Integrating Theoretical with Practical Studies in Foreign Language Teacher Education
- Problems, Experiences and Proposals
Andreas Marschollek (Erfurt)
University-based foreign language teacher education programmes aim at providing students with an optimal preparatory foundation for their work at school. This is effected by enabling the students to develop a range of qualifications required by professional language teachers. To meet this objective it seems especially important to integrate intensively practical aspects with the theoretical studies in the coursework. The article on hand discusses the relevance of practical studies within the general aims of foreign language teacher education. It also addresses some problems that recur in this context and puts forward proposals on how to cope with them. The points arising in this article are based on both the data and the experiences collected in two teacher training courses conducted by the author in the summer semester 2003 at Erfurt University.
Aims of foreign language teacher education
Foreign language teachers are faced with the task of making language learning a variegated experience by allowing learners to develop a wide range of competencies. According to the Thuringian curriculum, for example, learners are not only expected to reach a certain level of communicative competence in the foreign language, but also to be able to organize their learning processes with increasing autonomy while, at the same time, benefiting from the advantages of cooperation. Furthermore, the pupils are encouraged to use the foreign language both to establish and to intensify social interaction. Thus they are enabled to feel increasingly at ease with foreign people, languages and cultures (Thüringer Kultusministerium, 1999: 5-9 & 2001: 5).
To provide their learners with such a multi-faceted learning environment, teachers have to rely on a variety of competencies on their part. Apart from foreign language proficiency, he/she depends on a rich inventory of professional knowledge in linguistics, literary studies, psychology, pedagogy, sociology and philosophy. Further indispensable requirements include the ability and the readiness to cooperate with pupils, parents and colleagues. The ability to advance these competencies continuously by reflecting on their teaching experience against the background of their theoretical knowledge must be considered especially important.
It is the combination of these qualifications that allows teachers to develop the self-confidence they require to organize foreign language learning processes flexibly and responsibly in the face of changing conditions. This appears especially important in view of recent studies on the quality of teaching at German schools such as PISA (OECD 2000; Deutsches PISA-Konsortium 2002) and with regard to the debates about school reforms and teacher education triggered by them (e.g. Fahrholz, Gabriel & Müller, 2002). Whatever future reforms may involve in particular - they will certainly require competent and motivated teachers who will implement them in close cooperation with pupils, parents and colleagues.
The preconditions for acquiring the above qualifications involve the following three aspects: firstly completing a teacher education programme at university successfully, secondly taking the first independent steps under the supervision of experienced colleagues in the traineeship and thirdly continually fine-tuning the theoretical and practical knowledge in the further course of their careers. However, it is crucial for the students, teacher trainees and teachers to be supported in this process throughout all the stages of their studies and their professional career.
The significance of practical studies in foreign language teacher education
The German model of teacher education is basically divided into two parts - a university-based programme followed by a school-based preparatory teaching practice (traineeship) so that the university is, in effect, responsible for setting the theoretical foundations for foreign language teaching. The university courses cover various aspects of foreign language teaching as well as linguistics and literary studies. Furthermore, related disciplines such as general pedagogy, psychology, philosophy and sociology are also included. While the major focus necessarily rests on theory, practical studies do, in fact, provide an indispensable and mandatory constituent of university-based teacher education programmes (Baur, Klippel, Vollmer, Zimmermann & Zydatiß, 1998: 77-78; Müller, Steinbring & Wittmann, 2002: 78-80). At Erfurt, for example, the students draft, implement and evaluate lessons in each of their subjects not only during a five-week field experience at school, but also in a specific 'practicum' which takes place and which is supervised by a university lecturer during the semester. It is important to note that these practical studies are closely related to other courses within the programme including courses that specifically focus on the preparation for and the critical evaluation of the teaching practice module. The basic intention is to encourage students to gain a deeper understanding of both the didactic and the methodological aspects that are directly related to the teaching of their subjects (Rektor der Pädagogischen Hochschule Erfurt, 1996: 4) and thus to prepare them for their work both as teacher trainees and as regular teachers. Central to this is the ability to reflect critically on their classroom experience to acquire insights leading to a more effective approach to the teaching and learning processes and to have them tailored to the needs of a specific class.
The practical studies are in fact the first opportunity for most students to experience directly the classroom situation. Thus they inevitably feel the need for training outside mere theoretical knowledge: They do not only have to organize detailed lesson plans which involves taking many methodological and didactic decisions while considering a large number of teaching conditions. But, in addition, they also have to put the lessons into practice with their class and to be able to react flexibly when confronted by unexpected situations or pedagogical problems. What is more, they have to evaluate systematically their own teaching performance and the learner achievement in order to be able to organize the subsequent lessons in a responsible fashion.
This shows that the practical studies will inevitably influence the students' perception of the teacher training programme as a whole and - equally important - of their ability to work as a teacher. The practical studies can add tremendously to the students' understanding of the functions the various modules within the teacher education programme have for their future work (Vollmer & Butzkamm, 1998: 55-56). This kind of transparency is a precondition for their ability to advance their foreign language teaching competency autonomously. In particular, it enables students to identify and concentrate on special interests or possible deficits. At this point, the motivational relevance of the practical studies needs to be especially emphasized. The students have now been enabled to gain the self-confidence for successfully organizing foreign language learning. However, some students may decide that they are unfit for teaching.
In this context, the importance of supervising the students throughout the practical studies becomes apparent. The high demands outlined above represent considerable challenges in areas the students are not familiar with. Consequently the university lecturer's support must not stop short of allowing the students to acquire a sense of achievement during the practical studies. Both the critical reflection on their experience and the constructive solution of possible problems will emerge as especially important aspects. By these means, it will become more likely that students will not only think in terms of 'surviving' their first lessons but that they will actually benefit from their experiences systematically with the intended positive effects on their achievement within the teacher education programme as a whole.
Problems of integrating practical studies into university-based foreign language teacher education
The attempts to integrate practical studies into university-based teacher education programmes have been thwarted by a number of problems. To begin with, the weighting of practical studies in the programmes seems relatively low. According to the relevant study programme, students at Erfurt University are only expected to teach two lessons in each of their subjects under the supervision of their university lecturer (Rektor der Pädagogischen Hochschule Erfurt, 1999: 5-6). Thus the teaching experience necessarily remains highly selective. This limits the students' opportunities to reflect intensively on the teaching and learning processes which basically have a long-term character and effect.
The relatively low status of the practical studies is also reflected by the fact that the students' achievement in the teacher education programme is assessed virtually without taking this aspect into consideration. Only in economic terms does this focus on the expansion of theoretical knowledge rather than on intensifying teaching experience seem effective. After all it is primarily a respectable final grade that grants access to employment as a teacher. However, it has to be pointed out that most students do consider the practical studies extremely important for their studies and consequently show a great deal of personal initiative and commitment. Nevertheless, they feel that the practical studies are not given enough weight in the examination regulations. According to a survey in one of the author's seminars, a majority of 26 out of 43 participating teacher students would even welcome a grade in the practical studies to be included in their final score.
The present limited financial scope of the universities may well further hamper the effectiveness of the practical studies. In each practicum, only a small number of students can be supervised. With rising student numbers this inevitably leads to stalling shortages in personal and may cause larger groups respectively - resulting in an appropriate support of the individual participants being increasingly difficult. It is important to note that the integration of theoretical with practical studies becomes even more difficult if the supervision of the practicum is delegated to in-service teachers at school. While a close cooperation with schools and teacher training institutions is undoubtedly necessary, it seems of crucial importance to implement schemes that allow the integration of theory and practice under the supervision of university staff.
A number of further problems relate directly to the way practical studies are integrated in theoretical courses at university. As a matter of fact, some students do criticize the teacher education programmes as too theory-laden and express their desire for courses more closely related to practical aspects of teaching. It is disturbing that some students even fear that university may fail to prepare them adequately for their professional work. As a result, they hope that the school-based traineeship will compensate for that deficit. It also has to be acknowledged that some prospective teachers stop short of developing a sufficient awareness as to how theoretical knowledge applies to practical teaching and vice versa. As a consequence they may arrive at a distorted image of the "professional teacher" that neglects the potential of linking theoretical and practical studies - a view reflected in a slogan occasionally spread at the beginning of the traineeship: "Forget everything you have learned about teaching at university. Here you will finally learn how to teach."
It is important to note, however, that many students do have complex subjective theories of what they need to learn to become professional language teachers and that they are sensitized to the fact that they specifically require an understanding of the interconnection between theory and practice (Zydatiß, 1998: 301). This is reflected in the following statement of a third-year student studying to become a primary school foreign language teacher who was questioned by the author:
In many courses you get the impression that you are always learning completely new things that have little connection to what we have learned in our courses. I often lack the general perspective that lets me understand how the knowledge is interconnected. However, if the attention is directed to the future work as a teacher, you realize that everything becomes meaningful and useful in that context. [...] Many lecturers do offer courses in which one can learn a lot one desperately needs later as a teacher. The offer of theoretical, didactic and methodological courses is well-balanced. The necessary theoretical background is sufficiently founded. As a result of the studies in pedagogy, psychology and the subjects you feel quite competent. [...] However, apart from the theory there is a lack of sufficient practical studies. For what use is knowledge in pedagogy if you cannot put it to the test. In addition, there is a lack of methodological seminars. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that you learn less in many courses as they are totally overcrowded. What is the use of a SEMINAR with 150 students?
This student's perspective on the teacher education programme she is attending is in line with the considerations above and confirms the conclusion that the present code of practice of integrating practical with theoretical studies gives much room for improvement. While changes in the general conditions of study could significantly facilitate such efforts, solutions to the problems raised above can nevertheless be explored within the present framework (Gabel, 1997: 197-198).
Proposals to facilitate the integration of theoretical with practical studies
Some proposals for alleviating the problems outlined above will be illustrated with reference to experiences and data collected in the context of two foreign language teacher training courses implemented by the author in the summer semester of 2003. The first course was a practicum with five participants studying to become primary school foreign language teachers in their third year. It explored methods together with their effectiveness in producing videos in the foreign language with primary school pupils, and the course looked at both the theoretical and the practical aspects. The second course also addressed third-year students and focussed on the application and critical evaluation of digital media in the primary and secondary foreign language classroom. Both courses involved two credit hours per week. In addition to the objectives implied by the respective thematic orientation, both courses were specifically aimed at fostering the students' sense of achievement and thus increasing their confidence to be appropriately prepared for foreign language teaching. In particular, this was to be achieved by means of
- extending and intensifying the participants' teaching experiences,
- systematically encouraging them to reflect on their practical teaching experiences against the background of their theoretical studies and
- fostering their ability and willingness to cooperate and to share information.
A) Extending and intensifying teaching experiences
To involve the students in practical teaching intensively, three foreign language projects were devised in the two courses. One project for use in a sixth class at secondary school was jointly planned in the context of the digital media seminar as an opportunity for its participants to apply the theoretical knowledge they acquired in the coursework. In particular, they had to devise a unit in which the class produces a virtual 'mystery tour' of their hometown Erfurt in English with the help of various digital media. The final product aimed at motivating its users to explore Erfurt from a pupil's point of view which involved completing a number of tasks. These included, for example, Internet research. The 'mystery tour' might later be posted to pupils of a partner school in an English-speaking country, who could not only use it to gather interesting information about a German town, but also give its German authors some feedback as to whether or not they enjoyed the tour or whether they had any proposals how to improve it linguistically. On their part the English-speaking pupils could develop a similar tour of their hometown in German and thus reverse the roles. This would provide both partners with a good opportunity to reflect on the projects critically and to communicate with each other. As no opportunity to teach the project at school could be provided in the context of the digital media seminar, it had to be left to its participants to put this aspect into practice later during their studies.
In contrast to this, two further projects designed in the second course - the practicum - were immediately implemented and evaluated in a third and a fourth class at Europaschule Erfurt. In the case of the third class the general aim was to enable the pupils to talk about the topic 'school'. More precisely, the student teachers were given the task to devise a project comprising seven lessons in which the pupils were expected to produce a presentation of their school in English. The presentation was to be video-recorded and later published on the Internet. Furthermore, in the final lesson of the project the class was visited by an English guest. This way the pupils could present their school in the foreign language to both real and 'virtual' visitors.
The second project had a similar structure and was to be implemented with year four pupils who were about to complete their final year at primary school. The intention was to give them the opportunity to demonstrate their achievement after four years of foreign language learning. At Europaschule Erfurt foreign language teaching already starts in the first and in the second class with two 25-minute sequences a week. In classes three and four there are two full English lessons a week on the timetable. During the six lessons of the project, the fourth class produced a video in which they presented themselves and their class. At the end of the project, each pupil received the video on CD - as a reminder of their English lessons at primary school and as a supplement to their language portfolio that was just being tested at the school on behalf of the Thuringian Ministry of Education.
Of the fifteen meetings available for the practicum, five were devoted to the planning and preparation of the two projects. Subsequently, the projects were taught over a period of seven and six weeks respectively. In the remaining meetings the projects were evaluated on the basis of individual notes, video-recordings of all lessons and questionnaires filled in by the pupils. While both projects were jointly designed by all participants, it was up to the student teachers to concretize individual lessons autonomously - with the support of the university lecturer. Thus each student was responsible for planning and implementing at least one lesson for the class as a whole. Furthermore, the participants were encouraged to involve their fellow students deliberately during these lessons - e.g. in group work. In addition to that each student had to organize the learning processes for a group of five pupils during a two-hour phase of group work that was integrated in each project. By these measures the support for the children was intensified significantly which also contributed to the fact that the relatively complex projects could be implemented in a comparatively short period of time. At the same time, the students were in fact actively involved in all the lessons and thus had extensive teaching experience over an extended period of time in two different age groups.
B) Reflecting on teaching experience against a theoretical background
To improve the conditions for reflecting on the teaching experience for all students, the digital media seminar and the practicum were coordinated with each other - thus facilitating synergetic effects. Formally both courses had to remain independent - the reason being that only six students could participate in the practicum. What is more, the practicum only addressed students who were studying to become primary school teachers. In contrast to this, the digital media seminar was open to a larger number of students - including those who were studying to become secondary school teachers. Nevertheless, a close link between both courses could be established by encouraging the participants in the practicum to enrol in the digital media seminar as well - which four students did, in fact, do. Apart from them, the digital media seminar was also attended by eight students who had no opportunity to have first-hand teaching experience during the semester. Thus both groups could profit significantly from this constellation. The participants in the practicum allowed all members in the digital media seminar to participate actively in the planning and evaluation of their projects by regularly reporting on their progress. They discussed their lesson plans, used videos and photos to share their teaching experience and finally reflected on the results of the projects in class.
To further sensitize the students to the importance of integrating practical with theoretical studies, both seminars systematically combined phases of instruction related to both these aspects of foreign language teaching which were reflected on critically at each stage. The intensive practical experience and the problems frequently served both as triggers and as objects for such discussions. They also initiated further investigation of theoretical issues und thus contributed to the development of the students' language teaching awareness.
The importance of processing practical teaching experience against a theoretical background was also reflected in the assignments the students in both courses were asked to complete to qualify for a certificate of academic achievement. In the digital media seminar the students were given the opportunity to reflect on the 'mystery tour' project from different perspectives. Each of them elaborated on a specific aspect of the use of digital media in foreign language teaching that had been discussed in class - including the use of authoring tools, Internet communication or Internet research as well as the possibilities and limitations of evaluating pupil achievement in foreign language teaching projects. The students illustrated their theoretical considerations by suggesting how these could be put into practice in the context of the jointly devised project. In addition to that, the texts were to be designed to serve as modules of a guide to teaching English with digital media providing students, teacher trainees and teachers with both theoretical background and practical advice. These students who also participated in the practicum were asked to describe and reflect on specific aspects of the two teaching projects they implemented at Europaschule Erfurt. Once finished, these modules were to be added to a detailed description of the two projects ready for publication on the Internet.
Giving the reflection of practical teaching this much weight both in the coursework and in the evaluation of their academic achievement was intended to show the students that their involvement in the practical studies is not only taken seriously within the teacher education programme, but that it is also appreciated in terms of overall achievement.
C) Cooperating and sharing information
The two courses were intended to boost the students' sense of achievement as well as their confidence so that they would feel to be adequately prepared for foreign language teaching. They also offered the participants a focussed opportunity to plan, implement and evaluate lessons and to advance their language teaching awareness. Thus it became more likely that they would set themselves high quality goals in their work. To support this development further, the courses also aimed at sensitizing the students to the fact that the ability and willingness to cooperate and to share information is crucial in this context. To increase this kind of social competence, two policies were adopted that proved especially important.
For one, the students were encouraged to engage jointly in as many of the coursework activities as possible. First and foremost, this was achieved by involving the students in pre-structured projects. This proved particularly effective in the practicum as most of the participants had taught their first English lessons in these sessions and thus profited immensely from the opportunity to cooperate while having clearly defined objectives for their first teaching experience. In addition to that they were offered extensive support by the university lecturer when designing their individual lessons. The combination of these methods made it more likely for the students to develop a sense of achievement. For another, the students were offered the chance to publish reports jointly on their teaching projects both on the Internet and in a scientific journal. Participating in a publication is apt to add to the students' self-confidence significantly. In particular they realize that by their special involvement in a practicum at university they can fulfil pedagogical goals that are considered relevant for other students, teacher trainees and teachers. This experience is likely to prevent them from acquiring the impression that university does not prepare them adequately for their profession as teachers. Furthermore, taking part in the professional community both as consumers of scientific articles and as authors may have another positive long-term effect: the students are more likely not only to read professional publications on a regular basis in order to enrich their teaching and to update their professional knowledge continuously in future, but also to share their teaching experiences and ideas with others and to make them accessible to critical discussion - both of which are central aims of university-based teacher education programmes.
Experiences and evaluation
To assess whether the two teacher training courses have successfully contributed to the students' confidence to be well-prepared for foreign language teaching, the perspective of the participants is particularly relevant. For this reason, the students who had participated both in the digital media seminar and in the practicum were asked to fill in a questionnaire at the end of the semester. The questions not only elicited reactions to the courses as a whole but also specifically addressed the effectiveness of the measures taken to alleviate the problems involved in integrating theoretical with practical studies.
Firstly, the steps taken to extend and intensify the teaching experiences obviously proved successful. This is reflected in the following statement:
The practicum in English was organized in a way that allowed us to plan the teaching project together: Each student taught at least one complete lesson and thus organized the work in class for 45 minutes. In addition, we were all intensively involved in group work and further teaching activities. Thus nobody could complain to have had too little contact with the pupils. I consider this kind of work very effective - both for me and for the pupils, because we could get to know them better and at the same time support them individually. From this perspective it was not necessary to teach more during the practicum.
The same student continues by pointing out that it is ultimately up to each individual to take the initiative and actively use the opportunities offered at university to increase his or her teaching experience - especially in other practical studies during which foreign language teaching is not mandatory. In addition to this, all the participants in the practicum shared the conviction that their teaching had been successful. Apart from their individual experience, this assessment is based on the pupils' evaluation of the work with the student teachers that was recorded with questionnaires. As a matter of fact, the pupils evaluated both projects very positively - namely by rating them unanimously as "very good". It was striking how the pupils particularly enjoyed working in little groups while communicating almost exclusively in English and being confronted with difficult tasks. What is more, they were extremely proud of the videos they had produced during the projects.
Secondly, the measures taken to intensify the reflections on the teaching experiences against a theoretical background have also been effective. One student points out that the practical studies helped her to regain orientation in her studies while she now explicitly appreciates the importance of theory:
On the whole I must point out that up to my second year of studies I had no experience with teaching English. In the first year there was a focus on theory, and I temporarily lost perspective as I could not relate the theory to practical teaching. In general, much theory is conveyed at this university. I do consider this important in spite of the lack of links to practical work. After all, I am studying at a university and I expect to be educated comprehensively.
Moreover, the teaching experiences during the practicum undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the students who seem to draw considerable motivation from them:
I think I will always remember the experiences I had during the practicum as positive ones that showed me that I have chosen the right occupation. This definitely has a motivating effect on my studies as a whole. In addition, I have developed a sense for what can be really put into practice in class and what cannot. This way I can evaluate more easily what has been learnt theoretically and relate it to every-day teaching.
It is particularly encouraging that the courses have obviously increased the students' interest in extending their theoretical reflections on certain aspects of foreign language teaching. For instance, one participant explains:
The experience I had in the practicum has been very important for my studies. I could well imagine dealing with a topic such as 'project work in primary foreign language teaching' in my exam paper.
Thirdly, the opportunities to cooperate and to publish the results provided throughout both courses were especially appreciated by the students. When asked whether they considered it beneficial to plan and implement the projects jointly, all the participants answered in the positive. They emphasized that the cooperation made them feel better prepared during their lessons as they could build on the each others' work. One student noted:
The cooperation was good. It was fun to plan and to develop ideas jointly. This created a feeling of belonging together and of putting something important into practice. The subsequent work (drafting the lessons, reporting for the Internet, writing the article for the periodical) clearly reflects that the projects were and still are relevant for all of us. ... I consider it important for teachers to be able to cooperate with others, to exchange ideas and to test new approaches in cooperation.
As a matter of fact, four of the five participants in the practicum made extra efforts beyond the regular requirements to join the author in devising a report on each of the two projects implemented at Europaschule Erfurt. The first of these accounts will be published in Primary English (Marschollek, Kögel, Nickol, Vetter & Weber, 2004: forthcoming). The students explained their personal motivation:
Even though it caused much work, publishing our experience was a good idea because you have only little opportunity to have any experience in this area.
For me personally it makes sense and is very motivating to participate in a publication on the Internet and in a periodical. I am very interested in having some experience in this area and I am doing my best. The projects we have implemented in our practicum are of interest for other students as well as for teachers. Why shouldn't we inform them and answer their questions?
This indicates that the students are not just proud of participating in a publication. They are also extremely interested in the feedback of the readers.
To sum up, the methodology involved in the two courses has proved successful. Nevertheless, when asked about possible improvements in the practicum, the students point out that they would have liked to have even more opportunity to reflect on their individual lessons directly after teaching them. In this context, one participant proposes having an additional weekly meeting during which experiences could be shared and problems could be discussed:
I would appreciate more opportunities to talk about the teaching experience and to answer questions in a group discussion. This would require a kind of consultation during which all participants would meet once a week in addition to the practicum.
While the students are aware of the fact that schemes like these go beyond the normal timeframe available in a practicum under the present conditions of study, they nevertheless consider them important. This raises the question as to how the general framework for practical studies at university could be improved.
The need to address this question becomes even more apparent when focussing on the students who could participate in the digital media seminar only. In spite of the frequent attempts to involve them in the activities of the practicum more intensively, they obviously could not profit from this opportunity as intensively as initially intended by the author. To them the two projects at primary school ultimately remained vicarious experiences with little personal relevance. It also has to be conceded that the lack of first-hand teaching experience could not be compensated for by involving the students in the planning of the 'mystery tour' project for secondary school. The students did appreciate the opportunity to relate the theory to classroom practice. Furthermore, some came up with excellent ideas concerning the practical design of the project. They were also able to reflect on them with reference to the theoretical aspects dealt with in the seminar. However, these activities still remained theoretical exercises providing the students neither with ample opportunity to develop a sense of achievement related to practical teaching, nor with incentives to cooperate intensively. Thus it was clearly the group that took part in both the practicum and the digital media seminar that profited most from the combination and design of the two teacher training courses.
According to these considerations the measures outlined above are apt to facilitate the integration of theoretical with practical studies in university-based teacher education programmes. Apart from intensifying and extending the teaching experience in a practicum it has proven particularly important to provide the students with extensive opportunities to reflect on this experience against the background of their theoretical studies. In this context, a significant increase in the students' sense of achievement can result from encouraging them both to cooperate and to share their experience by reporting on and by publishing it.
However, an indispensable precondition for these positive effects is the intensive support and supervision of the students throughout their practicum. It has been shown that it is particularly profitable if the students also attend a collateral seminar in which they are continuously given opportunity to report and reflect on their teaching experience. At the same time it has become apparent that attempts to sensitize students to aspects of practical teaching solely by referring to hypothetical lessons are ultimately unsuitable as a replacement of fist-hand teaching experience.
This argues for the politico-educational demand that the need for coordinating the practicum with theoretical seminars should be recognized and implemented in the conditions of study. To maximize the positive effects on the students' language teaching awareness and on their sense of achievement, a number of further conditions should be improved. These include structural adjustments at universities that allow more time for practical studies - particularly if this measure is implemented by giving students the opportunity to engage in teaching experience continuously throughout their studies while being supervised by their university lecturers. Given the objective of integrating theoretical with practical studies more intensively, schemes envisaging a concentration of teaching experience in specific semesters seem problematic - especially if they involve a reduction of the school-based preparatory service.
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