Teachers as learners – a qualitative exploration of pre-service and in-service teachers’ continuous learning community OpenDigi

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Published: 
September 2021

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 47:4, 495-512

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article presents a qualitative case study of teachers as learners in a continuous learning community.
The study illustrates how the teachers’ learning community was created and describes how pre-service and in-service teachers experienced working and learning in such a community.
In this paper, it is argued that to realise the opportunities for continuous learning, learners need to have a set of learning skills to be actively in control of their own learning process, as well as the will to make use of those skills and learning opportunities.
In other words, the skill and the will to engage in active self-regulated learning (SRL) set the stage for continuous learning.
One of the main ideas in this paper is to create learning communities for pre- and in-service teachers to learn from and with each other.
This study aims to explore how teacher education can be developed by creating a continuous learning model that supports pre-service and in-service teachers as active, self-regulated and collaborative learners.
The research questions are as follows:
• What did pre-service and in-service teachers learn when working as a learning community?
• What challenges did pre-service and in-service teachers experience during their work?
• How would pre-service and in-service teachers further develop the continuous learning model OpenDigi?

Methods

Participants and procedure
This study is part of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture developmental project where a continuous learning model (OpenDigi) was created and implemented in practice with pre-service and in-service teachers.
The acronym OpenDigi comes from the project’s Finnish name, translated as ‘Teachers in a learning community for learning skills and digital pedagogical skills’.
The aim was to provide an opportunity for pre-service and in-service teachers to work together and learn from each other.
The participants comprised pre-service teachers (N = 60) and teacher educators (N = 9) from a Finnish university and in-service teachers (N = 27) from four local comprehensive schools.
The in-service teachers in this study were primary school teachers in comprehensive schools.
The pre-service teachers were at the second year of their teacher education studies.
They did not have experience of practising as a classroom teacher.
Only a few had worked in schools as assistant teachers before or during their studies, but they had not done their first teacher education practice period.
Teacher education students in Finland study a 5-year master’s degree in education.
The master’s degree certifies that they can work as primary-school classroom teachers in first through sixth grades (students aged 6–12 years).
In practice, teacher education in Finland comprises two degrees: Bachelor of Arts (Education), 180 ECTS credits, and Master of Arts (Education), 120 ECTS credits.
The bachelor’s degree includes the first three years of education.

Case study description: OpenDigi – continuous learning community
The participants of this case study (pre-service teachers, in-service teachers and teacher educators) worked together as a learning community over six months.
The main goal of their working was to engage in group work in order to learn from each other and to support one another.
In practice, they worked together to develop a project where they plan and implement lessons for pupils in real school practices.
Groups comprised pre- and in-service teachers and they followed a specific working structure, which was named the OpenDigi model.
The work of each group was divided to five tasks, which included
1) initial seminar,
2) a shared goal formulation for the developmental project,
3) planning the project for school practice,
4) project implementation in real school life and
5) the project’s outcomes presentation in the final seminar.
The groups themselves defined a specific theme that they wanted to enhance during their lessons, for example pupils’ learning skills, self-directed learning and inquiry-based learning.
Groups had the freedom to decide how often they wanted to meet, whether they would meet face-to-face, or whether they would work together remotely using technological tools and environments.
In the final seminar, the groups presented their developmental projects’ implementations.

Data collection and analysis
This qualitative study focused on the participants’ (N = 60 pre-service teachers, N = 27 primary school teachers) views about and experiences in participating in a continuous learning community.
The data were collected from completed open-ended questionnaires.
The open-ended questionnaire was selected as a form of a data collection method to capture participants’ experiences after working together over six months period (Schwarz and Oyserman 2001; Schuman and Presser 1979; Tourangeau et al. 2016).
The pre-service teachers (in their small groups, N = 21 groups) responded collectively to the questionnaire, and the in-service teachers responded individually.
A data-driven content analysis was conducted (Coffey and Atkinson 1996; Hsieh and Shannon 2005).

Results and discussion
The main outcomes of this study showed that pre-service and in-service teachers viewed such experiences as beneficial for their learning.
However, this positive reflection was not shared by all; some participants felt that their work partly lacked so-called true collaboration.
The in-service teachers experienced their inability to transform their role from supervisors of student teachers to collaborators who would engage as equal members in a learning community.
The pre-service teachers explained that it was easier for them not to involve in-service teachers as part of the community but to ask guidance from them only when it was needed.
Similarly, the in-service teachers explained that it was challenging for them to participate due to their different position in their professional development compared to the pre-service teachers.
Prior research showed similar findings; the true learning communities were challenging to form (Harlow and Cobb 2014; Stoll et al. 2006) because cultures and practices in educational institutions had been developed in such a way that the more experienced guided the less experienced (Geeraerts, Tynjälä, and Heikkinen 2018; Izadinia 2015).
The prior research has indicated that power relationships in educational institutions are one way to explain the unbalanced or unequal participation among pre- and in-service teachers (Andrews and Lewis 2007; Coleman and Voronov 2003).
It is possible that power relationships are present in participants’ ways of working together.
Despite the challenges of participation, both groups of teachers described having learned new things during the initiative and from each other.
This study enabled the preservice teachers to learn about school practices and group working skills, to develop their own teacher identity and teaching skills, as well as deal with content-related issues.
The in-service teachers also explained that they learned new teaching methods, content and skills to work as a group.
This initiative also allowed the in-service teachers to start and deepen their discussions about their schools’ development.
This study’s results are in line with Geeraerts, Tynjälä, and Heikkinen (2018) findings that teachers with less experience and with more experience could learn from each other but often learned different things. Similarly, this study shows that the more experienced teachers learned new and innovative teaching methods from less experienced teachers.
One important aspect that the pre-service teachers learned was SRL (Kramarski and Kohen 2017; Niemi and Nevgi 2014; O’Grady, Mooney Simmie, and Kennedy 2013), which they described as challenging for them.
Taking more responsibility for their own learning and working was something that they did not experience from their previous educational practices and was thus experienced as frustrating from time to time.
Taking a different kind of responsibility was also challenging for the in-service teachers, as they described having experienced role confusion and not knowing how they were expected to participate in the collaborative learning process.
They could not transform their previous experience from supervisors of student teachers to collaborators, and group work was sometimes mistakenly regarded as guiding teaching practice.
It can be concluded that previous experiences naturally guide people’s behaviour in different situations; thus, work practices and cultures are difficult to change (Grosemans et al. 2015).
Therefore, more emphasis should be placed on how previous experiences can be transformed as new assets for working together with people who have either less or more, and different kinds of experiences.
This study concludes by challenging future research to explore how true learning communities among pre-service and in-service teachers could be created and supported, as well as how teacher educators could also be active members of such communities.
Further research is needed to explore different teacher groups’ reflections of working together as a learning community and to foster teachers’ continuous learning and professional development.

References
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Coffey, A., and P. Atkinson. 1996. Making Sense of Qualitative Data: Complementary Research Strategies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Coleman, P., and M. Voronov. 2003. “Power in Groups and Organizations.” In International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork and Cooperative Working, edited by M. A. West, D. Tjosvold, and K. G. Smith, 229–254. West Sussex: Wiley.
Geeraerts, K., P. Tynjälä, and H. L. T. Heikkinen. 2018. “Inter-Generational Learning of Teachers: What and How Do Teachers Learn from Older and Younger Colleagues?” European Journal of Teacher Education 41 (4): 479–495.
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O’Grady, A., G. Mooney Simmie, and T. Kennedy. 2013. “Why Change to Active Learning? Pre-Service and In-Service Science Teachers’ Perceptions.” European Journal of Teacher Education 37: 35–50.
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Updated: Feb. 16, 2022
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