Bridging theory and practice in teacher education: teaching schools – a bridge too far?

Authors: Sarah Gravett and Sarita Ramsaroop

The Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development in South Africa of 2011 proposed the establishment of teaching schools to strengthen teacher education. These schools would be ‘teaching laboratories’ where students observe best practice and participate in teaching activities. They would also be centres for research into strengthening teacher education.

According to the Framework, the new teaching schools would be close to teacher education institutions, for student-teachers to access authentic classroom sites. Teachers at teaching schools would be developed as mentors for student-teachers and be able to teach methodology courses within the teacher education curriculum.

The authors selected six teacher education institutions for their study. These included rural and urban universities and universities of technology, offering both primary and secondary school teacher education. Heads of teacher education and teacher educators, together with nearby schools and their principals, teachers and school management teams, were given a series of questionnaires and interviews.
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Feedback showed that the participants all believed that there is a gap between the education of student-teachers at universities and the realities that novice teachers face once they enter the teaching profession. Bridging that gap would involve the following themes:

  • Student-teachers should observe a good practice example of school life. Teaching schools should contribute to improving their pedagogical craft and their curriculum content knowledge. Student-teachers would be ‘groomed as professionals’.
  • Student-teachers should experience the ‘real practice of what is happening in schools’. All the participants in the study agreed that teacher education is often too theoretical. Teaching schools could serve to ‘bridge the gap between theory and practice’.
  • There should be a collaborative relationship, with equal partnership between university teacher-educators and mentor teachers.

Most of the participants in this study did not have any experience of teaching schools. They tended to assume that they would offer current practices in a controlled environment. They were enthusiastic, but had little idea of how teaching schools would improve on the value offered by the schools which currently take in students for work-integrated learning.

The authors are left with a number of questions. How will the role of the teaching school differ from the role of the professional practice school? How will the experiences of student-teachers in a teaching school differ from the education of other student-teachers? How should teacher education be planned with teaching schools in mind?

In conclusion, serious discussions are needed between all stakeholders about how teaching schools could be integrated into teacher education.

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