Identity in Activity: Examining Teacher Professional Identity Formation in the Paired-Placement of Student Teachers

Feb. 15, 2013

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education 30 (2013) 47-59
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study is to better understand teacher professional development in a paired-placement context. It focuses specifically on how two teacher students (STs) in Vietnam, Hien and Chinh, develop their professional identities in the collaborative setting, and how factors specific to pair-work mediate this process.

This study is part of a larger research project concerning the learning-to-teach-English and focuses on one of ten dyads of Vietnamese student teachers: Hien and Chinh. The teachers in the larger study, were all females in their early twenties, had been selected as high achieving students of English for a special four-year course in English Language Teaching (ELT). Most of them chose to be teachers because in Vietnam teaching is seen as a noble profession and highly suitable for women.
The data consist of individual semi-structured interviews with each ST prior to the practicum and after each lesson; video-recordings and observations of the lessons; field notes of observations during the lessons; and artefacts like lesson plans, instructional materials and other documents.


The study offers several findings with implications for teacher education and for developmental research in the sociocultural activity theory tradition.

Social relations, contradictions and ZPD
The present study confirms previous research in showing that pair-placements constitute an environment featured by tensions, a key element in teacher learning (Smagorinsky et al., 2004).
One of the most valuable implications of the findings is the understanding of how the contradictions emerged, and (some) were resolved, leading to teacher development. Within the pair-placement setting, the teachers operated within their dynamic ZPD. As ST awareness increased, for the most part their contradictions were recognized and fully or partially resolved. For example, the ways Hien dealt with correcting her partner’s mistakes in lessons differed across rounds one, two and four.
Pair-work mediated both learning to collaborate with other teachers and learning to respond to students’ needs. The other contradictions were not resolved but their trajectory indicates the developmental potential of activity systems.
In cases where the two STs faced similar contradictions several times during the course of the study, without exception their successive responses indicate a progression through ascending levels of consciousness. Their learning was not linear but spiral. Their planning, teaching, and reflecting were increasingly sophisticated.

The study also underlines the value of investigating teacher development in terms of social transactions. Vygotsky emphasized the central role of social transactions to a ZPD analysis. Social transactions showed repeatedly in the data; for example Hien’s development of her mentor/colleague identity when interacting with Chinh during co-planning or when correcting Chinh’s mistakes.

Identity formation, perezhivanie and ZPD
Student teaching in a pair-placement setting entails a complex system of relations: with teaching tasks and students; with supervising teacher and observing peers; and with the pair partner. Each relationship is associated with perceived rules and ST responsibilities. For example, as pair-partners, the STs need to sustain and demonstrate collaboration, as in keeping their partners’ face in public, and their equal contributions to pair-work. Pair-placement provided an environment in which professional identity was formed while also crystallising the tensions between emergent and established ST identities.
For Hien there were tensions between her established role as a teacher, with successful prior teaching experience, and her emerging identity as a colleague of Chinh. Her contradiction between professional and cultural rules camouflaged the negotiation of her conflicting identities when working with Chinh. With Chinh, her identity as a student (teacher) was largely tied to her relationship with her supervising teacher. This disposition seemed to frame her affect and cognition in the practicum in a certain way. The pair interactions in co-working created a context in which Chinh’s disposition was challenged. Her identity as a teacher was emerging, amid negotiation between her identities as student and colleague. As colleagues, the pair ought to work towards a shared object, delivering a successful lesson.

In this study the teachers’ different identities served as ‘prisms’ in examining the affective and cognitive relations between the STs and pair-placement environment. Hien and Chinh responded to the same teaching context differently. They demonstrated different levels of understanding and made different meanings out of the situation. They had different relations with the settings, demonstrating distinctly different perezhivanie, which affected their learning differently. While Hien was confident in her established role as a teacher, Chinh was often nervous and worried about being reprimanded in her identity as a student. By investigating the negotiation of their multiple identities in context it becomes possible to understand why they responded differently in pair-placement and achieved different levels of cognition.


This paper began by noting the multiple difficulties for STs in the traditional practicum. It begins to elucidate the process of how teachers mediate learning to teach in a collaborative setting. Findings from this study suggest that an individual teacher’s identity influences her/his cognitive and affective perception of an event. Paired-placement created an environment whereby the student teachers’ conflicting identities, associated with different cognitive and affective perceptions of the experience, were challenged, leading to contradictions. However, within the framework of planned and supervised collaboration, the STs resolved most of their conflicts constructively and experienced qualitative development in their teaching identities. The study suggests that more attention needs be paid to the process of collaboration in paired placements, so as to optimize the resolution of conflict, and to the conditions that affect teacher learning in pairs.

Smagorinsky, P., Cook, L. S., Jackson, A. Y., Moore, C., & Fry, P. G. (2004). Tensions in learning to teach: accommodation and the development of a teaching identity. Journal of Teacher Education, 55, 8-24.

Updated: Apr. 04, 2017