Student Teachers as Researchers

Arguments around the much maligned theory-practice gap abound across the professions (see for example, Allmark 1995; Gao and Rhinehart 2004; Pilecki and McKay 2013; Reed 2009) and have attracted similar attention in both teaching and teacher education (Korthagen 2010; Korthagen and Kessels 1999). The idea that schools, or the swampy lowlands as Schon (1983) described the world of practice, and that of universities as ivory towers in which theory abounds, has long created an impression that there is a great deal of distance between the two worlds; hence the notion of the divide commonly known as the theory-practice gap. Clearly, one way of bridging the gap is for researchers to be involved in practice and practitioners to be involved in research; a situation that would be beneficial in the defining experiences of a beginning professional.

Although the idea of student teachers as researchers of teaching at first blush sounds unremarkable, the reality is that there is very little in the literature to suggest that the idea has had much traction in teacher education programs—or at least reported as such. Cochran-Smith’s (1991) work around program START (Student Teachers as Researching Teachers) stands out as a formalised approach to a student teacher as researcher stance and offers a concrete way of helping students of teaching purposely bridge the theory-practice gap. Cochran-Smith noted that Project START was designed to: ‘Prepare student teachers who know how to learn from teaching by inquiring collaboratively into their own practices and who help build cultures of teaching that support ongoing professional growth and reform’ (p. 106). Through Project START the intention was that students of teaching would complete assignments and tasks that focussed on helping them put theory into practice and, in so doing, bridge the gap that is so frequently decried as creating barriers to meaningful teacher professional learning.

There are many valuable outcomes possible through genuinely adopting a student teacher as researcher stance in teacher education. One in particular, drawn from the notion in reflective practice of framing and reframing (Schon 1983, 1987), is the encouragement to see experiences from different perspectives. In so doing, understanding complex situations in practice can emerge as students of teaching learn to be more open to the notion of teaching as being problematic—and how to be more informed in responding.

A student teacher as researcher stance is suggested through the notion of effective reflective practice (Loughran 2002). One example of the learnings of students of teaching is evident through an analysis of their reflection on their practicum experience (see Table 1) which offers insight into how students of teaching develop their new knowledge of practice which is a crucial outcome of research.

Many teacher education programs have what, on the surface, may appear to be structured assignments designed to encourage students of teaching to research teaching. However, more often than not, they become routinized tasks or assessment activities through which the value of researching practice is diminished by the need to complete the assignment and “move on” in the program, or suffer from the

Table 1 Students of teaching assertions about practice

Statements about teaching and learning drawn from student teachers’ reflection on practice following a school practicum experience

The medium of instruction influences the success (or failure) of the lesson

The students have a management script, you have to de-program before you re-program

Sometimes you teach in ways you don’t like because it helps you cope

Teaching in a way that works isn’t always a way that you’d like to be teaching

Too much enthusiasm (student and teacher) may be lead to other problems

Students and teachers can have different ideas of what is fun and exciting

Students have more control over what works in the classroom than the teacher

Students have to make connections between their school work and their existing knowledge for the tasks to be meaningful

Clear expectations and guidelines are important for students to know how to act/learn

The success of teaching strategies is dependent on students’ skills - they may or may not have these skills

Source Loughran (2002, p. 39)

perception that assessment is not explicitly tied to learning—and hence is just another task to be completed. Kinchloe (2003) was concerned about this issue and stated that teacher research should be:

. a central point of the conversation about good teaching . a more textured reflection of one’s teaching involves a teacher’s self-understanding of his or her practices, especially the ambiguities, contradictions and tensions implicit in them. . This is the basis of education change . Teacher education which neglects these aspects of teacher research misses the point . teacher education . by necessity must view teachers as self-directed agents, sophisticated thinkers, active researchers in a never-static, ambiguous context . A recurrent theme here is teacher education’s history of ineffective incorporation of research into professional education programs (Kinchloe 2003, pp. 39-40).

As a very experienced teacher educator, Tom Russell, over a number of years, has illustrated how, by positioning learning at the centre of the student teaching experience, the value of being a researcher of practice dramatically changes what learning about teaching can mean. Russell has supported a number of his students of teaching in their research (see for example, Featherstone et al. 1997; Olmstead 2007; Russell and Bullock 1999; Smith 1997) and at the heart of his endeavour has been a concern to help them recognize and develop the authority of their experience (Munby and Russell 1994). In so doing he has purposely sought to develop their voice so that they might take confidence from their learning and apply it in their practice. In many ways, his approach has fostered a research-led development of the pedagogy of some of his students of teaching and has highlighted the importance of students of teaching researching their experiences of learning to teach and applying that learning in their practice; thus more than adequately responding to the perceptions surrounding the theory-practice gap. Russell argued that:

Many teacher education programs begin and end in the university classroom, with teaching practice in several settings sprinkled throughout. This could be characterized as a model in which ‘theories, maxims and rules of thumb’ are learned at university and then ‘put into practice’ in a school classroom ... the initial preparation of teachers will only improve as we show new teachers how to develop a personal sense of voice and authority and then support them by listening to their voices (Russell et al. 1997, pp. 2-3).

One particular aspect of Russell’s work was to challenge the status-quo of teacher education by endeavouring to create the possibility for students of teaching to experience extended school teaching very early in their program and thus avoid the typical “front loading” of preparation for teaching that, structurally, most teacher education programs tend to be organised around. Russell suggested that through early extended school experience, students of teaching could formulate their own questions about that which they needed to learn about in relation to their own teaching, thus changing the dynamic of teacher education from the outset and empowering learning about teaching.

His work was based, in part, on a response to ‘ten significant points of debate that mark[ed] teacher education in the late 1990s’ (Russell 1998, p. 52), and which it seems fair to suggest, persist to this day. One of these points in particular was that of ‘theory versus practice’ in which he illustrated that ‘experience-free “teaching” of theory has gone hand in hand with our determination to “tell new teachers everything we know” ... theory first has not transformed our schools and experience first will not compel new teachers to repeat past “mistakes”’ (p. 53). Russell’s approach is a strong example of how embedding student teacher as researcher within a program might work and some of the assumptions that need to be challenged in empowering students of teaching to adopt a meaningful research stance in their learning about teaching.

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