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Learning to teach: making sense of learning to teach
Learning to teach: making sense of learning to teach

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4 School experience

For all ITE courses there are national requirements that have to be met. For example, there are rules about the minimum amount of weeks that student teachers are required to be in school.

The nature of the school experience and the expectations about how students learn from the experience are indicative of the underpinning philosophy of the ITE course. We can consider this through a case study of The Open University PGCE approach to school experience (please note that The Open University’s PGCE course has now been discontinued but is typical of many university run PGCE courses):

Case study: School experience

The OU PGCE course had three levels, each with a school experience placement. The first and last placements were taken in the same school to create an ABA placement pattern. The three levels introduced key educational ideas and theories, allowing students to experience, research and develop these ideas through the school placement, and then allowing them to reflect, learn from their experience and consolidate their learning in assessment tasks. The three levels represented three stages of development; orientation, consolidation and autonomy. Most university PGCE courses run on a similar basis with students starting in a highly supported environment and gradually taking on more responsibility.

During the orientation phase student teachers were introduced to the school and the subject department of school A through gradually building up to teaching classes. They were expected to teach whole classes by the end of a five-week period, during which time they were expected to:

  • observe a range of teachers and classes (including those from other subjects to observe particular types of practice, e.g. managing practical group work)
  • meet key members of staff who they will need to work with, e.g. Special Educational Needs Coordinators
  • begin to develop an understanding of the broader school context by attending meetings, events and supporting a tutor group
  • plan lessons with the subject mentor and evaluate the planning and teaching
  • teach lessons, or parts of lessons, to build up knowledge of classes, schemes of work and a range of approaches to common class issues
  • complete investigatory activities which support them understand the school context, the pupils, the approach to teaching and learning in the school and issues that they have discussed in preparatory workshops and will complete assessments on at the end of the placement.

After the five weeks, the student teachers had a period of reflection and consolidation of their learning. This included a series of assessment tasks that integrated the ideas and theories with their experiences in school and their post-experience reflections on their learning.

This pattern of study, school experience and post-experience reflection and consolidation of learning was repeated at each level with a greater emphasis on taking responsibility for teaching classes and researching practice as the course progressed.

Activity 5: School experience

Timing: Time: 30 minutes

Re-read the PGCE case study, above, and listen to Sarah and Dave talking about learning to teach. (Please note that The Open University’s PGCE course mentioned in this audio has now been discontinued but is typical of many university run PGCE courses.)

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Think about these questions:

  • What are the benefits of learning to teach in two different schools?
  • Does the way in which the course organises its school experience reflect particular paradigms or approaches to ITE, as defined by Zeichner and Taylor?
  • If yes, then what is the evidence?

Sarah reflects on what she was apprehensive about and on the importance of building relationships.

  • If you are thinking of becoming a teacher, what do you think you will be most apprehensive about? What experience do you bring to the profession that will help you in developing good relationships with your classes and your colleagues?
  • If you are a teacher, do you agree with Sarah? How do you think you can support student teachers in developing good relationships with their classes and with their colleagues? What is the key piece of advice you would give to student teachers?


Sarah makes a number of points, but one of the most significant is that learning to be a teacher is about developing your own ‘teaching personality’. Learning to be a teacher involves drawing on your previous experiences, and the opportunities that you have as a student teacher, in order to develop that personality. And it will change as your career progresses and you gather more experience.

In reality, choosing an ITE course may come down to very practical considerations such as availability of places or personal experiences of a provider, rather than the philosophy which underpins a course. However, as with any learning, it is how individuals take control of their own learning that will influence the type of teacher they become.

To that end, it is worth examining the views student teachers themselves about what helped them to learn effectively.