Using Reflective Journals to Enhance Impoverished Practicum Placements: A case in teacher education in Ethiopia

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  • Teaching EducationVol. 18, No. 4, December 2007, pp. 343356

    ISSN 1047-6210 (print)/ISSN 1470-1286 (online)/07/04034314 2007 School of Education, University of QueenslandDOI: 10.1080/10476210701687633

    Using Reflective Journals to Enhance Impoverished Practicum Placements: A case in teacher education in Ethiopia

    Adinew Tadesse Degago*Haramaya University, EthiopiaTaylor and FrancisCTED_A_268629.sgm10.1080/10476210701687633Teaching Education1047-6210 (print)/1470-1286 (online)Original Article2007Taylor & Francis184000000December 2007AdinewTadesse Degagoadinew_tadesse@yahoo.com

    This article investigates the value of writing reflective journals for student teachers during practi-cum placement. The author invited 10 pre-service education degree teachers to write a weeklyreflective journal throughout their four weeks practicum teaching. Each student teacher was giventhe opportunity to revisit the issues in his journals through a subsequent reflective dialogue. At theend of the practicum, the student teachers were asked to complete one additional reflective journalto provide their views about how useful and challenging they found the task of writing reflectivejournals on their teaching experiences. The author also kept observation notes to reflect on his ownexperiences of involving student teachers in reflective journal writing. It was concluded that thestudent teachers benefited immensely from their experiences of writing reflective journals for thepurpose of reflecting on their practical experiences. They reported that the activity helped themimprove their teaching experiences and deepen their understanding of the complexities involved inlearning to teach. The study has implications on the role of reflective journals as a means ofengaging teacher candidates in reflective thinking, a recently emerging notion in the education ofteachers in Ethiopia.

    Introduction

    The Ministry of Education of Ethiopia (MOE) introduced a new teacher educationpolicy three years ago, claiming to change theoretical and teacher-centered curricu-lum (MOE, 2003). One of the major defects of the curriculum was the practicum,which was given inadequate emphasis and was inefficiently implemented in theteacher education program. Firstly, student teachers were not given sufficient timeand support to develop their skills and knowledge about school teaching for therewas only four weeks teaching practice carried out towards the end of the four year

    *Faculty of Education, Haramaya University, PO Box 161, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Email:adinew_tadesse@yahoo.com

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    education program. Secondly, the main objective of the teaching practice was just toenable student teachers to demonstrate their ability to act like teachers in puttinginto practice the knowledge they gained in their education courses. Thirdly, thesupervision of teacher educators during this time was superficial and it was meantonly to judge the performance of student teachers according to a prescribed check-list. Consequently, student teachers were more concerned about passing the assess-ment rather than disclosing concerns about the improvement of their teachingexperiences. This situation produced teacher graduates who were relatively good attheoretical knowledge but weak at practice. Many of them failed to cope with thedemands of schools such as caring for all students, teaching heterogeneous classes,fostering student-centered methods, engaging in research, and so on (MOE, 2003).Eventually, many of them were forced to drop out of the profession, which is acontinuing problem in Ethiopia.

    In order to address these and other problems in the education system, MOEdeclared the practicum as one of the most important aspects of the teacher educa-tion program in Ethiopia. It has been made the central core of the learning processand accounts for 25% of teacher preparation courses (at the time of this study). Thepremise behind the current practicum is that student teachers learn how to teacheffectively if they were given sufficient time and support on practical experiencethrough a mediated and direct experience of teaching at partner schools (MOE,2003). To this end, it was suggested that student teachers should have:

    1. An early opportunity to observe the school environment; the behavior of schoolstudents, their levels of performance, learning capacity and receptivity; teachingmethods used in schools, etc, with guidance from their supervisors.

    2. The chance to explore teaching methods and practices for themselvesthroughmicroteaching and direct experience of school teaching.

    3. The opportunity to reflect on their experiences, on their own, with peers, andwith teachers in the school community and from their educational institution.(MOE, 2003, p. 12)

    Accordingly, all pre-service degree teachers are expected to complete five consec-utive practicum courses during their three-year education program before theybecome secondary teachers (Grades 912). The assumption behind all this is thatstudent teachers will get the opportunity to integrate the reality at school with thecampus programs, which were devoid of their practical contexts, through the practi-cum. Student teachers will also be able to address issues from the practicum in thecampus courses through action research on their teaching.

    Although the value of extended practicum experience has strong support in manyteacher education programs worldwide (Carol, Janell, & Sheila, 2004), an issueworth considering is not emphasised in the practicum courses offered at HaramayaUniversity (the institution where I teach). That is, how to encourage and enablestudent teachers to learn actively from those courses and thereby empower andmotivate them to assume more responsibility for their own learning. For instance,despite the efforts made to replace passive learning with active, trainee-focused

  • Using Reflective Journals 345

    education, student teachers are yet passive in their education processes. As regardsthe practicum, the guiding principle still focuses more on determining whetherstudent teachers exhibit competencies, behaviors and skills set for each course thanenabling them to learn how to think critically about their experiences and becomebetter equipped to solve problems of practice. Therefore, it is imperative to findways to take student teachers out of their passive role in their learning to teach(Seeler et al., 1994, cited in Park, 2003). Also, as an integral component of theteacher education program, the practicum needs to be more educative than the meredeployment of student teachers to partner schools. This paper reports one of theattempts I made to provide insights into how student teachers could be encouragedto assume more responsibility for their own professional development throughreflective journal writing during their practicum placement.

    Why is Journal Writing Important?

    Journal writing has been used in many professional settings as a means of stimulat-ing reflective learning (Counseling: Eldridge, 1983; Psychology: Hettich, 1990;Nursing: Landeen et al., 1992; Management: Leary, 1981; Leadership: Walker,1985; Sociology: Wagenaar, 1984; Teaching: Yinger & Clark, 1981; all cited inBain, Ballantyne, Packer, & Mills, 1997). But, it is more popular in the field ofteacher education where reflection is recognised as an important component ofteacher preparation courses (Calderhead & Gates, 1993, cited in Bain et al., 1997).As Lee (2004, p. 75) states, journals are particularly suited for teacher educationprograms where reflecting on learning and teaching is accepted as one of the goodteaching habits that can and should be acquired from the beginning of the processof learning to teach (Santana-Williamson, 2001, p. 42, cited in Lee, 2004). A jour-nal as used in this study is defined as a learning exercise in which student teachersexpress in writing their understanding of reflections on; response to or analysis of anevent, experience or concept (Ballantyne & Packer, 1995a, cited in Bain et al.,1997, online reference).

    In the field of teacher education, journal writing is claimed to offer many usefulbenefits both to student teachers and their educators (Lee, 2004; Park, 2003). Forinstance, journal writing stimulates student teachers thinking and enables them tomake connections between issues, explore ideas, generate new ideas, and discovermeaning during the learning process (Lee, 2004, p. 74). Secondly, journal writingsituates student teachers at the center of the learning process and empowers them toconstruct knowledge of practice based on their own beliefs, ideas, and experiences.

    Furthermore, journal writing enhances student teachers reflectivity (Bain et al.,1997). As stated by Lee (2004), journal writing makes reflection likely, because as[student teachers] write about their views of different issues, talk about their prob-lems and concerns and share their ideas, they discover new meaning and have theirhorizon broadened (p. 74). By so doing, they will be able to bridge the gap betweenthe realities of school and their campus courses. In other words, by evaluating theirdaily practices, student teachers could narrow the gaps between their imagined views

  • 346 A. T. Degago

    of teaching as students and the realities/activities in the field as practicing teachers(Lee, 2004). They could also make decisions about future planning and action basedon such rigorous reflection (Richards, 1991). Besides examining issues relevant totheir teaching, through reflection, student teachers develop a sense of ownership andpower over their future work. This thus increases their awareness about themselvesas would-be-teachers and of the teaching and learning context within which theyoperate (Burton & Carroll, 2001).

    Teacher educators on their part also benefit a lot from engaging student teachersin journal writing. By reading student teachers journals regularly, besides providingsupportive feedback on the journals, teacher educators will get the opportunity toengage student teachers in further reflection and dialogue. In fact for this to happen,teacher educators should be able to create and sustain a more open and caring rela-tionship with student teachers (Johnston, 2000).

    Given the benefits of journal writing, particularly as a means of facilitating reflec-tion for the growth of student teachers, though claims exist, it does not seem to befully utilised in Ethiopian teacher education programs. Thus, it is of paramountimportance to investigate the values and ways in which reflective journal writing canbe implemented in the Ethiopian context, as attempted in this study.

    The Study and its Aims

    From my experiences as a teacher educator during the last five years at HaramayaUniversity, I realised that student teachers place considerable value on the practi-cum courses. They believe that the practicum will help them gain experience andconfidence in teaching at school. Many faculty members, including practicumcoordinators, teacher educators, department heads and faculty deans, also believethat the school experience would enhance student teachers growth as futureprofessionals.

    However, in its present form as organised in our institution, student teachers maynot benefit as much from the experience as is expected. The emphasis has beenplaced more on routine classroom observation and teaching at partner schools justto satisfy the standards set for the practicum than to learn how to think creativelyand critically about the practicum. From my own observations, student teacherswere not given the appropriate guidance and support needed to help them analyseand reflect on their own teaching and learning. As Carol et al. (2004) show, thoughteaching experiences during the practicum are helpful in preparing new teachers,helping them reflect on the experience is believed to add a critical dimension. Thus,a poor practicum experience may be of little or no value; as many researchers report(Britzman, 1991; McIntyre, Byrd, & Fox, 1996, all cited in Clive & Kosnik, 2002),student teachers need to be given support and opportunities to voice theirconcerns and thoughts about their practicum through reflection on their experi-ences. In other words, if student teachers are expected to develop a more realisticunderstanding of the complexities involved in effective teaching, they need to beencouraged to develop into reflective teachers by supporting them to examine,

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    evaluate and reflect on their experiences and make decisions about future planningand actions (Pollard, 2002; Richards, 1991). As Pollard (2002) confirms, this can beachieved if supervisors present themselves as critical friends (not authority figures)who challenge student teachers to re-examine their teaching while offering practicalsupport, encouragement and personal affirmation.

    Therefore, the aim of this study was to promote student teachers reflection ontheir practicum through reflective journal writing. I decided to adopt this approachbased on the premise that through reflective journal writing student teachers candevelop a sense of ownership and power over their future work (Lee, 2004, p. 75)and take more responsibility for their professional development (Pollard, 2002). Ingeneral, the study provides insights on the extent to which student teachers foundkeeping a reflective journal useful for reflecting on their teaching experience. Itprovides information as to how reflective journals can be successfully implementedin the practicum courses in the Ethiopian teacher education program.

    Method and Procedures

    The participants of the study were 10 pre-service teachers engaged in teachingpracticum at a partner school. Student teachers were required to complete threeconsecutive practicum courses before signing up for this course. The first coursefocuses on active observation in the process of instruction, the school climate, organ-isation of the school, classroom atmosphere, availability of materials, mechanisms ofcoping with problems, challenges and so on. Student teachers are expected toproduce a report based on the checklist or observation guidelines given. In thesecond practicum course, student teachers visit schools to practice teaching throughmicro-teaching and team-teaching. They are also required to identify the area oftheir research project, which will be completed later during the fifth practicum. Forthe third practicum, however, student teachers are required to practice teaching intheir major subjects for two weeks under the supervision of the cooperating teachers.Similarly, Practicum IV, the focus of this study, is devoted to teaching a full lessonfor four weeks at various partner schools.

    Like other faculty members responsible for supervising student teachers intheir respective departments, I was assigned at one partner school to supervise10 of the 18 student teachers assigned to the school from the Department ofEnglish Language. As usual, I was given several copies of the evaluation check-list from the Practicum Planning and Coordinating Office to evaluate the perfor-mances of the student teachers. I found the checklist highly prescriptive anddevoid of the context in which the student teachers work. Thus, drawing on thesuggestions of Williams (1989), who favors the supervisory role of teacher educa-tors as developmental rather than judgmental, I planned to involve the studentteachers willingly in writing reflective journals for the purpose of reflecting ontheir teaching experiences.

    As the student teachers had no experience in keeping reflective journals, a lot ofeffort was put into making the idea of journal writing explicit to them. They were also

  • 348 A. T. Degago

    given adequate support and guidance throughout the course of the work. Initially, Iinquired what the student teachers knew about journal writing and reflection throughgroup discussion. From the discussion, I learned that they had no experience inreflecting on their teaching performances, though they had teaching experiences inthe preceding practicum course. Thus, finding that their understanding of keepingreflective journals/reflection superficial, I provided the student teachers with someinsights about the concept of reflective journals and description of the effective useand advantages of keeping journals with suggestions on what might be included.Among other things, I informed them that the purpose is not simply to summarisetheir lessons, but rather to record their reactions to them viewing that Summaryalone is not enough to fully promote student [teachers] understanding of [theirteaching] (Knowlton, Eschmann, Fish, Heffren, & Voss, 2004, p. 44). Writing theirreactions to their lessons, however, enables student teachers to make connectionsbetween the activities of teaching and their own beliefs and assumptions. I alsoprovided them with a guideline on how to note down their progresses, problems andfrustrations and what they plan to do next time. The guideline included the followingquestions:

    1. Give a brief description of what you taught this week.2. Reflect on areas of strength providing specific examples. What do you think

    were the causes of your successes?3. Reflect on areas of weakness/challenges providing specific examples. What do

    you think were the causes of your weakness/challenges?4. Reflect on how you were able to deal with these challenges giving specific

    evidences.5. Reflect on aspects of your teaching that you plan to develop in the week ahead.

    What steps do you intend to take to achieve these goals? Write what you woulddo differently next time.

    This framework was incorporated to help student teachers as a starting point forreflecting on their teaching, as it was their first experience. I also offered them aconsiderable freedom to decide what to add or to leave in while writing their subse-quent journal entries. I encouraged the student teachers to record their understand-ing of the complexities involved in teaching by integrating their expectations ofteaching which they had as students and the realities they encountered at school aspracticing teachers. I also advised them to focus on their ideas without muchconcern on spelling, grammar, length or style of their writing, feeling that poor writ-ing skills and language inadequacy may inhibit the student teachers from writingfreely about their experiences. I stressed the fact that maintaining the journal andmaking an effort to reflect on their lived experience were more important than thelanguage accuracy of their writing.

    The student teachers were asked to maintain a journal with daily entries andsubmit it to me each week for subsequent reflection and dialogue. The journalentries were then read immediately and commented upon as an input for completingnext journal entries. They were also used for a reflective dialogue as a means to

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    involve the student teachers in reflection orally. During this session, I asked thestudent teachers further questions on their respective journal entries just to raise thedepth of their reflection on their teaching experiences. The use of such constructivequestioning is supported by many researchers during a reflective dialogue betweenteacher educators and student teachers. For instance, Daloglu (2001) states thatasking student teachers why, what, and how questions helps them not only toevaluate certain teaching techniques but also for the broader purpose of raisingawareness of other teaching issue (p. 88). Similarly, (Bain et al., 1997) state theimportance of constructive questioning by teacher educators as a stimulus to deepenthe reflective process.

    Upon completion of the practicum placement, I asked the student teachers tocomplete one additional reflective journal entry to allow them to express what theythought were the significant and challenging aspects of keeping reflective journalson their practicum experiences. In it, the student teachers were asked to freelyprovide their views and reflections regarding the utility and challenging aspects ofkeeping a journal for the purpose of reflection on their practicum experiences. Thisjournal entry was used as the main source of data for the study. Besides, I sharedmy own reflections of engaging student teachers in reflective journal writing duringtheir practicum by maintaining observation notes while facilitating the reflectiveprocess.

    Nevertheless, an attempt was not made to measure the level of reflectivity in thestudent teachers reflective journals. This was intentionally made on the belief thatthe student teachers may not demonstrate higher levels of reflection, as they haveno prior experiences of writing reflective journals. My rationale was also based onthinking that it was not easy to expect higher levels of reflection especially in theEthiopian situation where student teachers have not yet been at the center of theireducation process. For these reasons and drawing on the ideas of Tabachnick andZeichner (1991), I valued the student teachers willingness to devote their efforts tovoice concerns and decisions about their teaching more than the focus on the leveltheir reflection. As stated by Tabachnick and Zeichner (1991, p. 2), In someextreme cases, the impression is given that as long as teachers reflect about some-thing, in some manner, whatever they decide to do is all right since they havereflected about it.

    Results and Discussion

    In this section, I report the findings of my study analysing the student teachersreflections in their journal entries and my own observation notes taken throughoutthe study. First, using the common themes that emerged across the journal entries, Ireport how useful and challenging the student teachers found the task of writingreflective journals on their teaching experiences. To maintain their anonymity, Iused pseudonyms where their extracts were referred to. Then, I present my ownoverall reflections on the values and challenges of engaging student teachers inreflection on their teaching through journal writing.

  • 350 A. T. Degago

    1. Views of Student Teachers about Writing Reflective Journals

    In their final journal entry, the student teachers provided plenty of useful evidencesas to how they found the task helpful and challenging. Using the common remarksmade by the student teachers, I present the following discussion:

    A. Positive remarks. The student teachers offered a range of views concerning thebenefits they got from their engagement in journal writing for the purpose of reflect-ing on their teaching experiences. Some among them were:

    (a) They found it helpful in improving their teaching practice. Research shows thatstudent teachers demonstrate a lot of concerns about developing their confidenceduring student teaching. But reflective journal writing offers them not only a recordof their personal concerns and frustrations but also to react to them professionally.Confirming this, many of the student teachers commented that keeping journalsregularly on their practicum experiences helped them improve their teaching perfor-mances. They expressed that they were able to identify and record regularly theprogresses and challenges in their lessons. Having understood this fact, they wereable to capitalise on their successes and work on what could be done differently nexttime in order to improve those aspects of their lessons that didnt go well. Here aresome of the comments of the student teachers:

    One of the student teachers expressed:

    Journal writing enabled me to evaluate my effectiveness and to judge to what extent Iam progressing as a practicing teacher learning to teach working on my weaknesses, Iimproved the subsequent lessons. For instance, I had a problem with some misbehavingstudents in my previous lessons. I constantly argued with them during my lessons wast-ing much of my precious time of teaching. But recording and thinking of the cause ofthis situation in my journal helped me deal with the problem through discussion withmy friends and the cooperating teacher at the school. (Student Teacher A)

    Similarly, Student Teacher D expressed:

    Journal writing enabled me to realise what was happening before, during and after thelesson and what measures should be taken to avoid weaknesses and maintain strengths.For instance, through reflection on my lessons I learned that most of the students had aproblem in coping with the speed of my lesson delivery. I think I was too fast for most ofthe students. I regularly followed the speed of some active students. Realising this prob-lem helped me go at average speed and involve both active and slow students in myclass by following flexible lesson delivery procedures.

    (b) They found it useful to learn the complexities involved in teaching. Teaching isoverwhelmingly complex, and requires practitioners to exercise their own profes-sional judgment to decide how to act. As would be professionals, the student teach-ers reported that through writing a reflective journal, they were able to identify,analyse and solve the complexities involved in teaching. Through reflecting on their

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    experiences, the student teachers commented that they learned practical issuesabout teaching differently from what they learned in their campus courses. Based onsuch reflection, the student teachers were able to make changes and decisions intheir teaching. Here are some instances:

    Student Teacher E noted:

    Through journal writing, I learned the complexity involved in the implementation ofgroup work activity in Ethiopian classroom situation where the seats are unmovable andthe class situation is unfavorable. I managed this confusion by forming groups accord-ing to the seat arrangement of the students. For instance, students sitting on one seatformed a group and sometimes joined another group sitting behind them and reportedtheir work through their representatives.

    Student Teacher C also observed that his view of the use of mother tongue inEnglish classrooms changed as he started reflecting on the issue in his journal as oneof his problem areas in his class. He commented that he found it difficult to commu-nicate with the students when he avoided the use of the students mother tongue.After presenting the matter to discussion during the reflective dialogue, he madedecisions to use it sometimes for making instructions clear and for explaining someterms.

    These remarks may indicate the importance of integrating the practicum with thecampus program. This is helpful because it enables student teachers to narrowthe gap between their imagined views of teaching as students and the reality atschool as teachers. In addition, it provides them the opportunity to address practi-cum issues in the campus courses coming to their own judgments as to what worksand what does not work in the classroom (Tsang & Wong, 1996, p. 24, cited inLee, 2004, p. 82).

    (c) They found it valuable to develop their reflection skills. Through writing on theirpracticum experiences, the student teachers commented that they realised theimportance of reflection as part of their professional development. Through it, theyproved their ability to express concerns about their teaching as a responsible practi-tioner. They also pointed out that they developed the confidence to share their ideaswith others and justify the decisions and changes made in their lessons. For instance,Student Teacher F commented, Through keeping journals, I learned that no lessonis completely perfect but it can be improved if a teacher revisits it through reflectionindividually or with others.

    (d) They found it helpful to gain feedback on their teaching experiences. As an effectof journal writing, the student teachers reported that they had an opportunity torecord and share their teaching experiences with their peers. They explained thatthis discussion helped them look at their teaching from a different perspective andmake their own decisions on how to improve it for the next time. Here are some ofthe comments: I used journals as a good means of getting a feedback from my peersto help me improve my teaching (Student Teacher J). Another student teacher

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    stated Journaling helped me to get encouragement, assistance and direction fromyou (referring to me) as my supervisor.

    (e) They found it an input for the next practicum course. The student teachers alsoasserted that their reflective journals could be an input for carrying out their finalpracticum course, which is action research. The student teachers mentioned that byrevisiting the issues presented in their journals, they have an intention to incorporatethem in their action research projects. Here are some of the remarks:

    Journal writing helped me approach various issues in teaching in a critical way. In sodoing, I was able to examine what works and what does not work in practice. I feel thisunderstanding could be useful for me for writing action research in the next practicumcourse. (Student Teacher D)

    Another student commented:

    Writing journals could be a good preparation for carrying out action research in the finalpracticum course. Through it, I learned how to discover a problem area and react to itsoundly. (Student Teacher C)

    (e) They found it helpful in improving their writing skills. Writing is a neglected skillin English teaching in Ethiopia. Students are not as such encouraged to generateideas in writing for more attention is often given to grammar teaching. Writing isalso believed to be a complex skill and accuracy is more important in learning it thantrying to express ones own ideas freely. However, because of the focus in this task ison processes of writing than on products, the student teachers reported they had theopportunity to record their thoughts freely without worrying much about the formal-ity of their writing and word limits. One of the student teachers explained: Writinga reflective journal helped me improve my writing skills. I learned how to emphasisemy ideas without adhering rigorously to my language accuracy or style of mywriting (Student Teacher G).

    B. Remarks concerning the challenges of journal writing. Though the student teacherswere more positive about their experiences of keeping reflective journals, they faceddifficulty with it. In fact, this may not be surprising, as they had no useful prior expe-rience of writing journals. Common problems documented include:

    (a) Difficult to think in English. Though the student teachers were provided withinputs on how to write journals, some of them reported that they found it challeng-ing to express their thinking in English about their teaching. For instance, StudentTeacher E reported, writing a reflective journal required me high level of thinkingto generate ideas on what to include and exclude. Likewise, Student Teacher Bsaid, reflection in writing was challenging for me because I often went short of ideasto describe my experiences in English. In fact, most student teachers in Ethiopia

  • Using Reflective Journals 353

    are weak in expressing themselves in English for its value is limited to only instruc-tional medium and its teaching is rule (grammar) teaching based. As a result,student teachers were not able to communicate their ideas effectively and meaning-fully in their journal entries. However, as the subsequent reflection was oral andinvolved code switching between English and mother tongues of the student teach-ers, most of them found this easiest to express their ideas well. Though this requiresfurther research, student teachers reflected better in their mother tongue than inEnglish, where the latters use is very limited in the context.

    (b) Time consuming. Though it is evident that journal writing provides studentteachers time to reflect about their experiences, the time needed to reflect and thetime needed to write is paradoxically another impediment to reflection. Similarly,the participants of this study indicated that, despite the fact that they found reflec-tion on their teaching very helpful, they explained that it demanded from themconsiderable time along with the routine teaching activities at the school. Some ofthe comments included the following: I found writing reflective journals timeconsuming and a burden on my teaching and preparation (Student Teacher H).Another student teacher expressed: Writing journals took much of my time, morethan three and half hours each week on average (Student Teacher G).

    One of the factors that contributed to this problem from my observation was thatstudent teachers were expected to stay at school the whole day though they were notpreoccupied with teaching. They were required to get involved in co-curricularactivities of the school such as involvement in drama clubs, laboratory work,pedagogic center and student management and control as part of the practicumplacement.

    2. Analysis of my Observation Notes

    As a facilitator of the process of reflection by student teachers on the practicumexperience, I kept observation notes to reflect on the insights I gained from my expe-rience as a teacher educator. Accordingly, through reading and responding to thestudent teachers reflective journals on a regular basis, I gained a lot of experiences.Primarily, it provided me with information about how well each student teacher wasdoing with their new role at practical setting. Predominantly, I was able to identifystudent teachers who found their teaching overwhelmingly challenging and thosewho found it relatively smooth. For instance, realising that some student teachershad faced serious problems of class management and control, I provided them withmore individualised attention and support during the reflective dialogue on theirrespective journals. I helped them come to their own judgments as to what is to bedone to overcome it in the weeks ahead. While providing extra support to the frus-trated student teachers, I had the opportunity to pose questions for others to helpthem explore other alternatives and thereby to deepen their understanding of thecomplexity involved in teaching. Drawing on the suggestions of Bain et al. (1997), I

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    provided the student teachers with constructive feedback on their journals to chal-lenge their assumptions and help them discover alternative perspectives in teaching.For instance, I involved the student teachers in examining their own expectationsabout teaching and their skills for teaching they held as student teachers and as towhat surprises occurred during the practicum in relation to these expectations.

    By thoroughly reading and responding to the student teachers journals, I was alsoable to establish and maintain relationship with student teachers. It helped mepresent myself as a critical friend who challenges as well as supports the way thestudent teachers think about their teaching in a more relaxing and non-threateningatmosphere. I encouraged the student teachers to revisit the ideas presented in theirjournals by asking questions for further reflection and dialogue. I also helped themcome up with suggestions for improvement in their future lessons and discuss howthey would act upon these suggestions. This enabled them to open up their workand invite questions, taking more responsibility for the improvement of their subse-quent teaching.

    However, it should be noted that the involvement of the student teachers injournal writing was not without challenges. In the beginning of the activity, I facedresistance in getting the student teachers to reflect on their experiences. Most ofthem were not happy to discuss what went well and what went wrong in their respec-tive classrooms, feeling that it was beyond their power. Some explained that it wasnot easy for them to identify what was working well and what was not and why.Others described their lessons superficially without giving explanations and specificinstances of their teaching that were successful and/or unsuccessful and why. Theirjournals lacked future actions for improvement though it was an aspect of it. Otherswere worried about what might happen if they were to write their weaknessesbecause of the fact that I was their supervisor. As a result, most of them preferred tobe told what to do and how to do things by me instead of trying to make efforts tovoice their concerns about their work. The other challenge for me was to get timeto read and respond to the student teachers journals along with other responsibili-ties in the campus. I was expected to read 10 journal entries of threefive pages eachweek and involve the student teachers in reflective dialogue on their respectivejournals both individually and in groups. Thus, engaging student teachers in journalwriting on their teaching experiences required much energy and time of me.

    Conclusions

    In this study, I attempted to show that, as an alternative to the traditional practicumexperience conducted only to determine whether student teachers exhibit thestandards set for the course, reflective journal writing could potentially be used tostimulate student teachers reflection on this experience. This study confirmed thatinvolving student teachers in keeping a reflective journal offers several benefits forstudent teachers themselves and teacher educators. Most importantly, journalwriting enables student teachers to disclose their concerns about their teaching expe-riences and deepen their understanding of the complexities involved in teaching. It

  • Using Reflective Journals 355

    also enables teacher educators to provide individualised attention to support andpose questions to raise the level of reflection in student teachers through reading andresponding to their journals regularly and painstakingly.

    It should not be surprising that some student teachers found the activity challeng-ing and tedious, as it was their first sound experience. For instance, at the beginningof the writing process, I found it demanding to get some student teachers to thinkand reflect on their teaching. This was mainly because of the fact that they wereaccustomed to the transmission view of teaching and learning, where they were toldwhat to do and how to do it by their educators rather than encouraged to makeefforts to disclose concerns about their beliefs and assumptions about teaching.However, as the findings of this study indicated, through getting student teachers toreflect on their teaching through journal writing, teacher educators could graduallymove them from the stage of passivity to a stage where they could take greaterresponsibility for their teaching. It could at least be one of the strategies to promotestudent-centered learning and teaching as several claims have been made in Ethiopiatowards this end.

    Nevertheless, teacher educators should not present themselves as authoritative andtry to impress that theirs is the only way to teach if they would like to see studentteachers feel responsible for their learning. Rather, they should be able to create asupportive atmosphere for a reflective dialogue while committing themselves to read-ing and responding to their student teachers journals promptly, thoroughly, andsensibly. As the findings of this study indicated, student teachers need much orienta-tion and support to engage in reflective thinking. Thus, teacher educators should beable to take this responsibility to guide student teachers in the process of learning toreflect. It should also be noted that student teachers reflect more openly and honestlyboth their strengths and challenges only when they trust their relationship with theirsupervisors. Thus, they need to be convinced that the rationale behind reflection ontheir experiences is more for development than judgmental purposes. Furthermore,if teacher educators would like to promote reflection in prospective teachers, theyshould be able to model reflective skills in a variety of ways. One of these is beingreflective practitioners themselves, for they are expected to practice what they preach.

    References

    Bain, J. D., Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Mills, C. (1997). Using journal writing to enhance studentteachers reflectivity during field experience placements. Paper presented at the Annual Conferenceof the Australian Association for Research in Education. Brisbane, Queensland, November30December 4. Retrieved June, 2006, from http://www.aare.edu.au/97pap/bainj167.htm

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