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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.


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