All very well in theory, but ..

28th March 2008 at 00:00
... the Scottish Teachers for a New Era initiative is not practical enough, say students and teachers. Henry Hepburn reports

Aberdeen university's innovative teacher training programme has left students "confused" about how theory and practice fit together, and pining for more practical help.

The teachers mentoring them, meanwhile, are concerned it does not involve students enough in the classroom and that no one is clear about what they should be doing, according to evaluation reports published last week.

But those behind Scottish Teachers for a New Era argue that the programme - whose first batch of students are in their third year - is overcoming teething problems and converting the sceptics.

STNE, backed by the Scottish Government and the Hunter Foundation, brings more theory and research into teacher training, allows students to study subjects outwith the School of Education, and, unlike conventional B.Ed courses, which throw students in at the deep end in their first year, does not allow students to teach a full class on their own until they reach third year.

Students are supposed to think more deeply about what it means to be a teacher and develop their ideas rather than mimicking teachers.

But focus groups with the first batch of STNE students - carried out during their second year - have uncovered scepticism about the programme's methods.

"There appears to be an issue about a perceived lack of usefulness of some of the content which is being provided and a preoccupation with getting more practical knowledge for classroom use," according to a summary of findings. They were compiled from a series of interviews, questionnaires and focus groups.

At an Aberdeen University seminar last week to examine the programme, students reported that they found a "big jump" in the demands they faced in third year, when they are expected to take a class on their own after two years of gradual introduction to the classroom, during which much of their time is spent observing pupils.

The report finds: "While students enjoyed observing children, the scheduled research activities do not always fit in with the routines of teaching, and research is perceived as separate from teaching.

"Students appear to be engaged in both observing and helping out with the teaching, but there seems to be a certain degree of competition between the two activities."

The students "were certainly gaining from the observations but would not be necessarily able to translate theory into practice".

The evaluation argues that students are not making the most of opportunities provided by STNE.

"The results of the interviews revealed that students are not finding the elective courses useful for them as beginning teachers," it states. "Only one student appreciated the opportunity to gain experience of other university courses as a form of personal development.

"What appears to emerge from this analysis is a missed opportunity to make use of their knowledge, to engage with the knowledge they gain from various courses and become aware that they have learnt."

It argues that placements would work better if students and teachers were given a better understanding of research terms and how students, in their new role of "participant observer", could be "integrated into the normal practice of teaching".

The report also argues that placements would improve if teachers, like the students, were encouraged to think more deeply about learning, and moots a "rethinking of the role of the classroom teacher".

It states: "If the aim of the placement was that of acquiring knowledge of learning contexts and developing personal theories about learning, then students might benefit from a relationship with a professional also engaging in questioning learning processes and undertaking personal investigations."

Several students at the seminar said they enjoyed the programme, a view supported by a fall in drop-out rates since its introduction.

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