A Reflective Approach to Practicum Support for Preservice Teachers
I have come, over the years, in spite of all the reform agendas, to believe that the best we can do in teacher preparation programs, through a variety of courses and clinical experiences in intentionally selected schools, is to help academically able and socially committed students enter teaching with constructive dispositions and skills relating to young people, curriculum content, pedagogy, and the power of collective thought; well-developed habits of observation and reflection; reasonable confidence and an understanding that they are entering a process of learning something important every day, working toward the largest possibilities they can imagine. (Perrone, 1997, p. 649)
In today’s overstretched curriculum, and with society’s increasing demands for the teaching of a growing body of new knowledge, a competency-based approach for learning to teach is obsolete. Students cannot be competent in content and skills that are rapidly changing or may not, as yet, even exist. As Perrone (1997) argues, it is better to provide students with generic and reflective skills that assist them in their continued learning of any new enterprise. Connecting these generic thinking skills to the context in which they occur is essential. If university programs do not do this they are likely to “prepare teacher technicians rather than reflective professional educators” (Boyd, Boll, Brawner, & Villaumer, 1998, p. 61).
Reflection is one aspect of a complex number of interrelated functions, which contribute to task performance (Ridley, 1992), an aspect that is gaining increased attention in recent years after almost disappearing from consideration under the influence of learning models based on behaviorism (von Wright, 1992). Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985) define reflection as: “those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations” (p. 19). These authors stress that such reflection must not occur solely at the unconscious level: “It is only when we bring our ideas to our consciousness that we can evaluate them and begin to make choices about what we will or will not do” (p. 19). Kemmis (1985) points out that we do not reflect in a vacuum: “We pause to reflect…because the situation we are in requires consideration: how we act in it is a matter of some significance” (p. 141).
Many theorists see reflection as both a process and a product (Collen, 1996; Kemmis, 1985), and that it is action oriented (Kemmis, 1985). Knights (1985) contends that reflection is not the kind of activity, which its name suggests—a solitary, internal activity—but a two-way process with the attention of another person: “Without an appropriate reflector, it cannot occur at all” (p. 85). This view is strongly supported in the literature by others who point out that reflection is a social process (Kemmis, 1985), and that collaboration on tasks enables the reflective process to become apparent (von Wright, 1992).
An important function of reflection is that it enables the learner to compare his or her performance or understanding to an expert in the field (Candy, Harri-Augstein, & Thomas, 1985; Collins, 1988; Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) have also pointed out that it is important for students to be able to compare their performance with others at various levels of expertise. Access to expert performances and the modeling of processes has its origins in the apprenticeship system of learning, where students and craftspeople learned new skills under the guidance of an expert (Collins et al., 1989). Important elements of expert performances are found in modern applications of the apprenticeship model such as internship (Jonassen, Mayes, & McAleese, 1993), and case-based learning (Riesbeck, 1996). Such access enables narratives and stories to be accumulated, and invites the learner to absorb strategies which employ the social periphery (legitimate peripheral participation) (Lave & Wenger, 1991). It also allows students to observe and reflect upon a task before it is attempted. Such reflection, one might argue, is only possible in a learning environment that provides appropriate supports and communication channels to enable reflective learning to occur. Yet the typical experience of preservice teachers on professional practice is one of isolation, divorced from the support structures of their university environment, and lacking communication channels to their peers.
The purpose of this article is to outline the development of a web-based resource that provided reflective support and communication that assisted preservice teachers learn about teaching in the context of their school practice. Early childhood, primary, and secondary education student teachers enrolled in Bachelor of Education and Graduate Diploma of Education courses at Edith Cowan University (ECU) were required to attend between 10 and 18 weeks of school practice during their training. These practices varied from continuous blocks of time in a school to distributed practice where, for example, students attended a half-day a week for one school term. In the context of reducing University and Faculty budgets, coupled with increased pressure on academic staff to increase their research output, there was a dramatic reduction in university staff involvement in the supervision of students on school practice. This necessitated developing alternative approaches to assisting students on school practice.
Using the Internet to Provide Reflective Support
This project provided an improved framework of support for student teachers during their involvement in school practice by providing them with a range of resources that increased content and skill knowledge, and to enabled them to reflect on their teaching practice. Initially, the content focus centered on teaching mathematics, however, the generic nature of the skills being developed meant that these abilities could easily be transferred to other areas of the school curriculum. To support and develop generic teaching skills it was believed that students would benefit by having access to rich sources of lesson ideas, particularly those type of lessons that reflected constructivist pedagogy; and guidance and support through communication with content experts and their peers. In addition to their supervising teacher, students would be adequately supported in their practicum settings by having immediate access to quality curriculum materials to guide lesson planning, examples of exemplary teaching, and open communications channels with peers and lecturing staff.
Providing support along these lines was effected through an appropriately designed internet-based database and information delivery system. The process of using e-mail and the Internet to successfully communicate between student teachers on school practice and university supervisors has been reported (Casey 1994; Hutchinson & Gardner 1997; Roddy, 1999). Recommendations from these reports include extending the process of communication to students’ peers and school supervisors. This project provided such a system with the construction of a website with the following components and attributes:
open communications channels, to discuss problems and difficulties, with peers and lecturing staff;
a database of prepared lesson plans accessible through a simple search engine;
links to other web-based resource materials for use in lessons;
video clips of teaching and assessment strategies with teacher and student commentary; and
answers to frequently asked questions by students on school practice.
All entering students at ECU are provided with an e-mail address and access to the Internet through the university modem pool. The vast majority of students would have access to the Internet in the schools in which they perform their practice. The benefits provided by this resource included: immediate access to required information; the ability to collaborate in a virtual community during the practicum, and be relieved of the sense of isolation so often experienced; the ability to contribute to the database by posting successful materials of their own; and the problems and queries posted by the students provided a significant resource for instructors and students in their preplanning for school experience.
Using the Resource
To ensure the successful application of the resource, students were made familiar with its structure and organisation before going on school practice. They gained a sense of how the resource could be used and the real advantages that could be gained through its use. Student use of the resource on school practice can be ensured through prior activities at the University where students were required to explore the resource and all its features and capabilities and to use the resource in simulated practicum conditions by preparing sample lessons. They were encouraged to add materials of their own to relevant sections of the database and to learn appropriate procedures for online discussion and communication through computer mediation. Through inservice activities, school supervisors were also informed of the resource and encouraged to contribute and use the email facility to communicate with University supervisors.
The site interface (see Figure 1) reflects the forms of information contained, and provides an intuitive organisational storage and retrieval structure. The interface resembles a well-equipped office space incorporating metaphors to access the elements of the site.
Figure 1. The interface of the web resource
Clicking on the elements in the interface gives access to the following features:
Clicking on the drawers of the desk gives access to a range of lesson activities (see Figure 2 for an example). Instructors in the department of mathematics education initially created over 20 lesson activities in each of the categories: pre K-2; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12 (and this grows dynamically as the students contribute their own lesson ideas).
Figure 2. A sample lesson plan
The activities reflect the type of pedagogy encountered in the University methods classes and the directions advocated in such documents as the National Statement on Mathematics for Australian Schools (AEC, 1991) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Curriculum and Evaluation Standards (NCTM, 1989). Many activities have accompanying graphics and images, including images from real classrooms where the activities were tested.
Students can access short video clips of over 50 teaching and assessment strategies performed by real mathematics teachers in real classrooms by clicking on the television on the desk (Figure 3). For example, if a student wishes to use role play, peer tutoring, or modeling while on professional practice, he or she can observe the activity being demonstrated in a classroom within a mathematical context. Students can also access other perspectives on the use of each strategy, by clicking on the link to the teacher’s perspective or a student’s comment. A text description of the strategy is also provided.
Figure 3. Video clips of teaching and assessment strategies
Students have access to the message board when they click on the notice board above the desk (Figure 4). The communication capability of the site enables students to cross-post messages and documents providing the full capacity for information and materials exchange. They can post in general comments about their school or classes, request information or suggestions on how to approach a particular problem, or contribute ideas and strategies that they have tried successfully. The class teacher also monitors and contributes to the message board. Such communication is an essential component to enable the “development of a rhetoric for interchanges” (Dede, 1996, p. 168), which is so important for the effectiveness of the students’ learning support systems.
Figure 4. Threaded discussion board
Clicking on the telephone on the desk in the interface gives students access to information about the instructor’s phone number and availability, together with an e-mail link to enable messages to be sent directly if required.
A myriad of useful mathematics-related sites exists on the World Wide Web (WWW or Web). Clicking on the computer screen on the desk gives students access to annotated websites with general or specific applicability (Figure 5). For example, links exist to lesson plan sites with numerous resources, and also to specific sites, such as one that allows students to print graph paper.
Students can also add any sites that they have found by browsing, together with a short description of why they find the site interesting.
Figure 5. List of useful websites and links
Outcomes for Students
Student teachers using this resource gain a diversity of expected learning outcomes developed within the context of mathematics education. These primarily relate to planning for teaching and applying appropriate teaching strategies and generic strategies developed using electronic forms of information. Students practice generic planning skills, such as planing lessons and series of lessons, being able to select suitable learning experiences, and selecting and preparing resources and contexts for all pupils’ needs. They are able to improve their teaching skills by becoming aware of, and applying a range of teaching strategies, and by adapting strategies for individual pupils’ needs. They also practice a range of skills associated with the use of communication technologies and the Internet, for example, being able to access, create, and evaluate online information, uploading messages and URLs, and communicating online.
With a dynamic and responsive medium such as the WWW, formative evaluation is an ongoing feature, and necessary changes to meet the growing needs of the preservice teachers using the resource can be made at any stage. Prior to, and during development, the resource was evaluated formatively in two ways:
Focus group discussion with student users: Focus group discussions were conducted with; small groups of students from the target population—undergraduate teacher education students—to ascertain students’ views on the difficulties associated with the professional practice, experience, and how an Internet resource might help to ameliorate those problems.
Student consultation: Students and instructors were consulted in the early stages of development of the program and were asked to comment on screen design, navigational buttons, and ease of use.
Trial implementation : Students were asked to examine the site in small groups when it was first made available, and they were asked to advise on any navigational problems or other difficulties together with suggested improvements.
The results of the formative evaluation enabled the resource to be specifically designed for the particular needs of the professional practice student. Interestingly however, many students agreed that the site would be of equal value for neophyte teachers, who in many ways face a more daunting task when placed in schools in their first year, many in rural and remote communities with few resources and little support. Students suggested that the ability to maintain contact with classmates and teachers would be invaluable during this period. The option of having discussion boards for groups with different needs can easily be accommodated within the resource.
With a dynamic and responsive medium such as the Internet, evaluation is an ongoing feature, not only of the design, but also of the implementation of the resource. Necessary changes to meet the growing and changing needs of the users of the resource can be made at any stage.
This article describes the development of an online resource for preservice teachers while on professional practice in schools. While the resource can be used just-in-time, such as the night before a lesson, the resource has been designed to support reflective practice by these students as they prepare and teach their practice lessons. The value of reflective practice and its potential to be assisted through the web site comes from several sources. First, the site enables reflection by providing a variety of resources from which to gain alternative perspectives on any teaching task. Second, communication technologies allow students to establish communication in the language of the culture, and to share stories and anecdotes of their experiences. Third, the site provides exemplary performance, to provide the modeling of processes, and to enable students to reflectively compare their own performance to that of experts.
A resource such as this has the potential to transform the professional practice experience from an isolated and anxious one, where students work with minimal resources and supports, to one which is dynamic, collaborative, resource-rich, supportive, and reflective.
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