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close this bookAn Analysis of Primary Teacher Education in Trinidad and Tobago: The MUSTER Project (CIE, 2002, 156 p.)
close this folderChapter 5. Trainees' In-College Learning Experiences
View the document5.1 Introduction
View the document5.2 Literary Studies
View the document5.3 Science
View the document5.4 Mathematics
View the document5.5 Discussion

5.1 Introduction

In the attempt to more fully understand the nature of the interactions among college lecturers' espoused views on the curriculum, their actual delivery of the curriculum, trainees' experience of the curriculum, and other contextual factors, four researchers (independently) observed teaching/learning episodes at the teachers' colleges. In each case, the researcher had secured permission to attend the session from the lecturer beforehand. The researchers functioned simply as observers, taking detailed notes of the events and interactions during the session. In all, six lecturers were observed and interviewed.

The specific research question pursued was:

· How well do the stated intentions of teacher educators mesh with what is revealed in the curriculum in action?

The following accounts of lessons in the areas of literary studies, science, and mathematics are presented in an effort to portray the enacted and the experienced curriculum. These accounts serve to present some “snapshots” of in-college learning experiences of trainees. Three such snapshots are presented.

5.2 Literary Studies

I say, if you have to teach this... you're not just going to leave it in the world of Shakespeare. You're going to bring it home! Bring it relevant! Find a similar situation to which they are going to relate. And then you are likely to get... interactions, the interactions you want in terms of their own responses.

Mr. M. (not his real name) has been a lecturer in Literary Studies, since 1993. He has indicated that he feels the main challenges of teaching Literary Studies to the trainees lie in the range of abilities and previous experience they bring to the subject, and the limited cultural experiences they bring to their teaching generally. He has also noted the difficulties of establishing an adequate level of interaction with these students, given the large groups with which he must deal, and the limits of time within the crowded curriculum. At the same time, he expressed the belief that literature is pivotal to any curriculum, and certainly to the teachers' college curriculum, which, he believes, must prepare the trainees for the complexities of their dealings with the students in the school. He says that he must try to impart to the trainees both the academic content and the human dimension of teaching. “It is no point if you are trying to interact with people's minds,” he says, “if you are going to ignore their emotions.”

He is also concerned because, he says, the college curriculum doesn't do enough to promote the holistic development of the teachers. But to get them to profit from the literature experience, he feels that he must get them to “embrace the literature.” He must get them to see it as relevant to their own lives. It is all these understandings that he says he brings to the teaching of literature.

The course in Literary Studies, as Mr. M. describes it, is divided among three lecturers. One lecturer deals mainly with the methodology for teaching literature. The other two focus on the texts. Mr. M. 's responsibility is to teach the Shakespearian and West Indian texts.

Given his understanding of the challenges of his job, it is not surprising that Mr. M.'s main emphasis in teaching literature is on making the content of the subject relevant to the real-life circumstances of the trainees, and on maintaining interaction and personal contact with them. Yet, his own lectures are conducted in the College Hall to dauntingly large classes. Nearly 200 students were present at the session observed.

His style of delivery is quite idiosyncratic. Theoretical issues are concretised by him through personal narratives, some of them based on his experiences in the wider community, some based on his interactions with trainees at the college itself. Thus, students are able to respond and, even though the class is quite large, there is some level of interaction between individual members of the group and the lecturer. Also, because a number of the narratives relate to events which they know about, even students who are not speaking to the lecturer can be seen nodding and showing other signs of their involvement in the discussion.

For a significant proportion of the time, however, the lesson is conducted not only as a straight lecture, but with a large measure of extremely transmission-oriented techniques. Some students apparently do not have their texts. Others were absent from the previous lecture. Mr. M.'s way of dealing with this situation, and with his understanding of their limited background in literature, is to call notes. He also has students repeat the notes he has called, verbatim. “Let us read that note together,” he says, as he refers to a note given at the previous session. After the students read it, he insists that they read it again. Finally he signals the reason why he is insisting that they repeat the note. “I shall ask you again to read it, TOGETHER,” he says, for yet another time, and after the third reading, he comments, “You will recognise that I am a little concerned for the people who were not here for that lecture, and to get the notes.”

At other times, he explicitly models how to conduct literary analysis. After one discussion on how the author uses language, for example, he says, “Let's move to the last paragraph, because you are learning how to critique the short story, how to read it, and discover it as more than a story.” When he elicits comments from some students about another character, he stops and says, “I am inserting that in your notes - your own comments. So those of you who read the story and say that you don't know what to say, you are learning commentary.”

Thus, the lecture proceeds as a mix of shared exploration of the text and of direct and explicit instruction in what to do, what to note, and how to think in responding to literature. The students seem quite content with this approach, reading aloud together when he asks them to do so, or scribbling notes frantically as he calls them. In spite of this, however, there are some students in the back of the hall who clearly have no text, and who sit staring into space, or whispering to each other sporadically.

There is only one explicit reference during this class as to how literature may be applied to their own teaching. Within the story, there is a reference to a situation where social class differences are shown to influence how characters treat one another. Mr. M. guides the discussion towards the issue of how this attitude is manifest in the trainees' own communities, and in the wider society. He questions, “Is somebody bad because they don't live according to your philosophy?” The group takes this up, and begins to relate examples of discrimination that they have seen, which appear to be based on social or religious differences. At the end of the discussion, he reminds them that, “this is where the literature content will affect our methodology. It should lead us to an examination of our perceptions. How do we feel about the small, smelly child? Are there people who teachers teach more feverishly than others?” It is one of the last issues raised during the session.

At the end of the class, the researcher comments to a student who has appeared engrossed throughout the entire lecture that she seemed quite interested. She says, “He's always like that.” As the researcher leaves the Hall, Mr. M. is sitting in the middle of the Hall, talking to a group of students from the sister island of Tobago whom he had supervised during the previous teaching practice. Some are teasing him, and one is confiding her problems with her landlady. Mr. M. listens, and makes sympathetic comments. As he has said, describing his own theory of what it is to be a teacher, it is no point interacting with their minds if you are going to ignore their emotions.

5.3 Science

Ms. J. (not her real name) has taught at both teachers' colleges. She first taught Psychology and Principles of Education, and this experience, to a large extent, has influenced her approaches to the teaching of science. She explains that the trainees come to her with different experiences in science, and some of them lack the necessary content knowledge on which she could adequately build. She claims that they come to her with “lots of misconceptions in the physical sciences” as a result of exposure to what she refers to as “Trini teaching... basically teaching from a book.” She uses everyday materials in her teaching, and tries to provide situations that will allow the trainees to come to some understandings of science. She feels that she is well positioned to do this since she intuitively understands how her trainees are thinking. She herself has had to clarify a number of her own misconceptions. She also feels that there is an “empowerment component” in teaching, since “... how we teach is just as important as what we teach... can give more meaning to content.”

Classes are held in a large science laboratory. Trainees' projects were displayed on counters around the room, and there were charts and teaching aids displayed on the walls. One of the lessons observed was on the topic “Matter,” and it was taught to a class of 44 trainees, of whom 15 were male.

Ms. J. begins the lesson by eliciting her trainees' prior knowledge of the topic and having them, in groups of two or three, look for five examples in the room. This introduction takes about eight minutes. She then questions them on the components of matter and how matter is classified. She continues to build on their responses by having them read selected areas from the text. There is further discussion about the nature of the substances identified in the text.

Ms. J. then moves into a group activity, where the trainees, in groups of seven or eight, put substances into the three groups - solids, liquids, and gases. Ms. J. moves from group to group, asking probing questions to have the trainees determine the basis for their classifications. Group responses are then summarised in tabular form on the blackboard. This activity, which lasts for about 15 minutes, is very interactive and generates lively discussion.

Ms. J. continues to develop the concept through the use of concrete examples and questioning strategies. Together, they explore gas/volume relationships (opening a bottle of perfume), make links to atomic structure, and then use marbles in a glass to illustrate the patterns of arrangement of solids, liquids, and gases. Ms. J. makes use of probing questions, such as “In which case are the molecules closest? In which case are they vibrating?” to come to some conclusions on proximity of molecules, amount of movement, amount of energy, and attractive forces in each of the groups. The concept is then reinforced with a fun activity. Trainees are asked to form three large groups and role-play to demonstrate their understandings of the properties of matter. This activity, which lasts for about 20 minutes, allows for some relaxation in the 90-minute lesson.

Ms. J. continues by building further on the concepts already developed. She uses questioning again to elicit trainees' responses on effect of temperature on matter. For example, she asks: “Does physical property change?” This discussion continues for about 8 minutes, and the trainees then move into another group activity. They are required to identify six changes that occur to solids, liquids, and gases due to changes in temperature. They are given clear instructions. Explanations of changes of state must be at the molecular level, and they must also explain each change using the kinetic theory. Ms. J. again moves around to each group, asking open-ended questions, answering trainees' questions, and attempting to clarify issues. There is much discussion among trainees themselves and between Ms. J. and the trainees. There is also some disagreement on how the kinetic theory can be used to explain changes of state. Trainees work in their groups for about 15 minutes, and then present their results. The results from each group are summarised and recorded on the blackboard. Some issues are unresolved and will need to be clarified. The session has come to an end, and the main points of the lesson are summarised.

Trainees seemed to be highly motivated. The pace of the lesson allowed trainees sufficient time to internalise the concepts. At the end of each teaching point, the trainees were given some activity that allowed for further clarification of issues through student/student as well as teacher/student interaction. The strategy of summarising at intervals during the lesson helped trainees to process small amounts of information at a time. The role-play also introduced an element of fun and gave trainees an opportunity to relax during the long session. The frequent switch in strategies also prevented boredom; trainees were engaged throughout the entire lesson and were in fact reluctant to leave since there were still some unresolved issues. They obviously needed more time for the last activity, which, for the majority of them, seemed to be the most challenging part of the lesson.

5.4 Mathematics

This class was held in a lecture theatre room with about 60 students. As the trainees filter in, there are some light-hearted exchanges between trainees and the lecturer, Mr. P., who is standing behind a large desk at the front of the room.

The lesson is a continuation of work done previously on capacity and volume. Mr. P. begins by putting out several different coloured shapes on his desk. He then asks for a pack of cards from a student and proceeds, through questioning, to develop the concept that one card has area but “no” thickness, but that several cards stacked one on top of the other have measurable thickness. From this point, he proceeds to develop the concept that the volume of the pack of cards would be the area of the base multiplied by the height/thickness, and that a more general formula for volume would be cross-sectional area x height.

Mr. P. then applies this formula to different solids, demonstrating its applicability. In the case of cubes, he builds up a table on the blackboard to show how the formula applies, by using multiple cubes of the same size. He also introduces a few solids to which the formula could not readily apply and terms these “trouble.”

At this point, Mr. P. makes suggestions about how the concept of the volume of these regular shapes could be presented to pupils in the primary school classroom. He encourages trainees to let their pupils use the apparatus to work out the volume of increasing numbers of cubes, then to challenge them to use the pattern in the results to work out the volume without the blocks.

Another mathematics lecturer, Mr. Y., walks into the room at this point and, after the exchange of some pleasantries, is allowed to take over the lesson for about 10 minutes. The students seem unperturbed by this and continue to be attentive. Mr. Y. deals with the relationship between the volume of a cone and the volume of a cylinder with a similar base. Again, through questioning, he gets students to infer the relationship between the volume of the cone and the volume of the cylinder, leading to the generation of the formula for the volume of a cone. Again, reference is made to the primary school pupil, and trainees are encouraged to conduct the experiments with pupils using different sizes of cones and cylinders.

Using similar techniques, Mr. Y. establishes the relationship between the volume of a pyramid and the volume of a prism. The presentation here is more rapid and not as detailed as that for the cone and the cylinder.

Mr. P. takes over, and draws trainees' attention to the everyday experience of cutting a pyramid (wedge) from a watermelon. He links the pyramid to a sphere and establishes the volume of a sphere. Again, the presentation here is fast-paced and not as detailed as the earlier presentations with the cube. He advises trainees that this type of work should only be used in the higher primary school classes and/or for enrichment.

In the final stages of the class, Mr. P. refers to a framework that had been developed in a previous class. There is no expansion on this and the matter is left hanging. Mr. P. then shows the class a bag full of manipulatives/resource materials (matches, pallet sticks, aerosol can covers, etc.) that can be used to make the teaching of mathematics more interactive.

This was a lively presentation by Mr. P. and his colleague, Mr. Y, in which interactive techniques were used. Mr. Y. later lamented the fact that it was necessary to teach the lessons through demonstrations instead of through active hands-on activities performed by the trainees themselves, because of the lack of suitable facilities and equipment.

Throughout the presentation, trainees were generally attentive. The lecturers both interspersed their presentations with teacher-initiated questions. Trainees responded willingly but the responses were nearly always short phrases or sentences. There was only one instance of a trainee-initiated question to which Mr. P. responded by directing the trainee to the relevant portion of the text. Most trainees were observed taking notes throughout and, in a few instances, the lecturer would pause to facilitate note taking.

The inductive reasoning in the earlier part of the lesson was presented at a slower pace, and in more detail, than in the latter parts of the lesson. Trainees with a weak mathematics background might have experienced no difficulty with the earlier parts of the lesson, but might have found the concept load and the more rapid rate towards the end difficult to handle.

5.5 Discussion

The descriptions of these lessons provide some snapshots of what happens in the college classroom. It is to be noted that the researchers were only able to act as observers in the classes of lecturers who volunteered to be a part of the research project. This means, therefore, that one cannot generalise based on the snapshots obtained. However, there are a few features of these snapshots that provide information on some of the experiences of trainees.

It is noteworthy that none of these teaching/learning sessions involved a “straight” lecture. Mr. M's class was closest to this delivery format but, in many ways, was quite different to what one would expect in a normal lecture. His engagement with the discipline and with his students and their real-life experiences was quite striking.

In the science class described above, group work was used. This lecturer was able to put together enough equipment and materials to permit direct hands-on activities by trainees. This lecturer embraces the philosophy that the subject should be taught to the trainee in a manner congruent with the way in which the trainee would teach his/her pupils. In the mathematics class, the lecturer simply made reference to how the subject might be taught to the primary school pupil. However, he did attempt to show how it could be done through demonstrations.

A significant proportion of class time involved trainees in higher-order thinking activities. However, there were no instances where trainees were able to pursue problems that they had thought of - all of the sessions had fixed and finite goals.

One lecturer alluded to the fact that a fair amount of “straight” lecturing occurs in the college. This project was not able to determine how widespread this practice is. However, the practice may be linked to some extent to the way in which the curriculum is organised. The college curriculum represents a heavy load for both students and staff. Students are timetabled for almost all the periods per week, yet it is still impossible to devote the number of hours for each subject that the documents suggest (Lewin et al, 2000). Though the organisation of teaching differs between colleges, students are taught mostly in large groups (between 60-200), except for the elective subjects where numbers can be much smaller. Both the lengthy syllabus and the large class size make it difficult for the tutors to model interactive, participatory styles of teaching unless they are particularly resourceful, committed, and creative. Teaching loads work out, on average, to be less than 50% of the total number of periods per week, but this hides a wide variety. In addition, during much of the year, lecturers are visiting schools to supervise students on teaching practice at the same time as running their courses in college. This raises questions of whether the curriculum time for both staff and students could be organised in more effective ways. (See Lewin et al, 2000 for further discussion of this issue.)

The role of the lecturer/teacher educator is also critical. There is the need for more carefully defined and developed structures for training and re-training of teacher educators. It should also be noted that the teacher educators who were involved in this project represent just about 20% of the total staff at the colleges. These teacher educators were willing to be a part of the project, but there were others who were not willing to be so involved. It is therefore unclear whether the types of teaching strategies observed in the college classrooms are common across the full range of teacher educators. It is, therefore, difficult to specify the extent of re-training that might be needed.