What is teacher engagement? We define teacher engagement as a professional “way of being” where the teacher is thoughtful, creative and fully involved in solving problems of his/her practice. Engaged teachers spend time and effort on designing learning environments, materials, instruction and practices that are effective for the individual students in their classrooms. As teacher educators, involving pre-service teachers in listening to, learning about and participating with students has been an important part of our own work, but we also depend on in-service teachers, acting as mentor teachers to the pre-service teachers, to assist in this process. We are especially excited about the way in which experiential and participatory approaches to teaching and learning in teacher education can be truly exciting, rewarding, and even transformational, for all involved: mentor teachers, pre-service teachers and students.
When pre-service teachers join with in-service teachers to work with students in project-based learning (PBL), everyone benefits. In-service teachers report feeling engaged anew and reinvigorated by pre-service teachers’ risk-taking with student-centred projects. The host teacher’s knowledge about the particular students and grade-level curriculum inform the viability of the project. Further, the success of the student teacher (and the project-based curriculum) requires that the host teacher be mentor, guide and cheerleader for the project. In the best kind of practicum, the in-service and pre-service teachers collaborate throughout, but the student teacher is allowed and encouraged to take the lead.
It’s our belief that project-based learning (PBL) will help ensure that students in Canadian schools are fully participating in a meaningful education that prepares them for creative and lifelong learning in the 21st century. In this article we share our experiences in using the projects approach for engaging in-service teachers with pre-service teachers in inquiry learning and curriculum making.
Field experiences such as the student teaching practicum have long been assumed to be the most important feature of the teacher education process, and yet there is often a mismatch between what is taught in the university coursework and what is experienced in the school during the practicum.1 Not all practicum placements offer a receptive environment for the implementation of inquiry/experiential teaching and learning. The “clashing values” that occur can leave the pre-service teacher in the bind of either neglecting new, evidence-based practice or, on the other hand, not meeting the traditional expectations of the mentor teacher.2 Thus the practicum can either facilitate or inhibit the potential of student teachers to engage in research-based, innovative practices such as inquiry projects and experientially based learning – powerful approaches which can have a positive impact on student engagement and learning. Engaging with students around knowledge building requires that the role of the teacher change from directing learning to facilitating learning; from implementing the curriculum to designing the learning experiences.3 Making this shift is not as easy as it sounds!
Pre-service teachers as agents of change
Some of our previous work has supported the belief that student teachers are a potential resource and inspiration for innovation and change in schools, but that their potential to influence and implement innovative practices can be limited by contextual features of the practicum placement.4 Consequently, our more recent work looks more closely at the relationship between pre-service teachers and the in-service teachers who mentor them during the practicum, with the aim of teasing out the particular ways in which teacher engagement in the field arises for both the pre-service and host teachers. What our work has revealed is that the projects approach is a powerful and viable way of engaging student teachers with their practice and students with their learning, while renewing host teachers’ commitment and excitement about student-centred, active learning.
Curriculum course plus practicum
In Dr. Ferguson’s course-plus-practicum series, pre-service teachers were introduced to PBL in the curriculum course, with the understanding that the curriculum unit they developed could be implemented in their subsequent practicum. In-service teachers who were interested in and/or experienced with the projects approach were recruited to work with pre-service teachers during the semester and serve as mentors during the practicum. Two weeks before the practicum, mentors were invited to the university to spend an afternoon working with their student teacher on curriculum and instructional design of the project. Student teachers presented their units and mentor teachers provided feedback on the required provincial curriculum outcomes and offered their knowledge of the students, so as to shape the units to be context-specific. This course-plus-practicum design engaged pre-service teachers in a rich and meaningful, theory-into-practice experience where they were positioned to make specific, innovative, and well-designed contributions to the practicum classroom.
The topics for PBL units were varied and interesting, with titles such as, “The Great Race: Force and motion,” “Symmetry through Logos,” and “Garden Park Controversy: Save it or pave it?” Student teachers were excited to report that the projects they facilitated during their practicums had positive impacts on student motivation, concentration and engagement, as well as offering solid evidence of achievement. They also noted additional benefits beyond the prescribed outcomes: Students took on adult roles such as mechanic, graphic designer, environmentalist, and radio announcer. For themselves, pre-service teachers reported numerous benefits from the experience: increased confidence, self-efficacy, independence and self-regulation; multiple skill acquisition beyond the curriculum outcomes; development of higher-order thinking skills, positive social interaction and respect through teamwork.
There were several additional positive outcomes that we did not predict: Students became so motivated and engaged in projects that one pre-service teacher described the phenomena as “spontaneous homework” – the propensity of students to continue their investigations at home. Further, parents became involved – even parents who had not participated in school activities in the past – because, as one student teacher exclaimed, “When children are excited, the parents get excited.” Even when the curriculum had not intentionally focused on building a sense of citizenship and civil activity, children were reportedly asking questions such as, “Why doesn’t our town have a Soapbox Derby?” and “What will happen to our park?” Other pre-service teachers reported on how teamwork “broke up the cliques” and promoted new friendships that transcended socio-economic background, stereotypes and special interests. Strengths emerged and students were supported in solving their own conflicts.
Importantly, several pre-service teachers observed how children with disabilities became differently abled when working on the project. For instance, one reported that a boy labelled with ADHD who was “normally distracting and overbearing… wanted to do well; wanted to contribute to the product, so ultimately there were no problems with peer interaction as there used to be.” Another student teacher exclaimed, “It was like his IEP and adaptations at school didn’t exist. Creativity in the classroom can do wonders for children. Imagine how many children wouldn’t need IEP’s or adaptations due to behavioral issues if we concentrated on being creative!”
Mentoring the magic
Regarding their role as mentors, in-service teachers felt both their knowledge of the curriculum and their knowledge of the individual students (including management issues like “any problems that could arise in the teams”) were important. The mentor teachers thought it was both beneficial and problematic that projects lend themselves to holistic and performance-based assessments, as these provide ongoing and important information on student understanding but are also more difficult to create. Further, several mentor teachers referred to the complexities of “teaching about teaching,” especially regarding the projects that the student teachers had created. One mentor teacher admitted that, as a “bit of a control freak,” it was difficult (but still possible) to let the student teacher take the lead. She said, “I felt I didn’t give her much guidance because I wanted to support her in what she wanted to do. Because I didn’t want it to be my vision, I wanted it to be hers.”
The in-service teachers in this study agreed with previous findings that the school’s social-contextual factors of collegiality, competence and autonomy were very influential in determining their degree of engagement.5 Teachers tended to be more supportive of the project-based practicum when they themselves had prior professional development in this area, and when they had enough autonomy – over the schedule and their classroom – to make it successful. The teachers in our study indicated that when their student teachers succeeded in engaging the children in learning, they felt inspired and re-invigorated, regardless of the culture of the school.
Experiential and participatory approaches to teaching and learning in teacher education can be exciting, rewarding and even transformational for all involved.
The host teachers largely agreed that what excited them most about the projects approach was how it had outcomes and benefits for the range of individual children, but also supported collaboration across the diverse individuals. They especially appreciated that projects allowed curriculum to “be about the kids” – that, as one teacher said, “It is ensuring our kids get as much ‘bang for their buck’ as we can give them.” Teachers expressed pride in seeing the creative additions generated by the children and their increased ability to problem solve using a variety of strategies. Post-practicum interviews indicated that a number of mentor teachers were excited to see students continue to make interdisciplinary connections and retain deep and lasting understandings from the project content and processes. They encouraged others to “try to let go of the control and let it belong to the children – let (the project) take on a life of its own!”
Many teachers also said they found it engaging and inspirational to attend the planning session as a whole group with the pre-service teachers and the other host teachers at the university. One teacher explained: “I enjoyed the workshop because I got to hear from other teachers who have years of experience… And I got to hear from more than one pre-service teacher, not only the one who was with me.” Several teachers shared their plans for continuing with the project after the practicum and implementing it again next year on their own. One teacher planned to have his students present at a teachers’ conference; while others planned to share the project at the local teachers’ conference or create professional development experiences on the projects approach for teachers at their school. These teachers felt they had renewed ideas and methods for coaching pre-service teachers and asked for more involvement in planning at the university and the school, and more time with and additional pre-service teachers in their classrooms. One teacher said, “We should have two student teachers. If we could get two, then they could do a lot of teamwork and have the security of collaboration.”
Making the shift
It could be argued that the engaged mentor teachers from this study were unique. It is true that they chose to work with developing teachers on an innovative approach. Consequently, typical barriers to implementation of pre-service projects were greatly diminished. Pre-service teachers’ curriculum ideas were both encouraged and welcomed in these practicum classrooms. However, a more significant lesson was also learned: teacher engagement itself was a choice. For some pre-service teachers, moving away from conventional pedagogies created fears of failure. They worried that this was not “real” teaching, that their students required worksheets and paper-and-pencil tests as “evidence” of learning. But with each shift in their thinking – with each risk they took – student teachers realized that they could choose to be more fully engaged in the art of teaching.6 Mentor teachers – the teachers who had already made the choice to build knowledge and skill in an active, lively classroom environment produced by project-based learning – provided pre-service teachers with the necessary approval, saying, in effect: It is good practice to allow for dialogue. It is good practice to create activity. It is good practice to follow the students’ questions. And it is good practice to choose to be engaged, as a curriculum maker and knowledge builder, in teaching about teaching.
The power of projects
Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to curriculum and instruction that has been found to increase performance for all students, regardless of race, gender, prior achievement, or having English as an additional language. PBL is grounded in the philosophy of active learning that draws on the collaboration of learners, teachers, and topic experts in a sustained, comprehensive investigation that is important, authentic, and of interest and concern to the students. As PBL allows for multiple learning activities and representations, it addresses the demand for today’s classrooms to include, and actively engage, the diversity of learners. PBL has been shown to increase achievement scores and student motivation, encourage retention of knowledge and build positive relationships. PBL seems to be especially powerful when the focus of the investigation is related to service-oriented projects for the local community.7 This approach defines learning as, not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also participation in a “community of practice.”8
This research was funded by a Joint Education Research Grant offered by the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty of Education and the PEI Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
First published in Education Canada, September 2013
EN BREF – On parle souvent de réinventer l’engagement des enseignants sans aborder spécifiquement leur formation. Comment peut-on enthousiasmer les enseignants en formation initiale qui explorent l’art d’enseigner? Est-ce que le fait de rendre les stages pratiques plus conviviaux peut contribuer à stimuler tant l’engagement des enseignants chevronnés que celui des nouveaux enseignants? En analysant les avantages de la pédagogie par projets et de la nécessité d’envisager d’autres modèles de stages, nous postulons que pour obtenir des stratégies efficaces d’engagement des enseignants, il faut faire participer les futurs enseignants au développement de curriculums novateurs, inviter des enseignants mentors aux cours de formation des maîtres et permettre à toutes les personnes qui apprennent (enseignants en formation, enseignants mentors et élèves en salle de classe) de ressentir la passion de l’apprentissage.
 Laura Mae Lindo, “Comic Revelations: Antiracist pedagogy under pressure,” in Anti-racism Education: Missing in action, ed. C. C. Smith (Ottawa: Our Schools/Ourselves, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2010), 185-198.
 J. L. Ferguson and B. Brink, “Caught in a Bind: Student teaching in a time of state reform,” Teacher Education Quarterly 31, no. 4 (2004): 55-64.
 M. Jacobsen, J. Lock, and S. Friesen, “Strategies for Engagement: Knowledge building and intellectual engagement in participatory learning environments,” Education Canada 53, no. 1 (2013).
 D. Grisham, J. L. Ferguson, and B. Brink, “Mentoring the Mentors: Student teachers’ contributions to the middle school classroom,” Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 12, no. 3 (2004): 307-319.
 S. F. Lam, R. W. Y. Cheng, and H. C. Choy, “School Support and Teacher Motivation to Implement Project-based Learning,” Learning and Instruction 20, no. 6 (2010): 487-497.
 Stephanie Fisher, Jennifer Jenson, Laura Mae Lindo and Heather Lotherington, “Thinking Through Design: Indirect professional development,” in Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education (2011).
 See, for a comprehensive review: L. Darling-Hammond, B. Barron, D. P. Pearson, A. H. Schoenfeld, E. K. Stage, T. D. Zimmerman, G. M. Cervetti, and J. Tilson, Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2008).
 J. Lave, and E. Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)