Collaborative Reflection and Professional Community Building: An Analysis of Preservice Teachers' Use of an Electronic Discussion Board

Collaborative Reflection and Professional Community Building: An Analysis of Preservice Teachers’ Use of an Electronic Discussion Board
Sheila A Nicholson and Nathan Bond

The use of technology in the educational setting can provide support for professional development early in a teacher’s career. The purpose of this qualitative exploratory study was to examine the use of an electronic discussion board in a field-based block of courses as a place where 17 preservice teachers could share experiences and ideas. The researchers examined the nature and development of the discussions over one semester. The study found three major benefits: (a) computer mediated communication extends discussions beyond the classroom; (b) the discussion board became a place for professional support and community; and (c) preservice teachers’ reflective thinking developed over time as a result of the discussion board. The electronic discussion board appears to be a promising way to enhance and support existing structures for preservice and inservice teachers’ professional growth.

As novice teachers journey through each stage of their professional development from teacher preparation course work, to field-based experiences and student teaching, and into their first year of teaching, they share common concerns and face similar challenges. This journey has been well-documented by researchers (Fuller, 1969; Kagan, 1992; Steffy & Wolfe, 2001) who found that novices are more concerned initially with the larger school situation, classroom discipline, the affective aspects of teaching, and their own egocentric perceptions as educators, rather than with the students in their classes and their students’ learning. These “new” teachers draw upon a lifetime of experience as students to construct sometimes unrealistic and optimistic views of teaching (Kagan, 1992; Weinstein, 1989). Coupled with these concerns and preconceptions are the challenges of isolation and increasing lack of support which become more pronounced as the beginning teachers progress through their introductory years in the profession (Fuller, 1969). While participating in their preparation program, beginning teachers receive support from their fellow classmates, university supervisors and school-based cooperating teachers. However, peer interaction and collegial support often drop during the first year of teaching when the beginning teachers find themselves alone in the classroom with only minimal support from colleagues or mentors (Sachs & Smith, 1988; Moir & Gless, 2001). Some researchers have labeled these new teachers, “lone wolves” (Huberman, 1995). Overwhelmed with a deluge of responsibilities, the new teachers have little time to collaborate with colleagues.

Teacher preparation programs have responded to these concerns and challenges by employing a variety of reflective, collaborative practices advocated by researchers (Joyce & Showers, 1995) to facilitate the induction of teachers into their profession. Many programs currently place preservice teachers in schools as early as possible, recognizing that fieldwork allows novices to enact a knowledge base and act like practitioners. In such settings, they gain confidence in their ability to solve problems and awareness of how such problem solving is done (Johnson, 1992). Teacher preparation programs also provide their beginning teachers with cohort support from their peers thus creating preprofessional communities for learning. The need for such cooperative communities has long been recognized and stands in contrast to the school climate that is often isolated and competitive (Graves, 1992). Peers are now seen as an underused resource. In a study by Hawkey (1995), student teachers expressed their desire to learn from their peers, to share expertise and experiences. They benefited from a community where the cognitive skills taught by the professor complemented the affective and emotional skills and support provided by their peers. In addition, most teacher preparation programs emphasize the need for novices to engage in reflective thinking about themselves and the practice of teaching and to share their thinking with their peers. Raywid (1993) found that for teachers to grow in their profession they must have time for collaborative reflection on practice, conditions, and events, and such reflective collaboration must be sustained over time.

Despite the fact that many teacher preparation programs integrate systems that support professional growth through field-basing, cohorts, and reflection as well as provide for transition from considerable support to less support, many novices still experience the effects of isolation. One promising solution to this dilemma, which may overcome these impediments to developing reflective thinking and supportive communities among novice teachers, is an electronic discussion board, a type of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Since the advent of CMC and its increasingly widespread use in teacher preparation, a growing body of research has reported its value in the professional development of novice teachers.

The purpose of this study was to explore the uses of a discussion board in a field-based block of courses as a place where preservice teachers could share experiences and ideas. By analyzing the topics that dominated the discussions as well as the nature of the dialogues, the researchers sought to answer the following questions: What was the nature of these preservice teachers’ discussions; and, how did their discussions develop over time?

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