Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 109
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
The authors question the role that learning theories (LTs) have in the current curricula of teacher education and the visions upon which choices with regard to the place and function of LTs are based.
The study starts with a straightforward assessment of what is offered:
RQ1: What theories and principles of learning are offered in teacher education curricula?
The next question is how learning theories are taught during the two or four years of education and training.
Where are theories offered in the program and are they assessed only once, or do they serve as a leading model for pedagogical reasoning in practice?
RQ2: How are theories and principles of learning offered in teacher education curricula?
After these inventories, the authors aim to shed more light on the underlying rationales and the role of LTs in educational practice.
The distinct fashions of teaching LTs adopted by curriculum developers are based on their visions and beliefs, which necessitates questioning why LTs are taught:
RQ3: What is the relation between the vision and beliefs of the role of LTs held by those responsible for the curriculum and the implementation of LTs in teacher education?
This study aims to shed light on how and why LTs are incorporated into teacher education curricula.
As there is hardly any literature on the specific role of learning theories in teacher education, a methodology was needed that explores the situation inductively.
For this particular context, the authors were interested in understanding how situations and experiences were interpreted by participants and in identifying possible unanticipated phenomena.
Such research calls for a qualitative interactive approach (Maxwell, 2013).
A sample of eight large teacher education programs was selected that cover a range of different programs.
Four were first-degree university programs and four are second-degree programs.
Following Maxwell (2013), the authors describe their sampling as a “purposeful selection” as they selected a “panel of people who are uniquely able to be informative because they are expert in the area or were privileged witnesses to an event” (p. 97). For each program one respondent was selected with knowledge of and significant influence over a program's curriculum.
All were teacher educators, but their other functions at the university differed.
To investigate underlying visions and beliefs the authors used semi-structured interviews in which first a brief inventory of curriculum and materials was made and then the respondents were interviewed to elicit rich data allowing deeper insight.
A semi-structured interview protocol was constructed around the three main research questions, with several sub-questions.
Respondents were asked to focus on the current curriculum and any changes made in the past 5 years.
Interviews were individual and were conducted by the first author.
The eight interviews included in this study were conducted from November 2019 to January 2020.
At least two weeks in advance, respondents were supplied with information on the research and the protocol, to give them the opportunity to prepare.
Findings and discussion
What and how LTs are offered
On what and how LTs are offered, the authors conclude that, despite a mandatory knowledge base in second-degree programs and a shared vision of the importance of LTs, no program treated LTs alike.
Every program made different choices, quantitively and qualitatively.
Programs varied from dedicating entire courses to LTs to leaving them out, from assessing LTs with and without exams or in other forms to not at all, from using dedicated academic textbooks on learning to no texts at all, from being soundly based in educational science or psychology to leaving it to every teacher educator's personal choice.
It can be advocated that staying close to teacher educators' personal choices and beliefs may lead to effective teaching, and consequently to conceptual change, but there is no common theory, model or idea about LTs among the respondents from the different programs, or even about learning itself.
Consensus is also lacking on how LTs should be taught.
No program took the approaches laid out in the theoretical framework of either offering a strong constructivist foundation or presenting learning principles, as advocated by cognitive psychologists.
Instead, textbook contents and boundary conditions often seemed more determinative than actual pedagogical decisions.
Surma et al. (2018) found that textbooks covering learning strategies are used in a minority of teacher education programs.
That and the struggle seen to find textbooks on LTs that connect them with practice suggest that there is a need for textbooks that integrate LTs with either classroom practices or subject content.
Some change relative to the recent past was observed in how LTs are offered.
Deductive approaches (theory courses at the beginning of the program because they present the basics, with later “application” in internships) are still there, but a shift to more inductive approaches was seen (first offer what they need in tomorrow's practice, let student concerns lead or integrate LTs into content subjects).
Such inductive growth, however, needs conscious and rich experiences, which might explain one respondent's observation that experienced teachers later in their career are more enthusiastic when LTs are discussed than starting student teachers.
At the same time, all respondents agreed that any coupling of theory and practice should start within the teacher education program, in classes in which teacher educators make their daily pedagogical decisions explicit.
Teach as you preach!
But most of them doubted whether their colleagues are capable of doing so.
Why LTs are offered: a gap between paradigm and reality
The question whether one can be a good teacher without theory was difficult to answer for all respondents, as it exposes a conflict between experiences from daily practice on the one hand, and the agreed-upon curriculum and personal beliefs on the other.
In that way, it questions the higher education paradigm that teaching needs theory.
Convictions about LTs’ importance were strong and several roles of LTs were acknowledged by the respondents.
Coupling theory with practice and substantiating practical work with theory was even considered the essence of higher education.
At the same time, experiences in daily practice often suggest the opposite; all respondents doubted the explicit effects that LTs have on practice.
Most respondents questioned whether we should still demand theoretical underpinning to be done by students, while the other respondents did recognise the discrepancy, but persevered in demanding this as up to “the level of higher education”.
This might be seen as an additional gap in teacher education, between paradigm and reality, that could explain the difficulty we currently face with the theory-practice gap in classroom teaching.
This is a gap between the official, the taught and the learned curriculum (Cuban, 1993), between intention and feasibility, between a paradigm and personal convictions, between “should be” and “is”.
How can we require theoretical substantiation of all practice by students if we, as teacher educators doubt that this is feasible?
In the meantime, as the respondents suggest, it may help when teacher educators teach as they preach:
make their own pedagogical reasoning explicit and make the connection between teaching and learning visible to pre-service teachers on a daily basis.
If we want mindful pedagogical reasoning to happen, daily practice tools such as supervision, peer-to-peer coaching, learning communities and reflection may need maximum attention in every program, preferably with pre-service teachers, in-service teachers and teacher educators working together.
Cuban, L. (1993). The lure of curricular reform and its pitiful history. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(2), 182-185.
Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design. An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Sage.
Surma, T., Vanhoyweghen, K., Camp, G., & Kirschner, P. A. (2018). The coverage of distributed practice and retrieval practice in Flemish and Dutch teacher education textbooks. Teaching and Teacher Education, 74, 229-237.