Conceptions of Learning in Pre-Service and In-Service Early Childhood Education Students and the Impact of Teaching Experience

Article excerpt

Early childhood education

Since the introduction of educational reforms in the early 2000s, ongoing measures have been taken to improve the quality of teacher training in Hong Kong, especially in early childhood education. There has been a general shift in the focus of teaching towards a qualitative view, from a quantitative view, and curriculum objectives now increasingly emphasise self-regulated learning and independent and critical thinking in students (Curriculum Development Council, 2001; Education and Manpower Branch, 2006).

A decade after the proposed reforms, researchers now aim to investigate and summarise student teachers' learning and teaching experiences throughout their course of study. Student teachers' conceptions of learning have long been a popular research topic due to the influence such views and beliefs have on students' motivation, learning strategies and learning outcomes (e.g. Pillay et al., 2000; Purdie & Hattie, 2002; Purdie et al., 1996). These conceptions also account for the quality of such learning outcomes (e.g. Purdie & Hattie, 2002; Vermunt & Vermetten, 2004), hence the need to explore these concepts to better understand the quality of student teachers' learning and teaching.

Conceptions of learning have been researched both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitative studies include questionnaires and checklists such as the Conceptions of Learning Inventory (COLI), the Individualized Classroom Environment Questionnaire and the Learning Process Questionnaire (Dart, Burnett, Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2000). Biggs and Watkins (1993) highlight that more qualitative data from the learners' perspective is essential. Biggs and his research team (Biggs, Kember & Leung, 2001; Kember, Biggs & Leung, 2004) point out that Biggs' student approaches to learning (SAL) theory emerged from the approach to learning derived from Marton and Saljo (1976).

One of the defining studies in this area, by Marton et al. (1993), identifies six conceptions of learning that students have:

A. Increasing one's knowledge

B. Memorising and reproduction

C. Applying

D. Understanding

E. Seeing something in a different way

E Changing as a person.

The study involved 29 university students and was designed using phenomenographic research methods. These conceptions of learning have been the foundation of a number of research studies, which are briefly introduced in the following paragraphs.

The six statements themselves can be classified into two general categories: quantitative learning, referring to the accumulation and production of knowledge; and qualitative learning, referring to the linking of information learnt through personal experiences. This is also used in the study of Brownlee et al. (2009), who used semi-structured interviews with 35 Australian students which categorised the conceptions of learning into three categories: qualitative, indicating an intention to derive meaning and connect information with personal experiences; quantitative, accumulating knowledge about producing meaning; and transitional, indicating intention to understand and make sense of a task in order to process information, rather than derive meaning at a deeper conceptual level. The students who described learning using various conceptions predominantly mentioned qualitative conceptions of learning, while the students who described learning in practical terms tended to view learning as transitional or quantitative in nature. Students' perceptions of learning were highly related to their learning strategies, and were reflected in the learning outcomes.

In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) result showed that the performance of students in Shanghai, China, rated the highest in all three areas (reading, mathematics and science). Hong Kong students' performance is significantly above the OEDC average, with reading at rank 4, and rank 2 and 3 for mathematics and science respectively. …