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When beginning teachers are questioned as to the effectiveness of different components of their initial teacher preparation programme for preparing them to teach, the practicum is frequently identified as the most significant part of the programme. This paper draws on data generated during a study that explored the practicum as a site for learning to be a teacher. In this study primary teacher education students, their associate teachers and their university-based visiting lecturers were interviewed regarding their perceptions of what the students learnt, how they learnt and what enabled or hindered this learning. Two case studies are presented to demonstrate how understandings of what and how student teachers' learn on the practicum might be shared, or not shared, between the three participants in the experience.
Six researchers each interviewed two students, their associate teachers and their visiting lecturers within three weeks of the completion of the second practicum experience in the second year. The interviews were semi-structured in nature with lead questions relating to what the students had learned about becoming teachers during the practicum, how they had learnt this and what they considered to be the enablers and hinderers of this learning. The question guiding the interrogation of the data for this paper is “How are understandings of what and how student teachers' learn on the practicum shared, or not shared by the three participants in the practicum triad? The data drawn on for this paper are from one researcher’s set of interviews only.
Both schools have a particular gazetted close relationship with the teacher education institution. These schools have between 15 and twenty student teachers placed with them during any one placement. With up to five placement blocks each year, the school management, the associate teachers and the school students are very used to the presence of student teachers.
The student teachers
ST1 was a young, recent school leaver. She was 19 at the time of the research project. She had attended school in New Zealand and had been a pupil at the practicum school seven years previously with many of her teachers still teaching in the school.
ST2 was a woman in her forties. She was enrolled in the programme as an overseas trained teacher who was working towards a New Zealand teacher qualification. She brought her knowledge of her overseas teaching experience to bear in this new situation, being able to reflect on the differences and was interested in identifying, and reflecting on, the different approaches to teaching and learning that New Zealand teachers work with.
Both of the associate teachers (ATs) in the cases were very experienced teachers who had taught at their current school for at least five years. Their primary teaching approaches were somewhat different in nature with AT2 having a more strongly constructivist –linked pedagogy than AT1. AT1 was a woman in her thirties. AT2 was a woman in her forties.
The visiting lecturers (the tertiary institution lecturers)
The visiting lecturers (VLs) in the cases were both experienced visiting lecturers with a considerable time of teaching in schools in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. One was a mathematics specialist, the other had a particular interest in technology education. Both were teaching on the Bachelor of Education (Teaching) programme so were very familiar with the philosophy and content of the courses that the student teachers were studying during the on-campus component of the course.
This focus of the research framing this paper was to problematise the familiar – that of learning on the practicum associated with professional education.
The findings regarding both the “what” and “how” of student learning on the practicum arising from this study will present little of surprise to teacher educators, or for those responsible for pre-service education in wider professional disciplines.
However, there are questions raised by the findings; some by what is present (or marginally present) in the data and some by what is absent from the data.
The major learning identified by all of the participants was the learning of general pedagogical approaches around behaviour and classroom management.
Understanding the diversity of students (and how to work as teachers within this diversity), assessment and planning were also given pre-eminence.
Very little mention about learning the content knowledge linked to various essential learning areas in the New Zealand curriculum (for example, English, mathematics, science). Nor was there an emphasis on pedagogical content knowing (Cochran et al.1993). The only curriculum area mentioned in both cases was the teaching of mathematics (VL1 and ST2).
The intertwining of content and pedagogy in learning to teach (Ball, 2000) was not a strong focus in this study and further exploration needs to be carried out in this area.
Developing a teacher identity and growing personal dispositions to support being a teacher were also mentioned but not frequently.
Overall what did they learn? What did they not report?
The significant role of the associate teacher in assisting the student teacher to learn to be a teacher was indicated by all of the participants in these two cases.
Little overall congruence regarding how particular aspects of this role may support student teacher learning, nor any commonly expressed notions of how the personality and professional approach of the associate teacher can impact on this learning.
Significance of open communication between the associate and the student teacher - in these two cases the relationship appeared to be robust.
An expectation of negotiated pedagogy, with discussions between student teachers and associate teachers was recognised as an important contributing factor to the student teachers’ learning. However, since for both student teachers the discourse included words such as ‘following’, and ‘adopting’ [the AT], it might be questioned whether the student teachers are showing the level of agency (Butler, 1996) expected at this stage of their initial teacher education programme.
Both the student teachers also indicated that having an associate teacher who challenged their thinking, did contribute to their learning. Posner et al.’s (1982) notions of cognitive conflict are apposite here.
Considering the “hows”: The role of associate teachers
Student teachers are expected to take responsibility for their own learning during the practicum (Cochran-Smith & Paris, 1995). The student teachers felt that if they were encouraged to take risks and to experiment with new approaches then this would enhance their learning. The student teachers also recognised that they learnt when they were reflective about their practice. It appears that the student teachers were wishing for more autonomy regarding their own learning than they were granted.
As in previous studies (for example, Burn et al., 2003; Haigh & Ward, 2004), the student teachers’ dispositions were recognised as a significant factor in their learning with aspects such as being punctual, resourceful, open to critique and suggestion identified as critical to student teacher learning identified by more than one of the triad members. It is possible that discussions around such factors between the student teacher and the visiting lecturer and associate teacher may be beneficial so that the student teachers may recognise their strengths in this area, or consider personal dispositions that might be hampering their learning.
Aspects of the contextual systems that framed the practicum experiences were identified by four of the six participants as contributing to the student teachers’ learning. Contextual factors such as being given sufficient time to build relationships with school students, to build general pedagogical expertise and for a limited focus for the practicum were recognised by four of participants as important. There is a strong link here with Berliner’s (1990) notions of opportunity to learn and engaged time.
Overall the findings of this study support Haigh and Ward’s (2004) contention that learning to teach during the practicum is a complex business.
Whilst there appears to be general consensus as to what the student teacher might learn, there is a lower level of expressed agreement between the three participants in each of the triads as to how this learning might be optimised.
The findings from this study could form the basis of ongoing discussion between student teachers and the teacher educators – both tertiary institution based and school based.