This review of the preconceptions literature and research will feature (a) beliefs, (b) fundamental perspectives and, (c) reflection and insights.


There has been a call for "teacher educators to learn more about preservice teachers' experiences, beliefs, and views that influence what they learn" (McCall, 1995, p. 340) and what they will do in their future practice (Nespor, 1987). Richardson (1996), in a seminal review piece, defines attitudes and beliefs as "...a subset of a group of constructs that name, define, and describe the structure and content of mental states that are thought to drive a person's actions" (p. 102). Prospective teachers enter teacher preparation programs with well-established beliefs about students, teaching, learning, content areas/subjects and classrooms (Feiman-Nemser, McDiarmid, Melnick & Parker, 1989; Kagan, 1992; Weinstein, 1989; Wilson, 1990). Teacher beliefs, which have also been referred to as entering perspectives or preconceptions (Pajares, 1993), have been described as being strong and enduring (Feiman-Nemser et al., 1989). Furthermore, preconceptions should be regarded as the "...basic resource novices have in learning to teach" (Carter & Doyle, 1995, p. 194). "Recently, there has been a surge of interest in the preconceptions and personal histories that candidates for teaching bring with them into teacher education" (Carter & Anders, 1996, p. 570). The aforementioned leads to a consideration of the fundamental perspectives associated with preconceptions.

Fundamental Perspectives

Considerations of preconceptions in learning to teach, as Carter and Doyle (1995) note, tend to encompass two fundamental perspectives based on the ideas put forth by Lortie and Fuller. From the temporal perspective, Feiman-Nemser and Remillard (1996) assert that "it is hard to say exactly when learning to teach begins..." as there is a "long, informal 'apprenticeship of observation' [Lortie]..." (p. 65). The apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 1975) differentiates learning to teach from other types of professional learning experiences (Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1995). The years of experience as a student, in elementary and secondary schools, impact prospective teachers' attitudes and conceptions of how to teach (Brookhart & Freeman, 1992; Carter & Doyle, 1995).

The other fundamental perspective relative to the process of learning to teach, according to Carter and Doyle (1995), has to do with the often cited and classic work of Fuller (1969) who put forth the stages of teacher development and concern. The initial stage of teacher concern has to do with the question of adequacy; specifically, "How adequate am I?" (Fuller, 1969, p. 220). The beginning teacher moves from concerns of self and adequacy, to teaching concerns, to concerns about their impact on students (Fuller, 1969; Brookhart & Freeman, 1992; Carter, 1990; Carter & Doyle, 1995). These two perspectives speak to the power of personal dispositions in terms of teacher learning (Carter & Doyle, 1995).

Reflection and Insights

Preconceptions of teaching are robust and personal. While some teacher educators ignore preconceptions entirely or regard them negatively as naïve misconceptions, there is a more positive perspective on preconceptions (Carter & Doyle, 1995). This more positive and productive stance is grounded in the "...premise that teaching and learning to teach are deeply personal matters connected to one's identity and, thus, to one's life story" (Carter & Doyle, 1995, p. 186). "Teachers should be grounded in their own life stories, but not be prisoners of their own experience" (Carter, 1995). To underscore a previously raised point, as Carter and Doyle (1995) assert, preconceptions should be regarded " the basic resource novices have in learning to teach" (p. 194). There are different techniques for using personal narrative in teacher education including well-remembered events (WREs) (Carter & Doyle, 1995) that also enable bridging "...between personal understandings and the worlds of classrooms and educational knowledge" (Carter, 1995, p. 326).

The use of personal narrative techniques in teacher education is in keeping with the current trend, which recognizes and encompasses personal perspectives, cognition and reflection. There are several strategies that can be utilized to foster reflection in teacher education candidates, which also offer means for gaining insights into their understandings. The following strands, which offer means of fostering reflection, will be considered (a) WREs; (b) case; (c) sentence completion activities; and, (d) conceptual maps.


Carter (1995) describes "story" as a way that teachers make sense of their craft. People "...are storytelling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives" (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 2). "Thus, stories written by and about teachers form the basis of narrative the participants...gain a deeper understanding of their experience" (Sparks-Langer & Colton, 1991, p. 42). Stories offer a way of meaning-making for prospective teachers as they enter into the context of the classroom and begin to process all that they are experiencing. Written WRE papers offer an analytical tool for preservice teachers to interpret their stories from the classroom (Carter, 1990). WREs provide a retelling of the story, a way of using personal narrative in teacher preparation, an occasion for reflection and a means for gleaning insights into prospective teachers' preconceptions.

At one level, the written account is an incident or episode that a teacher observes or experiences in a school setting and considers it to be particularly salient or memorable (Carter, 1990; Carter, 1995; Carter & Doyle, 1995; Carter & Gonzalez, 1993; Gonzalez & Carter, 1996). The three part paper consists of: (1) description of the event; (2) statement of the issues that the event raises/analysis; (3) statement of the sense the student has made of the event relative to his/her learning to teach process; what they learned (Carter). A WRE " not a complete record of what a teacher knows about teaching. It is, rather, a record of an interpretation of a particular instance. Moreover, patterns of interpretations over time furnish a compelling picture of what a teacher knows and how that knowledge is organized for use" (Carter, 1994, p. 236).

As noted by Carter (1994) in a study using the analytical tool of WREs, "the data from this study speak somewhat disparagingly about preservice teachers' lack of attention to diversity" (p. 251). Aggregation across eight cases, diversity received less attention in students' WREs as compared to management and curriculum (Carter, 1994). Additionally, student teachers were concerned that they did not know how to deal with diverse student abilities which was a theme in the interviews of student teachers (Gonzalez & Carter, 1996). WREs "...offer a useful strategy for gaining access to student teachers' classroom knowledge... The method warrants further development and exploration in research on teachers' conceptions" (Carter & Gonzalez, 1993, p. 231).


Another means for fostering and facilitating reflection is via the case method. With regard to the processes and opportunities in learning to teach, Feiman-Nemser and Remillard (1996) make reference to the notions put forth by cognitive psychologists. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) posit that "by ignoring the situated nature of cognition, education defeats its own goal of providing useable, robust knowledge" (p. 32). There are means of promoting situated cognition in teacher education. "Advocates of case-based teacher education see the use of cases as one way to situate teacher learning in problems of practice" (Feiman-Nemser & Remillard, 1996, p. 83). "Cases and case methods represent one of the most vigorous developments within the field of program pedagogy in teacher education" (Carter & Anders, 1996, p. 582). There are considerations when using case such as: "finding a case literature, deciding how to represent a case, and setting the context for deliberation about a case" (Carter & Anders, 1996, p. 581). Additionally, as Carter (1994) notes, "...cases of teaching might not only offer careful descriptions of classroom events but also teachers' thinking about these events" (p. 231).

There has been an increase in the use of cases in the field of teacher preparation as well as in the field of special education teacher preparation (Anderson & Baker, 1999); however, empirical studies examining the use of cases in teacher preparation programs is reported to be lacking (Elksnin, 1998). Interestingly, the case method of instruction was developed and implemented at the Harvard University School of Business (Elksnin, 1998). In terms of special education teacher preparation, approximately 80% of the respondents involved in special education teacher preparation reported using the case method of instruction. The respondents regarded the case method as enabling students to apply theory to practice. However, there were concerns about the time investment required to use the case method as well as the difficulty in finding appropriate cases due to the paucity of cases available. Elksnin (1998) does make note of several resources for existing cases available to the special education teacher educator. Additionally, case writing assignments, which are in keeping with Colbert's instructional strategies for case (Anderson & Baker, 1999), could offer a promising resource pool for cases that are oriented to special education topics and issues.

Anderson and Baker (1999) also offer information about the use of cases in a case-based special education curriculum approach to special education teacher preparation. The program makes use of Colbert's instructional strategies for cases including: large and small group discussion about cases which also involve a written component; the use of cases as a basis for role-playing activities (IEP conferences) for problem solving; and, case writing assignments where students work in pairs to craft a case as well as individually. The students were provided with opportunities to encounter realistic teaching dilemmas or predicaments in the safety of a simulated situation (Anderson & Baker, 1999).

Cases, which deal with special education topics, could be used in conjunction with McDiarmid's (1990) tool known as "fastwrites [which are] impromptu 5-minute, unproofed written reactions to questions or statements" (p. 17). The cases could serve as the basis for the fastwrite topic and would likely serve as a viable data source in terms of attempting to gain insights into prospective teachers' understandings about special education. In addition to fastwrites, sentence completion activities may offer interesting reflective vehicles for teacher educators and prospective teachers.

Sentence completion activities

Sentence completion activities, an idea borrowed from Kropid (1999), can provide an alternative to Likert-type surveys and offer insights into prospective teachers' special education understandings. The first sentence completion activity (McNamara Spears, 2002) is aimed at gaining: (a) information about whether the teacher candidate had experience with students who have special needs; (b) whether their fieldwork placement(s) had students with special needs; (c) preliminary information about their views regarding students who have special needs using descriptive words of the prospective teacher's choice; and (d) whether or not the teacher education candidate thought that they would be responsible for teaching students who have special needs by circling either will or will not. The fourth item also enables the respondent to express their thoughts regarding their perceived responsibility for teaching students with special needs in their future practice by completing the sentence, which ended with the word 'because'. Providing occasions for the prospective teachers to complete the sentence with an explanation via the 'because' trailer to the sentence is particularly important (McNamara Spears, 2002) since this may be one of the potential shortcomings of survey based research efforts.

Another sentence completion task activity could be used to gain additional information about the prospective teachers' perspectives regarding the inclusion of students with different disabilities. As noted previously, there are different disability categories delineated in the IDEA (Gorn, 1997). The category list (Gorn, 1997; Knoblauch & Sorenson, 1998) contributed to the decision about the types of disabilities that are included in the second sentence completion activity. In this particular activity, statements drawn from survey instruments used in past research (Heppermann, 1994) were modified into statements that need to be completed with a 'because' trailer. The teacher educator and prospective teacher(s) could engage in a conversation about the sentence completion activity. The prospective teacher(s) could be invited to talk about and/or augment any of the thoughts that had been expressed on paper. Questions could be posed that might facilitate conversation about each of the disability categories featured in the sentence completion activity as well as to provide an opportunity for thoughts to be fully expressed. The questions could include: When you think of X (i.e., type of disability), how would you describe it?; Could you tell me more about what you wrote for this particular item?; Can you describe to me how you went about completing this activity? (McNamara Spears, 2002).

Conceptual Maps

Conceptual mapping offers a means of gaining insights into prospective teachers' special education understandings as well as what (if any) change occurs in their understandings. In a study involving prospective teachers, the use of "...pre- and postconcept maps and explanatory essays [was] used to measure conceptual change for 30 preservice teachers enrolled in a course on multicultural and special education" (Trent et al. as cited in Pugach, 2006, p. 568). This particular strategy may offer prospective teachers with a thought provoking reflective activity.

In sum, there are strategies that can provide occasions for reflection for teacher education candidates, which also offer means of gaining insights into their understandings via narrative inquiry. These tools are particularly germane given the current emphasis on "...cognition, reflection, and personal perspectives in teacher preparation" (Carter & Anders, 1996, pp. 557-558). It seems that these analytical tools hold rich potential in the arena of gaining insights into the special education understandings and beliefs of prospective teachers.


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