Learning and Teaching for the Long Haul
If you think teacher candidates are in a difficult position, then consider the charge of teacher educators: Not only must they help novice teachers survive their practicum, but they must also set them up to be effective for the rest of their teaching careers.
Keeping in mind that the 200,000 future teachers who enroll in teacher education programs every year typically want to know how to be most effective in the classroom the very next day, teacher educators might best support preservice teachers by giving them a vision for the long haul.
Short-sightedness in adult learning is common. "Often, adult learners' immediate focus is on practical, short-term objectives," contends transformative learning expert Jack Mezirow (1997, p. 8). "It is crucial to recognize that learning needs must be defined so as to recognize both short-term objectives and long-term goals." Transformative learning, Mezirow's theory on adult learning, "refers to learning that results in a deep change of beliefs, assumptions, or perspectives, making people more discriminating and able to construct opinions that will prove more true to guide their actions" (Ginsberg, 2011, p. 10).
If universities and partner schools engage in a transformative learning cycle with preservice teachers, then they can show neophytes how to serve students tomorrow and equip them to make sound instructional choices for years to come. Toward that end, here's what teacher educators can do.
Help Teacher Candidates Build Relationships, But Encourage Productive Conflict
Teacher candidates must have solid relationships to feel safe in taking risks and challenging the ideas of others.
Teacher educators can foster relationships with and among novice teachers by helping preservice programs create norms for classroom interactions, watching videos of one another teach, and sharing and analyzing the schoolwork of candidates' students. Teacher educators can also create routines in which candidates share challenges and celebrations at the beginning of class and build in time for candidates to connect one-on-one about their practice.
One challenge is to provide supportive interactions that can also inspire the candidate to improve; sugar-coating feedback can sometimes obscure the message to preservice teachers, and remaining comfortable is not transformative (Taylor, 2007).
Access Candidates' Prior Knowledge and Beliefs
What do candidates already know and believe? Are they ready for change? If not, what will it take to get them there? These crucial questions must be answered before teacher educators present new information or ideas to candidates.
Disposition surveys, entry interviews, warm-up questions at the beginning of each class, reflective journals, and whole-class share-outs can reveal how candidates approach ideas, concepts, challenges, and teaching practice. Educators can use this information to design learning experiences and choose instructional materials that reflect the experiences of the candidates and enhance their buy-in.
Introduce a Catalyst to Improve Their Practice
Maybe the catalyst is a new framework for planning lessons. Perhaps it is an article, a question, data on students' performance, or an observation. Whatever the catalyst is, it is a critical component of transformative learning, because it primes candidates to change.
Teacher educators and teacher education programs can build in experiences that shift the way teacher candidates approach their work, such as conducting a home visit to uncover families' strengths (Baeder, 2010; Ginsberg, 2007), organizing a lesson study for candidates (Lewis, 2002), or encouraging a candidate to shadow a student throughout the school day (Farris, 2011). These experiences could result in the candidate coming to an understanding of the student, of their pedagogy, or of families that would not have occurred otherwise.
At the very least, this catalyst will prompt discomfort, which is critical for transformative learning. Mezirow (1997) states, "We do not make transformative changes in the way we learn as long as what we learn fits comfortably in our existing frames of reference" (p. 7).
Directly Teach and Model Skills
Instructors should provide model lessons that feature the strategies they want candidates to use with students. It's unfair to expect candidates to enact a skill that they have not seen or experienced in their programs.
Preservice teachers need to see the type of instruction asked of them and experience what their students will experience. Adult learners need "explicit guidance, instrumental instruction, and institutional support to enact dialogic teaching in their practice" (Taylor, 2007, p. 181).
Mentor teachers can also take part in candidates' learning processes through narrating their instructional choices while planning, modeling instructional strategies, and comparing and discussing assessment techniques.
Give Candidates the Opportunity to Try New Skills
Learning about or experiencing strategies is not enough. Candidates need to try their newly learned skills in safe settings, taking small steps in their classroom and sometimes approximating practice by teaching each other.
One example of this is microteaching, a technique used by candidates in the University of Washington teacher education program. In their methods courses, candidates try out their recently acquired strategies in 20-minute teaching segments before a small group of peers.
During student teaching, university supervisors and mentor teachers can provide focused coaching on short segments of the candidate teacher's instruction addressing recently learned skills. These small steps, if well-supported, can result in large strides in a new teacher's practice in the long term.
Promote Critical Reflection and Discourse
Dialogue and reflection are important for processing thoughts. This is true for students, teacher candidates, and other adult learners. Mezirow posits that "self-reflection can lead to significant personal transformation" (1997, p. 7) and that discourse is "central to making meaning" (1997, p. 10).
This type of meaning-making is at the heart of learner-centered, participatory adult education. Teacher educators can build in discourse through familiar methods, such as turn and talks (impromptu peer sharing), dialogue partners, table groups, journal partners, and discussion protocols. Candidates could keep a learning journal; respond to reflection prompts at the end of each class; or try innovative methods of reflection using social media, tablet devices, smartphones, and video. The method of reflection and discourse is less important than the fact that candidates participate in both.
Transformative learning will change the actions and perspectives of the teacher candidates who are exposed to it. By heightening their own awareness of their long-term influence, teacher educators can embed a series of transformative experiences in their work with candidates that will allow new teachers to continue to reap the benefits many years down the road.
Teacher educators must not simply prepare candidates with strategies for their lessons tomorrow. They must also empower them to know students well; understand their content deeply; and teach in engaging, rigorous ways that lead to student success for years to come.
Baeder, A. (2010, February). Stepping into students' worlds. Educational Leadership, 67(5), 56–60.
Farris, S. (2011, October). In Yasir's shoes: A principal gains insight by shadowing an English language learner student. Journal of Staff Development, 32 (5), 20–23, 37.
Ginsberg, M. (2007). Lessons at the kitchen table. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 56–61.
Ginsberg, M. (2011). Transformative professional learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Lewis, C. C. (2002). Lesson study: A handbook of teacher-led instructional change. Philadelphia, PA: Research for Better Schools, Inc.
Mezirow, J. (1997, September 6). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5–12.
Taylor, E. W. (2007, March 1). An update of transformative learning theory: A critical review of the empirical research (1999–2005). International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26(2), 173–191.
Amy Baeder works as a teacher educator at the University of Washington and is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy studies.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 10. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.