Learning to teach across the boundary: A cultural historical activity theory perspective on a university-school partnership in Vietnam

November 2020

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 96

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper seeks to develop an insight into a university-school partnership scheme that aims to facilitate pre-service teachers (PSTs)’ learning to teach in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) practicum programme in Vietnam.
The third generation of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), which seeks ‘to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives, and networks of interacting activity systems’ (Engestrom, 2001, p. 135), is drawn upon in this study to illuminate the complexity of learning that takes place within the ‘boundary zone’ (Tsui & Law, 2007). In light of CHAT, the paper brings into view the elements constituting the system as stipulated by the terms and conditions under the partnership scheme, such as the division of labour, tools and the interaction between the communities involved and how these elements contribute to regulating PSTs' learning.
The CHAT perspective that the paper adopts offers an alternative to the taken-for-granted assumption underlining the smooth transition from university to school as a prerequisite for effective learning to teach.
This says, when appropriately addressed, contradictions and tensions might be as valuable to learning as the consistent values shared by the university- and school-based components.

Research methodology
This research was designed as a qualitative case study (Stake, 1995) of a practicum programme developed by an ELTE university in Vietnam (henceforth referred to as the university).
To allow space for advancing an understanding of the local diversity in relation to the practicum practice, a sample of three (out of five) partner schools, including one public school, one private school and one language specialised school, were chosen.
In total, 23 participants were recruited, including 11 PSTs, 7 school mentors and 5 university teacher educators (HEI tutors).
The study combined several methods of data collection: document review, observation and semi-structured interviews.
A minimum of two lessons delivered by each PST, followed up by mentor feedback sessions, were observed, alongside with post-lesson interviews with the PSTs and reviews of programme-related documents to allow methodological triangulation (Stake, 1995).
Shortly after the practicum, in-depth interviews were conducted with all participants (5 HEI tutors, 7 school-based mentors and 11 PSTs).
The interviews aimed at exploring the participants’ perceptions of various issues related to the practicum programme, such as how labour was divided among the partners, how tools were utilised and how learning took place.
The author’s approach to data analysis was similar to what Braun and Clarke (2006) refer to as thematic analysis.
This research aims to answer two research questions:
(1) How is the university-school partnership set up, in light of CHAT, within the ELTE practicum programme? and
(2) How is learning to teach mediated in this CHAT-learning system?

Findings and discussion
The case study findings suggest a ‘separatist’ partnership scheme (Smith et al., 2006; Whiting et al., 1996), which restricted the educational functions of each partner to the physical environment under its administration.
Within the practicum, HEI tutors’ responsibility rarely extended beyond that of general management, whilst mentoring and assessing PSTs defined the province of school mentors.
Research data evidenced tensions arising from the separate distribution of responsibilities and the poor collaboration between the partners.
Contextual constraints, such as the programme’s failure to articulate partners’ roles and responsibilities as well as heavy workload, appeared to have restrained HEI tutors’ roles to ‘administrators’.
From mentors’ perspective, the ‘absence’ of HEI tutors in the practicum inhibited communications and provision of feedback for reviewing the programme in a way that might help to narrow the theory-practice divide widely criticised in initial teacher education (ITE) literature (Caires et al., 2009; Valencia et al., 2009; Vick, 2006; Zeichner, 2010).
The ‘loose’ collaboration, characterised by the absence of discussions about what constitutes good teaching and good teacher education, the lack of guidance and mentor training, appeared to result in individualistic approaches to school-based ITE and various problems arising from mentors’ misuse of cultural tools, such as feedback and assessment.
The ‘divided’ mode of working in the context might be linked with, and justified through ‘the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours’ (Matsumoto, 1997, p. 5) pertinent to a nonconfrontational culture like Vietnam.
From the CHAT perspective, the ‘separatist’ partnership manifests a disconnect in the two-activity system.
The findings pointed to the tensions arising from the ‘detached’ division of labour, characterised by each partner completing a separate part of a ‘joint’ task without collaborating or interacting with the other.
Due to the lack of communication, tensions often remained unvoiced, resulting in individualistic, and often ineffective, approaches to mentoring PSTs.
This necessitates a change in both the policies and practices of university-school partnership in a way that would allow more integrity in terms of division of labour and collaboration.
Specifically, school mentors should be involved in the development, implementation and review of the ITE programme whilst mentoring and assessing PSTs should be jointly completed by both HEI tutors and school mentors.
University-school collaboration enables PSTs to benefit from diverse sources e the practical wisdom from schoolteachers and research-based, and potentially innovative ideas, from university lecturers (Smith et al., 2006).
At the same time, in a boundary context where ‘discontinuity between the standpoints of the teacher educators and teachers is inevitable’ (Grudnoff & Tuck, 2003, p. 39), collaboration allows a space for potential contradictions and dissonance to be negotiated.
Bringing HEI tutors and school mentors together in educating teachers, therefore, not only helps to resolve the tensions brought about by the separated division of labour, but it also accommodates mutual understandings and negotiation of conflicting views, which potentially emerge when partners co-work.
By emphasising the power of a ‘third space’ in generating transformations, the paper has supported a renewed understanding of school-based ITE, whereby learning should aim beyond the ‘vertical improvement along some uniform scales of competence’, to achieve the ‘horizontal movement, exchange and hybridisation between different cultural contexts’ (Engestrom & Sannino, 2010, p. 2).
This also echoes the fluidity of partnership, which is understood as the redefinition of how the system works based on the changes brought by partners’ contributions.

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Updated: Jun. 23, 2021