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Rethinking clinical practice in teacher training | Ecology of Education

Rethinking clinical practice in teacher training

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A graduate student seeking a degree in secondary math education has been studying research about the ways children learn and evidence-based methods developed to support those ways.  He enters his practicum site and teaches a lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem. The lesson consists of displaying a page from the textbook on the electronic whiteboard, lecturing about the Theorem, and then distributing worksheets to the students to complete during class.  The homework assigned is another worksheet.

This situation arises frequently as pre-service teachers enter practicum and student teaching placements (field experiences, collectively).  Often, pre-service teachers experience a disconnect between what they learn in their university courses and what their mentor teachers actually practice in the classroom.  Researchers have noted this phenomenon and identified it as a problematic aspect of field experiences in teacher education programs (Wilson, Floden, & Ferrini-Mundy, 2001; Zeichner, 2010). In addition, pre-service teachers often initiate the methods employed by their mentor teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Wilson et al., 2001), as illustrated by the graduate student in the vignette above.

There are several reasons for this disconnect: university courses that provide theory without practical tools grounded in the theory (Darling-Hammond, 2010), misalignment between the mentor teacher’s practice and theories taught in the university program (Wilson et al., 2001), lack of clear guidelines and structure for the field experience (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Zeichner, 2010), and a mismatch in the pre-service teachers’ experiences as students and the approaches advocated in university courses (Wilson et al., 2001).  In addition, placements are often based on mentor teacher availability and other administrative concerns over ensuring an appropriate pairing is made between mentor teacher and pre-service teacher (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Zeichner, 2010).  Finally, there is not much collaboration between schools and universities.  Frequently, mentor teachers are expected to provide a location where pre-service teachers can practice applying the “academic knowledge” (Zeichner, 2010, p. 90) of the university, thus privileging the teacher education program’s knowledge over that of the practitioner.

In order for education to move forward and make a difference in children’s education, teacher preparation needs to be purposefully designed, particularly field experiences.  Universities and schools need to move beyond the status quo and build better, more innovative partnerships that ensure new teachers are equipped to enter the field and teach the children in their classrooms.  One of the priorities in these new partnerships must be equalizing academic and practitioner knowledge.  Or, as Darling-Hammond (2010) says, “The central issue I believe teacher education must confront is how to foster learning about and from practice in practice” (p. 42, emphasis original).

Zeichner (2010) proposes that this equalization process can occur through the creation of a “third space” (p. 92).  He offers a few examples of how schools and universities have partnered in this shared space to ensure that all forms of pedagogical knowledge are valued.  One example highlights teacher-in-residency programs, which have P-12 teachers working in all aspects of the teacher preparation program (from recruitment to teaching to supervising). A second way to create shared space is to incorporate representations of teacher practices into campus courses, through technology by bringing classroom practices to the university.  Videos of P-12 teachers or university faculty teaching children, work samples, and reflections on the planning process can be incorporated into methods courses for pre-service teachers.  A third way of creating shared space is to have faculty transcend boundaries and work in hybrid roles: as teacher educators and school-based staff.  Thus, they develop a deep understanding of both roles and can help bridge the theory-practice gap experienced by pre-service teachers.

The specific design of the shared space, while important, is only one aspect in creating new school and university partnerships.  Another important element is that field experiences themselves offer more explicitly-designed structure for pre-service teachers.  Ideally, programs will explicitly link university coursework with in-school practices, thus providing a bridge for pre-service teachers to see, experience, analyze, and apply concepts (Darling-Hammond, 2010).  Darling-Hammond also suggests that the most effective programs offer clinical experiences throughout the program, offering more opportunities for teacher candidates to apply ideas they are learning in their courses.

Ideal partnerships are ones in which universities intentionally seek out teachers and schools using state-of-the-art practices that align with the theoretical perspectives of the university program (or, if none exist, establish Professional Development Schools that do so).  Then field experiences in these settings should be carefully structured and monitored to ensure that teacher candidates’ learning and opportunities to apply theory in practical situations are maximized.  There should be direct alignment between methods taught in the university courses and the methods used by the mentor teachers in the field experience sites (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Finally, tenure-line faculty should be directly involved in working with the field experience as it indicates the institution’s investment in preparing highly qualified teachers.

Through the creation of a shared space where practitioner knowledge and academic knowledge are equally valued and innovative partnerships that promote interactions between the two kinds of knowledge, pre-service teachers should be better equipped to enter the profession and make a difference.  And university supervisors will no longer bemoan that pre-service teachers revert to teaching using methods that have little support in the research, such as the situation described in the opening vignette.

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Author:Christina Yuknis

Christina Yuknis, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Gallaudet University. She worked in both adult education and as a middle school teacher before pursuing her doctorate. She now specializes in Special Education Policy; Literacy; Deaf Students with Disabilities. She is also an ASCD Emerging Leader, Class of 2011.
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