Field experience nurtures the teacher within

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Does Aberdeen University's innovative B.Ed course produce a different kind of teacher?

The new Robert Gordon's College Junior School in Aberdeen held its official opening just 10 days ago and is almost too cool for a school. Light floods into the corridors through glass classroom walls, there are striking sofas in the reception area and bright seats dotted around like big velvet buttons.

The children in Mr Robertson's P3 class are on their best behaviour, writing their answers on their individual whiteboards with squeaky marker pens.

Patrick Robertson, 24, seems calm and kind, but he's sharp-eyed and doesn't stand for any nonsense. The P3s don't know it, but he is one of the first of Scotland's Teachers for a New Era. He graduated with first- class honours in the innovative STNE B.Ed Primary programme at Aberdeen University a year ago - a new teaching qualification, in time to herald the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), with ground-breaking strategies in teacher training.

The objectives are to develop reflective teachers who are lifelong learners, who work collaboratively and value diversity and learn through critical enquiry, says Lynne Shiach, the programme director. "It supports and challenges student teachers through four years of an investigative, reflective approach to learning, changing them from passive acceptors to confident, creative, contributors within a school team."

Now Patrick is continuing his passion for education at Aberdeen University with an M.Sc in Enhanced Professional Practice, this year focusing on self-evaluation and research into mind maps and their impact on children's writing.

Patrick's early university education began with a hiccup, when he dropped out of Glasgow University after just two months. "In my heart of hearts, I always knew it was going to be teaching, even when I was doing accountancy," he says.

He joined the first intake on the new B.Ed course in Aberdeen in 2005. "Throughout the course we were up-to-date with Curriculum for Excellence. We were very focused on the new curriculum, (they) wanted us to feel as if we were kind of pioneers of it," he explains, as his class files outside for break.

Patrick did his 14-week, fourth-year teaching placement at Robert Gordon's College and was invited to join the staff for his probationary year at this independent fee-paying school, which is using CfE.

They are proud of his achievements: "His real strength is he's a very reflective practitioner and the fact he has taken this Masters on shows his enthusiasm for professional development," says headteacher Mollie Mennie. "He's very keen, enthusiastic - incredible really, he is such a young teacher and yet he has a gift."

Instead of going into schools on teaching placements in their first year of the B.Ed, trainee teachers like Patrick go on field experience in pairs one day a week in schools, investigating themes and issues. Throughout their course there is an emphasis on critical thinking, investigation, questioning and analysis.

"We were encouraged on our placements to do community walks in the area surrounding the school with our partner. You went into placements in first and second year with a partner and that was a really good opportunity to learn from each other, to support each other and peer-assess each other," says Patrick.

In first year, every student takes psychology and chooses an arts or science elective which they study alongside other students on the main campus. "I think in our first year of university we really went into depth about different learning theories to try and give us a good understanding about the types of learning environment that are good for children and to try and understand how children really learn," says Patrick.

Studying theory seems to give students a sound basis and confidence for moving on to teaching practice in their third and fourth year. In second year, students can continue psychology or their chosen elective, alongside further study at the school of education.

"I chose European history in first year and then Scottish history in second year. So it was good that you got a chance to experience the wider life of the university," says Patrick. He's been using his history background in a cross-curricular project with children, building Viking longboats in a study of Ancient Scotland across P3 classes.

He talks enthusiastically about his course - working with children who came into the university campus from local schools and nurseries, working collaboratively on active research projects and self-led learning.

"Before you teach children, you need to understand how they learn best and recognise that education should be child-centred. The course really instilled that idea in me that you need to take account of different learning styles and evaluate everything you do."

The strategy seems to have worked for him so far. One of his pupils, a thoughtful eight-year-old, Eleanor Watson says: "He's a very nice teacher. He's quite good at maths and he's good at spelling and he's fair when we do our spelling quizzes. I like a teacher who knows things, is fair and is nice."

Someone else who has had a good opportunity to see his work first-hand is 17-year-old Alicia Burnett. She is in sixth year in the senior school and helps him as a classroom assistant once a week. Alicia wants to be a music therapist for children with autism.

"He is so friendly and I have learned so much from him. I thought you needed strict discipline, but if you just talk to the children the way they want to be treated they respond so much better.

"They all want to please him instead of being scared of him and I think that is a big benefit. He has a way with children and they respond to him better. He knows what to do with them and how to react to different situations. He can control them and still have good discipline in the class," says Alicia.

As his class returns, Patrick sums up how his degree course has helped prepare him for his new career. "I think it has given me a real confidence that this is the right job that I am in and I have been made to feel that I can do it well.

"I can be a good teacher and really make a difference in children's lives. This job is a huge responsibility, but we have been made to feel as if we are now ready, we have the skills, we can go out and make a difference."

Original paper headline: How experience in the field has nurtured the teacher within

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