Shulman, or Shulman and Shulman? How communities and contexts affect the development of pre-service teachers’ subject knowledge

August, 2019

Source: Teacher Development, 23:4, 488-505

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper focuses on the influences that significant communities and contexts (school and university) had on the development of pre-service teachers’ subject knowledge.
It was the principal purpose of this research to investigate the links between pre-service teachers’ development of subject knowledge and the factors and processes that led to changes in their knowledge and beliefs. In doing so, it took account of both individualistic and communal notions of learning.
The following two principal research questions were at the center of this study:
(1) What type of subject knowledge is prioritised and developed throughout the ITE programme?
(2) Which factors, people and processes were influential in the development of such knowledge?

Participants and setting
The study examined the experiences of pre-service teachers who followed a one-year postgraduate Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) programme in England.
The PETE course was 36 weeks in duration.
Twenty-four weeks of this course took place in partnership schools and 12 weeks at the university.
The stated aim of the PETE course was to develop reflective, critical and professional teachers of PE who have high expectations of their pupils and of themselves.

Data collection
Data collection consisted of a series of semi-structured interviews with pre-service teachers and their mentors. Interviews were designed to capture pre-service teachers’ reflections on significant stages of the course. Interview one was conducted after school placement one (SP1) and explored significant personal background information such as pre-service teachers’ motivation to teach and their views about teaching PE, before reflecting on their experience and development during the placement at School One.
Interview two, at half-way stage of SP2, started with an invitation to compare the learning experiences in School One and School Two, before proceeding to explore significant areas of personal progress, as well as the influences that affected their learning and development.
Key themes explored during the final interviews (end of course) revisited pre-service teachers’ perceptions on significant developments of their subject knowledge and the factors that had contributed to these.

Findings and discussion
The findings of this study unambiguously support Shulman and Shulman’s assertion (Shulman and Shulman 2004) that the influence of significant professional communities needs to be considered if teacher learning is to be truly understood.
This is also salient for the development of pre-service teachers’ subject knowledge (Shulman 1987) on ITE programmes.
Here, the privileged teaching and assessment practices favoured within influential CoP serve as significant templates for pre-service teachers, making it problematic to divorce an individual’s knowledge development from the contextual factors in which the learning is taking place (Shulman and Shulman 2004).

The authors note that in their systematic literature review on research into the school practicum, Lawson et al. (2015) identify that many studies credit university-based learning with theoretical knowledge development, whilst school-based learning frequently develops the more practical aspects of teacher knowledge.
A similar tendency was evident in this study, even though university-based learning and school-based learning were frequently seen to complement each other in the development of the different knowledge bases.
In line with Keay (2005, 2009), this study identified the subject departments to be particularly important in shaping the pre-service teachers’ development.
Pre-service teachers’ emerging strategies for teaching and assessment were to a significant extent influenced by the privileged practices of the CoP in which their learning took place.
Members of the community promoted their preferred practices to pre-service teachers via a range of processes, utilising both formal and informal settings to provide advice and guidance to pre-service teachers.

As with Christensen (2013), pre-service teachers noticed the preferred practices within different schools and reflected upon how they had been influenced by these.
Similar to Haggarty et al.’s (2011) observations, subject departments could have an empowering, as well as a constraining, effect on their development.
For instance, university-based learning promoted student-centred pedagogical practices and where subject departments consistently promoted more pupil-centred teaching approaches, pre-service teachers were more willing and able to adopt and develop such practices for themselves.
This was, however, not consistent across the partnership. 

As Lave and Wenger (1991) point out, effective CoP need to go beyond simple organisational groupings, and share common goals and legitimised practice, if they are not merely to be regarded as a group.
Variability between, as well as within, PE departments was evident throughout this study and affected pre-service teachers’ learning, sometimes adversely.
Essentially, some subject departments were better equipped to extend university-based learning, since they had developed a more theoretically aware approach to curriculum development and delivery.
In line with other studies in ITE (Chambers et al. 2012) mentors were seen to be highly influential in the development of pre-service teachers’ subject knowledge during school practicum.
However, the findings of this study suggested that the dyadic relationship between mentor and pre-service teacher on its own was insufficient in accounting for pre-service teachers’ learning.
Shulman and Shulman (2004) explicitly recognise the importance to undertake analysis, at the individual, as well as the communal, level including departmental and institutional influences on teacher learning and the development of the knowledge base.
The authors conclude that extending the analysis beyond this dyadic relationship by applying Shulman and Shulman’s (2004) concepts of communal learning was useful to gain a more meaningful understanding of how contextual factors contributed to pre-service teachers’ development of subject knowledge.

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Updated: Aug. 08, 2020