10 SES 16 E, Special Call: Mapping Teacher Education across Europe and Beyond
Teacher education is a contested space (Cochran-Smith, 2016). Five perspectives – policy, accountability, practice, equity, and university – are recognised as simultaneously pulling teacher education in quite different directions (Cochran-Smith, 2016). In the European context, while all five perspectives can be seen as influencing teacher education, there is a distinct tension between the university and practice perspectives (Beauchamp et al., 2015; European Commission, 2013, 2015). There has been a turn away from university settings as the legitimate and sole provider of teacher education while practice-based experiences have received increasing emphasis (Moon, 2016). The contested space, and the uncertain times ahead for the university perspective, have prompted our contribution to this ‘special call’ for mapping teacher education across Europe.
We would argue that the nub of the debates across Europe lies in the place and position of ‘theory’ within university and practice perspectives. The notion of a theory and practice divide in teachers’ everyday practices has been a constant feature in the literature (Carr, 1980; Kessels and Korthagen, 1996; Moon, 2016), but two main views exacerbate this issue. The first view is that teacher educators deliver theory courses, which student teachers are expected to transfer into their practice. The second view is that teaching is often seen as a ‘craft’ and best developed by hands-on practice-based experience. While both these views have some merit for advancing teacher education, few contemporary articles have explored extensively how teachers construe theoretical ideas in ‘real world’ practice settings (Ertsas and Irgens, 2017).
Recent work by Ertsas and Irgens (2017) in the Norwegian context has taken steps beyond conceptualisations of theory and practice as separate and dichotomous in nature. Drawing upon Erstas and Irgens’ (2017) idea of ‘professional theorising’ as a conceptual frame, we present the view that the theory-practice relationship is both an iterative and dynamic process. Our work was guided by the following research question: How, if at all, do teachers employ theoretical ideas in ‘real world’ practice settings?
Working with seven primary classroom teachers attending a two-year part time postgraduate professional development programme at The University of Edinburgh, we sought to develop a theory-practice connection. The university sessions were underpinned by ‘complexity thinking’ (Davis and Sumara, 2006; Morrison, 2008) and ‘ecological thinking’ (Luce-Kapler et al., 2002). These lenses introduced a number of theoretical principles – self-organisation, emergence, ambiguous boundaries, similarity and diversity, edge of chaos, recursive elaboration, and nestedness – as a means for supporting curriculum development and teaching practice. We actively encouraged the teachers to apply these theoretical ideas in their own school contexts between programme sessions at the university. Once these teachers had completed their professional development programme, we investigated further their understanding of the theoretical frameworks and the extent to which these ideas were applied in practice.
This paper reports on findings from a research project aimed at exploring the impact of sustained, on-going, and transformative approaches to professional learning. The professional learning in this study was provided through the Postgraduate Certificate in 3-14 Physical Education (PgCert 3-14) at The University of Edinburgh. Aimed at generalist primary school teachers, the PgCert 3-14 drew on complexity thinking (Davis and Sumara, 2006; Morrison, 2008) and ecological thinking (Luce-Kapler et al., 2002) as theoretical lenses to underpin the structure and content of the course. Permission to undertake this research was granted by the School of Education’s ethics committee at the University of Edinburgh following rigorous review procedures. Participant teachers agreed to be involved in the research and were given pseudonyms to protect their confidentiality and anonymity. The data reported on in this paper were gathered from semi-structured telephone interviews undertaken with seven teachers in 2014. At the point of interview, the teachers had recently completed studying on the PgCert 3-14. During the interview teachers were asked about their response to the professional development provided by the PgCert 3-14 and the extent to which it influenced their practice. Within the interview, specific questions were asked about complexity thinking and ecological thinking to ascertain the teachers’ understanding of these theoretical frameworks and the extent to which they were applied in practice. The interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were analysed using a grounded theory approach, which specifically employed the constant comparative method (Corbin and Strauss, 2008). This involved reading and re-reading the teachers’ comments in order to ‘compare data with data…in order to find similarities and differences’ (Charmaz, 2003, p. 93). Constantly comparing the data in this way allowed for it to be coded while remaining sensitive to new insights about the emerging categories and themes (Corbin and Strauss, 2008).
Our analysis shows that these teachers engaged with complexity and ecological thinking, but these theoretical ideas were not implemented in a pristine fashion. The main finding was that a mixture of immediate and wider practice-based influences is constantly at play as teachers grapple to develop their own personal takes on the theoretical ideas introduced in university settings. This finding parallels with Ertsas and Irgens’ (2017) work whereby, “theory and practice are entangled in process…the ability to theorize is more important than knowledge about theory and having a large repertoire of theories” (p. 336). Our work, however, extends this literature by presenting detailed empirical examples that seem to be missing in earlier studies and better exemplifies how teachers navigate the inherently messy nature of this process. While our work eschews the notion of a divide between theory and practice, the teacher has been positioned in a pivotal role in weaving together these two dimensions. In adopting this view, and given the tension between the practice and university perspectives recognised earlier, we foresee major implications ahead for teachers and teacher educators. For teachers, this study suggests that autonomy and the ability to exert agency in school contexts are crucial, but this freedom has become increasingly challenged across Europe since the 1980s (Hargreaves, 2000). For teacher educators, this study implies a need to reorient traditional ‘theory’ courses towards experiences that support teachers’ efforts to theorise about practice in a given context while being open to the refinement of theory for a given context.
Beauchamp, G., Clarke, L., Hulme, M., Jephcote, M., Kennedy, A., Magennis, G., Menter, I., Murray, J., Mutton, T., O'Doherty, T. and Peiser, G. (2015) Teacher Education in Times of Change. Policy Press: Bristol. Carr, W. (1980) The gap between theory and practice, Journal of Further and Higher Education, Vol. 4, 60–69. Charmaz, K. (2003) Grounded theory. In Jonathan A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods, London: Sage. Cochran-Smith, M. (2016) Teacher education reform in the United States: Where’s the field turning? In I. Menter (chair), Policy, governance, and quality in teacher education systems: Four cases. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC. Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. (2008) Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, (3rd Edition), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Davis, B. and Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and education: inquiries into learning, teaching, and research, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. European Commission, (2015) Strengthening Teaching in Europe: New Evidence from Teachers, compiled by Eurydice and CRELL. Report available from: ec.europa.eu/dgs/education_culture/repository/education/library/policy/teaching- profession-practices_en.pdf (accessed 07 January 2019). European Commission, (2013) Supporting Teacher Educators for Better Learning Outcomes. Brussels: European Commission. Report available at: ec.europe.eu/education/library/policy/teaching-profession-practices_en.pdf (accessed 07 January 2019). Ertsas, T., and Irgens, E., (2017) Professional theorizing, Teachers and Teaching, Vol. 23:3, 332-351. Hargreaves, A. (2000) Four Ages of Professionalism and Professional Learning, Teachers and Teaching, Vol. 6: 2, pp. 151-182. Kessels, J. P. A. M. and Korthagen, F. A. J. (1996) The relationship between theory and practice: back to the classics, Educational Researcher, Vol. 25: 3, pp. 17-22. Luce-Kapler, R., Sumara, D. and Davis, B. (2002) Rhythms of knowing: Toward an ecological theory of learning in action research, Educational Action Research, Vol. 10: 3, pp. 353-372. Moon, B. (2016) (Ed.) Do Universities have a Role in the Education and Training of Teachers? Cambridge: University Press. Morrison, K. (2008) Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory, Education Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 40: 1, pp. 19-34.
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