Original Research Note
Butcher, J., & Murphy, C. (2012). “It pushes you beyond the boundaries”: The paradox of setting teaching goals in a field-based early childhood teacher education programme. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 176- 185. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/896-teaching-goals-field-based-early-childhood-teacher-education-programme.html
“It Pushes You Beyond the Boundaries”: The Paradox of Setting Teaching Goals in a Field-based Early Childhood Teacher Education Programme
Jenny Butcher and Caterina Murphy
NZ Childcare Association
This paper reports on a section of a research study into the teaching practice experiences of early childhood student teachers in a field-based teacher education programme. Goal setting was one of the four research themes of that study and is the focus of this paper. Eleven student teachers were initially interviewed in 2008 with ten of the original group agreeing to be re-interviewed in 2010 as they neared the end of their teacher education programme. Varied experiences and attitudes to the benefits and success of goal setting were identified and the findings suggest ways for teacher education providers to guide and support students and their teaching. Implications drawn from this research will be of interest to teacher educators who support student teachers to set teaching goals to promote student reflection in practice.
Key words: Associate Teachers (ATs), Mentoring Teachers (MTs), Visiting Lecturers (VLs), goal setting, teacher assessment.
Teaching practice is an embedded component of teacher education programmes (Haigh & Tuck, 1999; Lind, 2005; Turnbull, 2005; Walkington, 2005). There are two main modes for the delivery of early childhood teacher education inNew Zealand: pre-service, involving full time academic study in a tertiary institution and the field-based model (FBM), where those in an early childhood workplace participate in academic study on a weekly basis while continuing to work in their early childhood setting. Student teachers in field-based programmes have the opportunity to use their teaching experiences to regularly apply pedagogical theory and course learning to assist them to develop as skilful, knowledgeable and reflective teachers (Bell, 2004).
In this study, student teachers are participating in a FBM programme and are supported through this process by Mentoring Teachers (MTs) (in their usual place of work whilst studying), Associate Teachers (ATs) (when they go out on various practicum experiences in other settings) and their Visiting Lecturers (VLs) who assess their teaching in their usual centre and their practicum centres over the period of three years. The student teachers are required to set teaching goals regularly throughout the teacher education programme, while completing teaching practice in ‘home’ (usual) and practicum early childhood centres. This research article discusses the effectiveness of goal setting, that is whether the course requirement of goal setting encouraged the student teachers to view themselves as skilful, knowledgeable and reflective teachers (Bell, 2004) and how their views changed as they progressed through their teacher education programme.
Goal setting is a powerful way of motivating people and SMART goals theory has been used across a range of organizational disciplines over many decades. Locke’s original research (cited in Locke & Latham, 1990) showed a relationship between the difficulty and specificity of the goal and how people performed. Easy or vague goals did not lead to quality outcomes compared with goals that were more specific and challenging. From that research it may be seen that goals which are too easy do not lead to a sense of accomplishment. Student teachers are more motivated and committed to achieve something that they have to work hard for.
Locke and Latham (1990) expanded on Locke’s original SMART theory with two themes that can be applied to this current piece of research. The first was the need to be committed to goal setting as a tool for success. They emphasised the importance of a person setting their own goals as part of this process. The second theme was about the importance and impact of regular feedback that provided opportunity for clarification, and adjustment of difficulty if necessary, to enable individuals to gauge their progress toward achieving success.
According to Perry (2004) every student teacher has their own personal journey of learning to become a qualified teacher. They encounter different experiences that shape their thinking, influenced by their values and beliefs, professional teaching knowledge and understandings, developing pedagogy, learning styles and personality. Goal setting is an important part of this journey.
Clearly defined goals can contribute to student teachers self-regulating their own learning process and this is underpinned through a metacognitive awareness of their teaching performance (Ridley, Shultz, Glanz & Weinstein, 1992). Ridley et al (1992) emphasised the importance of student teachers having a metacognitive awareness about themselves, the environment they work in, and their situation as a student, in order to achieve relevant goals. Ridley et al (1992) agreed with Locke and Latham’s (1990) conclusion that specific and challenging goals lead to higher levels of performance than do easy or vague goals. They described research findings that suggested that the harder the goal, the better the performance within the limits of the student having the ability and commitment to achieve the goal, and of receiving quality feedback about progress.
Gibbs (2006) discussed three assumptions that underpin self-regulated learning theory. Student teachers take an active role in their learning by participating in goal setting, taking control of their environments and evaluating their achievements. Task specific goals enable student teachers to focus on achievable outcomes, while purpose goals include information about why the student teachers want to achieve the goals and how they intend to monitor their progress (Gibbs, 2006).
This approach to goal setting is affirmed and validated by Posner and Vivian (2010) who emphasised the importance of setting both general and specific goals to enable student teachers to benefit from field experience. They suggested that sometimes these goals could be derived from initial concerns or anxieties and may be developed sequentially. Goals often change or progress as student teachers move through their teacher education with the field experience firstly being a place to ‘practice teaching’ and later as a ‘proving ground’ (Sitter, 1982, cited in Posner & Vivian, 2010, p. 17). Posner and Vivan (2010) also recommended that student teachers make clear plans about how they intend to work towards achieving their proposed goals, again reinforcing self-regulated learning theory.
The participants of this research project were required to each regularly set teaching goals as they commenced a new paper. Goals were to be set using SMART theory (Locke & Latham, 1990) and documented in their teaching assessment report in readiness for their teaching assessment. The goals were required to be linked to the New Zealand Teachers Council’s Graduating Teacher Standards (2007). The participants were also expected to identify how they intended to achieve their goals and how they would measure success (Gibbs, 2006; Posner & Vivian, 2010). When the Visiting Lecturers (VLs) arrived at the early childhood setting to assess their teaching, the teaching goals were a catalyst for professional discussion and informed the assessment process.
The researchers chose a case study approach to assist in investigating the four research themes (Murphy & Butcher, 2011). This methodology is usually qualitative, can be longitudinal, and allows for detailed information to be gathered. Mukherji and Albon (2010, p. 83) suggested that while the focus is usually on a particular ‘case’, the findings can be “influential in furthering our understandings of an issue and improving practice”. Within this study the researchers used focus group interviews which have been a widely used tool in qualitative research (Basch, 1987; Berg, 2001: Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). Interviews conducted in 2008 and 2010 involved the same cohort of student teachers. In 2008 (Phase 1), the eleven student teachers who agreed to participate were at the end of their first year of study or about to begin their second year. In 2010 (Phase 2), ten of the original eleven were re-interviewed and were nearing the completion of their studies.
Results and Discussion
Goal setting: How does the setting of teaching goals contribute to students’ reflections on teaching?
Phase One - 2008
At the time of the first interviews there was a mixed reaction to the setting of goals in order to strengthen teaching practice. Only three out of the 11 participants described it as a positive experience. Others took either a neutral or non-affirming view towards the relevance of it. Participants articulated some positive benefits such as: developing strategies to vary their practice, pushing themselves beyond preconceived boundaries, focusing on an aspect of practice in which they were not competent and progressing their own practice through the regular setting of new goals. The value of receiving feedback about teaching strengths from VLs in order to focus on new goals was highlighted. Goal setting for the participants’ usual home centre was seen as particularly relevant due to the environment being a known one. Student teachers appeared more open to possibilities with goal setting when there was familiarity with the programme. :
A6. It pushes you beyond your boundaries depending if you’re honest with your goal setting or not. It definitely helps.
B4. It helped me a lot to pinpoint one goal and work on it. Me, I had millions of goals and it doesn’t work properly because they tend to step over each other.
B1. If you are improving it that’s ok but say with te reo Māori I want to be able to greet the children and want them to be able to return the greeting in te reo. Ok you achieve that, then next term you might want to include waiata and the greeting and that, so you actually build on it so you can do that.
As year 1 student teachers, some were challenged by the course requirement of goal setting and some were unclear of its purpose or relevance to their teaching. Some participants found it quite hard to set goals for an upcoming practicum experience in a different early childhood centre setting. They were fearful of choosing a goal that might not be easily applicable to the new setting. Others found it hard to be specific and get started, particularly when they had met previous teaching practice criteria.
A2. I still find it hard to make goals. Cos with my visits you pass a certain amount of attributes and standards and so what you don’t pass, is to me what you focus on for your next one…….but when you have passed most of them it is hard.
B5.The one that I found hardest to do was set the goals for the practicum because you don’t necessarily know what the centre you are going to be going to is like and whether or not the goals that you’ve actually chosen are going to work there.
B1. Yeah, Yeah!
B5. Whereas when we are working on goals in our own centres we know what we want to do in our own centres. We know how these goals will best benefit our teaching practice in our own centres, but when you are going into, not a hostile environment but an unknown environment, it’s like, how is this going to fit within their teaching practice and their philosophy. That’s why I did reflective teaching. I chose that as a goal because I knew that whatever the centre it wasn’t going to affect that.
The student teachers experienced a wide range of outcomes from their goal setting experiences. This could partly be due to their individual differences, how they valued goal setting as a process and due to them still learning the academic culture of the teacher education organisation (Williams, 2005). Their experience could also be influenced by the different types of learning goals they set themselves as identified in self-regulated learning theory (Gibbs, 2006; Ridley et al, 1992).
Phase Two – 2010
During the 2010 interviews the student teachers (who were nearing the end of their final year of study) told similar stories about their goal setting experiences as they had told in 2008. Three out of ten said their experience was ‘no different’ or ‘the same’ as two years previously. Again, some were very positive while others were neutral about their experiences and two did not find the experience beneficial to support their teaching practice.
Q: How do you feel about goal setting two years on from the last time we talked?
A, H & E: all feel the same about goal setting as two years ago – neutral to pointless.
Q: So why is it pointless?
C: They are covered one way or the other.
H: You set them and it comes down to the visit, it’s like oh, I’ve got to go back and write this again – it doesn’t make sense, whoops… repetitive.
F: I’ve learnt to be more specific. I am a big picture person that is what I want to aim for, bring it down and tailor it, to a specific thing I want to do, so that’s been good learning for me. But at the end of the day I find I’m repeating the same one over and over just with a different twist on it because I want to choose a goal that is actually going to challenge me.
B: It would work if it is up to you.
Q: How many of you are enjoying setting teaching goals? Are you working on an area of your teaching practice that you want to strengthen?
D: I look at my weaknesses and that’s my goal.
F: I try to choose a goal that is going to benefit the centre, reflect what is happening in some way, and how I can contribute to that.
C: I choose a goal that is within my assignment so it gets covered.
Q: If you are feeling a bit neutral about it, do you still feel that you are able to focus on what parts of your teaching needs strengthening though?
C: I think on a day-to-day basis more so it depends on how you are feeling. Some days I might be fabulous in this area, …… so get me on this day, it’s kind of like I do need to work on that. And so it’s self-regulating goal setting.
E: I think maybe those goals would work better if your MT set them for you.
F: But hang on…when you actually go out, and next year at the end of your training, and start doing your teacher registration you actually have to choose your own goals. So what we’ve done for the last three years is actually going to help us become better practitioners and better reflectors because we’ve got to do it for the first few years.
F: If you liaise with your MT about what goals … where you could actually improve yourself through somebody else’s eyes you might ….
C: Yeah. And maybe it doesn’t have to be given that you do that, but if you actually feel like you need to, then there is an option for that.
E: From the outside looking in it is clearer than when you are on the inside. You know, you are trying - okay what are my problems, but somebody else can always see clearer from the outside.
The varied verbal responses from Phase two, and some of the body language when the topic of goal setting was raised (e.g. sighs and laughter), gave a clear indication that among the ten participants, after a further two years of their teacher education, there remained a wide range of perceptions of the value and benefits of goal setting. The reflective thinking evident in some of the student teachers’ narratives showed a maturity in understanding that demonstrated a sound level of metacognitive awareness (e.g. F’s response about flowing on to teacher registration), while in others it did not. Their responses also supported Posner and Vivian’s (2010) suggestion that goals develop sequentially as student teachers gain in experience. Some still did not demonstrate an appreciation of how setting goals could support or contribute to strengthening their teaching. The neutral or non-affirming dialogue some participants engaged in during the focus groups identified that difficulties with goal setting could have been caused by goals being vague or too simple, which led to a lack of commitment in working towards achieving them (Locke & Latham, 1990). There was minimal mention of SMART theory within the discussion.
The phase two suggestion by one student of having their goals set for them is not supported by Gibbs (2006), Locke and Latham (1990) or Ridley et al (1992) who linked the self-setting of goals with commitment, and those writers suggested that a lack of commitment led to lack of success in achieving goals. Another phase two suggestion that goals could be set in consultation with a MT, rather than just their lecturer, does have merit and would certainly allay the fears of having goals that were not relevant to, or appropriate for the early childhood setting they were working in, especially during their teaching practicum. This would provide opportunities for the setting of more challenging goals, rather than only ‘safe’ ones and would contribute to deeper reflection of the student teachers’ developing teaching pedagogy.
This study as part of a longitudinal study documenting student teachers narratives (Murphy & Butcher, 2011) has highlighted a range of attitudes toward the value of setting teaching goals to strengthen practice in early childhood education. Some student teachers took opportunities to challenge themselves over the two years of the research project by setting and achieving a variety of goals to strengthen their practice. They were able to acknowledge their progress in becoming skilful, knowledgeable and reflective teachers (Bell, 2004). As the group neared the end of their studies some student teachers continued to see few benefits in setting teaching goals as their focus was on how their teaching practice was being assessed elsewhere within their teacher education programme. This view is in contrast to Ridley et al (1992) who claimed that student metacognitive awareness is an important aspect of goal setting and that all three facets of awareness: about themselves, their environment and their circumstances as student teachers needs to occur to enable self-regulation which strengthens teaching.
The researchers acknowledge that the participant cohort was small. However the findings may help to inform teacher educators about student attitudes on goal setting. The researchers plan to conclude this longitudinal study with a third and final phase, by inviting the same group to gather together for focus group interviews as they near the end of their provisional teacher registration. This is pertinent as goal setting is a requirement of the teacher registration process.
From the findings we put forward the following suggestions for teacher educators seeking to use goal setting as a means to assist student learning and contribute to effective teaching practice:
- Access specific professional development relating to student self-efficacy and goal setting as an example of self-regulated learning theory
- Make time to extend and challenge student teachers to meet the Graduating Teacher Standards (NZTC, 2007) and/or achieve higher goals, such as across different contexts and to guide and facilitate them in setting effective and achievable teaching goals in the classroom environment.
- Use exemplars as a tool to gain a deeper level of understanding of the value and purpose of goal setting to increase student metacognitive awareness of their own performance.
Future research could involve larger cohorts of student teachers from different field-based programmes and include mentoring teachers.
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We wish to acknowledge the support and contributions of student teachers, campus teaching staff, Ako Aotearoa for funding of Phase 1, the Ethics Committee, our employer, Dr Ann Balcombe our project mentor for Phase 1 and Dr Anne Meade our mentor for Phase 2.
About the Authors
Jenny Butcher has been a lecturer in early childhood education for 21 years and is currently a Senior Lecturer with Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa / NZ Childcare Association.
Caterina Murphy has been involved in early childhood education in New Zealand for 24 years. She has been lecturing since 1999 and became a Senior lecturer in 2005. She is currently the Academic Leader for Dip Tch ECE and Project Leader, Quick Response PD with Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa / NZ Childcare Association.
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