Original Research Paper
(Re)Viewing the Landscape Inside and Outside the Box: Providing Effective Support for Early Childhood Student Teachers
Janet Moles, Bella Tanielu-Dick, Vera Atiga-Anderson, Leautuli Sauvao, Heather Fuimaono, Suzanne Ryan, Shanali de Rose, Jan Ferguson and Lucy Fuli-Makaua
Deakin University (Australia) and Whitireia Polytechnic (NZ)
Moles, J., Tanielu-Dick, B., Atiga-Anderson, V., Sauvao, L., Fuimaona, H., Ryan, S., de Rose, S., Ferguson, S., & Fuli-Makau, L. (2012). (Re)Viewing the landscape inside and outside the box: Providing effective support for early childhood student teachers. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 145 - 159. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/894-effective-support-early-childhood-student-teachers-multicultural.html
This paper presents key findings from a study that investigated how early childhood student teachers perceived the support, guidance and mentoring facilities that were available to them and aspects of their courses. The study was conducted by lecturers who were delivering the three year Bachelor of Teaching (ECE) degree to a multicultural student cohort in a New Zealand polytechnic. A multi-method approach was taken and involved practitioner action research, questionnaires and interviews with students. The findings showed that whilst first year students found large group guidance useful, second and third year students preferred small group and individual support. Being able to email lecturers, particularly during practicum placements, was important for students. During practicum placements Associate Teachers who were culturally competent communicators and fully informed about students’ coursework were important for student success. Practicums where students experienced open communication were included as part of the teaching team and felt well-informed about the philosophy and practices of the centre were found to increase their confidence and competence. However, students expressed concern that in some placements, they felt under informed or isolated. Hence, this paper argues that lecturers and Associate Teachers should be proactive about initiating communication with students and optimise opportunities for individual mentoring through questions and guided reflection.
Key words: Student, teacher, diversity, learning, study, teacher education.
“It’s a degree – it’s meant to be tough!” (Year 3 student)
The increasingly complex, multicultural and multi-diverse society of New Zealand means that teacher education programmes are likely to include students whose knowledge, skills and experiences are widely different. Being aware of diversity and not ‘placing students in boxes’ based on assumptions about culture and individual and group differences will thus be a central characteristic of lecturers who are effective teachers of these students.
This paper reports on a qualitative, multi-method study conducted across one academic year with students by teacher education lecturers at Whitireia Community Polytechnic in New Zealand. The study was undertaken because we were interested to find out why student retention and success had increased over recent years and wondered if it was something we were doing and what we were doing well so we could continue doing this. All students in the three year Bachelor of Teaching (ECE) were invited to complete questionnaires. Then, up to eight students from each year group participated in interviews and we kept reflective journals as lecturers.
This paper presents some key findings from the study and makes recommendations for teacher educators about strategies that could provide effective support and guidance during practicum placements.
In recent years, tertiary education providers have opened their doors more widely to students from a range of backgrounds and with a range of learning differences, including learning disabilities. Thus, one of the challenges that teaching staff face is to provide support that is appropriate for a range of student differences and needs, while ensuring that by the end of their teacher education programme all students meet the graduating standards. This section will discuss literature that covers a range of support mechanisms and strategies including peer tutoring, mentoring and support on practicum placement and will discuss these in relation to cultural and social understandings and learning differences.
Although students might need academic support to successfully negotiate their study, Hsu (2005) reports that student teachers are far less likely to seek help from a lecturer than from a peer and adds that social support is a vital component of learning, particularly for students who are of minority ethnicity. Hsu explains that student teachers, who feel isolated from their peers, are more likely to find practical and theoretical assessments extremely challenging. Walsh and Elmslie (2005), recommended that the support of a peer can enhance the practicum experience, removing the isolation and increasing empowerment. They suggest however, that the practicum partners should be selected carefully and agreed to by both students. As recommended by Margetts and Nolan (2008), using a collaborative approach to learning can strengthen students’ critical awareness of their understandings, thus increasing their depth of learning.
Gupta (2006) suggests that it is critical that teacher educators incorporate the knowledges, skills and experiences that student teachers bring with them, because learning can be more meaningful when connections can be made to existing knowledge. Furthermore, Cannella (2004) highlights the way Western developmental doctrines promote the value of certain knowledges and worldviews over other knowledge bases. Hence, it may be that unwittingly, students from ethnic minority backgrounds become influenced quite strongly by Western theories and worldviews, seeing their prior knowledge as secondary to the theories with which they are presented in teacher education programmes. As Cannella (2004) also points out that when student teachers who represent the hegemonic Anglo Celtic mainstream become familiar with different perspectives, theories and understandings, they are more likely to use inclusive practices in their own teaching. However, they are likely to need support and guidance to do so.
In most teacher education programmes in New Zealand and other Westernised nations where child-centred pedagogies are practiced, students are expected to learn and apply the skills of teaching by observing and modelling from experienced teachers during practicum placements. However, observing teachers is not necessarily an effective strategy for making sense of unfamiliar practices. Recent research (Cruickshank, Newell, & Cole 2003; Santoro, 2009), indicates that teacher education programmes do not adequately prepare students to work with children or colleagues who have a significantly different culture from their own. Thus, Keogh, Dole and Hudson (2006) and Levin and He (2008) recommend that student teachers receive more in-depth scaffolding to understand different practices.
Teaching practice, often referred to as practicum, is a significant part of all New Zealand teacher education programmes because it is believed to provide students with the opportunity to put theory into practice and develop their teaching skills. However, this is challenged by Korthagen (2001) who claims that little transfer of understandings between theory and practice actually occurs, particularly if the students’ existing perspectives are shaped by different paradigms. Moreover, for ethnic minority students, practicum often means going to early childhood settings that operate in significantly different ways from those that they are familiar with and so are expected to implement the theory they have been taught, whilst adapting to differences in early childhood perspectives and practices. Mara and Marsters (2009) suggest that academic success is more likely to occur when students’ experience an integrated approach to learning, incorporating their own understandings with those of the institution. They point out that this requires culturally appropriate learning to be provided, which means that the lecturers or Associate Teachers must be able to relate to the culture and understandings of the students to create equitable learning opportunities.
The goal of this study was to identify effective strategies that are used to support and guide students during class and practicum placements in a full-time, class-based Bachelor of Teaching (ECE) programme. According to Denzin and Lincoln (2000), methodologies that are described as qualitative essentially involve people as individuals. Such methodologies sit comfortably with the complexities of human concepts and contexts, with the involvement of the researcher shaping research processes and findings and will be the primary methodology of this study. Thus, we recognised the subjectivity of experience through interpretation and meaning-making by the individual (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and selected methods that allowed individual perspectives of researchers and participants to be incorporated.
Data were collected through a mixed method study that involved action research, questionnaires and interviews. The mixed method approach allows a range of voices to be heard, including student teachers and lecturers, from a cross-section of contexts within the teacher education programme. It has been found (Admiraal & Wubbels, 2005; Bol-Jun-Lee, 2003; Creswell, 2003; Mara, 2005; Moles, 2010), that the cultural and experiential background of student teachers impacts on the nature of support that is effective for students. It was therefore, essential to the outcomes of this study that we investigated support practices in all areas of the programme, including practicum, assessment, social and class-based components of the wider student experience. By utilising the multi-method approach to data collection, we were able to identify where and how support has been effective, to inform the development of strategies to enhance the experience and success of student teachers.
Kincheloe, Slattery and Steinberg (2000) suggest that engaging in critical action research is a method of achieving individual, professional understandings and increasing teacher effectiveness. As the goal of this study was to identify successful practices for supporting students to achieve successful outcomes, practitioner action research was considered a useful approach. Kincheloe et al. (2000) further claim that one of the benefits of action research is that it offers a systematic approach to analysing teaching, as it allows practitioners to see what is actually happening. As part of this process, lecturers in the programme kept reflective journals that included their observations and reflections about support and mentoring meetings with students. We met once a month to reflect on our journal entries. This continued through the academic year. Then, in the third term, students were invited to complete a questionnaire about the types of guidance and support they found useful and to identify areas of the programme systems that were helpful or proved challenging. This gave all students the opportunity to be involved. In addition to this, up to eight students from each year group were selected from volunteers to be interviewed by their academic advisory lecturer. The questions were similar to those in the questionnaire, but face to face interviews provided students with opportunities for greater expansion and discussion to voice their opinions in depth. These interviews were transcribed by the interviewing lecturer.
The data analyses were carried out by the lead researcher. This involved a triangulated approach with the action research, questionnaire and interview data to compare and contrast the layers of meaning from each source. Furthermore, by identifying and connecting patterns that were revealed through analyses, we were able to construct key arguments and show reasoning and provide credibility (Guba & Lincoln, 2005).
Clandinin (2007) points out that researchers are generally perceived as holding a position of power over participants. Thus, as researchers and lecturers, we were mindful that the interviewing part of data gathering could intensify the position of power that already exists between lecturers and students. Additionally, we were mindful of the imbalance that can exist through cultural and ethnic difference. However, Cohen and Manion (2007) suggest, merely having a researcher of the same ethnicity as the researched does not remove the power imbalance, partly because the interviewer is likely to be seen as having control of the research and also because of perceptions about social status. They suggest that remaining aware of the potential that power relationships can create is the most effective strategy to manage the relationship.
A plain language statement, outlining the research, purpose, use of information and requirements of participants in all three forms of data collection, was provided to all students. In addition, all participating students signed a consent form for their data to be used. Interview participants signed a specific consent form that outlined the particular details of their involvement.
The premise of this study was that it is easy for lecturers to feel that by providing support services for students, they are being helpful. Whilst taking a look outside their “box”, lecturers have reflected on the effectiveness of a range of support and guidance services that are provided during class-based times and during practicum placements, and considered feedback from students to inform their understandings. Of significance were the comparisons between lecturers’ and students’ perspectives about communication, study groups and mentoring. Additionally, although student data placed a great deal of emphasis on practicum placements, this was largely consistent with the reflections of lecturers, who also saw these as potentially critical. However, students’ suggestions for increased communication and strategies for improving their overall experience were valuable. These recommendations will be discussed in this section.
Communication and relationships
The topic of communication was interwoven through all areas of this study. Although this was something that we had anticipated, we had not expected some of the differences between lecturers and students’ perspectives of relationships and the most effective ways for communication to occur. Findings showed that the opportunities for communication that were being provided were appropriate and adequate.
Highly valued aspects of communication included lecturers being informative and focussed on content. Students were concerned about the amount of time taken for discussion during class and delays that lecturers created when attempting to ensure that all students understood aspects of class content. Thus, consistent with the findings of Herrenkohl and Mertl (2010), students valued opportunities for asking questions after class and individual or group tutorials. However, students’ perceptions of relationships with lecturers differed substantially from those of lecturers, because although communicative relationships were regarded as important, it appears that students need to know that the lecturer is available and approachable, but remaining an authoritative figure during class, with a formal approach to their teaching practice. They did not see a ‘friendship’ relationship as necessary or important. Lecturers however, felt that it was important to create warm and friendly relationships with students, in the belief that this would open communication more freely.
Lecturers’ reflections frequently raised the importance of relationships and open communication during and after class. One lecturer reflected:
From personal experience, having a trusting relationship with most students here tends to enhance their over-all development and skills. What I would like to explore is the type of teacher-student relationship that is most effective in enhancing students’ overall sense of well-being and confidence.
Communication between lecturers and students clearly requires sensitivity, whilst offering a range of different opportunities. Some students were reluctant to ask questions during class, often for cultural reasons, and were equally reserved about directly approaching lecturers after class. Several student participants commented that as strategies for seeking support, they needed to take personal responsibility for approaching lecturers. They found that although lecturers were approachable and available, they were often reluctant to ask for help.
One third year student explained:
I know I can ask a lecturer if I have a problem, but it’s my responsibility to go to them. I can’t expect the lecturer to see inside my head and I need to keep lecturers informed if we have problems…
Although students knew they could ask questions, for some it was a major issue. A second year student participant reinforced this by stating:
We need to learn to be independent learners in year 1 – learn to use our initiative and learn to use the resources and talk to the lecturers. It’s sometimes about time management, and sometimes it’s about not wanting to look stupid…
This suggested that going to lecturers could feel daunting to some students, so group sessions where information is shared were favoured by many students. As claimed by Margetts and Nolan (2008), offering group sessions can provide opportunities for students to increase their skills and gain support whilst learning about each other’s perspectives and worldviews. Students, across all three years suggested that group sessions can reduce the barriers to seeking help with their study because participants are not so visible. In fact, more than 75% of year 3 participants rated small groups as their preferred type of support and guidance, with dedicated sessions where specific skills were strengthened, the second most popular. Lecturers noted that participants appeared to feel valued and seemed more confident to ask questions during these study groups. This was notable because in class situations, the same students did not ask questions and had not approached lecturers on an individual basis to seek guidance. According to Margetts and Nolan (2008), supportive groups can make it easier for students to articulate their thoughts. It is also likely that with a group that shares a common bond, constructed through similar experiences, the level of comfort for asking questions could be increased. However, the most popular method for communicating with lecturers appeared to be via email, with the majority of students across all year groups preferring to contact lecturers in this way. This medium was considered helpful in practicum, as well as for seeking clarification about class content.
The correlation between student achievement and relationships with lecturers/teachers is not new. Hill and Hawk (2000) found that relationships where trust and belief are shown to students can be motivating, and produce higher performance levels and achievements. However, student participants in this study seemed to suggest that the level and type of relationships that were most effective for constructing new learning required a careful balance between availability and authority. The level and type of support needs to be appropriate to the understandings of students. In other words, lecturers cannot put all students in the same ‘box’, because depending on the understandings, values and beliefs of students, relationships with lecturers are likely to have different meanings.
Mentoring and peer tutoring
Students from all three year groups regarded peer tutoring as extremely helpful. In particular, third year students found that small study groups with peers, perhaps at lunchtime, provided opportunities to learn from each other. Peer support was particularly valued, perhaps because as Hilliard, Wong and Barrera (2004) point out, it is important to understand the perspectives of all students for robust learning to occur, suggesting that differences in cultural and linguistic understandings between lecturers and students can create barriers to learning. As Margetts and Nolan (2008) claim, working with each other offers students the opportunity to hear different perspectives, as well as learning that other students are being challenged to construct new understandings.
Specifically focussed one on one peer tutoring was considered by those who had used it, as very helpful, or extremely helpful. However, it was noted that approximately half the participants had not used this service. Of those who had used peer tutoring, comments included:
They know how it is to be a student.
Peer tutors get what might be difficult to understand,’cos they’ve been there, themselves.
These comments suggest that it could feel less daunting to talk with a fellow student than to approach a lecturer. Furthermore, there appeared to be a sense of the empathy that they felt when talking with a peer. In other words, they felt more likely to be understood.
Increasing numbers of students who have learning disabilities are able to enter high level academic programmes. According to Lerner and Kline (2006), this is partially due to improved support in schools and the expectations that tertiary institutions also provide appropriate support so that students are not marginalised. Lecturers’ reflections have highlighted the challenges faced by students who have challenges with literacy, particularly in a programme that requires a great deal of reading. One lecturer wrote:
The key thing I’ve noticed with most of these students is their ‘need’ to have a relationship with their teachers/us. These relationships could be founded on various factors e.g. the students’ need for validation (that they are on the right track), their need for pasturing/nurturance and over-all support for academic work.
Informative feedback and validation about performance was identified by Jovanovic (2006) as a significant factor in supporting the learning of students who have learning disabilities. Although no students identified as having learning disabilities in this study, data showed that by speaking slowly and clarifying instructions, particularly for assignments or information given prior to practicum, lecturers could reduce the likelihood of problems occurring. Furthermore, by offering opportunities for questions and using a variety of media including visuals, students were able to construct learning independently, making them feel more competent. However, tutorials that helped students to link their prior learning and experience to real-life situations were valued as effective strategies for increasing understandings. Mara and Marsters (2009) claim that to be effective, mentoring should reflect the understandings and perspectives of students, meaning that the mentor needs to have a high level of knowledge about the student as a learner. Thus, it would appear that mentoring provided for students who have a learning difference needs to be compatible with their specific style of learning.
The complexities of practicum placements were emphasised across all data sources in this study. Students and lecturers all raised concerns about communication and support. In particular, students whose understandings and experiential backgrounds were different from the hegemonic mainstream appeared to require considerable support, because communication with Associate Teachers (ATs) and other staff was often challenging.
A participating lecturer wrote:
...on the whole most International students do quite well during practicum but now and then we get the odd ‘situation’ where we have to call on all of our experience to come up with the best solution. Anyway, I have encountered more situations recently where it seemed that both the associate teacher and international student were talking/seeing past each other. After a lengthy dialogue with these international students, I discovered that they had ‘read’ their AT’s busy-ness as a lack of interest in them.... ‘Initiative’ also seemed to be an issue from the AT’s point of view. It seemed that the international student needed the AT’s expectations of her to be made very explicit... The AT was so busy that she seemed to expect students to just muck in (show initiative) where they saw the need. It also seemed that the international student saw ‘initiative’ and/or approaching the AT as being intrusive and rude. The AT on the other hand saw the student’s reluctant ‘behaviour’ as lack of initiative. These cross-cultural misunderstandings seem to be quite common between some ATs and students.
My question is, what can we do about these types of situations? Whilst we can’t really insulate students from challenging practicum situations as these help develop robust dispositions, what are some solutions to these issues?
When ATs and students misunderstand each other, it is likely that the practicum could be challenging and unsatisfactory for both parties. However, specific scaffolding and explicit coaching about the behaviours ATs expect during practicum appears to be appreciated by students who have little or no experience of New Zealand early childhood pedagogies and environments. Data from second year students shows that several students encountered difficulties in centres with different philosophies, because there appeared to be an assumption that students would be familiar with the practices. A second year student told us:
It was really hard in my practicum, because I’d never been in a centre like that before, and the associate sort of, assumed I’d just join in, but I felt quite lost and I was scared to get things wrong. No-one ever explained the philosophy to me and I felt too scared to ask.
Hsu (2005) states that careful placement of students is important as some associate teachers do not give adequate attention to their role, or understand its significance in teacher education. According to Kukari (2004), to construct understandings about learning and teaching, student teachers are likely to be highly influenced by their past experience and prior knowledge. Moreover, Kukari (2004) and Han (2005) claim that sociocultural and religious values and beliefs influence student teachers’ understandings of good practice. Data showed that ATs are often unaware that paradigm shifts can take some years to achieve and students might need support, even in year 3, to construct new understandings.
This will be reflected in their teaching practice and could result in students not conforming to the expectations of ATs during practicum. When communication between the AT and student is poor, it is likely that the AT will not support the student to perform to their potential. Findings from this study were consistent with Keogh et al. (2006), who discussed the role of Associate, or supervising teachers with students on practicum placements. They noted that the ‘expert - novice’ relationship of the traditional supervisory role could be disempowering for the student, preferring a mentoring relationship instead. They also found that the AT could guide ‘good’ practice, using their experience in a more supportive way for students than the more formal supervisory role. Thus, it is important that the AT understands the student from a cultural and experiential perspective as some students in this study claimed to have felt unfairly judged and that unreasonable expectations were placed on them. However, when ATs were familiar with the assignments and were well informed about the expectations of students during the practicum, they felt well-supported.
Other factors that contributed to successful practicum placements concerned inclusivity within the centre teaching team. In particular, third year students said that being invited to contribute as a teacher and given a voice were significant in increasing their confidence. One third year participant stated:
When you get a placement where you’re treated as a member of the teaching staff, you start to feel confident and act more competent. When you get a placement that leaves you out, it’s like you’re not welcome and it’s hard to do your best.
However, the factor most commonly discussed was that of communication with the Associate Teacher and visiting lecturers. Many students suggested that although regular visits from a lecturer were highly important, just knowing that they could maintain regular contact with their lecturer was important to them and found that email contact was an effective method of maintaining contact and clarifying any concerns.
Findings from this study have shown that there is no specific type of support or guidance that addresses the concerns and interests of all students. Although many students found that group and peer support were significant, opportunities for individual help were also important. However, some students found it difficult to ask lecturers for help individually, and preferred group sessions. This suggests that if lecturers were to take a proactive role in inviting students to seek individual support, barriers could be reduced. Being proactive could also involve helping students to learn strategies for taking responsibility for their own learning and to let students know that asking questions is expected.
Perceptions of the roles of lecturers differed considerably between lecturers and students. This suggests that lecturers need to be aware of the nature of relationships and communication that are most effective for students. By reflecting on the complexities of teacher education lecturers’ roles, lecturer participants in this study have found that positive, culturally sensitive but proactive communication can make it easier for students to access help and support. However, for relationships to be effective, students’ individual understandings about the role of the lecturer and communication practices need to be accommodated.
Relationships with Associate Teachers during practicum placements seemed fundamental to positive outcomes for students. Without effective communication, students and Associate Teachers can misunderstand each other, thereby jeopardising successful outcomes for the practicum.
Overall, this study has shown that a range of support and guidance needs to be provided. Barriers to students taking advantage of support and guidance often concern differences in communication and understandings about the role of lectures. Therefore, it is the responsibility of lecturers to be aware of students’ concerns and responsive to their individual perspectives.
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About the authors
Dr Janet Moles is a lecturer in early childhood education at Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria.
Isabella Tanielu-Dick, Vera Atiga-Anderson, Leautuli Sauvao, Heather Fuimaono, Suzanne Ryan, Shanali de Rose, Jan Ferguson and Lucy Fuli-Makaua are lecturers in early childhood education at Whitireia Polytechnic, New Zealand.
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