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

  • 344 A. T. Degago

    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

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    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 f