Postgraduate Student Teachers’ Developing Conceptions of the Place of Theory in Learning to Teach: ‘More Important to Me Now Than When I Started’

May. 15, 2015

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 2, 145–160, 2015.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article reports on the developing conceptions held by a group of postgraduate student teachers about the relationship of theory to classroom practice in learning to teach.

The data are drawn from a small-scale longitudinal case study.
The case group itself comprised five students embarking on a one-year Primary Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programme in England.

Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, a focus group, and documentary sources in the form of diary entries, personal statements and one piece of coursework.


The authors capture participants’ preconceptions about theory before beginning training and subsequent developments through the course and into the first teaching post.
The findings reveal that these students to be far from naïve at the outset, entering training open to a range of forms of learning, with a positive view of the potential contribution of theory to practice.
Before beginning the programme, there was a belief in a body of knowledge for teachers: an apparent corollary of participants’ firm view of teaching being a profession. This knowledge was seen as both distinct and generalisable.
Early preconceptions about sources of teachers’ expertise suggested a need to grasp theoretical principles to avoid feeling like ‘a complete novice’. Theoretical knowledge was thus seen as preparation for the classroom and something to be applied in practice. There was little evidence at this stage of seeing theory as a means of making sense of practice.

Alongside a growing appreciation of the complex, situated and contested nature of theory, the data suggest that theory comes to be increasingly valued over time.
Masters level study offered one means of engaging with ideas at a theoretical level. While participants before the course were broadly positive about these prospects, there was a note of ambivalence, their expectation of Masters study simply being about additional, or perhaps higher, knowledge. There was, however, strong support among the case group for the use of research findings as a source of knowledge, though in the sense of acting upon research findings produced elsewhere.

As newly qualified teachers, the participants not only see theory as integral to their practice, but recognise the important, largely unanticipated, role of the university in this process.
Most strikingly, as new teachers, the value of theoretical knowledge had not diminished. On the contrary, at a time when, freed from the pressures of academic assessments, participants might have been expected to have distanced themselves from this, theory seems to have had a higher profile than ever.
As a more sophisticated understanding emerged, not just of teacher knowledge but of the process of learning to teach, participants seemed to be developing their own theoretical frameworks by becoming increasingly educationally literate. This ‘literacy’ may be thought of in the sense of being able to read education critically and also in being equipped to continue their professional learning in an informed, principled way.


This article suggests that theory comes to represent not just a form of received knowledge, but also an active process of thinking critically about practice. Although arising from a specific context, the findings speak to a long-standing international concern with the coherence of teacher preparation. As a contribution to developing effective school-based forms of ITE, this article offers a number of insights arising from this small glimpse into student thinking.
While much of the appreciation of the nature and value of theory was a natural product of experiences during an intense year, the extent of the transformation undertaken begs the question whether theory could be positioned differently from the outset. Rather than reinforcing students’ early preconceptions about theory to practice transfer through the provision of key ideas prior to school placement, theory could instead be presented initially as a tentative framework of understanding. This framework is a construct to be fleshed out and co-created with peers, colleagues and tutors over time. Though the participants in this case came to a similar form of understanding eventually, it seems that in a condensed, one year form of study, this explicit stance from the start may be more valuable.
Furthermore, the requirement to theorise practice and make links to wider knowledge, enacted in this course in the viva voce, also promotes these connections and could be a cornerstone of professional preparation.

Updated: May. 30, 2016