Experiences of preservice teachers exposed to project-based learning


Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 43:3, 368-383

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Very little is known about the meaningful experiences of the preservice teachers in courses taught using the problem-based learning (PBL) process and the effect of the process on their personal and professional views.
The current study seeks to address this gap, using the phenomenological-qualitative research approach to gain insight into Jewish and Bedouin preservice teachers’ experiences related to the PBL process, during their first year in the teacher education programme.
The authors’ reference to participants’ experience is intended to convey the ways in which events, situations, and phenomena are perceived by individuals, that is, they seek to present the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the people as they participate in a particular type of activity (van Manen 2014).


The theoretical framework
The authors relied on the phenomenological perspective, which is based on principles of grounded theory.
This framework permits investigators to consider the phenomena without an initial predefined theory; rather, the theory emerges as a result of learning about the ways in which the research participants experience and present the phenomena (Schwandt 1994; Holstein 1994; Thornberg and Charmas 2012).
The primary goal of the current study was to ‘capture’ human experience, as perceived and conveyed by each individual participant. Thus, this approach allowed them:
(a) to make an inquiry although no relevant theory exists (as per Suddaby 2006);
(b) to understand the phenomena holistically (Starks and Trinidad 2007).
The proposed conceptual framework for examining participants’ meaningful experiences included two domains (as per Tsybulsky 2019).
(A) The domain of the quality of the experience, e.g. participants’ emotional response to (i.e. positive/negative perceptions of) the PBL process.
In particular, the authors examined shifts and changes in the quality of the participants’ experiences over time.
(B) The domain of the content of the experience, i.e. the type of experiences that participants found meaningful.

Setting and participants
The participants of the current study were Jewish and Bedouin preservice teachers enrolled in the first year of a teacher education programme, at a teacher education college located in the southern region of Israel.
The study population consisted of four groups: participants in two of the groups (one homogenous group of only Bedouin students and another heterogeneous group of Jewish and Bedouin students) were specialising in teaching sciences to students of levels K-6 (i.e. ages 6–12, referred to henceforth as K-6 SE groups), whereas the participants in the other two groups (one group of only Bedouin students and another group of only Jewish students) were specialising in early childhood education (referred to from hereon as ECE groups).
The preservice teachers participated in a year-long (two semesters) PBL process, which was experienced in the framework of a first-year pedagogical course, consisting of four weekly academic hours.
In addition, during the second semester, preservice teachers were enrolled in a practicum module, which took place either in kindergartens or in elementary schools, for a total of six weekly academic hours (a total of 84 academic hours for the entire semester).
The practicum presented them with the opportunity to implement what they had studied.
Thus, the preservice teachers experienced the PBL process twice: once as students in a pedagogical course about the PBL approach and again as teachers implementing the PBL process as part of their practicum.
Preservice teachers were asked to prepare an educational project.
The guiding question for the group specialising in science education was as follows: ‘how can you develop students’ scientific thought using various teaching methods and approaches?’
The guiding question for the group specialising in early childhood education was ‘how can you help advance a child’s emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and motor development?’
In addition, preservice teachers were instructed to prepare a scientific poster summarising the process, activities, materials, and demonstrations, which they would present at an end of semester/year event.
Throughout the PBL process, preservice teachers worked in small groups of up to four students and experienced all of the stages of the PBL process, including peer assessments and public presentation of the outcomes.

Data collection
Two instruments were used to collect data in the current study: in-depth interviews and reflective reports.
The two methods were found to be the most suitable for a phenomenological-qualitative study, in that they make it possible for the researchers to examine reflective and retrospective thought processes regarding the participants’ meaningful experiences (van Manen 1990, 2014).

Data analysis
The data obtained from interviews and reflective reports were analysed using the qualitative-constructivist content analysis method (Shkedi 2011).

Results and discussion
In terms of the shifts in the quality of the experience throughout the PBL process, the authors identified four stages, namely, frustration, coping with difficulties, experiencing success, and satisfaction that builds confidence.
These findings indicate the complexity of the PBL process, as described in previous studies (see for example, Marshall, Petrosino, and Martin 2010).
In the current study, the perspective examined was that of the participants and the interpretations and meanings they attributed to the process they had undergone.
The authors’ findings demonstrate that at the beginning of the process, the preservice teachers experienced a great deal of difficulty, which indicates that, in this part of the process, it is important to provide them with support and empathy, without changing the level of academic requirements.
As regards the content dimension, the authors identified three types of meaningful experiences that characterised the PBL process: introspective, social, and cognitive experiences. These findings indicate that overall, the PBL process provides a deeply enriching experience, in terms of both cognition and affect.
The findings demonstrate that Bedouin and Jewish preservice teachers experience the PBL process in a similar manner, both in the quality and in the content domains.
Furthermore, preservice teachers’ meaningful experiences of the PBL process were similar, whether they worked in homogeneous or heterogeneous group settings.
The contribution of the current study to our knowledge regarding the implementation of the PBL in the course of teacher education is from a phenomenological perspective.
The authors examined the ways in which the preservice teachers experience the PBL process in their pedagogical courses and their interpretations, meanings, thoughts, beliefs and views of this process.
These findings can inform current and future studies on the process of preparing preservice teachers to engage in student-centred inquiry-based teaching.
They believe that connecting theory to practice by means of PBL–type inquiry, coupled with early and purposeful field placement, and instructor modelling provides a strong triangulation of sources that support preservice teachers’ needs as they develop from novice to expert teachers.

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Updated: Dec. 29, 2020


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