Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Guided Group Reflections of First-Year Pre-Service Teachers: Moving beyond the Rhetoric of "Go and Reflect"

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Guided Group Reflections of First-Year Pre-Service Teachers: Moving beyond the Rhetoric of "Go and Reflect"

Article excerpt


As one of the most unequal countries in the world, South Africa's current struggle towards democratic transformation includes an on-going battle for a more equitable education system (Tikly, 2011; SAHRC, 2012). The context of a society in which the majority of South Africans remain disadvantaged not only foregrounds the role of higher education in transforming systems of inequity, but necessitates the imperative of teacher education to enable pre-service teachers to reduce injustices and increase the well-being of all learners in their future classrooms. While the transformative agenda of South African higher education institutions is captured in the recognition of higher education and training "as an agent of socio-economic change and development" (CHE, 2004: 14), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET, 2011: 6) requires all teacher education programmes to, inter alia, "assist teachers in developing competencies that enable them to deal with diversity and transformation". It can thus be agreed with Walker (2013) that the curriculum and pedagogies that pre-service teachers encounter in institutions of higher education should feed into the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills that will enable them to think critically and compassionately, and to frame problems of social injustice in relation to the profession.

As teacher educators employed by the University of the Free State (UFS), our interest lies with the role of teacher education in enabling pre-service teachers to develop an awareness of, to critically think about, and to position themselves in relation to the grave inequalities embedded in South African education. In South Africa, all pre-service teachers grew up in a society deeply marked by a racialised past and they are, due to the stratified nature of a socio-economic unequal present, positioned on different sides of historical and social divides. As a consequence, preservice teachers carry with them diverse schooling experiences that could range from prestigious private school environments, to middle-class public school contexts, to poorly resourced and under-performing school backgrounds. Working within the context of teacher education, we often find that, while these diverse experiences constitute most pre-services teachers' perceptions and expectations of the profession, they frequently request to do their teaching practice in school contexts that are similar to their own schooling experience. Thus, unless teacher education creates the opportunity for pre-service teachers to pause and contemplate existing inequalities in our education system, many of them will remain buttressed in a naive understanding of what it means to teach in the South African school context.

Informed by our contention that the extent to which curriculum and pedagogies challenge students' perceptions and expectations will ultimately have an impact on their willingness to effect social change in their future classrooms (Robinson & McMillan, 2006: 328), this article comments on small-group discussions held by firstyear pre-service teachers. These discussions followed after the students were exposed to school environments that reflect the socio-economic and racial inequalities of 75% of South African schools being regarded as dysfunctional and only 25% of schools being regarded as functional (Spaull, 2012). While the school visit served as a critical incident to reflect on the current situation in South African education, we designed this study to help us explore the extent to which the small-group discussions supported the students to delve deeper into their own understanding of current schooling contexts, and to think critically about their own learning.

Study context

Inspired by the commitment of the South African higher education sector to be involved in and assume responsibility for the transformation of South African society (DoE, 1997; CHE, 2004; DHET, 2013), the UFS Faculty of Education adopted the vision to position itself as a faculty that "visibly contributes to the social transformation of the broader society" by enabling "access in ways that overcome the barriers posed by social inequality" (UFS, 2011). …

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