On 29 April this year in a Mail & Guardian article titled “Initial teacher education must be prioritised”, Sarah Gravett highlighted the importance of supporting teachers to become learning specialists because teaching is essentially about enabling meaningful learning. As such, supporting pre-service teachers to develop learning expertise is critical.
This, of course, presupposes a firm grasp of the nature of learning and how to use this understanding to create the best conditions (whether in the classroom or virtually) to guide and support learning. This will provide the base for informed adaptation and refining of teaching no matter how the world and curriculums change.
This year the University of Johannesburg piloted a course with final-year Bachelor of Education students at the Soweto campus to address this.
A core assumption of the course is that teaching is complex. Therefore, teachers need to develop adaptive expertise which will allow them to execute teaching actions based on a deep conceptual understanding of why and under which conditions these actions are apt.
Adaptive experts integrate know-how, know-why and know-when to make reasoned teaching decisions. They can choose knowledgeably between alternatives in their teaching repertoire.
In this course, students were required to design lessons which explicate the science of learning principles that they drew on.
The course was designed to delve deeply into the different phases of a lesson and into specific principles, coupled with enactment of the learnings, through designing components of the lesson. We aimed for development of know-why, know-how and know-when in tandem.
The course was planned prior to Covid-19, so the pandemic complicated the execution of the course, but it also presented an opportunity for us to glean our own lessons about facilitating pre-service teachers’ learning in the context of emergency remote teaching. We here note a few insights.
Though we had been concerned that the lack of contact teaching would result in detached students, we learned that it was indeed possible to create an environment conducive to learning and to elicit active cognitive engagement remotely, despite obstacles.
Discussion boards, group chats and group online sessions allowed for lively participation.
We invoked the same principles that we required students to use in their lesson design. For example, the principles that transfer of learning does not happen automatically and that proficiency requires rehearsal guided us to create continuous opportunities for students to purposefully practise core skills, coupled with guided reflection and formative feedback.
In the small group reflection sessions students shared and discussed ideas on the lesson they were designing with their peers and the lecturer, who provided supportive and actionable feedback.
Students told us that designing lessons in a cyclic fashion, coupled with feedback, boosted their understanding of the considerations involved in lesson design which places learning at the centre.
An unexpected benefit of remote teaching is that it forced students to think about designing lessons for both contact and digital environments.
The latter is becoming increasingly important in a digital world. The move to emergency remote teaching meant that students had to plan lessons which could be delivered in a digital format and they had to teach the lessons remotely.
They noted that though the principles remained, designing for remote teaching required additional contextual considerations.
For example, they had to consider how to present tangible objects in a digital lesson while ensuring that learners could view them on the screen and what relatable objects were that learners would have at home to use as examples.
They also realised that they had to adjust time allocation of activities, which may take longer to do remotely.
We learned that most students meet high expectations, and they can manage their own learning if trusted to do so.
Students reported that they felt responsible and accountable for their learning. This may have been because students were provided with ample opportunity for self- and peer assessment.
We were surprised at the strong relationships that we forged with students.
We tried to model the learning principle that cognition and emotion are intertwined by creating a safe, empathetic and respectful, yet challenging, learning environment.
This seemed to have paid off. Students reported that supportive relationships with peers and lecturers deepened.
Also, some students who would not generally have volunteered answers to questions or engaged in discussions during contact lectures found their voices online.
Going forward, we will offer the course fully blended — combining the best affordances of online and contact teaching.
We want to maintain the format that we used online that enabled guided, self-directed learning.
The contact sessions will be used for enacting and rehearsing coursework learnings.
This will be facilitated through analysis of examples, scenarios, vignettes, case studies, role playing and practising of techniques and strategies.
And, of course, we look forward to observing student teaching in the teaching school at the Soweto campus and interacting with students on the lessons they will present.
Looking back, we do not claim that the pre-service teachers developed adaptive expertise in relation to becoming learning specialists. Adaptive expertise develops slowly over time if teachers have a solid conceptual and procedural base to draw on and if they take responsibility for their own development.
There is convincing evidence, however, that emergent adaptive expertise was developed and that the self-direction and deliberate reflective stance which students experienced in the course will serve them well on their journey of becoming adaptive experts.
The gift of the pandemic to us as teacher educators is that we were inspired to think deeply and creatively about how to invoke the principles derived from the science of learning literature in an online environment with our students.