemmas (which contain the largest grouping), and societal dilemmas. In considering these categories it is here that we can begin to see their relevance to other education contexts beyond primary teaching, such as ITE in a higher education context.

Societal dilemmas are broadly about the ways children are treated in schools (Berlak and Berlak, 2012) within ITE this would relate to how students are treated within universities. For example, the extent to which all undergraduate students are held accountable to the same rules and regulations or if there are frequent exceptions for certain circumstances or students.

Control dilemmas consider the extent to which classroom control sits towards the child, in the case of ITE the student, or towards the educator. How children or ITE students are perceived by society impacts the locus of this control. As such we can see that not only Berlak and Berlak’s (2012) individual dilemmas but also their broader categories of dilemmas can conflict an educator. Although reflection may provide a tool to examine such conflicts, according to Cuban (1992), educators seldom do so.

Unlike Cuban (1992) and Fransson and Grannäs (2013), Berlak and Berlak (2012) make no consideration of external constraints limiting dilemmas. Returning to the first dilemma discussed above that of control of setting and monitoring performance standards it is easy to identify for ITE external factors which impinge on the value position of the educator for this dilemma. In Scotland, the General Teaching Council for Scotland sets standards for provisional registration (GTCS 2012) against which student teachers are assessed and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF 2023) is used by the higher education institution to set the level of assessment for each year group. These external factors significantly limit the control that students can have about setting and monitoring performance standards. At the same time, marketisation arising from neo-liberal policies leads to additional constraints (Fransson and Grannäs 2013). In the context of ITE, this plays out in the form of pressure within the higher education institutions for high National Student Survey (NSS) scores which ask about assessment and feedback and filter into the Times Higher Education international rankings (Marginson 2016). These external factors contribute to a more complex understanding of dilemmas and begin to shape what Fransson and Grannäs (2013: 4) describe as ‘dilemmatic spaces’. Such spaces provide limitations in which any educator, a primary school teacher or teacher educator, makes each of the 16 value judgements listed by Berlak and Berlak (2012). The resulting decisions that educators make about practice in these spaces are interconnected to social and moral responsibility (Kemmis and Smith 2007). As such critical reflection can be used by educators to examine such decisions (Kemmis and Smith 2007).

The language of Berlak and Berlak (2012) provides tools and insight that are of value when reflecting on the work of educators in Higher Education Initial Teacher Education programmes.

Reference List

  • Berlak, A. and Berlak, H. (2012) Dilemmas of schooling: teaching and social change, London, Routledge.
  • Brookfield, S. (2017) Becoming a critically reflective teacher (2nd edn), San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Cuban, L. (1992). Managing Dilemmas While. Building Professional Communities. Educational Researcher, 21(1), 4-11.
  • Fransson, G. & Grannäs, J. (2013) Dilemmatic spaces in educational contexts – towards a conceptual framework for dilemmas in teachers work, Teachers and Teaching, 19:1, 4-17, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2013.744195
  • GTCS (2021) ‘The standard for provisional registration’, from (last accessed 18 November 2023)
  • Kemmis, S. and Smith, T.J. (2007) ‘Praxis and praxis development’, in S. Kemmis and T.J. Smith (eds.), Enabling praxis: challenges for education, Rotterdam, Sense Publishers, pp. 3-14.
  • Marginson, S. (2016) ‘The global construction of higher education reform’, in K. Munday, A. Green, B. Lingard and A. Verger (eds), Handbook of global education policy, Newark, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 291-311.
  • Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action, New York, Basic Books.
  • SCQF (2023) ‘About the framework’, from (last accessed 18 November 2023)