Anthony Pellegrino: Reexamining Pre-service Field Experience
For secondary education majors including those concentrating on history/social studies, each college semester begins with education courses which require some sort of field experience. These students are tasked to spend time observing in a classroom as an introduction to the world of a teacher and his or her students. The field experience offers students a chance to gain some understanding of the preparation and presentation of history/social studies teachers. Typically, the requirements are between 10 and 30 hours per course.
I recall my field experiences including little interaction with students. I spent my time observing . . . nothing specific, just observing. While some programs provide their students with more specifics and guidance—observation strategies for starters—many students today get much of the same as I did. I remember going into the classroom expecting to see students involved in a great lesson, then getting an opportunity to talk with the teacher about her methods and reflections on the class. I’m convinced, however, that sometimes the teacher didn’t even see me.
I sat at an empty desk at the back of the room, took a few notes, and went on my way until my next scheduled visit. My students have often said they felt similarly anonymous and their observations ineffectual. Moreover, the time spent in these classrooms is quite short, and with some students shuffled around to several teachers in various content areas, the time can seem even shorter. Seeing effective teaching under these circumstances is challenging indeed.
But fear not . . . education majors near completion of their studies will nearly always begin a comprehensive internship experience typically for a semester or an entire school year. In this internship each future teacher will be involved in a transition process beginning with more (hopefully targeted) observation climaxing in a period of time (often four to six weeks) where the intern becomes the full-time teacher: preparing lessons and assessments, dealing with classroom management and parent and student communication, grading assignments, attending meetings (faculty, IEP, PLC, and so on) and taking on teacher duties including monitoring the cafeteria, bathrooms, or hallways. This internship is supposed to be the experience where the prospective teacher is able to synthesize theory and practice—where innovative lessons are realized and teachers are made.
The problem is that too often these experiences, like those of the more limited field experience, do not provide prospective teachers with the environment to observe or practice effective history/social studies teaching.
Not only does the nomenclature vary—these students are referred to as interns at one university and student-teachers at another, and field experience is called practicum for some—but far more importantly, the experiences themselves vary widely. Teacher and school placements are at the heart of the problem. Some get lucky and are placed with a teacher interested in methods to instill profound student learning, but others are placed with a teacher mired in mediocrity. My former major professor—also a wonderful history educator—and I recently commiserated about the frustration of spending considerable time instilling in prospective history/social studies educators the idea that middle, high school, and even elementary students can engage in “doing” history: they are able to effectively analyze sources (both primary and secondary) for evidence of causation and bias and deal with the cognitive discord which often results from these historical thinking endeavors.
Yet more often than not, these future teachers would report that their field experiences were filled with observations of basic fact memorization, lecture, textbook activities, and worksheets. And even more troublesome, many reported that efforts to discuss ways in which to get students to “do” history were met with scoffs and disparaging comments about how “in the real world” of teaching, there’s no time for such high-level thinking; students need to know the facts to pass the tests (both teacher-made and state-mandated).
The complexity of teaching history and social studies is such that an environment where prospective teachers can translate theory into practice is crucial to teacher development. It is with a clear message of effective methodology coupled with the cooperation of effective mentor teachers that we can hope to improve the practice of teaching history and improve the place of history/social studies in the schools. Opportunities for prospective teachers to observe effective teachers and interact with students are precious . . . we ought to get a handle on this process.
In subsequent postings, I will revisit this important topic and discuss some specific ways education faculty and colleges of education are addressing field experience. Some solutions involve the development of deeper ties between teacher preparation programs and the K–12 schools where these interns are placed. These school partnerships foster teacher training and education research to improve teaching and student achievement in history and other content areas. Other approaches involve changes to teacher preparation programs, including more coursework and longer internship requirements. And still other proposed solutions eschew face-to-face student/teacher interaction and embrace technical innovation, allowing prospective teachers the opportunity to engage in computer-simulated classroom experiences. This cutting-edge technology, already in place in some universities, allows students to teach classrooms full of virtual students and deal with the presentation of lessons, classroom management, and student assessment even before their internship.