A Reflective Account of a Preservice Teacher’s Effort to Implement a Progressive Curriculum in Field Practice

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  • A Reflective Account of a Preservice Teachers Effort to Implement a Progressive Curriculumin Field PracticeAuthor(s): Bick Har LamSource: Schools: Studies in Education, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 22-39Published by: The University of Chicago Press in association with the Francis W. Parker SchoolStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/659419 .Accessed: 15/05/2014 02:49

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  • 22

    A Reflective Account of a PreserviceTeachers Effort to Implement aProgressive Curriculum in Field Practice

    LAM BICK HARHong Kong Institute of Education

    Progressive Education and Curriculum Reform in Hong Kong

    Progressive education is a unique stream of educational ideas that emergedin the nineteenth century, at the time when American education was de-scribed as little more than indoctrination and practically irrelevant(Dewey [1916] 2004). In the twenty-first century in Hong Kong, pro-gressive education is reengineered into the curriculum reform project inHong Kong. The reasons are not difficult to understand, and we start bytracing the ideas of this stream of education belief.

    While education has often been seen as a tool for personal success andeconomic gain, progressive educators reject this utilitarian view of education:they take a humanitarian view and focus on the use of education to drawforth latent potentials for human development and to cultivate social, in-tellectual, constructive, and expressive instincts vital for human living. Also,many progressive educators emphasize the value of learning through reallife experience in a social community. For example, John Dewey, an earlychampion of progressive education whose educational philosophy has hada profound influence on educational discourse today, developed the fol-lowing curriculum in his laboratory school:

    The youngest children in Deweys school, who were four and fiveyears old, engaged in activities familiar to them from their homesand neighbourhood: cooking, sewing, and carpentry. The six-year-olds built a farm out of blocks, planted wheat and cotton, and pro-cessed and transported their crop to market. The seven-year-olds

    Schools: Studies in Education, vol. 8, no. 1 (Spring 2011). 2011 Francis W. Parker School, Chicago. All rights reserved. 1550-1175/2011/0801-0003$10.00

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  • Lam Bick Har 23

    studied prehistoric life in caves of their own devising, while theireight-year-old neighbours focused their attention on the work of thesea-faring Phoenicians and subsequent adventurers like Marco Polo,Magellan, Columbus, and Robinson Crusoe. Local history and ge-ography occupied the attention of the nine-year-olds, while those whowere ten studied colonial history, constructing a replica of a room inan early American house. The older groups of children . . . [focusedon] scientific experiments in anatomy, electromagnetism, politicaleconomy, and photography. The search of the debating club formedby the thirteen-year-old students for a place to meet resulted in thebuilding of a substantial clubhouse, which enlisted children of all agesin a cooperative project. (Westbrook 1991, 1012)

    Deweys experimental school set the example of a child-centered curric-ulum that emphasizes activity, problem solving, and authentic thinking(Pring 2007). The project method (project learning), a widely adoptededucational tool today, can be seen as originating from Deweys pedagogy(Dewey [1916] 2004). Project learning typically involves a process of inquirythrough gathering and evaluating data, putting forward and testing hy-potheses, reaching appropriate conclusions, and presenting findings effec-tively. The spirit behind project learning corresponds closely with the ed-ucational aim of the twenty-first century, which stresses the importance oflearning how to learn (Motschnig-Pitrik and Holzinger 2002). Genericskills development is identified as a tool for inquiry in subject disciplinesthat are supposed to change from time to time.

    While discipline, authority, regimentation, and didactic teaching tech-niques are typical elements in the traditional classroom, progressive edu-cation emphasizes warmth, spontaneity, and the joy of learning (Connell1980). It seeks to cultivate democratic relationships in classrooms throughcooperative communication, discussions between teachers and students, andgroup work, which are common means of learning (Kliebard 1986). There-fore, progressive education removes learners from the traditional test-instruc-tion pedagogy that traps them in a confined mode of passive and inactivelearning; instead, it helps learners to experience meaningful learning.

    Progressive Pedagogy in the Hong Kong CurriculumCan It BeFaithfully Implemented?

    Hong Kongs education system has been criticized as placing too muchemphasis on test scores and selection of students, depriving students of

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  • 24 Schools, Spring 2011

    their interest in learning, and leaving them unfit for the rapidly developingworld (Biggs and Watkins 2001; Lam 2008; Lam and Phillipson 2009).Hence, conversion to child-centered, progressive educational practices seemsto be the right direction (Biggs and Tang 2007; Brophy and Good 1986;Brown and Campione 1996). The official curriculum reform document(Curriculum Development Council 2000) highlights a range of child-cen-tered pedagogies. The reformed curriculum expressly emphasises enquirylearning, enhances learning skills, encourages knowledge construction, anddevelops positive life values (Curriculum Development Council 2002, 10).It recommends that teachers be encouraged to use varieties of student-focused learning strategies (Curriculum Development Council 2000, 90),including group work, that can enhance learning motivation. A learner-oriented curriculum is recommended, instead of the content-based, context-free, outdated textbook-oriented teaching that ignores the genuine needsof students. In particular, project learning, a learning method closelyconnected with progressive pedagogy, has been identified as a key task forimplementation, especially in the English-language curriculum.

    However, our Hong Kong society also reflects a pattern of Chinese valuesin education characterized by overcontrol and harsh discipline, absoluteteacher authority, book knowledge, and rote learning (Biggs and Watkins2001; Lau and Yeung 1996; Salili et al. 2001). These features run counterto progressive ideals. Classroom studies by Tse et al. (2005) showed thatmost Hong Kong Chinese language teachers still employ teacher-centeredapproaches. Specific to the relatively new idea of project learning, Leung(2008) surveyed a sample of 15 teachers in three primary schools and foundthat, among other concerns, teachers wish they could perform well in theirannual appraisal and would take advantage of professional training to guar-antee good performance in the new method. Teachers reflect the concernfor high-stakes accountability in the educational system that constrains theircreative potential for more innovative practices. Furthermore, an obser-vational study in mathematics teaching in Hong Kong in three preprimaryand three primary schools suggested the same situation: child-centeredpedagogy is rejected by teachers who adhere to traditional Chinese culturalvalues characterized by discipline, diligence, and academic success (Ng andRao 2008). The authors also addressed bigger problems: a pedagogical gap,involving two contrasting teaching values, experienced by teachers and thepolitical dilemma created by the expectations of other stakeholders whohold an elitist view of education.

    The enduring presence of teacher-centered methods is not exclusive to

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    Chinese societies. There are numerous studies in the West that point toteacher insistence on content-based, teacher-centered delivery for variousreasons (Ball 2000; Cronin-Jones 1991; Mintrop 2001; Wood et al. 1991).Windschitl (2002) outlined four dilemmas behind the difficulty in chang-ing classroom pedagogies that can summarize the situation. First, conceptualdilemmas refer to struggles in understanding new pedagogies to make themappropriate in teaching. Second, pedagogical dilemmas pertain to demands,in terms of knowledge, created by the need to carry out unfamiliar ped-agogies. Third, cultural dilemmas appear when a redefinition of roles andexpectations is anticipated from new methods that challenge traditionalvalues persisting in schools. Fourth, political dilemmas are associated withresistance from various stakeholders who question institutional norms androutines. As Franklin and Johnson (2008) have noted, curriculum reform,as implemented in schools, is often a conflicted and messy process. Cur-riculum implementation reflects how stakeholders interpret meanings inrelation to their history, experiences, skills, resources, and contexts, andreform is seen as a process of change that entails struggles, compromises,authoritative public interpretation, and reinterpretations.

    A Reflective Account of a Preservice Teacher

    This essay presents a reflective professional dialogue between me, a professorin an education institute, and a preservice teacher, who was finishing herone-year teacher accreditation program in the education institute. As partof the program, Alice had to undergo a two-month fieldwork practice (BlockPractice). This essay documents Alices authentic experience, concerns, andquestions in her fieldwork, as well as the authors and Alices reflectionson Alices experience.

    Key themes discussed in this essay include

    how a preservice teacher decodes the reformed education curriculumin her attempt to implement project learning;

    the differences in the way preservice teachers and in-service teachersunderstand project learning pedagogy;

    how this individual accounts sheds light on problems with thecurrent educational reform in Hong Kong.

    Alice was one of the students in my teachers professional study class.Spending most of her formative years outside of Hong Kong, she lookedinto the local education culture with the discerning eyes of a foreigner. Shealways participated actively in class and showed a strong interest in child-

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  • 26 Schools, Spring 2011

    centered pedagogy. While I was impressed by her enthusiasm, her thinkingwas a little one-sided, and I had doubts whether her enthusiasm could besustained in the face of obstacles that every teacher joining the field mustface in ample measure. These challenges serve as nutrients for professionalgrowth if teachers have the capability to reflect on their teaching practice.

    I was delighted to meet Alice when she came to see me as she beganher fieldwork practice. She was assigned to teach English in a primaryschool, with students of average abilities. She expressed to me her expec-tation on making use of this practicum to implement child-centered ped-agogy. She planned to design experiential learning activities for students butwas concerned that the team of in-service teachers she worked with may notsupport her: The teachers had presented to her the teaching and learningactivities in their schools curriculum. They were mostly traditional and in theteacher-centered model. However, Alice was optimistic and confident that shecould execute her own plan even though there may be some restrictions.

    I felt that it would be highly valuable for Alice to make use of consciousreflection during her experience, so I suggested that she keep a detailedfield diary (Fetterman 1989) and keep a good record of her experience,including her own views, the school teachers views and comments, andher own observations and reflections. I encouraged her to reflect activelyon the issue whenever she had doubts or disagreements during her inter-action with the teachers and the students and try to justify her own practice.My suggestions were underpinned by Schons (1983) idea of a reflectivepractitioner, Elliotts (2008) idea of action research as a means of systematicreflection for improving teaching, and Hargreaves and Fullans (2000) ideaof developing thinking teachers for preparing effective agents for educationalchange. Teacher-training courses are often criticized as being too theoreticaland that a large gap exists between what is taught in the courses andclassroom practice. The reflective model of learning plays an essential rolein bridging this gap.

    Alice showed great interest in the suggestion and asked me whether shecould share the diary with me. I was more than happy to have this pro-fessional dialogue with her. Instead of seeing myself as her teacher, I saidto her that I would like to play the role of a critical friend (Stenhouse1980), that is, to help trigger reflection (Kember et al. 2000) by offeringprobing questions and perspective, so that she would not be alone in makingreflections (Lam 2007). I hoped that her reflections would have the potentialto lead to deep understanding of the obscure aspects that lie behind onesown worldview (Alasuutari 1998) and help to clarify her ideas of child-

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    centered education. I promised to meet with her weekly or biweekly andheld informal conversatio...


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