Action research, therefore, is properly at the heart of every teacher education unit, with preservice teachers trying things out in controlled environments, with real students, learning from what happens, seeking out better solutions from experienced others when things go wrong, and sharpening their practice as they accumulate experience and wisdom.
There are, at present, two popular, opposing and equally misleading views of the nature and usefulness of teacher education.
The first, born of assumptions that puts the mind before the body, says that in order to be a good teacher you must first know the theory. Teach a beginning teacher what rigorous research tells us about what works, and the beginning teacher will hit the classroom with the right kind of grounding. Teacher education that operates out of this premise has students in lecture halls and reading the latest educational research. It is based on a pseudo-scientific approach which says that a beginning teacher should base practice on what has been rigorously established to be true. Mind before body.
When beginning teachers get into the classroom and find that the neat theory doesn’t work in predictable ways, when they find themselves like canoeists entering rapids for the first time with a over-simplistic guide as to what to expect (Skovholt, 2001). They flounder. And they then fall easy prey to the staffroom cynics who say you learn nothing useful at university, that theory is a waste of time. You learn to be a teacher, they say, by teaching.
The inspiration and motivation I received from you in Semester 1, and the encouragement you gave me gave me confidence in myself which has enabled me to maintain good grades and to challenge myself ... I really wanted just to let you know you are my inspiration in my studies and I would also suggest you would be for many other students as well... Steve, I am really happy to let you know that yesterday I received the Dean’s Excellence Award’ (Dean of Education). The reason I’m sharing this with you is because it is due to you.”
— University of Canberra student
Hi Anita and Steve,
I actually wanted to ... thank you both for not only putting so much time and effort into this unit but also making it human. So many Education units are about the theory behind what we're doing so the way you both have created this unit to get us thinking about teaching (and who we are as teachers) and actually teaching it without it being on prac I've found insanely useful, it's not often we get this kind of hands on experience. ... Steve, the time you put into commenting on all of our moodle posts is insane but the consistent fortnightly feedback is appreciated, ensures that we always know we're on the right track without having you constantly email you guys. ...
2014 Undergraduate education student
I have really enjoyed the [unit]. You have modelled what good teaching is and relit the spark that brought me to teaching in the first place ... I came to teaching wanting to do something different, not just with my career but with science teaching which I feel for the most part is failing students. ... I am now re-inspired to go out there and do the science-equivalent of clearing my classroom and building and living in a medieval village (Shann 2013)
2013 Grad Dip student
Steve is the best teacher I have ever had. I have absolutely no complaints. I couldn't imagine a unit better than this. It was great to have my expectations increased as to what a classroom and a class can be! It was clear he had perfectly, precisely and masterfully thought about and created this unit in as much detail and with the best intentions possible. He really should win some amazing award. It is a shame he is retiring this semester but I feel so lucky to of experienced his teaching if only for a brief time.
Content was pitch perfect. Inspirational content for first year preservice teachers.
Initially I found it really confusing and hard to figure out what the take home messages of the lecture sessions were. However, now that I'm at the end of it I realise how much I have benefited from these sessions that, at the time, were confusing to me. In a strange way I feel that the fact that I found it vague and confusing at the start actually caused me to think about the topics discussed in a deeper manner then if I wasn't struggling to find a take home message from what we covered during lectures.
From three anonymous comments by university students in official university surveys
This, then, is the second misleading view, one that is increasingly peddled by those in charge of the directions of teacher education. Get them into the schools as quickly as possible, throw them into situations where they’ll learn how the real world of schools really operate. Get them in front of students, roaming the playground, finding useful mentors. Get them learning on the job. The role of the university, they say, is to organize the placements and ensure that each preservice teacher can provide evidence that the Graduate Professional Standards for Teachers have all been reached. Body first, and then perhaps the mind.
Spinoza taught us that mind and body are not different modes of being, but the one thing seen from two different perspectives. Donald Schon, writing about the indeterminate zones of practice, said something similar. Action research, with its emphasis neither exclusively on theory nor exclusively on practice, but on praxis, says the same.
Praxis is based on what we actually know about learning – whether it’s riding a bike or becoming a teacher. First we recognize the desire. Then we iteratively observe, experiment, fail, think like bloody mad, learn from more experienced others, modify our approach and try again. The process never ends.
Action research, therefore, is properly at the heart of every teacher education unit, with preservice teachers trying things out in controlled environments, with real students, learning from what happens, seeking out better solutions from experienced others when things go wrong, and sharpening their practice as they accumulate experience and wisdom. Body and mind working in tandem, or, more accurately, body-minds engaging with the other body-minds, both in action and in the quiet of their searching for better solutions.
The educational research is full of examples of teacher education organised along these lines (Comber, Kamler, Schon, Britzman, Darling Hammond, Wilson).
But teacher education, trundling along one or other of the false trails, or confusedly and unconsciously incorporating aspects of both, is being drawn instead to the Scylla of pseudo-scientist or the Charybdis of the technocrat.
Some relevant posts from my blog Degrees of Fiction
- Creating accessible texts for our students
- The ethnographic challenge
- Opening ourselves up to the eye of the Other
- Cogs in a machine: the language of teacher professional standards
- Putting students at the centre
- Carl Rogers on teaching another how to teach
- Goethe on theory's relationship to experience
- Research and the reflective practitioner
- On reading academic journal articles
- Teacher education as preparation for what is or what could be?
- Beyond understanding
- Instrumentalised teaching and research in higher education
- Whispering voices and secret idioms
- The indeterminate zones of practice
- The painful path from aspiration to potency
- Thinking about theory