Exploring epistemologies: deepening pre-service teachers’ ways of knowing through international professional experience

April, 2021

Source: Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 49:2, 163-176

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors explore the potential for international professional experiences (IPE) to deepen pre-service teachers’ (PSTs’) understandings of varied epistemological stances that may co-exist in the classroom, and to experience a transformation of their personal epistemologies (Hofer, 2010).
They utilise institutional ethnography and draw on ethnographic and focus group data to consider the work undertaken by Australian PSTs as they came to consider a new religion, epistemology, and culture through an immersive experience in a small fishing village in northern Bali, Indonesia.
While the PSTs had previous coursework in the social foundations of education that explored epistemologies, their experiences in the courtyard described in the narrative above belied the depths of their comfort with multiple forms of knowledge and belief.
After describing the research context and methods, they continue the excerpted fieldnote above and use focus group data to discuss and analyse PSTs’ learning “work” that occurred in situ.

Research context and methodology
In this article the authors are primarily concerned with the University students they mentored, and their particular experiences in Indonesia.
Interactions with these students indicated that many held assumptions about Bali based in large part on stories from other Australians who visited popular tourist locations on holiday.
Their pre-departure meetings therefore included pictures of the accommodation and schools they would experience during the trip as a means to begin the process of shifting their thinking, particularly because this IPE occurred in a small fishing town in northern Bali, Indonesia, far away from the primary points of tourist interest.
The 15 students travelled in early 2017 accompanied by four university tertiary mentors (i.e., supervisors), two for the first two weeks and two for the last two.
The project is interested in examining the four-week IPE in respect to its capacity for PSTs to engage with the full spectrum of teachers’ work, including interpretive, pedagogical, and relational work (Comber, 2006).
Ethics approval included the use of the authors’ own fieldnotes in which they, as mentors and researchers, recorded their perceptions of events as they unfolded.
Interviewing in IE begins in the field with talking to people.
This is the IE researchers’ hook into the problematic that drives the research.
In Bali, as researchers and in their roles as mentor teacher educators for the 15 PSTs, the authors engaged in constant conversation with PSTs both individually and in groups.
They further kept fieldnotes that included reflections on these conversations, lesson and school-based observations, notes from debriefing sessions, and descriptions of other “serendipitous” happenings (Wolcott, 2010).
On returning to Australia after the IPE, they conducted semi-structured focus group discussions with 12 of the PSTs and once again after a separate domestic practicum experience.
Focus group discussions were professionally transcribed and analysed dialogically (Talbot, 2015) in response to the questions:
What is being spoken about here?
How does it relate to the conversation as a whole?
How is it connected to the social-material relations governing the PSTs’ experience?

Considerations and conclusions
The findings described above and the incident itself foreground several key aspects related to epistemology and IPE. First, the data suggest that the students maintained a baseline assumption of secularity and perceived rationality.
Their assumptions are, of course, premised on their own experiences and identities, which may not reflect the multiculturalism that exits in many parts of Australia.
Several conditions may contribute to this phenomenon, including the population of students that tends to pursue teaching as a profession (i.e., white, middle-class females), firstly, and the students who were able to travel to Indonesia to complete an IPE, secondly.
Regardless, the findings highlight a deeper need for PSTs to better understand the diverse experiences of students in Australia (and beyond) that are grounded in religious and other metaphysical beliefs and practices.
Second, the findings suggest that the IPE program contributed to new explorations of epistemology.
Only when “confronted with difference and being in a power minority position” through this IPE (Cruickshank & Westbrook, 2013, p. 65), were the PSTs’ challenged to undertake the work required that might broaden their epistemological stances in such unique and profound ways.
Prior to the experience described above the students had completed significant coursework that explicitly emphasised various epistemological frameworks, particularly those of Indigenous Australians; yet it became evident that not only were their understandings still limited in scope, they had difficulty transferring such understandings to another context, another knowledge system.
The divide between academic knowledge acquired at the university, on one hand, and a more embodied understanding of epistemological differences, on the other, was substantial.
Third, limited exposure to unfamiliar sites of learning may not yield desired benefits.
During the earlier weeks of this IPE, considerable time was spent debriefing their impressions of the school, the surrounding community, and religious integration throughout both the school and the community.
The students had even participated in various religious ceremonies at school.
However, their emerging familiarity and comfort with these religious expressions were not sufficient in helping them attain a deeper understanding of epistemological difference.
In short, whilst time in situ is important, it is not a guaranteed path to deeper epistemological understanding; the quality of the experience also matters.
Therefore, the authors posit that the “everpresent potential for instability and uncertainty” of international overseas placements (Parr, Faulkner, & Rowe, 2017, p. 174), may lead to instances of transformative change, particularly when they coexist with the supported reflection provided by university academics who are also part of the international experience and on-site to support the work of epistemological exploration.
Further, they suggest that the texts and governing bodies which assume what can be learned, and known, from professional experiences are open to challenge and critique.
Elsewhere, they have used IE to critique the power structures that limit and sanction the learning of students during their professional experiences in Australia (Talbot & Thomas, 2019).
In other words, the authors believe space for flexibility in learning and understanding how students and communities respond and think is vital to attaining a broader, arguably more inclusive, perspective of learners, families, and cultures.
Fourth and finally, the findings also highlight the immense challenge for teacher educators who mentor and supervise PSTs on international placements.
These tertiary mentors and teacher educators are not only responsible for providing substantive feedback on PSTs’ lesson planning and teaching, the so-called “technical” aspects of teaching, but also helping them navigate their emotional and socio-cultural experiences in the field (Parr, 2012).
This is a perpetual challenge for teacher educators.
If not handled carefully, these instances, not clearly defined and facilitated by the teacher educator (or without support from local colleagues such as Mr Otto), have the immense potential to lead to further entrenched attitudes of imperialism, tokenism, and “othering” that are unsupportive of genuine cultural inclusivity (Santoro, 2014).
For this reason, the authors remain focused vigilantly on conscientiously curating, supporting, and supervising IPEs, towards the provision of transformative experiences for PSTs.
Their ultimate hope is that PSTs are able to engage in “intercultural translation” as they examine “underlying assumptions among cultures, identifying differences and similarities, and developing, where appropriate, new hybrid forms of cultural understanding and intercommunication” that help them fight for “social justice, human dignity, or human decency” (Santos, 2014, p. 212).
In sum, by undertaking an international professional experience in Bali, Indonesia, the PSTs under study were privy to a unique cultural experience, one rooted in epistemological stances that largely belied their own.
As such, the experience provided a rich opportunity to consider, in new ways, how epistemologies may vary across cultures and contexts.
The study highlights the potential value for overseas experiences for PSTs, particularly as they come to consider the ways in which their future students may see, know, and live in the world.

Comber, B. (2006). Pedagogy as work: Educating the next generation of literacy teachers. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 1(1), 59–67.
Cruickshank, K., & Westbrook, R. (2013). Local and global-conflicting perspectives? The place of overseas practicum in preservice teacher education. Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 41 (1), 55–68.
Hofer, B. (2010). Personal epistemology in Asia: Burgeoning research and future directions. The AsiaPacific Education Researcher, 19(1), 179–184.
Parr, G. (2012). Leading an international teaching practicum: Negotiating tensions in a site of border pedagogy. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 40, 97–109.
Parr, G., Faulkner, J., & Rowe, C. (2017). Dialogue and reciprocity in an international teaching practicum. Asia-pacific Journal Of Teacher Education, 45(2), 162–179.
Santoro, N. (2014). ‘If I’m going to teach about the world, I need to know the world’: Developing Australian pre-service teachers’ intercultural competence through international trips. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(3), 429–444.
Santos, B. S. (2014). Epistemologies of the south: Justice against epistemicide. London: Routledge.
Talbot, D. (2015). Tracing complexities of teacher professional learning to evidence of transformed practice (PhD thesis). University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.
Talbot, D., & Thomas, M. A. M. (2019). Experience in another place: Teacher learning from an overseas placement. Teaching Education.
Wolcott, H. F. (2010). Ethnography lessons – A primer. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 

Updated: Jul. 28, 2021


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