Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Problem-Based Conversations: Using Preservice Teachers' Problems as a Mechanism for Their Professional Development

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Problem-Based Conversations: Using Preservice Teachers' Problems as a Mechanism for Their Professional Development

Article excerpt

Introduction: A Personal Account of Learning to Teach

Learning to teach is a challenge. When people make the decision to become teachers, they enter their undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, graduate, or alternative teacher education programs with a goal of learning how to teach so their future students learn. Many teacher candidates, understandably, do not foresee the complexity of the journey that lies before them, nor the problems that will likely emerge as they venture into their initial teaching experiences and ongoing work with students.

In the early 1990s, I studied to become a teacher in a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program. The journey toward becoming a teacher was, to say the least, a challenge for me. I experienced many difficulties as I shifted back-and-forth between classes at the university and field placements in public schools, where I was being asked to implement teaching strategies across a broad range of subject areas with students I did not know well. I saw teaching practices in schools that were very different than those advocated by my professors at the university.

Upon returning to the university after an initial placement in schools, my preservice colleagues and I would have conversations at the coffee shop, on the way to campus, or in the hall before classes about all of the problems we were facing out in the "real world." These rather urgent conversations about teaching subject matter, connecting our course requirements to our field experiences, classroom management, and pedagogy were helpful because they allowed us to empathize with each others' predicaments, offer advice, and support each other. These peer-to-peer conversations were somehow different from those I would have with my supervisors and professors, because we all encountered similar problems and could readily empathize with each other's predicaments. At the same time, these conversations were, by their very nature, sporadic, and generally not incorporated into the "official" context of my preservice teacher education program. As a consequence, there were missed opportunities to explore these problems more systematically.

Preservice Teacher Education: A Problematic Context

My personal account depicts a challenge in the field of teacher education. New teachers need to (1) gain an understanding of instructional strategies related to specific subject matter, (2) develop an understanding of how to address individual differences, (3) increase their knowledge of formative and summative assessment practices, and (4) learn how ongoing collaborations with teaching colleagues, school administrators, and parents can provide the necessary support for students, particularly those who are not succeeding (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002; Hill, 2000; McDiarmid, 1990; Walsh, 2001). They are expected to develop this nuanced understanding of teaching in an environment where there are inescapable tensions between teacher education institutions and schools. This complex arena for teacher learning is one that is likely to surface problems for prospective teachers.

Research studies show that preservice teachers face similar types of problems. Problems related to classroom management, developing a conception of subject matter and how to teach it, understanding the ways students learn, assessment practices, working with colleagues connecting the required work in courses and in schools, as well as a host of other predicaments can confront beginning teachers (Bullough, 1989; Fullan, 1998; Hill, 2000; Mueller & Skamp, 2003; Richardson & Placier, 2001). Given that such problems are likely, it is sensible to examine learning contexts that encourage preservice teachers to approach, reframe, and make sense of these problems. Rather than viewing preservice teachers' problems as obstructive to learning and professional growth, a question that reframes preservice teachers' inevitable challenges asks, "What happens to preservice teachers' conceptions of teaching practice and student learning if their problems are used as a mechanism for their professional development? …

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