It is a truism that teaching and teacher education in Australia and elsewhere is under increasing scrutiny and pressure. Stakeholders like governments, school systems and media commentators make their views well known within a policy framework of tightening university budgets, increasing accountability (of teachers and universities), market forces and more stringent expectations of teaching. The advent of a course review of a teacher education course at the University of Wollongong in this context has presented an opportunity to re-think some fundamental assumptions of both the existing mainstream primary teacher education course and a smaller scale alternative course run within the Faculty of Education there.
Briefly, the existing mainstream course is modeled on the general liberal arts degree structure that is widely used. The alternative mode is known as the Knowledge Building Community (or KBC). Both of these modes embody assumptions (more deliberately so in the case of the KBC) about learning, knowledge, pedagogy and other aspects of teacher education, and the KBC makes its point of difference from the mainstream in applying theories clustered around student-centred learning environments, such as problem-based learning, situated cognition, school-based learning and so on. The model arising out of the present course review critiques the positions of both these models, roughly and respectively being positivist and constructivist approaches. Instead, it posits a realist, specifically a critical realist, view of knowledge and social explanation. Here, the starting point is neither the subject (as in traditional models) nor the learner (as in constructivist models) but the learning environment (the ontology), which is defined as the circumstances that enable and constrain learning. This became a focus for reconceptualising teacher education within the constraints given above and, we will argue, for reconceptualising the work of teachers.