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Critical reflection and collaborative enquiry in a teacher preparation course

Jill Borthwick and Ian Macpherson
Queensland University of Technology
This paper reports on a research project into students' perceptions of the first year of a newly designed course in teacher preparation. A prime concern of the design of the course is with offering students the opportunity for critical reflection on their experiences of becoming teachers. The research project further expanded the opportunities for critical reflection by inviting students to participate in regular seminars over the year long course to discuss, report on, and critique the course-as-designed as it matched the course-in-operation. For these students, participation in the project supplied the opportunity to engage both in collaborative enquiry into what constitutes a course in teacher preparation and also in systematic analysis of the experiences associated with the passage from being students themselves to becoming teachers of other students.


Teacher education programmes are many and various in their forms and functioning. But, however diverse they may be, such programmes share a concern for creating contexts in which individuals acquire the understandings and knowledge that enable them to become effective members of the teaching profession. This article reports on a one year programme of initial teacher education over the first year of its operation in revised form. The course designers' intention was to design a course with the characteristics likely to create a context in which critical reflection marked each stage of the transition from being a student to being a teacher.

In evaluating the level to which this intention was realised, the researchers drew upon the perceptions of the clientele, the students who became teachers over the year. Throughout the year, the students reported on each stage of the unfolding course and gave their responses - and assessment of it.

Before a description of the context (the course-as-designed) and of the research project (the course-in-operation), a survey of traditions of research into teacher education programmes is presented.

Traditions in Research into Teacher Education Programmes

In recent years, there has been a change in the perspective adopted in research into teacher education programmes. Well into the 1980s, research in the area was remarkable for its lack of attention to the person who actually happened to be involved in the process of learning to teach and learning about being a teacher (Diamond, 1991; Haberman, 1983; Johnston & Ryan, 1983; Nemser, 1983).

The dominant perspective represented in research up to that time was one owned by the person responsible for the design, administration and teaching of the programmes. When those engaged in learning to be teachers were consulted, the dominant research paradigm was empirical-analytical. Thus, outcomes of teacher education programmes were favoured and the processes that lay between entering and graduating largely remained unexamined (Popkewitz, Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1979). In studies of this ilk, the person was subsumed as a particle, immersed within the percentages that made up the population under study. Typically, researchers produced reports based on their perceptions of what students knew or felt. So what students felt or knew had to be tidied into packages, befitting the quantitative perspectives of the time.

Since then, changes in research approaches to teacher education programmes have become increasingly apparent. These changes have come about through a number of insights. Probably the most important insight relates to the realisation that people differ markedly in the way they make sense of the world, so that each person's version is different from any other. A further key insight is that people change over time, as events cause them to reassess and revise the ways in which they make personal meanings. Emerging research methodologies from the qualitative domain have made it possible to acknowledge - and chart - such difference and change over time.

The focus on the personal and the ways in which people make meaning for themselves has fostered this next wave of research within teacher education. Once it was only possible to survey large populations with any claim to validity. Now, various methodologies and ways of sampling are increasingly legitimated by researchers. For instance, case studies where very small groups of perhaps half a dozen or even one student are studied, receive acceptance (Tardif, 1985; Bolin, 1990). Such methodologies invite close inspection of what it means to be a teacher or to become a teacher. These studies recoil from any claim of blanket application to all intending teachers; rather, they highlight the diversity of ways in which people approach their experiences of teacher education. The message is that students commence their teacher education as very different people. Their progression through the programmes is different and at the end of their programmes, they maintain their diversity.

Revelations of diversity however can be very uncomfortable for staff members charged with providing programmes that will fulfil the expectations of the employing authorities, the requirements of the institution, and each intending teacher's needs for personal and professional development. Course providers may look for information that acknowledges diversity. At the same time, they want some report on group overview and consensus of what the programme has achieved.

In designing the present study of the new course in operation, the researchers were concerned with these two sets of demands. On the one hand, they were eager to invite students to present their personal views of what the programme meant for them. On the other hand, there was the need to tap into the concerns and interests of the whole group of students, 150 or more.

It was quite impossible to interview all 150 students on even one occasion and analyse and present their responses in any meaningful way. In addition, to interview them on just one occasion would be to capture only that single moment in their professional development. Such a one-off interview would share the flaws of the end-on outcome measures relied upon by a previous generation of researchers. The course was concerned with process, so if understandings and concerns were to be tapped, they needed to be returned to throughout the one year course.

As is typical in research, a compromise was reached. A model of research participants was evolved. The research participants were elected by their peers and charged with the responsibility of soliciting and presenting their groups' views. The research participants fo rmed the nexus between their peers and the course providers. Theirs was a heavy responsibility: to work with the group they represented and with the course providers to uncover the special concerns that needed to be examined in the research participant forums. The research participants were messengers between the two groups, the body of intending teachers and the staff on the course. They were negotiators working across the two groups. They also shaped policies through their recommendations and directions they indicated as coming from the group.

Previous models of research into teacher education have demonstrated that each person derives his or her own opinions of the experience, whether these be massed into group reports or individual studies. But, through the contributions of the research participants, this model of research took on a different flavour. Each research participant supplied a profile of what it was to be an intending teacher at the individual level. At the same time, the research participants were also reflecting and reporting on their perceptions of what it was like to be an intending teacher in the group they represented. From their perceptions, the questionnaires completed by the whole group across the one year course were derived.

The Course-as-designed

This Graduate Diploma in Education (Secondary) is a one-year end-on course of pre-service preparation for teaching. It was introduced in 1975 and re-accredited on three occasions: 1980/1, 1984/5 and 1990. Changes have occurred during these accreditation periods as part of the ongoing process of evaluation and review.

End-on courses have always suffered from having little time to do so much. The particular challenge in the 1990 review was how to make this short course meet the target of preparing critically reflective practitioners.

Zeichner & Liston (1987) assert that critically reflective practitioners are those who are "willing and able to reflect on the origins, purposes and consequences of their actions".

Roth (1989) describes the process in which these practitioners engage as one "of inquiry, reflection, decision making and dialectics'. He sees the process as a spiral rather than a cycle so that the critically reflective practitioner "is always becoming".

Schon's work (1983, 1987) appears to underlie this view of the critically reflective practitioner. It is his belief that "reflectivity is not simply a matter of pausing when facing a problem to think it through, but is a part of the ongoing practice of professionals as they interpret and respond to situations that are 'indeterminate' in order to achieve their aims" (see Bullough, 1989).

The process of critical reflection requires a frame of reference, which, though definitely not divorced from practice must be theoretical. Unless the frame of reference is theoretical it could hardly be critical, and without it, our reflections would be superficial, uncritical and incestuous!

Adler (1991) attempts to describe the process as "Reflection as Critical Inquiry". She defines the generic characteristics and the steps in the inquiry process (see also Ross & Hannay (1986), Gore & Bartlett (1989), Smyth (1989) and Ross (1989)).

It is asserted, then, that for teacher education programmes to be effective in the contemporary context, they must create opportunities for teachers in preparation to become critically reflective practitioners. Teachers must learn to theorise about their professional practice and they need access to both theoretical concepts and professional work. The notion of "Praxis" as the dynamic interplay of theoretical concepts and professional work facilitates this parallel access (see also Martinez (1990) and Richert (1990)).

Of course, the difficulties associated with giving a pre-service teacher education course a critically reflective emphasis are not denied, as Adler (1991) outlines in her article. For example, she notes the difficulties of developing critical inquiry in pre-service teachers who tend to be more concerned about what she refers to as the "dominant discourse of management" (p. 148). Indeed some students are resistant to reflective thinking (see Bolin, 1990).

These sentiments aside, the notion of critical reflectivity underpins the ethos of the course in its revised form, its principles, its objectives, its structure, its organisational arrangements and its ongoing review and evaluation. As beginning teachers, graduates of the course will not have become expert in critical reflection but will have been empowered to continue in a spiral of "always becoming". As Roth (1989) suggests "the result of the preparation of the critically reflective practitioner is not a standard procedure or protocol to direct one's practice. An apprentice acquires these in a craft".

The course-as-designed is based on four principles: critical reflection, flexibility in structure, sequence in structure and diversity of approaches. These principles are reflected in the course objectives, the course structure, organisational arrangements and ongoing review and evaluation.

Tables 1 and 2 provide some detail concerning the principles and the objectives.

The course structure provides a range of campus-based opportunities for students in Studies in Education as well as Curriculum and Teaching Studies. Field Experiences, including Teaching Practice is closely related to campus-based aspects of the course structure.

In the course-as-designed, attention was also paid to organisational arrangements which would facilitate the implementation of the course principles and objectives within the course structure. For example, the course calendar includes six weeks which are allocated to Independent Projects. These six weeks for Independent Projects provide three designated periods when students pursue learning for which they take increasing responsibility as the year proceeds. The projects offer choice to students in topic and in approach, and allow students to practise critical reflection and autonomous learning.

Table 1: Course principles


Developing graduates who have the basis for working as critically reflective practitioners in a constantly changing social and educational context.


Developing a course structure which is flexible so that, for example:

  • the course is developed as a cohesive whole rather than a smorgasbord of fragmented experiences;
  • the course models the inextricable link between theory and practice for the critically reflective practitioner;
  • the course emphasises the notion of 'praxis' which is a dynamic interplay between theoretical concepts and professional work.


Developing a course structure which is sequential so that appropriate connections are made with students' backgrounds at the beginning of the course and with their professional development as beginning teachers during the course. This sequence is not lockstep and predetermined for all students.


Developing approaches to implementation which are varied, which respond to the diversity of students' backgrounds and learning styles, and which recognise the notion of the autonomous learner in practice.

The commitment to ongoing facilitation and evaluation of course implementation made by the Course Advisory Committee during the design phase is being maintained by the newly-formed Course Coordination Committee within the University and Faculty structures. It is this committee which coordinates the ongoing review process and which has assumed the responsibility for documenting and reporting progress, and above all for making efforts to ensure that the original principles of the course will be observed and the objectives pursued. It appears that the ongoing challenge for this committee lies in ensuring that students have e nough knowledge to make their reflections valid and worthwhile. Attempts to solve this can be reflected in the structure and content of the course as well as in the practices.

Table 2: Course objectives

As beginning teachers, graduates of the course in its revised form have begun a process of career-long professional development. It is in this context that the objectives for the course are identified.

The principle concern of the revised course is to enable intending teachers to become critically reflective practitioners.

Emphasis on this is the major change in the rationale of the course, and is a main determinant of course structure and delivery. These aim to empower students to make decisions about their own learning in the course and in relation to their beginning professional role as teachers.

  1. An understanding of their teaching disciplines.
  2. An understanding of the nature of learners and the learning process.
  3. An understanding of the nature of society and social change.
  4. Competence and confidence in their teaching skills and their ability to facilitate students' learning.
  5. An understanding of broad educational/curriculum issues such as social justice, language across the curriculum and the implications of technology.
  6. The ability to apply an understanding of these issues to the development of appropriate teaching and learning programs.
  7. The ability to assess student performance to enhance learning.
  8. The ability to manage learning environments and resources in a variety of settings.
  9. The ability to work in teams with colleagues.
  10. The ability to understand and function competently in roles that involve collaborative relationships with relevant professional and community groups.
  11. The ability to cope with and initiate change.

The research project reported in the next section of this article, along with the ongoing research and evaluating undertaken by the Course Coordination Committee, provides a basis for improving aspects of the course so that students as intending teachers are given an increasingly effective opportunity to begin their career long process of "always becoming" critically reflective practitioners.

The Course-in-operation

The aims of the project reflected the principles underlying the course-as-designed and were as stated as follows:
  1. to encourage students, through their participation in the project, to reflect and report on their experiences of becoming a teacher and to understand the role of research in professional development;

  2. to collect first hand information on the ongoing process of becoming a teacher from students enrolled in the initial year; and

  3. to incorporate such data into any revision of the course.

The Process

The more than 150 students enrolled in the course participated in the research project in two ways that enabled the exploration of their perceptions:
  1. Ten of the students were "Research Participants" (RPs), meeting with lecturers on the project team on four occasions over the two semesters of the course. Students in each of the ten curriculum areas within the course elected one representative for each group to participate in these meetings on their behalf and to liaise with the project team.

  2. All students (including the research participants) responded to two questionnaires (one at the end of each semester). Each of the questionnaires was a product of interactive discussion between the RPs and the research project team.
Members of the project team visited seminars in each of the curriculum areas and explained the concept of the research project to the students. As a result of these visits, numbers of students showed interest in representing their curriculum areas so that elections had to be held within the groups. The use of the term "Research Participants" had been explained to all the students, communicating the point that the students they elected would be their representatives acting in partnership with the staff research team in discussion and reflection on the newly introduced course. From the first, nine of the ten students elected fully embraced their RP role and the functions they were asked to undertake. At the beginning of second semester (when the curriculum area groupings had changed somewhat) these students were asked if they wished to relinquish their roles as RPs so that the new groups were represented. However, the RPs asserted that their experience of the role, their awareness of their responsibilities, and the contacts they had made in the course of their RP duties meant that they were appropriate representatives. Therefore, the RPs from first semester continued their duties over the whole year.

Meetings Between RPs and the Project Team

Before each of the four meetings, lists of possible topics for discussion were circulated so that RPs could consult with members of the curriculum areas that they represented and solicit any points that these members wished to have brought up at the meetings. Following the meetings, general notes of the topics were circulated to RPs and to the project team for comment and dissemination.

So, the RPs acted as link persons, reporting both to staff and to their fellow students. In addition, each RP also was an individual discussant, reporting and reflecting on personal experiences and attitudes to the course during the meetings with the members of the project team.

From such encounters, group and individual data were collected in order that questionnaires reflecting student concerns could be constructed. RPs and staff members worked together on the construction of both questionnaires; together, they then would explore questionnaire outcomes.

The Outcomes

The discussions during the two hour long meetings were far ranging on every occasion. Topics circulated before the meetings were intended to act as springboards into areas of concern for RPs, so as to elicit students' views on both the practicalities of the course in operation (on campus and at school practicum) and the theoretical underpinnings of the course. Before the first meeting, the preliminary contact letter to the RPs suggested that we might discuss the introductory weeks of the course, leading up to the practicum and the relationships between what was expected from student teachers in schools. The other topic suggested for discussion was "survival skills" for the classroom and whether these should have been taught and indeed had been taught.

At this first meeting, RPs were asked to suggest topics for circulation to all the other RPs and staff members before each of the subsequent meetings. As the RPs discovered during this first meeting, there was no formal agenda and discussion within the meetings was very open. Perhaps as a result of this openness, RPs made no moves during the year to provide topics before the meetings. In the absence of suggestions from the RPs, staff members continued to frame up topics for discussion very broadly, knowing well that the RPs would provide specific detail and flag their concerns in the immediacy that the meetings provided.

From the very first meeting, the lack of commonality among the ten students who had undertaken to be RPs was evident. While they appeared to share an overarching concern with becoming secondary school teachers, they reported and enacted very different versions of what they should be encountering in the course on their way to that end. This diversity continued throughout the year, pointing to the complexity of expectations, attitudes, skills and experiences of the individuals encountering teacher education. As an instance, one matter that was closely canvassed at the first meeting concerned whether student teachers should spend their second practice teaching period at a different school from their first assignment, gaining access to a (presumably) new perspective The counter view argued that it was preferable to stay at the one school and become familiar with its culture and identify change as it occurred over the year. This point lent itself readily to inclusion in the questionnaire to be responded to by all students.

Responses to the first questionnaire indicated that 66% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the RPs arguing for different practice teaching schools in the two teaching periods. This item, repeated in the second questionnaire, indicated that the number supporting this had grown to 88~o of the respondents.

However, the following item in the questionnaire put forward the proposition that "I would prefer to stay at my present practice teaching school for both practice sessions". In the questionnaire following the first period of practice teaching, 46% preferred to continue at the same school. In the second questionnaire, the number had grown to 65~r preferring to stay where they were.

The apparently contradictory responses to these items illustrate the problems of teacher educators trying to balance conflicting expectations among students while trying to reconcile these with the realities of organising a programme. The ten RPs could not agree on what was the appropriate practice, and so it was with the responses from the group as a whole. Further, it appears that many individuals wanted to experience another school but also wished to stay on at the same school. On the other hand, even if there had been a more clear-cut indication of what intending teachers had wanted, the administrators responsible for school practicum stated that it was impossible to organise such a switch between schools. The problem of matching intending teachers' curriculum studies combinations with those offered by supervisors at practice teaching schools was too great.

The planning and analysis of questionnaires dominated discussions in all but the first of the meetings with the RPs. While the initial meeting was a time for first encounters, the second meeting was directed at deciding collaboratively what topics of concern warranted inclusion in the questionnaire. The format decided upon for the questionnaire examined the course as a whole, individual subjects (2 in Studies in Education, 2 or 3 in Curriculum and Teaching Studies) and practice teaching. Statements were presented under each of these headings to be responded to on a five point scale, ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree". Space was also provided for open-ended responses to questions relating to overall satisfaction with teaching, the course itself, and future aspirations. The majority of statements were repeated in the two questionnaires.

The collaborative construction of the questionnaires (and, once administered, discussion of their findings) provided a focus for all but the initial meeting with the RPs. Staff and RPs could all raise issues that they felt needed to be explored or clarified. After discussion of the matter, the group needed to decide whether it warranted inclusion in the questionnaire. So, RPs brought up matters relating to consistency between unit offerings and assessment requirements. They queried practices in the schools that they themselves had encountered or had reported to them. These concerns could be aired between the individuals present at the discussion meeting and some queries or problems could be remedied at this stage. Other concerns were earmarked for inclusion in the questionnaire, such as the independent projects, orientation to the course, and administration/communication. These have been addressed and are being monitored in the second year of the course's implementation.

It is questionable whether students can be expected to understand the requirements and philosophy of a course in a brief space of time. On each of the questionnaires, a number of items asked students to rate their familiarity with the structures and purposes of the course. By the second questionnaire, students were indicating a higher degree of certainty about what they were doing in the course. This suggests that it may take at least one semester for students to begin to feel comfortable with the different demands that each course makes.

Just as the course was a new experience for students, so it was for staff in this introductory year. Throughout the introduction of the new course, there had been a emphasis on workshops with staff and school supervisors to acquaint them with the workings and approaches of the new course structure. RPs independently suggested the need for items such as "Lecturers understood the structure of the course and were able to communicate these to me" and "Supervisors (at practice teaching schools) understood what was required of them". Responses to these suggested that, if the necessary understanding were to be developed, more time and resources needed to be spent on these areas, and higher attendances encouraged from their target audiences through support and release from their schools and institution.

Discussions with the RPs about their reasons for undertaking the course and the reasons they attributed to fellow students led to additional items being included in the second questionnaire. These items explored the assumption that teachers enrolled in the course planned to be teachers in the immediate future of longer term. The question mark over employment prospects caused one item to be phrased "If I get my way, I will be teaching in 1992". The following item was "My personal intention is to be teaching for at least the next five years". While 90% of the students indicated that they wished to start teaching immediately upon graduation, almost half did not see themselves as teachers in five years' time.

The RPs and staff members making up the project team were all involved in identifying items for inclusion in the questionnaire. On the staff's part, they were looking for information on a number of issues, particularly that of students' response to the emphasis on critical reflection in the course. Accordingly, items relating to the course's success in encouraging such reflection and professionalism were included in the questionnaires. Student responses on both questionnaires indicated that the objective had been reached, with over 80% of students agreeing throughout the year that the course had encouraged such experience. Students saw themselves as growing in critical reflectivity over the year, in accord with Fuller's (1969) seminal work on teachers' stages of concern, moving from concern with survival to concern with professional issues.


The course in question was designed to offer flexibility in planning and diversity of approaches, allowing for individual differences and the complexity of the experience of becoming a teacher and the demands of the profession itself. The research approach described here mirrored those intentions, emphasising as it did the key role that the people enrolled in a course play in constructing what that course means for them as individual students. A questionnaire put together by the course organisers without consultation may have given some profile of what the students thought the course looked like. This profile inevitably would be shaped by the questions the course organisers chose to include, questions that reflected their preoccupations and preconceptions. Instead, by involving the intending teachers themselves in the construction of the questionnaire, the project team ensured that the area surveyed was the area that mattered to the intending teachers as a group themselves. From this information, decisions on planning and approaches have been taken that are based on student perception rather than on staff prediction.

In addition, working together with the RPs achieved far more than acquiring a set of questionnaire findings, however valid and reliable these findings are argued to be in statistical terms. Through being part of the research project, RPs engaged in first hand collaborative inquiry into what constitutes a course in teacher preparation. Through involvement in the research project, the notion of reflective practitioners researching their own practice was extended to the RPs who engaged in systematic analysis of the experiences which marked their passage to professionalism. The research project served as a guarantee that the course was not just talking about reflection and professionalism it was enacting it as much as was possible at every stage from planning right through to evaluation.


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Bolin, F.S. (1990) 'Helping Student Teachers Think About Teaching: Another Look at Lou', Journal of Teacher Education, 41(1), pp. 10-19.

Bullough, R.V. (1989) 'Teacher Education and Teacher Reflectivity', Journal of Teacher Education, 40(2), March to April, pp. 15-21.

Diamond, C.T.P. (1991) Teacher Education as Transformation, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

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Gore, J. & Bartlett, L. (1989) 'Pathways and Barriers to Reflective Teaching in an Initial Teacher Education Programme', BTRQ Research Grants, Series No. 4.

Haberman, M. (1983) 'Research on Pre-service Laboratory and Clinical Experiences: Implications for Teacher Education', in The Education of Teachers: A Look Ahead, eds K.R. Howey & W.E. Gardner, New York, Longman, pp. 98-117.

Johnston, J. & Ryan, K (1983) Research on the Beginning Teacher: Implications for Teacher Education, in op.cit., eds KR. Howey & W.E. Gardner, pp. 136-162.

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Martinez, K (1990) 'Critical Reflections on Critical Reflection in Teacher Education', The Journal of Teaching Practice, 10(2), 1990.

Nemser, S.F. (1983) 'Learning to Teach', in Handbook of Teaching and Policy, eds L.S. Shulman & G. Sykes, New York, Longman, pp. 150-170.

Popkewitz, T.S., Tabachnick, B.R. & Zeichner, KM. (1979) 'Dulling the Senses: Research in Teacher Education', Journal of Teacher Education, 30(5), pp. 52-60.

Queensland University of Technology (1990) Graduate Diploma of Education (Pre-Service) - Secondary Teaching Accreditation Submission (Continuing Course), Brisbane, Queensland University of Technology.

Richert, A.E. (1990) 'Teaching Teachers to Reflect: A Consideration of Programme Structure', Journal of Curriculum Studies, 22(6), pp. 509527.

Ross, D.D. (1989) 'First Steps in Developing a Reflective Approach', Journal of Teacher Education, 40(2), pp. 2230.

Ross, E.W. & Hannay, L.M. (1986) 'Towards a Critical Theory of Reflective Inquiry', Journal of Teacher Education, 37(4), pp. 9-15.

Roth, R.A. (1989) 'Preparing the Reflective Practitioner: Transforming the Apprentice through the Dialectic', Journal of Teacher Education, 40(2), pp. 31-35.

Schon, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York, Basic Books.

Schon, D.A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.

Smyth, J. (1989) 'Developing and Sustaining Critical Reflection in Teacher Education', Journal of Teacher Education, 40(2), pp. 2-9.

Tardif, C. (1985) 'On Becoming a Teacher: The Student Teacher's Perspective', Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 31(2), pp. 139-148.

Zeichner, K & Liston, D. (1987) 'Teaching Student Teachers to Reflect', Harvard Education Review, 57(1), pp. 23-48.

Please cite as: Borthwick, J. and Macpherson, I. (1993). Critical reflection and collaborative enquiry in a teacher preparation course. Queensland Researcher, 9(3), 1-14. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr9/borthwick.html

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