10 SES 12 A, Research on Programmes and Pedagogical Approaches in Teacher Education
The interest in Finnish teacher education (TE) has increased during the last decade due to the Finnish students’ success in international evaluations. Although TE in Finland has many strengths, there are also challenges and dilemmas. One of the main challenges is the relation between theory and practice and how to integrate these to a higher extent, a common challenge in TE worldwide (e.g. Clarke & Fournillier, 2012; Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007). In addition, there is an increased need in a fast-changing world to educate teachers who have an ‘inquiry stance’ to their own continuing professional development (see e.g. Cochran-Smith, Barnatt, Friedman & Pine, 2009). Another challenge concerns the relative lack of support for newly qualified teachers in the induction stages (e.g. Tynjälä & Heikkinen, 2011).
Niemi (2015) states that the professional development of teachers throughout the career should be seen as a continuing process equated with school development. This more holistic approach is supported through the research-based orientation in TE that enables in-service teachers to take on the design of school-based projects. To further support such a holistic approach, an action research (AR) orientation in the pre-service stages is of particular interest (cf. Ferrance, 2000). Thus, the aim of this article is to explore student teachers’ (STs’) experiences of AR-based projects within two different contexts of initial TE: a class and a subject TE programme.
AR is by Kemmis and McTaggart (1994) described as involving people in making critical analyses aimed at discovering how situations have been socially and historically constructed, and using this as a source of insight into ways in which we might be able to construct them. A feature in all variations of AR is the importance of working towards improved practices and knowledge generation through a reflective process of inquiry, whether this be individual or collaborative. In this process, a characteristic expected to be found entails some more or less dynamic variety of the self-reflective spiral consisting of: planning,action,observation, and reflection (e.g. Kemmis, McTaggart & Nixon, 2014).
Despite a renewed interest in AR in pre-service TE from the mid-80s onwards (e.g. Lattimer, 2012), not so much has appeared on the topic in the research literature by 2000. However, presently the number of small-scale case studies seems to be steadily increasing, often conducted by teacher educators involved in the process and focusing the experiences of participating students (see Gibbs et al., 2017; cf. Smith & Sela, 2005).
In the Nordic context, some previous studies have been carried out on different AR-based projects within TE. E.g. Ulvik and Riese (2016) found the use of AR to be a mainly positive experience for the participants, although not without its challenges. The authors conclude that the most important is to provide enough time for in-depth reflection as well as familiarizing students with research and linking theory and practice (cf. Jakhelln & Pörn, 2018). According to Kosnik and Beck (2000) one of the benefits with an AR approach in TE is that STs are offered a challenge entailing both responsibility and ‘real’ demands, but supported to the extent that they feel they are allowed to take risks. Thus, research suggests enough benefits to warrant the inclusion of AR into pre-service TE to be studied in a context where it has not previously been used in an extensive and systematic manner.
TE in Finland is divided into class TE (for grades 1–6) and subject TE (for grades 7–9 in lower secondary and the three grades comprising upper secondary education). Both class and subject TE have been university-based since the 1970s and have a strong research-based approach. The aim is to qualify reflective, autonomous, responsible and professional teachers who can base their teaching on research principles and successfully use the principles to address the practical challenges in the profession (cf. Hansén & Eklund, 2014). Within the two TE programmes that form the context of the current study, the AR-projects have been implemented in different ways. In class TE, student teachers have the possibility to choose AR as methodology for their master’s thesis, and their AR-based projects are carried out during an optional practice period in field schools outside the university context. In subject TE, the AR-based small-scale projects form an integral part of the programme and are carried out during a mandatory practice period at the university practice school. The data was collected from the two cases described above. In the first case, nine class STs were interviewed about their experiences of writing a master’s thesis with an AR-based approach. In the second case, the experiences of two cohorts of subject STs (N=20), who had conducted small-scale AR-based projects as part of their initial teacher education, were explored. All interviews were semi-structured, lasted between 20 and 45 minutes and were recorded and transcribed verbatim. All data were analysed in an inductive manner by means of conventional qualitative content analysis (cf. Hsieh & Shannon, 2018; Schreier, 2012). Data from the two cases were initially analysed separately. In the first phase, STs' experiences connected to the projects were analysed and an open coding procedure was conducted resulting in many different initial codes. In the second phase, the researchers did a more systematic coding and the emerging codes were compared for similarities and differences. The data was then condensed and abstracted into a smaller number of categories, resulting in two category systems, one defining STs’ experiences of constraints, and one describing STs’ experiences of affordances concerning the AR-based projects.
The results show that constraints and affordances can be found in both contexts. Some of these are shared, while others are context specific. Five categories of constraints are identified: expectations and attitudes towards the AR-based project, structural constraints, unfamiliarity with AR, lack of teaching experience, and combining teaching practice and AR. The first and the last category appeared only among the subject STs. In terms of affordances, four common categories are identified: scaffolds, relations, agency, and systematic analysis and knowledge construction. Furthermore, increased practical experience is recognized as an affordance by the class STs, while the subject STs experiences include three additional categories of affordances: connection between theory and practice, transfer between contexts, and own enactment. In sum, both groups of STs found the AR-based projects quite demanding, which can be explained in terms of the nature of the projects. Moreover, almost all STs emphasize the importance of scaffolds, both in terms of enhancing the quality of the outcome but also when it comes to ensuring that the process runs smoothly. The differences between the two groups can mainly be attributed to contextual differences, although individual preferences also influence how STs experience and learn from the AR-based projects. Both groups of STs value their experiences of the AR-based projects, even if there are differences between the two contexts as to which aspects of the project are emphasized. Thus, in order to reach the full potential of an AR approach within initial TE, it is important that provision of scaffolding be balanced by opportunities for individual influence and agency.
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