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Building communities of practice: Opportunities for pre-service and early career teacher professional learning October 31, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Denise Fraser

In her first post, Denise Fraser examines the ‘communities of practice’ model of professional learning which successfully builds the understandings of students teachers and their supervisors in early childhood settings.

The move from pre-service teacher to graduate teacher can be daunting for many entering the profession of teaching. Understanding the realities and complexities of work as a teaching professional takes time; however many early career teachers don’t have that time – they are expected to hit the ground running, taking responsibility for a class or group of children very quickly after graduation. The transition, as described by Flores and Day (2006, cited in Mantei & Kervin, 2011), is ‘sudden and sometimes dramatic’.   For some the challenge is too great and they leave the profession before they really begin their career (Johnson, Down, Le Cornu, Peters, Sullivan,Pearce & Hunter 2010).  How best can we support pre-service and early career teachers as they learn the craft of teaching?

Research indicates a number of areas in which early career teachers in the school sector struggle. These include areas such as understanding the culture of teaching – the realities versus the ideological motivation to become teachers, as well as the structures that dampen enthusiasm and creativity; and grappling with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to meet the demands of the classroom and in particular classroom management and a lack of induction and ongoing mentoring (Johnson et al, 2010; Mantei & Kervin, 2011). While the development of Professional Teaching Standards in NSW (NSW Institute of Teachers, 2005), which aims to enhance the ongoing development of teachers, is a positive move for early career teachers in the school environment, there is a need to ensure that any professional development undertaken by such teachers is contextualised and that there is adequate support to make the links from theory to classroom practice. In the early childhood sector, issues for early career teachers are similar to their counterparts in the school sector. While teacher accreditation is yet to be addressed by government in the early childhood sector, the introduction of the Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) has been a step in the right direction in articulating early childhood pedagogy. Despite this, professional development opportunities for this group of teachers are often fragmented and for many early career teachers there may be very limited access to appropriate mentors to support them as they learn their craft.

A growing body of research supports the use of learning circles (Collay, Dunlap, Enloe & GagnonJr, 1998; Johnson et al, 2010; Mantei & Kervin, 2011;Mackey & Evans, 2011) or the development of professional learning communities (Pella, 2011) as a means of supporting the ongoing learning and development of teachers. So what are these learning circles or professional learning communities and how can we use them to advantage for both pre-service and early career teachers?

The learning circles concept emanates from the social theory of learning posited by Lave & Wenger (1991) and more recently the situated learning theory described by Lave (1996). In this theory, learning is a situated process that occurs as individuals engage or participate in social interactions in a community of practice. The learning circles model draws small groups of teachers “together intentionally for the purpose of supporting each other in the process of learning”( Collay, Dunlap, Enloe & Gagnon Jr, 1998, p.2). Teachers or pre-service teachers, or a combination of both, meet on a regular basis to discuss issues, ideas, research and practice matters. The topics are chosen and agreed to by the participants or may be set in advance.  The group that meets needs to build a sense of trust and openness with one another so that all members feel comfortable with sharing their experiences and ideas. This can take some time and so is ideally suited to those in a workplace or place of study where individuals build those relationships over time.

The learning circles process allows the opportunity to negotiate new meanings and to realign competence based on engagement with others and exchange of understandings of similar experiences ( Pella, 2011). Research findings indicate positive outcomes for learning when these methods are employed, for example Pella (2011, p113) reports that “participants experienced transformations in their perspectives and pedagogy” as a result of the sharing of experiences and knowledge. Likewise in Mantei and Kervin’s research (2011) participants were able to identify with one another and could see a shared journey in developing their professional identities.

Learning circles suit models of teaching and learning where students are expected to be involved in and take responsibility for their own learning as well as to share rather than hoard knowledge – a heutagogical approach (Hase & Kenyon, 2000). Teacher education programs provide an ideal site for learning circles as such circles provide the opportunity for students to share their growing understandings and to develop their reflective skills. The reflective process is supported in a non- threatening environment that supports learning and development. In schools and early childhood communities learning circles offer opportunities for that same reflection and a sharing of experiences. Undertaken regularly and with specific topics generated by members of the group learning circles support the early career teachers to explore research and its application to practice and adjust pedagogy accordingly.

The learning circles concept can be enhanced when partnerships are built between  universities and school or early childhood settings and opportunities are developed for joint learning circles to take place. In this case pre-service teachers can learn from the practical wisdom of current teachers while teachers can gain more up to date knowledge of current research and thinking about practice. In the 21st century, with its ever changing technologies, opportunities for this form of collaboration and learning are increasing. Connected classrooms, facebook, as well as online discussion sites provide opportunities for teachers to share their culture and practice with those who are beginning the journey. It shouldn’t matter whether the meeting is physical or virtual, what is important is that a community of practice develops and supports the learning of all involved.

Our forays into this building of learning communities for pre-service and early career teachers is in its early stages but there is a good future if there is a recognition  that professional development is an ongoing process which requires social engagement to explore ideas, discuss dilemmas and share experiences. Building a community of learners through the use of learning circles is one way of supporting and developing pre-service and early career teachers so that they continue to learn and develop and become great teachers.

References:  Collay, M., Dunlap, D., Enloe, W. & Gagnon, G.W.Jr (1998). Learning Circles: Creating Conditions for Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, California. Corwin Press Inc.     Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (2009). The Early Year Learning Framework for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia.    Flores, M.A. & Day, C. (2006). Contexts which shape and reshape new teachers’ identities. A multi-perspective study cited in J. Mantei & L. Kervin (2011) Turning into teacher before our eyes. The development of professional identity through professional dialogue. Australian Journal of Teacher Education. Vol 36. Iss 1 p. 1-17.     Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2000). From androgogy to heutagogy. Retrieved on 5/9/11 from  http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec00/hase2.htm.     Johnson,B.,  Down,b., Le Cornu, R., Peters,J., Sullivan, A., Pearce, J. & Hunter, J. (2010). Conditions that support early career teacher resilience. Refereed paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association Conference, 4th-7th July, Townsville, Qld.    Mantei, J.& Kervin, l. (2011). Turning into teachers before our eyes. The development of professional identity through professional dialogue. Australian Journal of Teacher Education. Vol 36. Iss 1 p. 1-17.     Mackey, J. & Evans, T. (2011). Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Vol 12.3. March.     NSW Institute of Teachers (2005).  Professional Teaching Standards. Retrieved 5/9/11 from  http://www.nswteachers.nsw.edu.au/Main-Professional-Teaching-Standards/.     Pella, S. (2011). A situative perspective on developing writing pedagogy in a teacher professional learning community. Teacher Education Quarterly. Winter . p.107 – 125.

Denise Fraser is a Lecturer in early childhood education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney. She coordinates professional experiences for early childhood programs and has a strong interest in the quality of relationships and learning developed at the centre-school-university interface.

“I do Maths for fun…..what do you do?” October 16, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education, Uncategorized.
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from Karen McDaid

Karen McDaid reflects upon negative attitudes to mathematics which are all too common in our adult population, and on the need for new teachers to present positive messages about mathematics to the children they teach.

Recently, while attending a function, I was asked by a very charming lady what I did for a living. This is not an unusual way of initiating conversations with a new acquaintance, and for most people, it is a pleasant way of commencing a friendly discourse. However, the problem lies not in my response to the question… but in the questioner’s reaction to my response. When my new acquaintance discovered that I taught mathematics, the conversation rapidly developed a negative downturn….. ‘Oh, I hated maths at school…. I was never any good at it, just didn’t get it……  I couldn’t work out when I was ever going to use it in real life!’ My newly acquainted friend then proceeded to sympathise with my terrible plight as a teacher of the dreaded “M” word and endowed me with declarations of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, this is an occurrence that I regularly experience and have resolved myself to accepting – that it is extraordinary to find someone who liked mathematics at school even amongst the education students that I currently teach and who will eventually be responsible for teaching and promoting mathematics to our next generations. In all honesty, I am a proud and passionate teacher, the fact that my favourite subject is mathematics is secondary, and I refuse to be embarrassed by my love for a discipline which is both pragmatic and intrinsically beautiful.

As a teacher in mathematics education I am keenly interested in the attitudes of my tertiary students (future primary school teachers) towards mathematics, mainly because it is my responsibility to encourage their commitment to learning and their success in a subject that some may feel anxious about. Each semester I begin my first lecture by asking the students to think about what their favourite subject was while they were at school; what was it about that subject that they loved? How did they feel when doing anything to do with that subject? I then ask them to discuss with the students next to them what their feelings about Mathematics are; this usually generates great murmurings around the lecture theatre, unfortunately not always positive. Hembree (1990) suggested that maths anxiety in pre-service teachers is higher than for any other subject major undertaken at university level and a more recent study conducted by Haylock (2001) concurred with these findings. Studies conducted by Bursal and Paznokas (2006) carried out with pre-service teachers who exhibited high levels of maths anxiety have shown that anxiety often transfers into the classroom, and show a link between their (in)ability to teach the subject with confidence. On the other hand the primary teachers whose attitudes were inclined more positively towards maths stated that this was due to positive teacher attitudes at the tertiary level and support and, encouragement to ask why and explore alternatives as well as realisation that mathematics can be useful and has a purpose.

I believe that personal judgments about mathematics arise from several issues. These include beliefs about the nature of mathematics; beliefs about the learning and teaching of mathematics; learning experiences as a mathematics student at school; parental attitudes towards mathematics and teacher preparation programs.  These often silent notions that have been developed over time are frequently linked with our school experiences and can guide our actions and our attitudes in a manner that can be productive or destructive. Although I’m not ancient, my own school experience was that of repetition, rote learning of tables and red ‘crosses’ or ‘ticks’ on a page full of formal algorithms. Not forgetting the individual, quiet work where speaking to another student meant you were rewarded with a hundred totally unproductive lines like ‘I must not speak in class’. It wasn’t until high school that I found my passion for mathematics. Miss Gallen in Year 11 ignited and fostered my inquisitive nature and changed my belief that mathematics is a specialised domain and only those that are clever at mathematics can succeed.

During discussions in tutorial groups students often say that that success or failure in mathematics is attributable to a person’s ability and that effort has little effect on accomplishments, when in actual fact I consider that the opposite is the case. It may be that it is a person’s perception about their mathematical abilities and not their actual ability that stops them being risk takers and learners in mathematics. I tell my students that Novak Djokovic didn’t get to be the number one tennis player in the world by watching Wimbledon; he became good because he practised and to be good at mathematics requires practise, not just question after question but practise in thinking mathematically. But no matter what I might say, unfortunately for many prospective primary school teachers their negative memory of school mathematics may have created a cycle of anxiety which can influence their attitudes towards mathematics at tertiary level. My fear is that these high levels of anxiety towards mathematics may be inadvertently passed on to their students when they begin teaching. On the other hand, teachers who exhibit a positive attitude, have good content knowledge and use sound pedagogical practices are more likely to foster a positive attitude towards mathematics in their primary school students.

As a teacher I see myself as an educational guide, a motivator, mentor and hopefully someone who can encourage our pre-service teachers to develop a positive attitude towards mathematics and mathematics teaching. I consider the role of a teacher to be an incredibly important responsibility and I firmly believe that my attitude, passion and love of mathematics can have a profound effect on the students that I teach. With this in mind, I remind myself of the lady that I met who had such a negative view of mathematics and I wonder whether any of her teachers had exhibited a positive attitude or whether they had simply taught the procedures and expected her to ‘get it’. For our future teachers, they should become ambassadors of mathematics, constantly extolling its beauty and creativity, and while I encourage them to promote it in their roles as future teachers, I must also remind myself to promote this beautiful subject with the people that I meet instead of being mildly embarrassed about my love of mathematics when in company.

References:   Bursal, M. & Paznokas, L. (2006). Mathematics anxiety and preservice elementary teachers’ confidence to teach mathematics and science. School Science and Mathematics 106(4) 173-80.   Haylock, D. (2001). Mathematics explained for primary teachers London: Paul Chapman.   Hembree, R. (1990). The nature, effects and relief of mathematics anxiety. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21, 33-4.

Karen McDaid is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in our Master of Teaching (Primary) program.

The context of leadership in 21st century schools: constructing the narrative for teachers October 2, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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 from Professor Steve Wilson

In his second post on school leadership, Steve Wilson argues that school leaders have a key role: to construct a ‘pedagogical narrative’, or ‘learning story’, for teachers and students in their school.

My recent post on school leadership examined the importance of formal school leaders in building up other teachers as informal leaders in schools, and the skills leaders use to do this. This is part of the context of 21st century schools – to create effective learning communities and leadership participation and engagement among teachers and their students. These learning communities experiment with learning strategies, share successes and failures, and progress the work of the school over time to improve teaching approaches and learning outcomes for all.

A key part of school leadership is to enable teachers to work well by creating for them and with them a compelling pedagogical narrative in the school . This narrative is a story about teaching and learning in their school that is optimistic, clearly and compellingly conveyed by the leadership, and which supports teachers to be clear about what they need to do in their day-to-day work. The 21st century school exists in a complex environment in which most forms of information are now readily available on-line. We are information rich (in terms of quantity and accessibility), but information poor (in terms of quality and reliability). Young people of all ages now have a lot of power in their own time to access and create information, and the role of the teacher and school in this new environment in providing quality ‘learning’ is becoming less clear. The pedagogical narrative or story of the school is important in guiding the work of teachers so they can work with, not against, these new ways of accessing and using information (learning). It is the job of school leaders to create this story for, and with, their teachers. This is the key leadership challenge in the 21st century school and defines the context of 21st century school leadership.

In the 21st century school this narrative needs to firstly explain the nature of 20th century learning, what was good about it, and what was not so good. The story needs to explain how the fundamentals have not changed – learning still needs to be challenging, enjoyable, and meaningful for young people. However, the story also needs to explain how new forms of e-networking and technologies ‘fit’ into the goal of achieving quality learning, and what this means for the ways teachers can work effectively.  This story, well told and shared amongst teachers, provides a powerful basis for clarity of purpose, and for learning transformation, in schools. Here’s how I would construct the narrative.

How should we think about 20th century learning?

We know that, understandably, many schools are still fundamentally situated in 20th century practices. Despite a century of extraordinary innovation in western education in various eras and places, learning in schools is still dominated by: prescriptive, externally driven curricula; pedagogies that are over-dominated by didactic teaching approaches and passive learning; a focusing on lower level knowledge and a lack of ‘deep’ learning; and learning which focuses on whole groups which progress in standard ways, rather than on individual dispositions and needs. These practices generally placed students as passive receivers of the expert knowledge of others. They are captured in my graphic below of the 20th century classroom as the ‘contained classroom’. This graphic conveys the teacher as the dominating force in the classroom, directing all learning, with students learning quite individualistically and disconnected from each other. They are ‘contained’ within the classroom, also disconnected from the outside world, experiencing second-hand learning through textbooks and teacher exposition, and exercising little learning initiative. While this is not an accurate picture of many contemporary classrooms (it is a worst-case picture in some respects), it is a reasonable representation of the student experience in many 20th century classrooms. We know the results of these practices. We experience high levels of disengagement of young people from school learning – even amongst our brightest young people. We find it difficult to motivate young people to want to learn. Many of us are not satisfied with levels of student learning engagement or achievement, and many teachers do not experience the levels of professional satisfaction in their work that they would like.


However, we also know what works from 20th century approaches. Carrington (2006) for example, reviewing decades of research into middle-years schooling, has identified what she calls the ‘signature practices’ of schooling – those things that have been found to work (that is, they engage students, promote ‘deep’ learning, and lead to learning achievement). They include: a focus on higher order, critical and holistic thinking, problem-solving and lifelong learning; learner-centred education; negotiated and cooperative learning; authentic and outcomes-based assessment, and heterogeneous and flexible student groupings. A good pedagogical narrative will draw attention to these ‘signature practices’ of 20th century schooling, suggesting they are a bridge to the new forms of learning that have now begun to evolve and which will eventually characterise the 21st century school.

How is 21st century learning different?

The pedagogical narrative that school leaders construct for and with their teachers should enable teachers to see the new forms of knowledge creation, transfer and networking as opportunities for enhanced learning engagement and learning outcomes. In this optimistic narrative, 21st century learning technologies and networking tools are opportunities for learning, not things to be resisted – the challenge is for teachers to be supported in learning how to work with them. Various thinkers about education (for example Leadbeater, 2008; Miliband, 2006; Williamson & Payton, 2009) argue that these approaches can lead to exciting opportunities for personalised and student-centred learning, in which decisions about learning can be partially driven and influenced by students, thereby enhancing their personal learning motivation and engagement.

21st Networked Learning

My second graphic (above) shows the 21st century classroom as a ‘networked learning community’ – a more fluid and flexible learning environment than that of the 20th century. The teacher is still at the centre, directing and influencing student learning through good planning and targeted explicit teaching, and skills and concept-building. However in this more permeable and connected environment, students are also connected to each other, and to others outside of the classroom, as active learning agents. They use their intelligence and motivation, supported wholeheartedly and guided by their teacher, to engage in activities and projects they have helped to define. They use networking technologies to communicate with, and seek knowledge from, others within the class, and within and outside of the school. They use these learning networks to test and share their own learning and the cognitive and creative products they have generated through their learning. The teacher is still an essential and very significant presence, but no longer the ubiquitous and dominating presence of the 20th century classroom.  The 21st century classroom is an active, participatory learning community, a part of many other learning communities, with students and their teachers as committed and active members of these communities of learners.

Clearly, such a pedagogical narrative is optimistic in its vision and expectations. Yet, it is clearly demonstrated in the both the conceptual and case-study literature on 20th century learning and pedagogy that disengaged students can become quickly and powerfully re-engaged through the creation of motivating learning communities in which they, the students, have a voice and can contribute to learning decisions. It is the job of school leaders to ensure that teachers are aware that such an unashamedly optimistic narrative of learning does exist, and that this optimistic story of student engagement through 21st century pedagogies should drive their practices and their school’s evolution into a 21st century school. It is the capacity of school leaders to develop and sustain just such an optimistic pedagogical narrative for the teachers and students in their school that defines leadership in the 21st century school. It is the necessity for schools to develop such effective pedagogical narratives that provides the key driver and context for school leadership in the 21st century.

References:    Carrington, V. (2006). Rethinking middle years. Early adolescents, schooling and digital culture. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.    Leadbeater, C. (2008). What’s next? 21 ideas for 21st century learning. London: The Innovation Unit.    Miliband, D. (2006). Choice and voice in personalised learning. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Ed.). Personalising education. Paris: OECD.    Williamson, B. and Payton, S. (2009). Curriculum and teaching innovation: Transforming classroom practice and personalisation. London: Futurelab. Online at:  http://archive.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/handbooks/curriculum_and_teaching_innovation.pdf

Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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