Voices in Education

Reshaping How Preservice Teachers Learn During Their Clinical Experience
For thousands of teachers-in-training each year, their preparation culminates in public school classrooms, where they undergo intense apprenticeships with mentors in order to qualify for certification. Teacher educators in university settings assume that their novices’ experiences will follow a trajectory of productive opportunities for learning, but new data show that these vary dramatically across settings, and for a variety of reasons.

Our research team at the University of Washington followed sixty-six secondary STEM preservice educators over the course of nine months, as they transitioned from university coursework to student teaching in middle and high school classrooms.* Each participant had been trained in Ambitious Science Teaching, which prepared them to design rigorous lessons and engage students in sense-making about “big ideas” at the core of the discipline. When these novices entered their placements, we found that some experiences and school conditions, commonly thought to support preservice teacher learning, turned out to be counterproductive and that some actions taken by novices in these settings had unexpected benefits.

• Novices assigned to collegial and highly organized science departments rarely saw planning in action. My research team and I found that, in these situations, teachers had developed units and lessons months or years prior to the novices’ arrival. There was little to do each year but tweak lab activities or adjust assessment items, and this didn’t help preservice teachers experience what planning was like from the ground up—they never heard their host teachers “thinking out loud” about the rationale behind instructional design.

• When it came time to try out teaching, routines like observing the mentor for a couple periods of the day then copying what she or he did with a new class of students seemed like a reasonable first step, and it did help novices learn at first. After a couple of weeks, though, the learning effects diminished. Only when novices identified for themselves the student learning targets, and then designed substantial parts of their own lessons, did they report sustained learning from teaching. Unfortunately for many novices, they were asked to “observe and mimic” for months at a time.

• Mentors debriefed often with their novices, but the most common exchange consisted of “How do you think it went?” with rarely a specific target of improvement in mind for either participant.

• Surprisingly, individual agency by novices opened up more diverse opportunities for learning than what was officially planned by their preparation programs. Some, for example, asked their mentors if they could observe other teachers, made appointments to meet with administrators, and arranged to be evaluated just like certified teachers. Others voluntarily attended extracurricular activities and socialized with parents, or surveyed the neighborhood to understand what students’ lives were like outside of school. In contrast, other novices spent their entire apprenticeship in the mentor’s classroom, without venturing beyond.

These differences in clinical experiences made for inequitable learning opportunities. With these findings in mind, we are now advocating for the creation of “smart resources” to help both mentors and preservice teachers during the clinical experience. Our research team is focused on the process of developing new tools and routines to accomplish this goal. These include apps that identify the kinds of opportunities (for planning, teaching, assessment) that would be most beneficial for a novice to have at different points in their trajectory. We are creating alternative practices to observe and mimic, such as types of coteaching in which the novice and mentor play complementary and substantive roles in instruction. We’ll be producing videos of what high-quality, five-minute debriefings sound like after the novice teaches. And we’ll be training novices how to advocate for themselves, in order to explore other classrooms, the school, and the community. Great resources, we believe, can start to level the playing field and help support more effective beginning teachers.

*This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1540678.

About the Author: Mark Windschitl is a professor in the area of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum at the University of Washington. His research centers on the early career development of science educators, and he is the lead author of Ambitious Science Teaching (Harvard Education Press, 2018).