Source: Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Volume 20, No. 6, p. 688-703, 2014(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This study intends to explore student and novice teachers’ experiences with the implementation of collaborative learning (CL) in classroom practice, after a formal training pertaining to CL as part of their teacher education emphasis. In particular, the authors aim to identify challenges they are confronted with, and how they position themselves in these challenges.
A qualitative case study design with in-depth interviews in the Flemish context (Belgium) was used to gain access to the particular experiences of each teacher, and to the processes of interpretation and meaning-making that go with those experiences.
Fifteen participants were interviewed individually one week before graduation.
After at least half a year of experience in the teaching profession, 10 participants were interviewed for a second time.
The findings revealed several dilemmas in the stories of student and novice teachers that illustrate the conflicting options teachers are facing in relation to their colleagues, their pupils, the curriculum and in the classroom context when implementing CL. In particular, the following dilemmas were identified: two dilemmas related to professional autonomy (student teachers: teacher autonomy vs. pre-service performance assessment and novice teachers: teacher autonomy vs. institutional conformity); further dilemmas related to teachers’ beliefs vs. evidence about pupils’ readiness for CL, investing in innovation vs. curriculum and job pressure, and pedagogical intentions vs. contextual constraints were also identified.
Political dilemmas in student and novice teachers’ stories are mostly related to the autonomous position as a teacher in relation to the authority of colleagues. Student teachers emphasis the threatening character of CL use during their practicum since they were assessed. In this respect, teaching practicum appears to insufficiently be a stimulating and supportive environment for CL implementation.
The stories of student and novice teachers who are not confronted with dilemmas of teacher autonomy show the importance of an open and stimulating school environment regarding CL use. Shared interests of the complete school team in innovative practices largely increase collegial support and guidance and, as a consequence, CL implementation. A combination of pre-service training regarding CL for student teachers and in-service training for mentor teachers regarding CL might stir mentor teachers’ curiosity for CL, creating a more stimulating environment for student teachers to experiment with CL. In addition, mentor teachers will be more competent after training to support student teachers by providing useful feedback.
Furthermore, the dilemma of ‘investing in innovation vs. curriculum and job pressure’ is also political in nature. Both student and novice teachers are confronted with the conflict of implementing CL and at the same time succeeding in attaining the ‘ideals’ in the curriculum. The pressure of educational programs, attainment of targets, the total responsibility of teaching as well as the detailed guidelines in course textbooks decrease the feelings of professional ‘ownership’ of beginning teachers regarding how to work in daily practice.
The administrative pressure, short replacement periods and the lack of prospect for future discourage them to invest in the time-consuming preparation of innovative pedagogical approaches. As a result, they hold on to traditional pedagogical behavior.
Cultural dilemmas emerge in student and novice teachers’ stories when their beliefs about when and how to implement CL come into conflict with their (beliefs about) pupils and classroom context characteristics. These beliefs largely influence their motives for CL use: they tend to opt for ‘playing safe’ and avoid CL implementation with young children, children who are not familiar with CL. Novice teachers who are more acquainted with their pupils often receive counter-evidence for their beliefs by taking risks and trying CL implementation despite their beliefs about pupils’ readiness.
Given the difficulties that were mentioned in the stories of student and novice teachers related to the lack of familiarity of their pupils with CL, it may be important to develop the cross-curricular expectations about learning to work together, as they are determined in the attainment targets of the Flemish Government for primary school pupils in general, for each grade in particular. This would make the use of peer collaboration a shared matter of all primary school teachers.
In general, all identified dilemmas in the present study closely relate to the concept of ‘vulnerability’ as a structural characteristic of the teaching profession. Therefore, the authors suggest adding reflection groups to the CL training in teacher education, giving student teachers the opportunity to exchange and discuss experiences and challenges.
In this case study several challenges that student and novice teachers are confronted with when intending to implement CL were identified: teacher autonomy vs. pre-service performance assessment (student teachers), teacher autonomy vs. institutional conformity (novice teachers), beliefs about pupils’ readiness for CL vs. evidence about pupils’ readiness for CL, investing in innovation vs. curriculum and job pressure, and pedagogical intentions vs. contextual constraints. In addition, it appears that beginning teachers tend to position themselves in these challenges by opting for non-implementation of CL.
The dilemmas that were identified in student and novice teachers’ stories about CL implementation help to clarify the degree of ‘vulnerability’ of beginning teachers. To reinforce their impact on the pedagogical behavior of the teachers that graduate, teacher education should take up the challenge to train teachers to resolve dilemmas by compromising instead of playing safe when dilemmas emerge.