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

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Learning to teach: making sense of learning to teach

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.)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Skip transcript: Audio 2

Transcript: Audio 2


Simon Bland:
Those of you that don’t need to be logging on, have a look at the starter on the board, think about what you did last lesson. So, today you’re actually going to be composing your own bass-lines…


Sarah Vaughn:
We call this initial teacher education, and I think that’s significant – it’s not just about training, we’re educating people to become teachers and it’s a career-long continuous development and I think the day you think you know it all is the time to give it up. I’m Sarah Vaughn. I’m a PGCE tutor for the Open University. As soon as you qualify as a teacher you also need to recognise that you are going to continue to learn and to learn that profession the more you do it, and it’s very useful to be able to make these connections between being a learner and being a teacher and recognising that that relationship is symbiotic: it goes ‘round together. There are plenty of pupils in our classrooms who are struggling and having difficulties with acquiring the knowledge or the skills that you’re asking them to use, and I think if you’ve got this ability to reflect on what it’s like to learn you can give them a lot more guidance and support in their struggle to gain that knowledge.
I think the key to learning about how to teach is understanding about learning yourself and the type of learner that you are. I’m very definitely a kinesthetic learner – I learn by doing things and once I've done it then it’s hardwired into my brain and I won’t forget it. So, you have to identify that in yourself and then you also have to realise that in front of you as a teacher there are a variety of different learners and you have to take all of those into consideration while you’re presenting your materials. I think you also need to think about different theories about how the brain develops and how, therefore, pupils’ and children’s brains develop and the sort of things they’re capable of at certain ages. So we are talking about sort of Piaget and stages, but we’re also talking about the types of activities that make learning possible, so we’ll be drawing on theorists like Bronfenbrenner and Vygotsky who will talk about the social context in which learning is taking place. As learners, we need to think about how other people learn and the types of activities that promote learning for us and for the pupils in our classrooms.


Simon Bland:
So, we’ll just have a look then... What you should have is something that looks like this – now, we’re going to open a screen now where you can input your notes. So, what I want you to do is actually just watch what I’m doing and then copy it.


Simon Bland:
Having done some teaching, you then need to think about what you’ve done in terms of when learning has been successful and when it’s been less than successful. So you need to make some sort of evaluation of what you’ve done in terms of teaching and assess what your pupils have learnt and then you can make a conclusion from that about the types of strategies that are effective, the things that work and the things that don’t work. But the things that work are not necessarily going to be the same in every context and I think that’s what makes teaching really interesting – the things that work in one school or the things that work with one class are not necessarily the things that work with another class. So you can have two year seven classes in the same school, but the way you actually approach the teaching and the learning that comes out of that may be structured in completely different ways. And that’s what makes the job fun, because you can think about different ways of putting your material across each time and I think that also reflects on this whole process of us as teachers growing and continuing to develop – we’re always finding better ways or new ways of teaching that we think might be an improvement on what we’ve done before.
Neville Ashcroft:
My name’s Neville Ashcroft. I’m a student teacher. This is my third placement, and I will finish in the next month or so. At the moment I’m deliberately not trying to have a (x) teaching style because I want to practice those different styles and see which ones suit me best. At the moment, I’m trying to be a chameleon and just copy other people’s styles and see what suits me. Being in school is the most critical part of the course – all very well sitting in your study or your bedroom at home looking at the literature, it really comes down to when you’re actually in front of those pupils practicing what you’ve learned that’s when you can really test yourself. You can practice different things.
Dave Smith:
I’m Dave Smith, Open University tutor on the PGCE course. It’s really important that trainees work in more than one school simply because schools vary so much and that as soon as you work in one school exclusively it becomes a training that means that you will find it very difficult to adapt if at any point in your career you need to move. And if someone starts in one school and becomes effective in that school it should be a taking-off point for an ability to work effectively in other situations, but if they remain in that school and remain there too long then those habits become exactly that: they become habits rather than practices that they’re aware of and thinking about and considering the applicability of.
Simon Bland:
I’m Simon Bland, I’m a PGCE student. The first placement school that I had in a city school – at the moment, the mix of that school is something along the lines of 60% Indian, 30% Somali, with the majority of the rest being Eastern-European. And so there’s a mix, you have language-issues, the class sizes are high... It’s a fascinating place, but also there’s a variety of behavioural issues and so I found that very, very hard. And then this school’s very different; it’s in a much more affluent area and overall the students are a lot more well-behaved. The issues are different here. I’m glad I did it that way ‘round; being there and knowing that there are times when you have to really seize down on a class and then coming here.
Dave Smith:
Many students find the move to a second school quite difficult, because they’ve often reached a point where they feel they’re competent, they feel they’re effective and suddenly the rug’s taken from underneath them because they’ve got to adapt to different people, to different pupils, to a different school ethos and that is probably the most crucial point in the whole of a PGCE or any other teacher-training course – that point at which they’ve accepted their competence, but find that that competence is limited and then they can really move on to a position which enables them to work in a range of situations.
Sarah Vaughn:
I think when you start as a teacher, you’re so terrified about every new class that you made and you’re terrified that you’re not going to be able to control them that the majority of your waking moments are planning your classroom management strategies and how you're going to deal with behaviour and challenges that the pupils present to you and that seems to take up an awful lot of what you think about when you’re planning lessons, is making sure that the management side of things runs smoothly. And I think one of the advantages of getting a bit older is that those things are more secure and you’re happier with yourself that you know you can control situations and that things are not going to go wrong, and it allows you then to think a little bit more in detail about the quality of the teaching and the quality of the learning that’s taking place for the students, and being able to draw on other aspects of your own knowledge in order to help students make progress. For example, I’ve started to work on visual learners and using works of art to illustrate and support an understanding of some of the modern music styles which I wouldn’t have thought about in early days when I was still worrying about whether somebody was going to be off-task talking.
We’re all individual and as a teacher you need to develop your teaching personality, and I think in order to do that you need to see how other people do it. You need to see how other people work with children, how other people manage classrooms, how other people structure curriculums. And the more variety that you can see, the more variety that you’ve experienced, will give you a basis to work out how you want to be in the classroom – the sort of teacher you want to be while you’re working. If you’re worried about management and if you’re worried about losing control, then you often put a barrier up, you put a sort of defence up and you don’t let yourself come through and I think, actually, you need to be able to do that because you’re a person working with people; you’re not a computer, you’re not a robot. They’ve got feelings, and particularly teenagers are so wound up in their hormones and all their feelings and their emotions – and I think if they realise that you are a person, and actually you’re a person who can be relied upon because you’re not a friend, you’re not a peer... it’s a bit like parenting, I suppose, where you can’t be your children’s best friend cause actually sometimes you have to assert your authority and you have to lay down the law and say ‘these things have got to be done, or these are my expectations’ and I think you can do that, but still show your human side and still become a person that they can have a relationship with and that they can develop some trust with and I think if you have that really good sense of trust and understanding of each other then actually they will do pretty much what you want them to do.
So I guess after 26 years of teaching experience, the idea of developing your relationship with the children you teach is probably the best bit of advice I’d give to student teachers.
End transcript: Audio 2
Audio 2
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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.


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