Enacting Theory-Practice Pedagogies

Thresholds of Transition From People and Partners to Program and Partnerships
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Teacher EducationProfessional LearningProfessional DevelopmentPartnersSupervisionhttps://equitypress.org/
We, as teacher educators, here focus on threshold opportunities that exist within the matrix of relationships, practices, and theories–what we are calling the hybrid space of school and university communities. Our self-study research investigates thresholds of transition from people and partners to program and partnerships as we enact theory-practice pedagogies. Drawing on our professional learning over the past decade, we began implementing a Professional Development School PDS model in 2020. The context of the model is an integrated, school-based, professionally-oriented practicum in the final semester of a four-year teacher education program. We identified programmatic theory-practice pedagogies of in-school seminars, an extended and integrated clinical practicum, and faculty supervision of practicum as threshold opportunities.


Integrating Theory and Practice

For the past decade, we have been engaged in longitudinal self-study research related to theory-practice pedagogies in teacher education. Teacher education programs tend to be ineffective (Segall, 2002). A recent survey of the design of Canadian teacher education programs (Russell & Dillon, 2015, p. 215) revealed that the design of most programs could be described as “theory-into-practice.” Unfortunately, a great deal of research reveals the general ineffectiveness of such an approach, since candidates rarely use that procedural knowledge in the development of their practice (Dillon & O’Connor, 2010; Rosean & Florio-Ruane, 2008). The evidence is longstanding (Cole, 1997; Tigchelaar & Korthagen, 2004; Zeichner & Tabatchnick, 1981) and widespread (Clift & Brady, 2005; Perry & Power, 2004; Wideen et al., 1998).

The theory-practice dilemma is a perennial problem of teacher education (Flores et al., 2014; Korthagen, 2010; Nuthall, 2004; Van Nuland, 2011). Darling-Hammond (2014) identifies the ability of teachers to integrate theory and practice as necessary for teachers to become experts in meeting the various learning needs of children. She suggests that certain programmatic structures linking theory and practice offer the best preparation for teacher candidates. In a study of seven teacher education programs that have extraordinarily well-prepared candidates (Darling-Hammond, 2006), she presents common features that focus on robust theory-practice links that include extended clinical experiences that support ideas presented in closely interwoven coursework, the application of learning to real problems of practice, and strong school-university relationships. She claims that programmatic approaches producing novice teachers whose practice is similar to many successful veteran teachers have three critically important pedagogical foundations: 1) tight coherence and integration among courses and between courses and clinical work; 2) explicit links between theory and practice; and 3) new relationships with schools (Darling-Hammond, 2014). She calls for research that investigates how to accomplish the goal of improving teacher education through the implementation of those three features. This self-study investigates ways to accomplish the goal of improving teacher education by implementing the three features through theory-practice pedagogies.

The theory-practice gap contributes, in part, to the high levels of teacher attrition in beginning and early careers (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017; Clandinin et al., 2015; Craig, 2017; Kosnik et al., 2009; Schaefer et al., 2012). The gap between theory and practice and high levels of teacher attrition in Canada have resulted in calls for strengthening clinical practice in teacher education and for designing teacher education programs that provide a high degree of congruence between the content of coursework and the models provided by mentor teachers in their practice (Beck & Kosnik, 2014; Darling-Hammond, 2006). We are interested in enhancing such theory-practice congruence through the creation and implementation of a PDS model. We believe that undergraduate teacher education programs can reduce teacher attrition as teacher candidates make a transition to beginning teachers and early career teachers.

Emerging research suggests that Professional Development Schools might enhance school practice as well as individual practice of new teacher candidates as teaching and learning for all members of the school and university communities are transformed (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 2018; Bullough & Rosenberg, 2018; Polly, 2016; Zeichner, 2018). However, there is little research that investigates the design of a clinical curriculum and the impact of such a curriculum on teacher candidate learning, most specifically in a Canadian context (Buzza et al., 2010). Indeed, Darling-Hammond (2014) refers to strengthening clinical preparation as the Holy Grail of teacher education. Our research addresses this gap.

Building Relationships Through Professional Development Schools

Almost 30 years ago, many educators advocated for school-university partnerships called “Professional Development Schools” as a strong vehicle for educational change and as a new model for teacher education and professional development for all educators (Goodlad, 1988; Holmes, 1986; Levine, 1992). As unique and strategic school-university collaborations, PDSs were designed to accomplish a four-fold agenda: preparing future educators, providing current educators with ongoing professional development, encouraging joint school-university faculty investigation of education-related issues, and promoting the learning of K-12 students.

Darling-Hammond (1994) described PDSs as spaces where prospective teacher and mentor teacher learning becomes: 1) experimental, 2) grounded in teacher questions, 3) collaborative, 4) connected to and derived from teachers' work with their students, and 5) sustained, intensive, and connected to other aspects of school change. In the ensuing two decades the PDS movement has flourished, predominantly in the United States, with more than 1000 school-university partnerships referred to as PDS sites (Badiali & Lynch, 2018). However, there has been a significant gap in research findings that speak to the impact of the PDS model on teachers and teacher candidates and there exists only one teacher education PDS program in Canada (Buzza et al., 2010). We are studying the impact of implementing a professional development school model in Alberta.

Research on Professional Development Schools suggests that teacher candidates who have experienced PDS-based approaches utilize more varied pedagogical methods and practices; are more reflective; feel more confident in their knowledge and skill; and have lower attrition rates during the first few years of teaching (Abdal-Haqq, 1998). However, there is also widespread recognition of the challenges and difficulties in establishing and maintaining school-university partnerships, starting with the Holmes Group (1986, 1990). Verbeke and Richards (2001) list a daunting array of issues that face partnerships—shared goals, institutional differences, assessment and accountability, individual differences, communication, time, resources, roles, and responsibilities, and evaluation. Breault (2013) makes four recommendations for large-scale implementation of school-university partnerships based on extensive research on the challenges experienced by teacher educators: PDS partnerships should sustain strong trajectories of research regarding their work; stakeholders in PDS partnerships need to ensure that faculty and staff have adequate support to thrive; PDS partnerships need to be based upon enabling bureaucratic structures; and PDS partners need to create opportunities to engage with each other in positive, normative spaces. It is these challenges that our research seeks to investigate.

Strengthening PDS partnerships has the potential to impact pre-service education. Moreover, such relationships can also influence in-service teachers as articulated by Sarason (1971, 1990). Decades ago, he wrote about the characteristics of beginning teachers and their inculturation in the educational matrix that includes a myriad of defining characteristics of praxis. Our research seeks to investigate the relationships, practices, and theories that exist within the matrix, or what we are calling the hybrid space of school and university communities.

Figure 1

Our Theoretical Model of Hybrid Space

E:\Venn diagram pds stretched.png

Theoretical Approach

Zeichner (2010) suggests that hybrid spaces help link academic and practitioner knowledge. He presents examples of different types of hybrid spaces that result in “a shift where academic knowledge is seen as the authoritative source of knowledge about teaching to one where different aspects of expertise that exist in schools and communities are brought into teacher education and coexist on a more equal plane with academic knowledge” (p. 95). He calls for a new epistemology for teacher education that embraces non-hierarchical, democratic, and inclusive ways of knowing and presents the concept of hybridity and third space as a way of addressing the perennial problem of the disconnection between campus courses and field experiences. Our methodology supports the study of a hybrid space within a PDS model.

Since 2012, we, as two previous K-12 teachers and now university-based tenured teacher educators, have focused on improving our own teacher education practices by implementing in-school seminars and courses (O’Connor et al., 2016, 2018; Sterenberg et al., 2015a) and individual school partnerships (O’Connor, 2020; Sterenberg et al., 2015b, 2017) as part of our practicum supervision approach and are interested in studying the transition from our individual professional learning to the programmatic implementation of theory-practice pedagogies. We are influenced by Sarason (1971) as we consider our own experiences as teacher educators:

The first two years of teaching are a baptism of fire in which many things can be consumed, including some of the ingredients that make for a good and even an outstanding teacher. The important point is that what happens in these years, for good or for bad, cannot be understood by narrowly focusing on the teacher, but by seeing the teacher as part of a matrix of existing relationships, practices and ideas. (p. 171)

In response to the call to consider how our own professional knowledge can contribute to different communities external to the self-study (Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices, 2020), we are interested in threshold opportunities that exist within the matrix of relationships, practices, and theories, or what we are calling the hybrid space of school and university communities.


Our self-study research investigates thresholds of transition from people and partners to program and partnerships as we enact theory-practice pedagogies. Drawing on our professional learning throughout the past decade, we implemented a Professional Development School model in 2020. The context of the model is in an integrated, school-based, professionally oriented final semester within a four-year teacher education program. The current semester structure for all fourth-year teacher candidates in our program includes a capstone research project, an inclusive education course, and a 14-week integrated practicum. We designed a PDS model for a subset of our teacher candidates (30 of approximately 100) to address our research question: "Through self-stud, what are the threshold opportunities that exist within the matrix of relationships, practices, and theories—the hybrid space of school and university communities?"

We used self-study methods (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001; Hamilton, 1998; Kitchen & Russell, 2012; Kosnick et al., 2006; Loughran, 2004; Loughran & Russell, 2002; Tidwell et al., 2009) to examine our professional practice setting and investigate the improvement of our practice while enacting programmatic theory-practice pedagogies. Drawing on principles of self-study design (Dinkelman, 2003), our research was self-initiated, focused on inquiry into our practice, collaborative, aimed at improvement of our practice, and used multiple and primarily qualitative means of inquiry. LaBoskey (2004) and Fletcher, Nί Chrόinίn, and O’Sullivan (2016) argue that multiple perspectives from colleagues, students, or texts provide more comprehensive answers to S-STEP research questions related to the enactment of pedagogical practices.

We are three teacher educators, two (O’Connor and Sterenberg) who are the primary researchers involved directly in the facilitation of this project. Our critical friend (Russell) is a collaborator in the research and has provided mentorship to both O’Connor and Sterenberg since the implementation of the teacher education program (2012). We are currently in the third year of a five-year federally funded study in which this research is grounded. University and school community members from three PDS sites were invited to participate. One site is a large public school division consisting of 24 teacher candidates, 24 mentor teachers, 6 school administrators, 2 district administrators, 2 course instructors, and 2 faculty supervisors. The second site is a publicly funded Charter school that consists of 6 teacher candidates, 6 mentor teachers, 1 school administrator, 1 district administrator, 2 course instructors, and 1 faculty supervisor. The third site is a private inclusive education/special needs school that consists of 6 teacher candidates, 6 mentor teachers, 2 school administrators, 1 course instructor, and 1 faculty supervisor. We engaged in a pilot study with school district administrators from the three school districts that investigated the creation of a PDS model in the winter semester of 2020. Participants in the pilot study included teacher candidates and beginning career teachers. We had an informal, long-term commitment from the school districts and school administrators to engage in this research. One outcome of the pilot study was to develop a Memorandum of Understanding that outlines the implementation activities of the PDS model within the three school districts over the next three years.

Evidence of consenting teacher candidates’ experiences was gathered from class assignments that include reflective journal entries, responses to discussion prompts, midterm and final practicum evaluations, a portfolio, and individual interviews after the practicum. These assignments ask teacher candidates to consider their pedagogy as they link theory and practice through examples from their practicum placements; interviews focus on teacher candidates’ experiences of practices, theories, and relationships. Data are also gathered through transcripts of partnership meetings with school and division administrators, focus group meetings with mentor teachers, and focus group meetings with faculty supervisors. The experiences of the research team are documented through research notes and transcripts of research meetings.

Data sources for this report include transcripts of 13 individual interviews with teacher candidates, transcripts of two focus groups with 13 mentor teachers, transcripts of two researcher interviews, transcripts of one focus group with five school administrators, meeting notes of our bi-monthly collaborative research conversations, emails exchanged during this time, and individual reflections about our experiences. Multiple data sources provided trustworthiness. Data were first coded individually across sites according to emerging themes related to our research question (Strauss, 1987). O’Connor and Sterenberg then reviewed the analysis, collaboratively adjusted the codes, and wrote findings together.


Theory-Practice Pedagogies

First, a consistent theme from teacher candidates and mentor teachers was the need for flexibility in course assignments and course outlines to address realistic experiences in integrating theory and practice. In reference to the first assignment in one of the in-school courses, one teacher candidate commented, “I didn't take a risk writing that assignment because I wanted the grade. It wasn't something I would have taught, and I didn't even end up using the lesson.” As we adjusted the assignments, teacher candidates and mentor teachers seemed to appreciate coursework that allowed the candidates to take their assignments into the classrooms. Many teacher candidates seemed to enjoy having the courses embedded in their practice, allowing them to make immediate connections between theoretical aspects and daily practice.

As teacher educators committed to ‘theory & practice’ opportunities, it can be difficult to act ‘outside the box’ when creating course outlines, assignments, and semester schedules. Sometimes you need to pivot and respond to emerging opportunities. This can sometimes be seen as ‘being unorganized’ or ‘unprofessional’ yet I feel it is important in enacting our ideals supporting ways for more theory and practice and we are starting to see the benefits as it is being acknowledged by our students and partners as a valuable pedagogical process. (O’Connor interview, 2020)

A second theme that emerged was the importance of presenting course readings that responded to emerging practicum experiences and fostered the ability to make immediate links between theoretical conversations and classroom experiences. This was particularly evident in references to the in-school seminars. Teacher candidates commented on the benefit of bouncing ideas off each other and providing a sense of 'a community of practice' (Wenger, 1998). One stated that she would have felt very isolated without this opportunity. Integral to this benefit was the relevance of the readings. A teacher candidate described her reflection on one of the discussions as “causing a shift in philosophy.” Another described how the seminar topic and discussion made her realize she was not teaching in the way she wanted to and gave her the confidence to approach her mentor teacher to suggest more engaging ways of teaching. In conversation with their critical friend, Sterenberg reflected on why this seminar design is a foundational part of the program:

It taught me that our students really had the depths of knowledge and through conversations could grow tremendously when they were with one another. I was actually able to know what they were experiencing and add to that from a theoretical point of view, as well as practical point of view, to help them see that what they were learning on campus was actually translating and living in the experiences that they were having. (Sterenberg interview, 2021)

Partnerships and Relationships

A third theme that emerged was the value of the partnership through shared responsibility for learning among course instructors, mentor teachers, and teacher candidates. One administrator stated:

I think one thing about the program that I personally have respected and felt was wonderful was your openness to actually listen to things that may in fact be a challenge, that maybe the student teachers may have spoken about to their mentor teacher or to you, or to their other instructors and be open to say, ‘Okay, what can work? How can we tweak it?’ So right in the middle of the process you are open to change it to the betterment of everybody, so I think that is great. (School Administrator 3 focus group, 2021)

In our research conversations and through the data analysis process, it became clear that a strength of our program is the co-design implementation:

[The program] is based on our partner’s input and learning. I have heard comments made by people at the university and outside of, “You are always changing so much, it makes you weak when you change.” I disagree 100%. I think that our strength is that we are responsive, we are open... I am from the perspective that we are always learning, we are open to what we don’t know, and we are open to learning from our experiences; even if we are successful, there is always room to grow. This project is intended to allow our partners to give us input on how to be better. (O’Connor interview, 2020)

For Sterenberg, the relationship between the school and university presented challenges as roles and knowledge were negotiated:

The professional school setting] has been part of who I am and what I have done, and that is why this research is really close to my heart, and it is really personal and professional for me... So it is not just practice, it is not just theory, but it is somewhere in-between that you are creating new knowledge based on all the perspectives that you have. (Sterenberg interview, 2020)

Both O’Connor and Sterenberg ran into multiple administrative barriers (e.g., scheduling, course design, clarifying administration roles and responsibilities, university faculty/administrator buy-in) that have required considerable (re)negotiation and flexibility. This has been a difficult process that has tested their commitment to the PDS model and caused tensions within their relationships with other faculty and university administrators.

Professional Practice

Because of the shared responsibility, mentor teachers became very interested in the theory being presented to teacher candidates and requested in-service opportunities to engage in professional learning with the course instructors. The importance of relationships between all members of the PDS setting was reiterated throughout the research meetings and interviews with the authors. It is our hope that this shared understanding will continue to inform our collective professional practices:

We have tried to do this in small ways when we do our co-assessments in years three and four, when we work in seminars, but the PDS model, the thing that we are looking at right now and that we were trying to attempt before COVID-19 started, was to look at how we can bring everyone together and work to the common good for the children that are in our communities for their learning, rather than taking different parts. I think all of us have strengths in the work that we do, but I am really interested in how that comes together. (Sterenberg interview, 2021)

These shared collective professional practices have now resulted in significant interest from other school partners and Mount Royal University’s Department of Education is now looking at how to respond to these increasing numbers of partners and associated demands.

Through analyzing the data from the interviews with teacher candidates and the focus groups with mentor teachers and school administrators, both O’Connor and Sterenberg realized that this initial practice had been compromised in recent years:

When we have had [contract instructors] running the first-year courses, we have noticed that some of our intentions around theory and practice are lost because they just didn’t understand why we are doing certain things, like in-school seminars, the importance of the cyclical approach with the seminars and the [online] postings and the responses, and the journaling, these are all very intentional. If the [contract instructor] doesn’t understand that, then we don’t see the impact on those students. (O’Connor interview, 2021)

Another shift in established programmatic practices occurred through the scheduling of school sites for seminars and courses. In previous years, the weekly seminar/course combined teacher candidates from three school cohorts and rotated through the three schools. O’Connor realized the new approach disrupted the initial intentions to blend theory and practice:

This year, for different reasons, I was in one room, a very disconnected room from the school, for the whole semester and I was disappointed with that. I noticed the lack of connection I had with the school and the other schools, and the other mentor teachers and the principals because we didn’t set up or schedule it in a way where I was able to check in with the admin of one school one week, and another school the next week. The same applies to the students, they all came to this one school. (O’Connor interview, 2021)

Mentor teachers commented on their lack of participation in the seminars and school administrators challenged the current approach. By describing the intent of the seminars to their research assistant, O’Connor and Sterenberg were prompted to return to the programmatic vision and re-evaluate what were assumed to be programmatic practices. The importance of mentoring new colleagues emerged. In their respective roles as Department 'Chair’ and ‘Practicum Director’, O’Connor and Sterenberg organized a series of information/consultation/planning sessions and workshops to help develop a shared understanding within the Department. The intention was to have other faculty/staff find their voices within the PDS model and ultimately bring new innovations and opportunities to the process.

Scholarly Significance

Hamilton et al. (2020) suggest that threshold opportunities can enrich personal understanding of practice by raising new possibilities, perspectives, and discourses. We identified programmatic theory-practice pedagogies of in-school seminars, an extended and integrated clinical practicum in the final semester of the program, and faculty supervision of practicum as threshold opportunities. Our most recent data reveal that we experienced significant institutional challenges with creating formal school partnerships, addressing concerns around academic freedom and faculty supervision, and responding to school agendas involving secondments and struggling students. Mentoring new faculty in order to facilitate a shared understanding of the programmatic implications of our longitudinal self-study research also emerged as important in raising new possibilities for teacher education. This led to significant gains in Department support for the PDS model, with many faculty (new and long-standing) now referring to the model as ‘ours.’

The impact of our theory-practice pedagogies on teacher candidates was profound. Research assistants became critical friends and partners, university and school members were able to model professional learning, and teacher candidates participated in the mentoring of new faculty through the in-school seminars. A new area of study focuses on the programmatic impact of theory-practice pedagogies when shifts in work patterns and leadership occur through sabbatical leaves and retirements. Sterenberg has now retired and O’Connor is nearing the end of his appointment as Chair, and therefore a concerted effort has been made to dispel a previous Department perception that the PDS model was ‘Sterenberg and O’Connor’ driven. Faculty and staff are now promoting the PDS approach as a defining characteristic of the program, ‘renowned’ both nationally and internationally. This is a positive outcome that must be continually monitored and nurtured, as partners and faculty change and evolve.

As teacher educators, this self-study helped us become more attuned to the importance of relationships between schools and universities as we confronted the complexities of theory-and-practice integration. Working collaboratively with our students and school partners (mentor teachers and school administrators), having their continual feedback and voice in the implementation of theory-practice pedagogies, was instrumental in recognizing the potential threshold opportunities available to us, as teacher educators. The results will enhance the learning experiences of our teacher candidates and, through self-study, a better understanding of our own practice as we design and implement more integrative practicum experiences in the context of school-university partnerships. This research links our developing professional knowledge to ways teacher educators can support the formation of robust partnerships within teacher education.

In the next year of teaching, through self-study methods, we intend to begin the semester in celebration, learning closely with our three PDS partners and preparing for the increasing demand for new school partnerships, as we respond to our shared understanding of the thresholds of transition from people and partners to program and partnerships. We wonder how we can be nourished by the hybrid space and how we can nourish it. We anticipate that we will engage in stories that exist within the matrix of relationships, practices, and theories and that our design of theory-practice pedagogies will invite participants to dwell in that matrix and to experience all dimensions of the hybrid space, as we look to shifts in identity needed to authentically experience those threshold opportunities.


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Kevin O'Connor

Mount Royal University

Gladys Sterenberg

Mount Royal University

Tom Russell

Queen's University

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