Writing to Learn to Teach in Teaching Education Programs

By Julio César Gómez Ph.D.

The current need for teacher education programs to become more responsive to the needs of the communities and mainly to support the preparation of future teachers for the challenges of the classrooms has led to development of reflective practices in their curricula. One way teacher education programs are structuring these reflective practices is through tasks that involve different forms of writing. In order to understand the place these tasks have in the overall curriculum it is important to understand their purposes to then explore the different forms they take.

Learning to teach integrates aspects of content, context and process that involve the learning to think, know, feel and act like a teacher (Feiman-Nemser, 2008). From this perspective learning to teach implies issues of intellectual work, knowledge, emotion and identity, and repertoires of strategies and skills respectively (Feiman-Nemser, 2008). All this indicates the scope and complexity of the task of preparing teachers for any teacher education program and the various challenges student teachers face in their attempt to become part of the field.

The experience of learning to teach is usually addressed in clinical and practicum experiences but a more deep understanding includes also the experience of the student teachers as learners of the theories and practices in their disciplines. Both types of experience contribute to this learning to teach, although their impact on student teachers may be different. It is especially important to understand that there are two types of “doing-¨hands on¨ teaching and analytic work that includes talking about and writing about ideas with others” (Rosaen & Florio-Ruane, 2008, p. 710) in order to make connections.  Concepts and theories may or may not make sense as student teachers enter the world of the “real” classroom in their field experiences and this situation calls for opportunities “to explore their perceptions, generate questions, examine points of view or arguments, and make judgments about means and ends” (Rosaen & Florio-Ruane, 2008, p. 710).  Teacher education programs need to create educational spaces that support and explore the potential and complexities of teaching (Cherian, 2008).

Language plays a very important role here because it is through oral and written texts that people make sense of their experience.  Language becomes the mediating tool of the social experience of the individual leading to new understandings (Vygotsky, 1966). Similarly, learning to teach engages student teachers in interaction with others in “planned activities in classrooms such as observing, planning and teaching lessons, assessing learning, and talking to mentor teachers” (Rosaen & Florio-Ruane, 2008, p. 709). All these activities are part of the teacher´s personal practical knowledge that also includes prior knowledge and “knowledge that is constructed and reconstructed as we live out our stories and retell and relive them through processes of reflection” (Clandinin as cited in Golombek, 2009, p. 155). Writing, in particular, has the potential to be a very powerful tool for reflection-in-and on action because it is in and on itself a composition process (Burton, 2009). Reflection becomes a paramount objective of writing as it detaches from traditional views of the writing assignment in these programs. Stover (1986) identified among the assignments that have prevailed in teacher programs for some time the written research papers, essay tests, critical analyses, book reviews, and observation reports. Oftentimes, these kinds of assignments are common in teacher education programs nowadays although their focus may have changed to encourage a more critical and reflective stance in relation to the contents.  However, there are other more reflective forms in which writing has made its way in teacher education programs and they are explored in detail as follows.

Research on teacher education programs shows the implementation of varied forms of writing. These forms of writing focus on the development of reflective and critical skills and dispositions in student teachers that will prepare them for the classroom reality. They can be classified in three groups: narrative, dialogic and academic.  Writing forms that include an important narrative component include autobiographies, metaphors and cases. Dialogic writing takes the form of online journals, reflective letters and, online discussions. Academic writing is present in portfolios.  Each form of writing has a specific focus and contributes in a different way to the learning process of student teachers.

Teachers’ accounts of their experiences in their classrooms and schools are framed in the narrative form to recall share and exchange these experiences with others (Kelchtermans, 2010).  One example of this kind of writing is called the critical incident vignette in which student teachers develop an individual autobiographical description of a good or bad teacher experience that is followed by small group discussion and a final whole class plenary in which participants discuss their views about “actual teaching and about themselves as teachers” (Kelchtermans, 2010, p. 611). The idea of using a critical event is intended to activate a reflective position and further analysis of the narrator´s action and thinking.

The metaphor is another form of narrative that has gained some attention in some teacher education programs.  In this technique student teachers need to identify a metaphor that best describes them as teachers. The frequent critique of the metaphor as oversimplifying becomes instead a “means for making the experience of preservice teachers more accessible to analysis” (Bullough, 1991, p. 44).

The use of cases in teacher education is not a new trend. Cases have extensively been used to provide a space for student teachers to explore the roles, problems and situations presented in them (Sykes & Bird, 1992). But their main emphasis is the analysis and interpretation of real-life events in varied teaching contexts (Merseth, 1996).  A shift of focus happens when student teachers write their own cases as another way of reflecting on practice (Sykes & Bird, 1992).  When student teachers write cases around dilemmas, they are usually more reflective and critical and this may lead to “changes in teacher beliefs and/or practices that may have simultaneous effects on teacher development” (Barksdale-Ladd, Draper, King, Oropallo, & Radencich, 2001, p. 418). These case investigations mainly require student teachers to examine real situations and draw conclusions from the results as a way to learn to solve problems in their teaching practice. This type of case goes beyond the common type of cases that can be used in other teacher education programs because this type integrates a research component. Other type of cases may only include the identification of a problem and the experiential response of the student teachers.

Journal writing has been a popular form of reflection in teacher education supported by a vast body of literature that shows the many advantages and barriers of its use.  Recently, there has been an interest in expanding the audience of this personal type of writing to include not only the teacher educator but also encouraging the dialogue between student teachers. Dialogue and collaboration then becomes an important component of a new view of journal writing.  This kind of interaction is similar to the one developed in dialogue journals in which a slow-paced reflective conversation allows for a careful consideration and elaboration of the mutual responses (Moon, 1999).

Online discussions as a new form of exchange afforded by the digital communication in teacher education programs follow a similar principle of collegial interaction. Writing is perceived here as a means to engage in interaction with others and “make connections between those disparate parts of teacher education programs: theory and practice, campus and practicum; and experience and research” (Mitchell, 2003, p. 132). These electronic public texts can become the vehicle through which student teachers integrated their experience with the content aided by dialogue with their peers.

The teaching portfolio is another form of writing that some teacher education programs have adopted to “demonstrate [students´] knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to teaching” (Bullock & Hawk, 2001, p. 55).  Writing in portfolios usually takes the form of lesson plans and reflections but vary depending on the specific goals of the programs. Portfolios can also include samples of writing in different stages from drafts to final pieces that along with other artifacts show work overtime and become “evidence of self-reflection and learning(Wade & Yarbrough, 1996, p. 3). Jay and Johnson (2002) defined a typology of reflective practice for teacher education that profiles three dimensions: descriptive reflection, comparative reflection and critical reflection. This typology has been used and studied in the development of portfolios in which student teachers are asked to write an entry slip “modeled after the typology, explaining the context of the artifact and the student´s personal reflection” (p.82).

This and other forms of writing described above have been focus of interest and research in teacher education programs but their current use is determined by the particular goals of the programs and teacher educators’ preferences. From up close and personal accounts in the shape of narration to interactive forms and even more professional collections of artifacts all contribute to frame the experience of student teachers as they grow in the field as individuals and future educators.




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