Practice based learning

Image source: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash


The start of the school year in NZ is not far away now and I’ve been gearing up for a number of teacher only days with schools in various parts of the country. As part of my preparation I’ve been talking with some of the principals and senior staff in these schools to determine exactly how my contribution will assist them in achieving the goals they have set for staff etc.

A common theme that is raised in these conversations concerns how well (or not) teachers are being prepared for their work in schools the approaches taken to initial teacher education in many of our pre-service providers. A critical concern is around the perceived gap between theory and practice, and what appears to be the limited amount of time pre-service candidates spend in classrooms practicing and refining the things they have learned in the lecture halls and classrooms of their initial teacher ed provider.

It’s an age-old debate – one that was certainly alive and well when I was a lecturer in one of these institutions, and that was before the amalgamations with Universities had even occurred. And it’s not simply the domain of education in focus here – we’ve seen similar developments in health, with nurses being trained in primarily in tertiary institutions and less on the ground in hospitals for instance.

It always seems to polarise opinion. Advocates for greater amounts of time in classroom-based experience argue that it ensures candidates are more ‘classroom ready’ when they graduate, particularly when it comes to aspects of behaviour and classroom management. Those advocating for more theory argue that building such a base of knowledge better prepares students for the diversity of experiences they may encounter in their career. A sub-argument in this group is the fact that it’s often cheaper and less resource intensive to cater for larger groups in a lecture-style environment.


I am personally disposed toward a practice-based approach. Just a few years ago I had the privilege of being part of the team that designed and developed a new pre-service teacher education programme for the Eastern Institute of Technology. This three-year Bachelor of Teaching qualification is a practice-based teacher education programme providing a balance between theory, research and practice. The practice-based approach involves the candidate teachers working alongside experienced teachers in local primary and intermediate schools for two days a week as part of the programme. The other days in the week are spent on campus exploring the research and theoretical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy etc.

A point to be made here is that practice-based approaches are about much more than simply finding a place for candidate teachers to spend time observing and then mimicking what they see being modelled by their host teachers. An argument against practice-based approaches is that they can simply result in a ‘replication’ model of classroom practice – where bad habits and poor teaching strategies are perpetuated. Practice-based approaches will only work where both the candidate teachers and the host teachers are working together to resolve the issues and concerns they face in the classroom on a daily basis, drawing from experience, evidence and research as they do so. The strength of the EIT programme is that it is a true partnership between the candidate teachers, EIT as the provider organisation and the schools which provide much more than simply a place for the candidate teachers to ‘practice’.

The report illustrated at the top of this post titled ‘learning to teach‘ outlines essential features for providing high-quality, structured, and sequenced opportunities to practice within teacher preparation programs. The report recommends that programmes should fully incorporate the following features into all practice-based opportunities:

  • Modelling is how teacher educators provide candidates examples of what expert performance looks like in practice.
  • Spaced learning opportunities are those that offer candidates opportunities to practice the knowledge and skills acquired in coursework over a period of time, that are sustained and repeated, and that are scaffolded to deepen candidate expertise.
  • Varied learning opportunities are those that provide candidates with opportunities to practice the knowledge and skills they learned in their coursework across varying contexts, with a diverse range of student learners, and with differing degrees of support.
  • Coaching and feedback opportunities are those in which supervisors provide explicit coaching and constructive feedback as candidates practice the knowledge and skills they acquired in their coursework. The focus of the coaching and feedback is on improving candidates’ practice and expertise.
  • Analyzing and reflecting opportunities are those in which candidates practice the knowledge and skills they acquired in their coursework while engaging in analysis and reflection upon both their practice and their impact on student learning.
  • Scaffolded practice-based opportunities are those in which candidates apply the knowledge and skills they acquired through their coursework, within teaching experiences that gradually increase in complexity over time with fading support from teacher educators to promote deeper learning of content, improved instructional implementation, and, ultimately, autonomous performance.

Arguably, these same features could (or should) just as easily characterise effective in-service professional learning. The point is that the relationship between pre-service and in-service teacher education so often focuses on what makes them different, rather than what makes them the same or similar. If we are truly committed to principles of life-long learning, teaching as inquiry and responsive practice, then we need to be thinking more of developing an approach to professional learning that is more collegial, more collaborative and more inquiry-focused – where the openness to changing practice in light of evidence is the norm.

So let’s stop the rhetoric that ‘blames’ others for the perceived failure to adequately prepare for or grow within the profession and let’s start 2017 with a commitment to working together to find new ways of addressing the issues and concerns in our classrooms, schools and clusters, using methodologies and approaches that draw upon the vast pool of experience, research and evidence that exists in our midst.

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