During ITT and induction, teachers engage in formal and informal learning contexts which can all be seen as activity systems. For newly qualified teachers (NQTs) engaged in induction, formal activity systems will include their classroom, their meetings with other teachers in their department and school, and their induction meetings with other NQTs.
In studying learning within an individual activity system, Activity Theory prompts a widely-based investigation of learning, asking what personal and institutional histories, tools, rules, norms, more general expectations and culturally defined goals influence that learning (Engeström et al, 1999). The notions of theory, context and values that together inform each stage of the reflective practice cycle (Haggarty and Postlethwaite 2003) are consistent with these ideas, and can alert us to further relevant factors; cultural models of learning can deepen our understanding of the nature of many of these factors and so guide the design of data collection procedures and data analysis.
‘Theory’ clearly includes formal theories (eg theories of learning), but must also include a teacher’s personal theories – their dispositions related to teaching. These will be shaped by their personal experiences of teaching, and by their 'apprenticeship of observation' (Lortie 1975) as a pupil. They may be also be influenced by collective pre-dispositions shaped by the teacher's gender, ethnicity and social class. They therefore touch on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus.
The notion of context within models of reflective practice includes not only the resources available in, and formal policies relevant to, a particular setting, but also the inter-locking web of relationships, expectations and past histories in that setting. The notion can therefore be associated with Bourdieu’s idea of field. Perturbations in any of these factors can affect all the others and reflect back on the thing that originally changed, implying that simple linear models of cause and effect, and research designs intended to illuminate such models, are unlikely to shed much light on teachers' thinking and practice.
Teachers' values are important because values and beliefs that are specific to a particular subject or to a particular style of teaching can guide teachers' practice (Poulson et al. 2001). However, mismatches between values and practice also arise. This may be because of the over-riding influence of more fundamental values and beliefs (Pajares 1992), suggesting that the study of such influences is also important.
In studying the transfer of ideas and practice across activity systems, Activity Theory argues for the need to problematise this issue, which Engeström et al (1995) refer to as 'boundary crossing'. It emphasizes that when teachers move between different learning settings they will encounter different goals, expectations and ways of working. While recognising that boundary crossing is 'a little-studied category of cognitive process', Engeström et al indicate that the factors to be considered might include shared mental models (possibly theories of pedagogy) and ‘boundary objects’ that are useful in both settings (possibly lesson plans, needs analysis forms or QTS standards statements). They indicate that barriers to boundary crossing may be stereotypical views of the other setting (eg teachers dismissing academics as out of touch; academics dismissing teachers as too mechanistic). They remind us that, as ‘a decisive resource', the differences between contexts can deepen learning as well as pose difficulties for that learning.
As well as structuring investigation of obvious transfers between activity systems within a stage such as induction, these ideas will also inform investigation of the transfer of ideas from ITT to induction.
These insights will inform the focus of our interviews and questionnaires, the detailed questions to be asked in those instruments, and the initial steps in the data analysis.
As our analysis has progressed we have come to the recognition that identity provides another important theoretical framework with which to interrogate our data.
Sfard and Prusak (2005) regard ‘identity’ as constantly created and re-created in interactions between people. Further, ‘identities are man-made (sic) and collectively shaped rather than given’ (p16). They define two types of identity: an actual identity consisting of narratives about the actual state of affairs, told in the present tense and formulated as factual assertions, and a designated identity consisting of narratives presenting what is expected to be the case.
One may expect to ‘become a certain type of person’ that is, to have some stories applicable to oneself…because they present the kind of future that she is designated to have according to others, in particular according to people in the position of authority and power. …a person may be led to endorse certain narratives about herself without realizing that these are ‘just stories’ and that there are alternatives…. a perceived persistent gap between actual and designated identities, especially if it involves critical elements, is likely to generate a sense of unhappiness (Sfard & Prusak 2005: p18)
What seems important here is the idea that a mentor (or head of deportment) in a position of power will have a designated identity for a student teacher or NQT, and it can be speculated that it is in the student’s interests not only to accept this designated identity but also to work hard at closing the gap between their actual identity and that being designated. In other words, they are in danger of becoming, or at least trying to become, the kind of teacher that fits with the school’s/mentor’s/ department’s notion of a good teacher.
Engeström, Y. (1995). "Objects, contradictions and collaboration in medical cognition: an activity-theoretical perspective." Artificial Intelligence in Medicine 7: 395-412.
Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R., et al. (1999). Perspectives on activity theory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Haggarty, L. and Postlethwaite, K. (2003). "Teacher change through Action Research." Oxford Review of Education 29(4): 423-448.
Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Pajares, M. (1992). "Teachers' beliefs and educational research: cleaning up a messy construct." Review of Educational Research 62(3): 307-332.
Poulson, L., Avramidis, E., et al. (2001). "The theoretical beliefs of effective teachers of literacy in primary schools: an exploratory study of orientations to reading and writing." Research Papers in Education 16(3): 271-292.