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Practicum’s contribution to students’ learning to teach

Mavis Haigh

Heather Pinder

Lyn McDonald

Faculty of Education
The University of Auckland
Contact: m.haigh@auckland.ac.nz

We wish to acknowledge the data gathering and analysis contribution from the other members of the Practicum Research Team: Helen Hedges, Jenni Jongejan, Rhona Leonard and Jeanne Sheehan

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006

We also acknowledge a research grant from the former Auckland College of Education Research Grants Committee that enabled us to carry out this research

Work in progress. Please contact the authors if you wish to cite.

Abstract

Within the context of teacher education the importance of the practicum component for prospective teachers is well documented (Guyton & McIntyre, 1990). Not only should teacher educators strive to give student teachers the course work that provides them with solid foundations but also with opportunities to make the essential connections between practical experiences and their theoretical knowledge (Yost, Sentner & Forlenza-Bailey (2000). However, research studies such as those by Dobbins (1996) and Haigh and Ward (2004) have shown that student teachers’ learning in the practicum is a complex business. The various participants bring individual personal and professional perspectives to the classroom, and each practicum experience will differ for student teachers depending on the context and the personal dispositions of those involved.

This paper reports on early findings of a long-term research project being carried out by the practicum team in the Faculty of Education (Epsom campus) at The University of Auckland. This research project’s general aim is to explore how the practicum experiences embedded in a teacher education programme contribute to student teachers’ learning to become teachers. The research questions developed for this project are: What do student teachers learn about becoming/being a teacher when on practicum? What factors enable or hinder student teachers learning to be teachers during the practicum?

The data reported on in this paper are taken from the first qualitative data gathering exercise of this project. The context of this part of the study was the second practicum placement for student teachers in their second year of a three year Bachelor of Education (Teaching) for primary teachers. Twelve student teachers from this cohort were selected randomly to participate in the study followed by asking their associates and visiting lecturers to participate. Six of the seven researchers in the team each interviewed two student teachers, their associate teachers and their visiting lecturers within three weeks of the completion of the second practicum experience. The interviews were semi-structured in nature with lead questions relating to what the student teachers 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 qualitative data generated through this process have been analysed within an interpretive framework. After transcription, the seventh researcher read all of the interview transcripts to search for interviewer bias. Three team meetings were then held to establish coding formats and to build consistency across the team when coding the interviews.

Analysis of the transcripts of the interviews with the student teachers, associate teachers and visiting lecturers have indicated complex patterns regarding what the student teachers have learnt about teaching and being a teacher, how they have learnt this and what enabled or hindered this learning. A comparison of these findings with the teacher education practicum literature has also prompted us to reflect on teacher education learning considered essential but not necessarily identified by the participants in this study. The findings have also contributed to our debates as we plan new programmes of study for pre-service teacher education.

Introduction

Within the context of preservice teacher education, the importance of the practicum component for prospective teachers has been well documented (Guyton & McIntyre, 1990; Mayer and Austin, 1999, Oosterheert & Vermunt, 2003; Smith & Lev-Ari, 2005). Not only should teacher educators strive to give student teachers the course work that provides them with solid foundations but also opportunities to make essential connections between practical experiences and their theoretical knowledge (Yost, Sentner & Forlenza-Bailey, 2000).

However, research studies, such as those by Dobbins (1996) and Haigh and Ward (2004) have shown that student teacher’ learning in the practicum is a complex business. Not only do the various participants bring individual personal and professional perspectives to the classroom, each practicum experience will differ depending on the context and the personal dispositions of those involved. Furthermore, student teachers are confronted by an increasingly diverse and changing environment in which they are required to accommodate often conflicting and ambiguous demands. So what are the benefits of the practicum experience and what do student teachers learn during their time in schools that progresses their journey to becoming a teacher?

Since the 1990s the approach to student teachers’ learning during practicum has undergone constant change. Like their teaching counterparts, pre-service teachers have felt the impact of education policy with its calls for improved teacher quality and student achievement ( Haigh & Tuck, 1999; Scott & Freman-Moir, 2000). During this decade a technocratic approach, which provides ready made solutions for all situations, was no longer considered appropriate when preparing student teachers for an increasingly complex environment that they entered as beginning teachers. Neither was a traditional approach to teaching and learning deemed fitting in a climate that sought improved teacher quality through personal endeavour (Fullan, 2002). Whether such changes have enhanced the quality of teacher learning, however, continues to be debated.

Much has been written about student teacher experiences during practicum that describe factors that either contribute to, or detract from, learning and professional growth (Cameron & Wilson, 1993; Dobbins, 1996; Hayes, 2001). Prevalent has been the promotion of student teachers as active, rather than passive, participants giving rise to discussion about how this is best achieved (Cochran-Smith & Paris, 1995; Zeichner, 1990). Practicum goals have been reconceptualised and technicist requirements have been replaced by professional activity that engendered greater personal growth and self-direction (Martinez, 1998).

Central to professional growth was the notion that student teachers should be engaged in their own learning through personal inquiry and reflection (Schon, 1987; Tickle, 1994). Reflective practice was viewed as a vehicle whereby student teachers could analyse, appraise and synthesise their work with a view to improving their practice (Dobbins, 1996; Zeichner, 1990). Quality learning for student teachers during practicum, therefore, meant challenging beliefs and practices while also assuming greater responsibility for personal learning and the outcomes of practicum. A key feature of learning to teach in this ‘participatory view’ (Edwards & Protheroe, 2003) was an ability to make informed decisions about what was happening in the classroom and to develop a wider range of appropriate responses. Instead, what frequently ocurred in response to a high stakes assessment situation was student teachers’ reluctance to ‘rock the boat’ and hence engage in critical conversations (Wilson, Floden & Ferrini-Mundy, 2002).

While there is a great deal of literature about the benefits and constraints of the practicum less apparent is research that examines what student teachers learn during their time in schools. As Wilson et al. (2002) have argued the earlier practicum literature tended to be small scale interpretative studies that focussed more on student and associate teacher attitudes than on "what prospective teachers actually learn" (p. 197). More recent practicum literature, however, has begun to emerge and throw some light on learning during their practicum. Some of these findings have confirmed that the practicum environment extends well beyond the classroom. Rather it encompasses the broader social, cultural and political concerns that inevitably impact on student teacher learning as well as their personal well being.

Edwards and Protheroe’s (2003) research, for example, revealed student teachers focused more on planned curriculum than on pupils as learners. Instead of interpretations being used to respond to learners needs, interpretations were used to provide further curriculum delivery. When questioned about their growing competency, student teachers most frequently mentioned: growing confidence in interpreting the curriculum for children; greater understanding of what children could do; and using resources to support curriculum delivery. Student teachers, therefore, found themselves shaping their view of classroom pedagogy and their role as a teacher within an accountability driven environment. As such, the context promoted effective performance rather than risky attempts to interact and support pupils’ learning (Edwards & Protheroe, 2003).

In contrast, when Burn, Hagger and Mutton (2003) investigated student teachers’ thinking, they discovered a high level of concern for pupils’ learning and an awareness of the complexity of teaching. Moreover, these concerns occurred even at the early stages of their development.

Another study by Smith and Lev-Ari (2005) investigated what student teachers perceived were the important components of their teacher education programme for acquiring professional knowledge. The content knowledge student teachers considered contributed most to their professional knowledge arose from the practicum experiences. Aspects such as class management; dealing with unexpected problems; developing a concept of self as an educator; application of practical knowledge; pedagogical knowledge; decision making during teaching; and beliefs in pupil ability were rated highly. Student teachers also regarded course work integral to their practicum learning in respect to both curriculum and pedagogical knowledge (Smith and Lev-Ari (2005).

Powerful influences on what student teachers think and learn during the practicum are associated with the beliefs and knowledge of the associate teacher (Wilson et al., 2003). Indeed, the role of the associate teacher has dominated a large part of the practicum literature and been viewed as critical in advancing student teacher learning (Burgess & Butcher, 1999; Cameron & Wilson, 1993; Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Hayes, 2001; Mayer & Austin, 1999). Ball (2000) reported that a vital part of how practicum helped a student teacher to learn to teach related to how an associate teacher facilitated their understanding of the links between subject matter knowledge and pedagogy. Mayer and Austin (1999) emphasised the important role the associate teacher played in helping student teachers negotiate their own professional identities within a reflective and goal directed framework.

In their research Fairbanks, Freedman and Kahn (2000, p. 111) state that learning to teach, like teaching itself, "is neither simple nor explicit". Thus finding some answers to complex questions such as what do student teachers actually learn during the practicum may advance the discussion about what learning takes precedence. It may also enable greater insight into the different ways that practicum experiences are interpreted and how student teachers learn to become teachers. The aim of this longitudinal research, of which this study forms the first phase is to identify what student teachers learn during the practicum, how they acquire this learning and how the practical experience enables or hinders their professional growth as teachers of tomorrow’s children?

Research design

The participants in this study were selected from one cohort of second year primary student teachers on their third assessed practicum of four weeks duration. Triads of the student teacher, associate teacher and visiting lecturer were obtained by random numbering the cohort and selecting every twentieth student teacher. Site access to the schools was first negotiated, followed by approaches to student teachers, associates and visiting lecturers.

Six researchers each interviewed two student teachers within three weeks of the completion of the second practicum experience in the second of three years of an undergraduate primary teacher education degree. The interviews were semi-structured in nature with lead questions relating to what the student teachers 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. Once all the data were collected and transcribed, a series of team meetings were then held to establish coding formats and to build consistency across the team when coding the interviews. Three pairs of researchers were assigned specific aspects of the findings to report on. These are What did the student teachers learn?, How did the student teachers learn this? and What enabled or hindered this learning? The authors of this paper represent one of each of these pairings.

Data from 10 student teachers have been drawn on for this analysis and interpretation. One of the researchers was only able to interview one student teacher and a taping-transcription problem meant that data from one other student teacher was unable to be included. Combined data from the 10 remaining student teachers will be presented.

Findings

The findings will first be reported under the three headings of "What?", "How?" and "Enablers and Hinderers".

What did student teachers learn on the practicum?

"What" indicators that were coded from the student teacher’ interviews can be grouped into four main categories (See Table 1). There were a total of 288 identified "What?" codes.

Percentage of coded indicators

 

 

30 – 44%

Teacher "skills" and knowledge (41%)

-30 creating a learning environment
-31 planning, curriculum, assessment knowledge

 

 

15 – 29%

Becoming a professional (24%)

-32 developing a teacher identify
-33 organisational matters eg. time management
-34 enhancement of practice through reflection

Managing the learning environment (23%)

-35 behaviour management
-36 routines

 

1 – 14 %

Realities of teaching (complexity) (12%)

-37 multiple people, interruptions, tasking
-38 school structure and systems

Table 1: Percentage of indicators coded as what students learnt on the practicum (n [what indicators] = 288)

41% of the statements identified as "What did they learn?" indicators related to teacher skills and knowledge such as how to create a learning environment, how to plan teaching episodes, both long term and short term, and how to use curriculum documents. References to assessment practice was a significant feature. The student teachers talked about learning how to do running records and about the differences between formative and summative assessment purposes and practices.

Just because we’ve talked about it heaps in Education I was wondering what it was going to be like in the classroom but it was really good just to sit down with my AT [associate teacher] and do formative feedback and also I learnt heaps about how they do their summative assessment as well. ( R6 S1)

24% of the "What?" codes related to becoming a professional, covering aspects such as developing a teacher identity, being prepared, showing initiative and being organised as well as enhancing their practice through critical reflection:

She actually gave a lot of feedback which I took into account for my reflections, a totally different teaching environment, it was a lot more child-centred than I had previously seen. (R5 S2)

Practicum was also seen as a context in which to develop and be comfortable with your own style of teaching, to develop a personal presence:

Everybody’s got his/her own style and I think it’s important for a student to try and find this because if you’re thrown into your own classroom and you haven’t figured out what it is yet, you’re going to be treading water. (R5 S3)

Managing the learning environment, managing group teaching, establishing routines and developing behavioural management strategies made up 23% of the "What?" response codes. Comments such as this were frequent:

They never learn if you yell at them but talking to them in a firm manner, telling them my expectations, and getting to know them, their abilities, their needs, their interests. (R1 S 2)

Time management was also an important part of student teacher learning during the practicum. References included concerns about being prepared on time and establishing routines, systems and structures.

Be organised. That’s the main thing. Be organised and be flexible so if something needed changing at school I’d stay late or be there early to change it to make sure that I was prepared for the day. ( R5 S2)

Finally 12% of the "What?" responses were grouped together around notions of developing a better understanding of the realities and complexities of teaching. This grouping included the learning about the multiple numbers of people teachers deal with during the day, the frequent interruptions and learning about school systems and structures. As one student teacher stated:

Before it was just about how to teach and now it seems to be more not just the actual teaching but all the other things that are involved in being a teacher. Like the meetings and the catering for everyone and the assessment. You’re more aware of the environment as well, much more aware of everything. (R1 S1)

How did the student teachers learn on the practicum?

"How" indicators that were coded from the student teacher interviews were grouped into seven main categories (See Table 2). There were a total of 221 identified "How?" codes.

Student teachers indicated most frequently that they learnt from being actively involved ("hands on", "getting stuck in" and being able to "have a go"). Within the category ‘Opportunities to Practice’, experimentation was referred to most frequently (39%), closely followed by time and involvement (34%) and finally risk taking (27%). The comments made by the student teachers reflected a taken-for-granted attitude that practicum was where learning about teaching and being a teacher occurred:

You obviously can’t learn in any other way than by just doing it. (R3 S2);

[Practicum provides a] chance to experiment a bit. (R1 S1);

Just being able to go in there and do stuff. (R2 S2);

Hands on stuff…My Associate Teacher was willing to let me have a go and not stress if I made a mistake. (R6 S2).

 

 

20 – 29%

Opportunities to practice (28%)

- experimentation (39% of this category)
- time (involvement)
(34%)
- risk taking
(27%)

Learning from the associate teacher (24%)

- direct and deliberate (68% of this category)
- incidental (32%)

 

10 – 19%

Response to practicum requirements (15%)

- involvement in school meetings (25% of this category)
-
documentation/ding requirements (22%)
- engagement in the assessment process (19%)
- goal setting (16%)
- critical reflection (9%)
- theory/practice/making links (9%)

Engagement in professional dialogue (13%)

Feedback (11%)

- constructive
- frequency
- type (oral/written)
- feed forward (response/action)

 

 

0 – 9%

Invisible impacts (7%)

- dispositions
- prior knowledge
- preparation
- environment

Self –evaluation (2%)

Table 2: Percentage of indicators coded as how students learnt on the practicum (n [how indictors] = 221)

When student teachers spoke about their active involvement they often talked about moving outside their comfort zone, taking risks and having a go. Indeed, stepping outside their comfort zone (or even being pushed) was seen as being important to learning professional growth:

I definitely went out of my comfort zone. (R1 S1)

Well if you can’t step outside your comfort zone and do all those sorts of things well then you are not going to achieve… you are never going to push yourself that bit further and doing something new. (R3 S2)

Everyone needs to have a practicum where they are totally out of their comfort zone. (R6 S2)

The second most frequently referred to category was ‘Learning from the Associate Teacher’. This category accounted for 24% of the total references and was sub-coded under two main aspects. These were ‘direct and deliberate’ factors such as modelling; and ‘incidental’ factors such as general observation of the associate teacher’s practice.

Of the category ‘Learning from the Associate Teacher’, 32% of the references were made to incidental factors while 68% referred to a ‘directed’ associate teacher approach. In fact ‘direct and deliberate modelling’ by the associate teacher provided the highest number of references over all the sub coded elements, comprising 36 references of the 221 in total. Student teachers tended to regard direction and modelling as a positive learning experience. Only two of the ten student teachers made greater references to ‘incidental’ factors than they did to ‘direct and deliberate’ factors.

A willingness to learn by imitation and adopt the practices shown/modelled by their associate teacher was apparent as evidenced through the number of indications made. Comments linked to this factor included:

She always told me exactly what I needed to do. (R1 S1)

The associate teacher was very helpful and I accepted and wrote down everything I saw [and heard] because it was very useful for my teaching. (R1 S2)

There appears to be some security in being told what to do when learning within a complex environment that is fraught with tension and ambiguity. In addition, there can be reassurance when, as some student teachers indicated, the associate teacher style suited them. There were also occasions, where student teachers who had affirmed learning from direct modelling also indicated that they had been allowed to try out new ideas/take risks.

Student teachers frequently mentioned that they learnt through observation in a variety of contexts. Types of observation mentioned included: Observing teacher’ behaviours; observing programmes; observing the environment itself; observing children. A regular feature of ‘learning through observation’ related to learning that resulted from their interactions with children. Using phrases, such as ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing the children’, suggested at times that student teacher’ learning occurred through some form of ‘osmosis’ and sensitive awareness. The student teachers strongly asserted that a great deal of their learning occurred in this manner, but it was not always clear what specific learning had occurred. References were often vague and student teachers tended to speak in generalities:

As much as I learned from my associate teacher I learned more from the kids in the way that they worked and I would pick up on things….being there was my biggest learning thing with those kids. (R3 S2)

Almost all the student teachers interviewed had a high regard for their associate teacher and experienced a positive practicum. Staff, along with the school environment, provided a strong influence on their learning success. Being part of the learning environment enabled student teachers to engage in professional dialogue with others as well as their associate teacher. Such experiences were much valued by the student teachers that made reference to them.

Only 13% of the references were attributed to the ‘Professional Dialogue’ category. Asking questions was often associated with professional dialogue as student teachers sought to gain understanding, develop new strategies and make connections with previous leaning. Planning, organisational and behaviour management concerns were prominent:

Whenever I could I just made sure I asked questions and reflected on things. (R1 S1)

Again it was not always clear what learning actually arose from the professional conversations. At times discussions appeared to be based more on "being told what to do" (R1 S1). The dialogue appeared, in this respect, to be ‘one-way’ rather than a two-way communication. At other times, discussions were used to share professional knowledge and to reflect upon personal learning. As one student stated:

I think discussion was really important…We had lots of times where we would sit down and we would just reflect on what happened during the day and what worked and what didn’t work and what we would change next time. (R2 S1)

Another said:

I thought about it in my head and how to resolve it. (R3 S1)

Although a relatively small percentage (15%) of the overall responses were coded as ‘Responses to Practicum Requirements’, the combined aspects coded in the category rated third highest of the 7 main categories. Documenting and completing requirements, along with attending meetings, were the most frequently mentioned aspects.

It was evident that personal disposition also had an important role to play in terms of how student teachers learnt during their time in someone else’s class. Dispositional aspects that appeared to impact on student teacher learning included:

Comments indicating the significance of disposition included:

There were some issues but I turned them into learning experiences. (R2 S2)

I can communicate with probably just about any person I actually come into contact with…work and study habits…actually being motivated. (R5 S2)

Other factors (e.g. invisible impacts) that influenced how student teachers learnt during the practicum are covered in the section on enablers and hinderers.

Enablers and hinderers of student teacher learning on the practicum

The data displayed in Table 3 indicate the significance of the development of professional relationships to the learning that occurs for student teachers when they are on practicum. It is apparent that these relationships have the potential to be both significantly enabling or hindering. Other factors that that were identified in the student teachers’ interviews as significantly enabling or hindering their learning to become teachers are the context of the placement (both structurally and culturally); practicum requirements; the student teachers’ preconceptions and prior experiences; and the nature of the communication developed between the practicum players. The researchers also identified the student teachers’ disposition as a strong regulator of learning. 

  Enablers Hinderers

30% plus

Relationships (35)

 

 

20 – 29%

 

Structure of context (22)

Relationships (20)

 

 

10 – 19%

Disposition (16)

 

 

 

Communication (11)

Culture of context (10)

 

 

Practicum requirements (14)

Preconceptions (14)

Prior experiences (13)

 

 

1 – 9%

Stucture of context (9)

Prior knowledge and experience (7)

Practicum requirements (5)

Personal and pedagogical philosophy (3)

Preconceptions (2)

Personal circumstances (1)

Communication (8)

 

 

Disposition (5)

Philosophy (3)

 

 

Culture of context (1)

Personal circumstances (1)

Table 3: Percentage of indicators coded as enabling and hindering (n [enabling codes] = 235; n [hindering codes] = 79)

This section will continue to use the student teacher’s voice to describe the six aspects of the practicum that were identified most frequently as either enabling or hindering. These factors are: Professional relationships; Structure of the context; Practicum requirements; Preconceptions about practicum; Prior experiences; and Communication.

Professional relationships

The main professional relationships that we would expect the student teacher to develop during the practicum are with the associate teacher (and other staff in the school), the visiting lecturer and the classroom students and these were shown to have significant enabling or hindering factors (Table 4).

Types of enabling relationships as a percentage of total enabling relationship indicators (n= 83)

Associate teachers (46)
Other staff in school (27)
Children (17)
Wider school community (6)
Visiting lecturers (2)
Other student teachers (2)

Types of hindering relationships as a percentage of total hindering relationship indicators (n= 16)

Associate teachers (37)
Visiting lecturers (25)
Children (13)
Wider school community (13)
Other student teachers (6)
Other staff in school (6)

Table 4: Percentages of enabling and hindering professional relationships

The findings revealed that associate teacher-student teacher relationships may be enabling (46% of all enabling relationship codes – n = 83) or hindering (37% of all hindering relationship codes – n = 16) of student teacher learning during the practicum. Being able, and encouraged, to establish a strong, warm professional relationship by an associate teacher who is welcoming is seen as enabling the student teachers’ learning to be a teacher:

My associate, I think it was more a personality thing, but we really got on, so like, she could have been like a friend of mine. Admittedly she was older than me but she was so nice and really welcoming. (R2 S1)

Establishing that relationship early with the associate teacher is also important. Student teachers who met with their associates before the practicum began recognized this as a significant factor in building the relationship and thus enabling their learning, for example:

I met her before the practicum. We sat down for about a day and we went through all the planning and how the kids work and everything like that. I felt so much more relaxed when I walked into the classroom the first day. It was really neat. (R4 S1)

Associate teacher – student teacher relationships were not referred to by many of the students in the study as having the potential to hinder their learning to be a teacher. However, one student teacher did indicate that associate teachers who did not spend time with their student teachers, perhaps because of the demands of their other roles in the school, could restrict the student teachers’ learning. Even though one associate teacher had indicated to the student teacher that she had not spent much time discussing the student teacher’s work because she "thought the [student teacher] could do it", the student teacher was concerned and confused about the lack of time the associate was spending with her:

She didn’t spend nearly as much time with me as the [other associate teachers] have with the other students and I always thought that was really bad, but then I suppose it’s a good thing, but then at other times you don’t know if you’re doing OK or not. … I didn’t know until the final days that I was actually fine and that I was doing exactly what [she] wanted me to do, but going along and just doing and not actually know, you’re kind of like. (R2 S2)

Visiting lecturer- student teacher relationships may be enabling (2%) or hindering (25%) of student teacher learning during the practicum. Visiting lecturers were not very often referred to by the student teachers in this study as enabling of their learning. However, for one student teacher a visiting lecturer who spent time in her classroom over two days was perceived as having a significant input into her teaching:

The next day I had someone from [the tertiary teacher education provider] come and she was there for the next two days … and we changed everything [relating to the teaching of mathematics] and the way we taught was different. When I say we, I taught but she was giving me feedback all the time. (R1 S1)

Not knowing the visiting lecturer before the practicum placement may be hindering of student teacher learning:

Having someone you don’t know and you’ve never met before can, it makes you, it made both of us [STs] kind of panic and they had no idea who we were, that can swing both ways, it can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing, but we were constantly scared of what this person is going to think of us. (R2 S2)

School children - student teacher relationships may be enabling (17%) or hindering (13%) of student teacher learning during the practicum. Feeling that they understood and were able to relate to the children they were teaching facilitated the student teachers’ learning to become teachers. This may have been a simple recognition that the student teacher found it easy to relate to children of a particular age:

I find that year level [Year4] quite easy to relate to. (R2 S2)

However, some student teachers struggled with knowing what kind of relationship to build:

They [children in class] still know you’re a student teacher. So you’ve got to watch some kids. They just want to be your friend because they still know you’re a student teacher. You’ve just got to make sure that you show them that you are a teacher. (R2 S2)

Establishing professional relationships with the children was enhanced when the associates insisted that the children recognize the student teacher as a teacher:

The kids were really good at recognizing that yes, I wasn’t an official teacher, but they still saw me as a teacher. My associate was really good and said to them, although she’s here as a student teacher, she’s on the same level as me in teaching. … They have a lot of teacher aides coming in an out of the class all the time and she said, "She’s not a teacher aide. I don’t want you to think that she is a teacher aide, because it’s not what she is". (R3 S2)

Establishing professional relationships with the children sometimes presented the student teachers with a challenge and where these relationships were slow to develop the student teacher’s practicum experience was affected negatively. For example, a younger student teacher found that establishing appropriate relationships with children only five or six years younger than her was more difficult than if the children had been younger:

It’s quite difficult because I am straight out of high school … sometimes they just see me as an older sister or an older friend and I have to maintain that professional distance. (R4 S1)

Structure of the Context

The structure of the classroom, the set up of the school, the lay out and functioning of the staff room, and access to resources were all perceived to help (9% of all enabling codes – n = 235) or hinder (22% of all hindering codes – n = 79) the student teachers’ learning. For one student teacher the situation that she found herself in was initially perceived as hindering but she was able to turn the experience into one that supported her learning:

On two occasions [I’ve been] in a team teaching situation. I had one teacher who was the DP and then I had another teacher that came in the afternoon and so there was a difference. … They had different things on and so many other things to think about that there were times when I felt a bit lost as to what I should be doing. There was that uncertainty but then I was able to turn it round into a learning thing and just plan for the day and do what I was able to do. (R2 S2)

The structure of the classroom, the lay out of the desks was perceived as a block to this student teacher who had hoped to teach using group activities:

She did have quite a rigid structure in her class and the way the class was set up made it very, very hard to teach groups in that classroom because they were all facing the board and the front of the classroom was little so there wasn’t much room to do anything else. … I did role plays one day and moving the desks around was such a mission. (R1 S1)

Practicum requirements

As well as being required to build up a portfolio documenting their placement, the student teachers going on this practicum placement are required to set personal professional goals. These goals became enabling (5%) when they acted as drivers for the student teachers’ learning:

My goal was to get more teaching experience and more feedback because I didn’t really get any feedback in either of my two last practicums. (R1 S1)

Other practicum requirements such as the keeping of formal observation and planning records were seen by some to cut across time they might put into planning for their teaching and thus were perceived as hindering (14%) learning:

There was so much documentation. … I could have done more planning if there was less time [on] documentation. There was definitely an expectation that we did a certain amount [of documentation] because if there wasn’t enough then it wouldn’t be enough evidence that you had passed. (R6 S1)

Preconceptions about Practicum

Previously determined preconceptions of the school and the class they were to teach in did influence the student teachers’ learning. The student teachers met their associates before the placement began and formed views regarding the class and this could be enabling (2%) or hindering (14%):

I’d never been with five year olds before, they are a bit young … and I thought ‘Oh, my goodness’. (R2 S1)

The first week I was there I was absolutely petrified. I didn’t want an intermediate. (R3 S2)

Prior Experiences

Previous teaching experience (whether on practicum or through previous teaching in another country) strongly influenced the student teachers’ learning, particularly in respect of the attitudes that they took into the placement (E=7% and H=13%):

[My goal came] from previous practicums basically because I had really muddled up last time. (R1 S1)

It’s very interesting to find and to see lots of different ideas, different methods, different teaching approaches and styles [different from those she was used to in previous teaching in another country]. (R1 S2)

I’ve also been a teacher’s aide for 10 years. (R5 S2)

The culture of past practicum placements also influenced the attitudes that student teachers took into their new learning situation. For example, this student teacher was concerned whether the staff in her new practicum placement would be as unwelcoming as those in her last placement school:

[The atmosphere] at my last one was really cold, I went to the staffroom once and I was there by myself … For the rest of the time I stayed in the classroom. … I tried again but it’s so hard when you‘re not welcomed. (R2 S1)

Communication

Developing open lines of communication was frequently mentioned by the student teachers as an enabler (11%) of student teacher learning. This communication might occur at the planning stages:

Within this school they did a lot of sharing ideas of how they’re implementing different things into the classroom. The just share ideas, like PD, it was really good that communication between different teachers. I went to lots of meetings and they all varied with the staff involved and the whole school communicates a lot via email. (R2 S2)

Or it could be feedback after the student teacher had taught:

Written feedback [was helpful to me]. I would have liked more of that. Yeah, even her verbal feedback was food because it was just straightforward and easy to follow. (R1 S1)

Occasionally a communication difficulty hindered (8%) the learning:

Because they [DPs] are syndicate leaders as well they’ve always …got so much else on [its hard to find the time for discussion]. When you get a really busy associate it is hard and you don’t want to interrupt their time. They don’t have that time always to sit down and talk and you don’t want to go "Hey, can I have some time here?" (R2 S2)

Discussion

Our findings appear to support what others have already asserted about the importance of the practicum for student teacher learning (Guyton & McIntyre, 1990; Mayer and Austin, 1999, Oosterheert & Vermunt, 2003; Smith & Lev-Ari, 2005). As Smith and Lev-Ari (2005) found, our student teachers regarded the practical components of their programme very highly in terms of supporting their growing professional knowledge. The student teachers in our study indicated that they learnt planning and assessment strategies and how to create a learning environment when on the practicum. However, learning about the complexities and realities of teaching did not feature highly in these student teachers’ conversations. A possible reason for this could be that the interviews occurred after their fourth practicum. Perhaps they were now more accepting of the challenges of the teaching profession. Nor did they often mention learning about specific curriculum subject areas. Where curriculum was mentioned it was either in reference to mathematics or to the use of curriculum documents when planning for and assessing learning.

With regards to how the student teachers learnt, they considered they learnt best by being actively involved in practical ‘hands on’ experience and by being ‘deliberately directed’ by their associate teacher while also being allowed to experiment and take risks. Stepping outside their comfort zone, as well as engagement in practicum requirements, also featured regularly in respect to enabling professional growth.

It was pleasing to see the prevalence of student teachers references to stepping outside their comfort zone. At the same time, while risk taking and experimenting are synonymous with stepping outside a comfort zone, it was surprising to see student teacher preparedness to do this given the desire for emotional security that is so often sought during practicum (Hastings, 2004). Additionally, although assessment of student teacher performance can sometimes be problematic when encouraging student teacher risk taking such concerns did not feature in our study. Hence further examination of these aspects is worth pursuing.

It was also interesting to see that student teachers referred to associate teacher ‘direction’ nearly as much a risk taking and experimentation as a factor in how they learnt. For many student teachers, ‘being directed’ while being allowed to ‘experiment’ appeared to work in a positive way. The frequency of ‘experimentation’ references when combined with ‘risk taking’ provided 19% of the "How?" indicators. When compared with ‘deliberate and directed assistance’ (16% overall) an interesting mix arises that is again worthy of closer analysis.

The findings revealed a lack of reference to self-evaluation and this is a concern given the critically reflective underpinnings of their teacher education programme that emphasises evaluation and reflection. Only three references were directly made to critical reflection in all of the recorded interviews. On the other hand, perhaps the regularity in which student teachers made reference to ‘stepping outside their comfort zone’ might indicate a preparedness to look at alternatives and confront practices which, in itself, is a feature of reflection.

Neither did feedback, as one form of professional dialogue, feature highly in our study. Whether this was due to student teachers not receiving feedback, or not expecting to receive feedback as a result of past experience, is yet to be determined. We did find a small amount of evidence to suggest that professional dialogue was occurring between the student teachers and their associate teachers. As with Edwards & Protheroe (2003), the student teachers’ comments about this dialogue did not reveal deep discussions about the understandings embedded in practice. However, unlike the student teachers in Edwards and Protheroe’s study, the student teachers in our study appeared to be more focussed on their pupils as learners rather than being concerned about personal performance. This supports the findings from Burn, Hagger and Mutton’s (2003) study. What constitutes professional dialogue, and what conversations are more productive to personal professional growth, requires further examination.

In regard to what the data revealed about the enablers and inhibitors to student teacher learning during practicum, the most frequently mentioned enabler was the development of professional relationships, whether they be between the associate and student teacher, the visiting lecturer and student teacher and the children and the student teacher. These findings support earlier research reports from Cameron and Wilson (1993), Pinder (1999) and Ovens (2003). Relationships were also the second most frequently mentioned hinderer. The structure of the context - the classroom layout and expectations of behaviour, aspects of the school such as the staff room and resource availability – also had the potential to enable or hinder the student teachers’ learning to be a teacher.

It became very apparent to the researchers that the student teachers’ ‘disposition’ and personal traits such as a passion for teaching, pro-activity, resilience, adaptability, introversion-extroversion, and risk taking were very significant enablers or hinderers. The student teacher’s disposition, prior knowledge and personal or pedagogical philosophies were found to mediate the practicum experiences such that experiences that enabled the learning for one student teacher might be hindering for another’s learning.

Conclusion

Practicum learning remains problematic. In the literature we are reminded that it is not possible for teacher education programmes to fully prepare student teachers for the reality of full time teaching (Northfield & Gunstone, as cited in Loughran, Brown & Doecke, 2001). Nor should pre-service programmes be expected to fulfill this expectation when learning about teaching is constructed as more than just socialising a novice teacher into the profession (Loughran et al. (2001). This first study in our long term practicum project has alerted us to aspects of the student teachers’ practicum experience that need further study. We plan a further quantitative large scale study framed from these findings.

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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 26 January 2007