Student teachers’ professional development: early practice and horizontal networks as ways to bridge the theory-practice gap


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 43:1, 2-16

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The study presented is part of a larger four-year research project on how to link a local preschool teacher education program with research and local practicum preschools.
The project focus is to develop models to connect an increased scientific ground (theory) and proven experience (practice) concerning issues on democracy education in Early Childhood Education (ECE).
In weekly seminars with preschool student teachers and researchers, issues related to different aspects of the preschool teacher profession were discussed.
Initially, democracy was chosen as an example of a highlighted content from the Swedish curriculum for preschool (The Swedish National Agency for Education, 2018).
The aim is to contribute knowledge on student teachers’ professional development by exploring how the students connect theory and practice in these processes.
Based on the authors’ research overview their research question is:
How do student teachers’ perspectives shift regarding theory and practice in preschool, as reflected through facilitated conversations in horizontal networks over time between students and researchers?


Built on the results from the research overview and the extant teaching context, the authors project to meet such needs, summarized as arenas where the students can be guided and challenged and where they are offered guided reflection.
Their project design also builds on the understanding of a horizontal network as important for integrating theory and practice and thus further develop teacher agency.
The participating researchers all have experiences as teachers in ECE, compulsory school and as teacher educators.
Three out of four have a doctoral degree and the fourth is a doctoral student.
This made it possible to challenge the students for example by problematizing and theorizing practice, and to contributing to a more complex understanding of the preschool teacher profession.
To be able to create a horizontal network it was important that none of the researchers were involved in assessing this group of students in any course during the project and also that the students from the beginning were seen as co-creators of the seminars including both form and content.
Therefore, 1-hour weekly seminars were organized offering discussions between the students and the authors as a group of researchers.
Initially, they as researchers, introduced democracy as a topic for discussions with an aim to challenge their views on general societal issues as well as specific issues related to the preschool practice.
Eventually, their roles in the seminars changed toward more equal interlocutors.
These seminars took place during their first term both at the university and at the student teachers’ practicum placements, September 2017 to January 2018, and highlighted issues about for example democracy education and the way it is intertwined in everyday topics in ECE.
The students were assigned to their practicum placements at municipal Swedish preschools (for children aged one to 5 years) for 5-weeks full-time work in the middle of their first term.
The aim of the practicum period is to let the students examine and transform acquired knowledge into teaching practice.
During their practicum they should participate in different pedagogical activities such as planning, teaching, and follow-up.
The participants were 15 students in their first (of totally seven) terms of preschool teacher education.
The participants were between 20 and 35 years old and represent different background experiences, including working experiences, where some have previous preschool work experience in Sweden and in Norway, and some lack such experiences.
The researchers verbally informed the students about the project during their first week as students.
The students volunteered for the project by sending an agreement by e-mail and were thereby informed both verbally and in writing about the meaning of being a participant in the study.
The data, from a total of 17 seminars, analyzed in this article consist of field notes taken by the researchers, one at a time, at the seminars at campus and sound recordings from the practicum placements seminars.
Data were verbatim transcribed into text documents.
The researchers also took notes during informal talks with field supervisors and students in their practicum preschools as well as conducted observations of the ecological context.
The observations were unstructured (Bryman, 2012) and these data served only as a contextual understanding
Content analysis was inspired by condensation of meaning from Brinkmann and Kvale (2014) in order to find categories of meaning and formulate themes of the students’ talks during the seminars.
Data were then interpreted by the three authors from the theoretical framework on teacher agency (Biesta et al., 2015a), in order to identify how and what experiences preschool teacher students make use of during their first term, and how it changed when new theoretical and practical experiences became part of the past – when temporal dimensions changed.
In addition to this, they analyzed how they connected their experiences to their theoretical studies in order to close the gap.
The authors also interpreted this process as part of the development of their teacher agency.
The preliminary results were presented to the students at the seminars in order to conduct respondent validation (Bryman, 2012) and to insure trustworthiness of the findings.
Results and discussion
By the use of teacher agency as theoretical framework, the authors have been able to discern how the preschool teacher students made use of theory and practice when developing their teacher profession.
In the light of previous naïve experiences (the iterational dimension) the students developed new experiences and based on these they were able to react on situations of discomfort, actions that we interpret as practical – evaluative dimensions.
Finally, they have been able to show how the students were able to direct their experiences in a proactive way from an ongoing education toward an ideal vision of how to act – or not to act – in a future teacher profession, the projective dimension.
They have shown how three related parts of these student teachers’ education have been integrated in a successful way thus far.
Campus based theoretical content has been elaborated, discussed, and related to practice in seminars between students and researchers.
Experiences from practicum periods have been brought back to the campus studies, discussed, and related to theories and research-based knowledge on issues of democracy in ECE as well as teacher professionalism and teacher agency, and thus bridges the gap.
So, what do the results mean?
To start with preschool-teacher education, the authors stress the importance of an early practicum period.
Letting students have an early practicum period, thereby meeting with the real profession at an early stage, is of great importance to develop other experiences in addition to their naïve preconceived ideas of the profession and previous life experiences. They need to get an image of what it means to be a preschool teacher in order to develop and elaborate their visions of an ideal future practice and profession in relation to their theoretical studies.
And most importantly, their need to challenge their research-based knowledge in meeting with children and preschool teachers in their everyday lives in real settings must be met.
Several researchers have reached the same conclusions (e.g. Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Hegender, 2010; Hjort & Pramling, 2014), but this article presents an example of how a horizontal network can facilitate the integration of theory and practice.
The new implications for teacher education include considering the continuous seminars with students and researchers as a mediating arena enabling aspects of scientific ground and proven experience to be integrated and challenged in discussions without grading the students’ contributions (e.g. Hegender, 2010; Zeichner et al., 2015).
For the students, the results show the need for having access to an arena where the gap between theory and practice can be visualized and discussed (cf. Yoon & Larkin, 2018).
The seminars function as an arena where experiences and preconceived ideas of the profession can be elaborated on with fellow students before practicum, where practical evaluative experiences can be developed during practicum periods and where projective experiences can take shape.
The students expressed that the early practicum has made them see other things and also that the discussions with the researchers and with each other have helped them to develop their teacher profession and their teacher agency.
Whether the discussions have helped the students to bridge the gap between their two learning arenas or not is difficult for them to see.
As experienced teacher educators, although not being their teachers, the authors think this group has progressed quickly from being naïve – which we think most students are at the beginning of their first term – to being able to problematize both theories and practices.
The authors believe that the students have developed an analytical ability in this relatively short time of 5 months.
In line with findings from Eteläpelto, Vähäsantanen, and Hökkä (2015), who consider collaboration and support as crucial for novice teachers to develop their teacher agency, they found their weekly seminars to have the same function.
Theoretically, the seminar discussions between the researchers and the students can be regarded as their horizontal teacher network where they get support to be able to integrate theory and practice and through that become reactive, and proactive, students.

Biesta, G., Priestly, M., & Robinson, S. (2015a). The role of beliefs in teacher agency. Teachers and Teaching, 21(6), 624–640.
Brinkmann, S., & Kvale, S. (2014). InterViews: Learning the craft of qualitative research interviewing (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249–305.
Eteläpelto, A., Vähäsantanen, K., & Hökkä, P. (2015). How do novice teachers in Finland perceive their professional agency? Teachers and Teaching, 21(6), 660–680
Hegender, H. (2010). Mellan akademi och profession [Between academy and profession]. (Linköping Studies in Pedagogic Practices No 12) (doctoral dissertation). Linköping, Sweden: Linköping University.
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Yoon, H., & Larkin, K. (2018). When tensions between ideology and practice become personal: Unpacking mentorship in early childhood teacher education. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 39(1), 50–72.
Zeichner, K., Payne, K., & Brayko, K. (2015). Democratizing teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 122–135.

Updated: Jul. 12, 2022