Theoretical background

Project rationale

Teacher education programmes in Europe and beyond have been criticized for leaving a “gap” between theory, i.e. research-generated knowledge, and practice (Kessels & Korthagen, 1996; Korthagen, 2010; Richardson, 1996). In response, great emphasis has been placed on bridging this gap both within the field of research on student teacher knowledge and learning (e.g. Mena et al., 2012) and pedagogy of teacher education (e.g. Grossman & McDonald, 2008; Loughran, 2006). In 2007 and 2009 the Council of the European Union presented an agenda for cooperation on enhancing the education and professional development of teachers and school leaders stating that.

Teacher education programmes… need to be of high quality, relevant to needs and based on a well-balanced combination of solid academic research and extensive practical experience” (Council conclusions…, 2009, p.7).

The aim of this project is to increase the relevance of the initial teacher education for a better preparation of beginning teachers for real life school practice. More specifically, this project focuses on supporting student teachers in developing knowledge based on their practical experiences enhanced by research-based knowledge.

In an effort to highlight teaching as professional work, researchers in the 1980s focused on the knowledge demands of teaching, arguing that teaching requires a great deal of knowledge that is specific to the work of teaching (see i.e. Grossman et al., 2009; Loughran, 2010). Researchers became interested in specific knowledge that underlied teaching and which even teachers themselves had difficulty in articulating. Particularly decisive was Shulman’s (1987) conception of pedagogical content knowledge, according to which specialized knowledge related to teaching a subject, was important in addition to subject matter knowledge and general pedagogical knowledge. Supporting this type of teachers’ knowledge construction is necessary in pre-service teacher education programs. Consequently, student teachers need to be supported in developing knowing-in-action (Schön, 1983) or a code of practice (Mena, García, & Tillema, 2011a) and extract “patterns” from the concrete activities in order to develop a theory of action. Such abstraction can contribute towards finding potentially effective strategies, rules or principles for practice as already proposed by Shulman (1987). Although initially the focus was solely on developing knowledge based on practice, later authors also stressed the importance of relating this type of knowledge to research-generated knowledge (see e.g. Meijer, 2010). Several scholars (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Leinhardt, 1988) suggested that knowledge should be investigated in the situation in which it is being used. Teachers’ practical knowledge is socially mediated within the immediacy of action setting. In other words, teachers’ cognitions and actions should be investigated while teachers are teaching, because, during teaching, knowing and acting are inseparable. Reflection assignments are often employed to support developing practical knowledge based on own experiences and linking it with research-generated knowledge.

Reflection can generally be defined as a cognitive process carried out in order to learn from experiences through individual inquiry and collaboration with others (Benammar, 2004; Dewey, 1933; Mezirow, 1991; Moon, 2004; Schön, 1983). In addition, the teacher reflection has been considered a dominant activity for developing practical knowledge and linking it with educational theories in teacher training programs (e.g. Korthagen, 2001, 2004; Korthagen & Vasalos, 2005; Korthagen & Wubbels, 1991, 2000; Laboskey, 2010). In teacher education reflection on action (Schön, 1983) is commonly practiced and the aim of reflection should be the integration of theory and practice so that future practice may become informed practice (Thompson & Pascal, 2012). However, the results of reflection assignments implemented in the teacher education context are often disappointing (see e.g. Abou Baker El-Dib, 2007; Lee, 2005; Mena, García, & Tillema, 2011b). One of the problems is that a majority of students’ reflections result in mere descriptions of practice and not a critical evaluation or re-framing of their understandings. For example, Mena, García and Tillema (2013) stated that student teachers mainly presented descriptive knowledge of what they had done and it seemed to be difficult for student teachers to extract rules and artefact from their experiences which is a the ultimate goal of reflection. The problem is how to extract meanings from experience (Husu, Toom, & Patrikainen, 2008). Therefore, student teachers need support in extracting “patterns” from the classroom activities in order to develop a theory of action. These patterns are essential to finding effective strategies, rules and principles for practice.

To engage in reflection on experiences, an individual’s active participation is required (e.g. Moon, 2004; Procee, 2006; Schön, 1983). Moreover, several authors agree that reflection needs to happen in community in interaction with others (e.g. Benammar, 2004; Dewey, 1933; Leijen, Valtna, Leijen, & Pedaste, 2012; Procee, 2006). This enables individuals to share and learn from experiences and ideas from others’ perspectives, (re)interpreting and developing their own perspectives further. Some evidence has been provided that peer feedback can help students move beyond the evaluation and explanation of an experience and raise the overall quality of student’s reflections (Leijen et al., 2012). Moreover, reflective discussion with experienced teachers provides insight into the thoughts or arguments that experienced teachers have concerning their teaching, which student teachers have found to be informative and useful for thinking about their own teaching (Meijer, Zanting, & Verloop, 2002). Insight into the content and nature of teachers’ practical knowledge can lead to a better understanding of the complexities of teaching and, as such, can contribute to knowledge of the relationship between educational theories and teachers’ practice (Meijer, 2010). Similarly Mena et al. (2013) concluded that student teachers should be supported and mentored in order to raise their reflections beyond a descriptive level and to make it practical knowledge.


This project is carried out with the support of the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Union.

This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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