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close this bookLearning to Teach in Ghana: An Evaluation of Curriculum Delivery (CIE, 2000, 51 p.)
close this folderChapter 6: Teaching Practice: The Student Teachers' Experiences
View the document6.1 Gaps between Theory and Practice
View the document6.2 Teaching Practice Supervision: Tensions and Contradictions

6.1 Gaps between Theory and Practice

The issue of the relationship between theory and practice and how that might be actualised in the training of teachers is at the heart of the debate about developing effective teacher education. The pressure towards more school-based programmes, or more teaching practice, is a sign that teacher educators and policy makers are appreciating more and more the value of the practical in learning about teaching. It is now recognised that a purely theoretical conception of teacher education, consisting of principles, methodologies and strategies presented without much connection to practice, is a fraudulent representation of real-life teaching. Teaching as an unproblematic activity in which teachers have to rely on theories of learning and communication, and apply proven methods of instruction, often creates dissonance with the real experience (see Kortagen & Kessels, 1999). As we discussed earlier in this paper, essentially the pedagogy of teacher education in Ghana consists of transmitting objectified methodologies that prospective teachers are thought to need to become effective teachers. The programme of teaching practice is therefore seen as an opportunity to apply the knowledge of teaching acquired during college training. This is where we often see the much talked-about gap between theory and practice; field-experience, when properly conceptualised, is expected to narrow the gap between theory (in-college learning of teaching theory and methods) and practice (school-based application of theory).

In Ghana, the teaching practice component of the teacher education programme is viewed as a critical opportunity to relate theory to practice. Thus, we were very much interested in how prospective teachers view this experience and, from their narratives, understand more clearly how we should, perhaps, conceptualise the linking of theory to practice in teacher education.

Student teacher trainees were unanimous in their appreciation of the value of teaching practice in the training. What seems to emerge from their accounts is the realisation that the theory learnt in college is quite meaningless without classroom experimentation. Teaching practice had, as one trainee put it, "exposed us to the type of job we opted for". She went on to explain further that:

I quite remember my first teaching practice when I was teaching class six, that was the first day. I realised whatever I prepared to deliver in one hour,[ ...] I will deliver it in 10 minutes. And so the class master told me to slow down [...] He told me I need to ask them questions so that they give me feedback in order for me to know whether they have understood what I taught.

Another trainee made a similar point:

Like you just imagine teaching but when you go to the field you realise that it was a wrong thought that you made. You have to work, it is not like how you come to the class and say do this or you have to do that, but when you go out you realise it involves more.

This latter statement points to some trainees becoming aware that teaching is not simply applying teaching knowledge acquired from college. Trainees therefore felt teaching practice had made them realise that learning to teach was more than possessing ideas about teaching strategies. In effect, they had become more aware that learning to teach requires them to engage in a lot of practical problem-solving, something that is not fully appreciated before teaching practice. Such accounts touch on the familiar debate about theory versus practice in teacher education. Teacher trainees in Ghana seem to be saying, in effect, that teaching practice brought to the fore the real issues about practice, and that this was more than applying theories and knowledge of teaching in real classrooms. Rather, it was about solving concrete and complex problems of teaching and children's learning. Kessels & Korthagen (1996), we believe, have conceptualised the issue of linking theory to practice in teacher education in a way that gives us better insights into hidden issues behind the messages of the student teachers about teaching practice. Kessel & Korthagen (1996:20) make a point which is key to our understanding of what our student teachers were saying, and which is that, "...insight (about teaching) cannot possibly be transferred ... (or induced, provoked, elicited) through the use of purely conceptual knowledge". In other words, conceptual knowledge about teaching is severely limited because it is essentially about hypothetical teaching in sanitised and unproblematic classroom environments. During the focus group interviews, the student teachers kept making reference to the problem of children who could or would not respond to their methods, children's behaviour that defied understanding in simple theoretical terms, and the lack of basic instructional facilities that limited the effectiveness of teaching.

This leads one to the question: how was theory about teaching presented and did it send any positive signals about teaching in real classrooms? What is important and yet appears missing at the college training level, are discussions about the engagement of theory with practice and the implications for actual teaching. College lesson observation revealed that learning about teaching is often presented as an unproblematic task with the whole process rid of contextual realities. This is partly a result of the didactic way in which college textbooks present pedagogical subject knowledge. There are no simple solutions to how one integrates theory with practice in learning to teach, but it seems that there is currently great divergence between the two, leading to an oversimplification of the process of learning to teach. It would appear from the trainees' accounts of teaching practice that there is a big gulf between theory and practice in learning to teach. There is further evidence of this from the emphasis given to the instrumental aspects of teaching, such as lesson notes preparation, teaching and learning aids preparation. There were hardly any accounts of interaction with supervisors on the challenges of using these instrumental tools of teaching. In fact, the language of instrumental materials dominated to the extent that the complex interactions of pupils and teachers, and how that leads to effective learning, was completely lost in the discussion of teaching practice with the Ghanaian teacher trainees. Instead, there was more focus on "getting the plan right" as is revealed in the following quotes:

...our lesson notes are vetted and I think we were doing the right thing, because teachers who come to supervise us in the final teaching practice don't find anything wrong with the lesson notes we prepare

...with the teaching practice you go for vetting, vet your teaching aids, the master will tell you I don't like this colour of the flash card, why did you use it and you will be penalised.

However, the conflicts encountered in "applying methodology", as has been pointed out, were not lost on them, but there seems to be too little dialogue with college supervisors on these conflicts. As this trainee related in his account of teaching practice experience:

Sometimes when you are teaching you ask yourself, am I teaching the right thing, am I using the right methods [emphasis ours]. You see the children contributing towards the lesson but you are not driving at the objective of the lesson, so sometimes you have to sit down two or three hours on a lesson notes [presumably to get it right!]

Clearly, this trainee felt if things were not going right it was probably because he had not got the method right and this meant going back to the lesson notes preparation to get it right. It is an example of the fixation on teaching as a mechanical performance with the emphasis on applying pedagogical strategies. In conclusion, "... what we need is not so much theories, and other conceptual matters, but, first and foremost, concrete situations to be perceived, experiences to be had, persons to be met, plans to be exerted, and their consequences to be reflected upon " (Kessels & Korthagen, 1996:21). This is what we believe will make "theory" relevant, particularly where it is not imposed as a lens through which one makes sense of the challenges of teaching, rather it is seen as one of the tools for helping the student teacher explore and make sense of teaching. There needs to be greater discourse on teaching as problem-solving where the teacher educator's task is to help trainees become more aware of salient features of their experience and not simply to teach a number of concepts or strategic processes. In addition, teacher educators need to help prospective teachers refine their perceptions about teaching from their experiences, and not simply to provide them with a set of general rules to apply (Kessel & Korthagen, 1996).