I am currently enrolled in the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia.
Context and Theoretical Framework
I locate my doctoral research in the midst of several crises facing teaching, teachers and the education of children. Presently, between 25 and 40% of teachers in the Western world leave the profession within the first five years of teaching (Buchanan, 2006; Ewing & Smith, 2003). This was also my story. During my pre-service teacher education program I experienced an existential impasse between the “educative” agenda (pursuit of moral and intellectual virtues) and the “system of schooling” (managing children and classrooms) (Fenstermacher, 1992), which I encountered in my program and in schools. This impasse is one that many others who leave also experience (Dworkin, 2009); representing a significant loss to both the profession and to those who leave (Smithers & Robinson, 2003). Teacher education programs are also in crisis as teaching jobs disappear and programs are challenged to show their relevancy (Hall & Schulz, 2010). Society also faces crises at a planetary level with respect to environmental degradation and socio-politico-cultural injustices; teachers are in a unique position to help children locate themselves in this wider world (Biesta, 2013). Given these crises, space needs to be created in teacher education programs for existential conversations about teaching and for pre-service teachers to engage relationally with others in our shared world. My research aims to create this space by inviting two groups of elementary pre-service teachers in different geographic contexts (Canada and Nepal) to engage in existential conversations and reflections about what it means to teach, by exploring their conceptions of “the students and world in their midst” through visual art creation and a trans-national art exchange. My research is informed by my previous work as an educator in Canada and Nepal, including facilitating trans-national art exchanges between children; experiences that supported existential reflections about what it means to be a teacher and to relate to others in our shared world.
It is my contention that bringing an existential orientation to teacher education will enable pre-service teachers to consider more deeply their desires and expectations, as well as inform their decisions to stay in the profession or to leave. Bringing arts-based approaches and creative expression into pre-service teacher education enables these existential explorations (Carter & Irwin, 2014). As such, my research explores pre-service teachers’ responsibility to support what Arendt defines as the “coming of children” which is connected to birth (beginning), freedom (starting something new), and action (doing the unexpected). My research is framed within philosophical ideas that emphasize the existential (being in the world and possibility) and the political (enacting change in the world) (Biesta, 2013) and uses Hannah Arendt’s (1958) concept of natality which “signifies both our newness in relation to the world and the possibility that we might bring about something new in relation to it” (Levinson, 2005). Given that “the world” –which is defined as “that which is common and shared among us” (Kattago, 2012)– is a central component in Arendt’s concept of natality, my research involves pre-service teachers in two different contexts (Canada and Nepal).
Previous researchers have examined the value of international teacher exchanges (Rapoport, 2008; Wilson, 1984); pre-service teachers’ experiences during international practicums (Walters, Garii, & Walters, 2009); and the impact of trans-national art exchanges among students (Cocciolone, 1989; Cruikshanks, 2007); however, there is limited research that examines the role of arts-based approaches and trans-national art exchanges in creating spaces for pre-service teachers to explore existential conversations in teacher education programs. My research aims to contribute to this gap.
The three questions that direct this study, based on the standpoint that being a teacher is about supporting the “coming of children” by considering the “children in our midst” are: 1) How can pre-service teacher education programs create spaces for pre-service teachers to explore existential questions about what it means to be a teacher? 2) In what ways do art exchanges between pre-service teachers from different contexts provide a space for these kinds of explorations? 3) What can an arts-based approach to these explorations contribute to bringing an existential perspective into pre-service teacher education programs?
My research will take place in Canada and Nepal, over three months, and will involve two groups of elementary (K-7) pre-service teachers: one from the UBC Teacher Education Program and one from the Tribhuvan University (TU) Teacher Education Program in Kathmandu, Nepal. Through my past teaching experience in the UBC Teacher Education Program and work experience with TU and UNESCO in Kathmandu, Nepal, I have developed strong relationships with these groups.
At both UBC and TU, I will work with ten pre-service teachers who volunteer for my study; allowing for an in-depth exploration of how participants within each group conceive of their role as educators in helping children “come into the world.” My study will use art to create a pedagogical space (Hickman, 2007) to help pre-service teachers connect to embodied and emotional experiences (Voithofer, 2005) –experiences that they may not be able to articulate in words– and as an artifact or “central piece of our conception of the world” (Dipert, 1993) representing each participant’s conceptions of “the students and world in their midst.” Previous researchers have found that arts-based activities support teacher inquiry (Irwin & de Cosson, 2004; Springgay, Irwin, & Kind, 2008) and create opportunities for transforming perspectives (Barone & Eisner, 1997; Eisner, 2002).
My study has three phases: 1) facilitating and observing a two-week participatory visual art project (using collage) in Canada on the theme of “the students and world in your midst” with 10 participants from UBC; 2) repeating the same process with 10 participants from TU in Nepal; and 3) facilitating an art exchange between the participants from UBC and TU; inviting each group to respond to the themes about “the students and world in your midst” that emerged through the other groups’ art, and comparing these to the themes that emerged in their own art. I will conduct semi-structured individual interviews with all 20 participants before, during, and after the art exchange to understand how they conceive of their role as educators in helping children “come into the world” and how their conceptions may be changing.
Data will include: 1) a field journal of all observations (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007) from each two-week art project in Canada and Nepal, paying particular attention to how participants talk about their role as educators in helping children “come into the world” as well as how they talk about “the world;” 2) semi-structured audio-recorded individual interviews (Holstein & Gubrium, 2004) with each participant to understand how participants conceive of their role as helping children “come into the world” and the similarities and differences across their understandings. Data will be transcribed; coded using Atlas.ti qualitative data analysis software; and analyzed using the constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). During analysis, I will pay specific attention to the silences, gaps, and tensions between data and I will remain reflexive to my role as a researcher within the data (Davies et al., 2004).
By understanding how elementary pre-service teachers in Canada and Nepal conceive of their role as educators in helping children “come into the world,” my research will contribute to a nuanced understanding of curriculum development for pre-service teacher education in Canada and Nepal. Without this enhanced understanding, we risk the status quo which involves continuing to offer pre-service teacher education that perpetuates dominant ideas about ‘students and the world’ and that fails to engage with the complexity of individual understandings of these vital concepts; a complexity that in the context of this study may mean that children stop “coming” into the world.