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Conceptions of Learning: The Challenge for Immigrant Student Teachers

Many immigrant teachers who experience difficulty in obtaining recognition for credentials acquired outside Canada enrol in a new program in a Canadian institution. While immigrant students in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education have generally been successful in the theoretical section of their program, many of them have encountered difficulties when facing their first practicum in a school setting, in part because they are unfamiliar with Canadian educational policies and practices. The gap between these students’ conceptions and those underpinning the Canadian school system may be at the root of these difficulties; indeed, many experience a profound upheaval in their conceptions, values, and initial beliefs about education. The transformation of these students’ conceptual structures cannot be achieved without the support of the Faculty of Education in which they are studying.

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Canada is well-known for accepting large numbers of immigrants who, according to Statistics Canada, represent 18.4 percent of the country’s total population.[1] These newcomers face a variety of obstacles to their occupational integration, the three main ones being lack of work experience in the Canadian context; lack of recognition of titles and qualifications earned outside Canada; and unfamiliarity with either of the two official languages.[2]

The Faculty of Education of the University of Ottawa welcomes a number of immigrant students into its Francophone division of the teacher education program every year. These students have experienced difficulty in obtaining recognition for credentials and work experience acquired outside Canada. To remedy this situation, they have decided to enrol in a new program in a Canadian institution. For many of them, this eight-month francophone teacher education program, primary/junior division, is an interesting and quick solution to their occupational integration problem.

This group, referred to here as “immigrant students”, includes women and men who declared themselves to have permanent resident or refugee status when they registered at the University of Ottawa. It is composed, for the most part, of permanent residents hailing from Central Africa, North Africa, and Haiti. Half are between 30 and 39 years of age, and nearly one-third are older than 40. They have mainly immigrated to Canada in the hopes of providing their families and themselves with better living conditions and greater future opportunities than were available to them in their home countries. They have made numerous sacrifices to attain their goals and, according to many of their professors, they have presented themselves to the Faculty of Education as serious candidates who want to learn and better themselves. However, while they have generally been quite successful in the theoretical section of their program, many of them have encountered difficulties when facing their first practicum in a school setting, in part because they are unfamiliar with Canadian educational policies and practices.

For some, this cultural gap constitutes a source of stress that is difficult to overcome, resulting in a mediocre practicum evaluation, and in some cases, the failure of their practicum. The literature we consulted on this topic, and our observations in the field, suggest a possible link between immigrant students’ prior conceptions of education and the difficulty some of them experience in adapting to the practicum in a Canadian classroom.  

Consider Arthur who, after requesting a physical education practicum to expand his skills, did not know that wearing gym shoes was compulsory in the gymnasium and that the subject of physical education comprises an educational dimension, with its own program of studies. Élise, for her part, discovered that using French European figures of speech at every turn was inappropriate for 11-year-olds living in Ontario, where Francophones are a minority and the use of English is predominant during recess periods; she realized that she needed to use simple and accessible French vocabulary for teaching if she wanted students to understand her. She also learned that calling pupils “Miss” and “Mr.” made them uncomfortable and created distance between her and her students. Michel was surprised to observe how freely pupils expressed themselves in class, and that some argued or tried to negotiate his decisions. This led him to question his own codes regarding politeness and respect for adults. His conceptions of the traditional role of the teacher were shaken, and he was forced to adjust to the new situation.

We believe that the gap between these students’ conceptions and those underpinning the Canadian school system may be at the root of the adjustment problem experienced by many immigrant students; indeed, many experience a profound upheaval in their conceptions, values, and initial beliefs about education. While most of them successfully meet the challenge presented by this culture gap, it is nevertheless true that the transformation process to which they are subjected during their introduction to the Canadian classroom is a dominant theme during their brief practical training, which consists of two six-week practica.

On Becoming a Teacher

Immigrant students’ difficulty in successfully integrating into the teaching profession could stem from the fact that, in order to do so, they must assimilate the educational culture valued by their adopted country. Nina Bascia noted that an increasing number of studies focus on the influence of ethnicity and culture on teaching, both inside the classroom and in the academic community.[3] Indeed, every teacher is unique, with individual beliefs and conceptions that influence both personal and professional life. Students enrolled in a teacher education program must compare their initial conceptions of teaching and learning with those the program recommends. Becoming a teacher, therefore, may involve undergoing a transformation of personal beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours; it is a process whereby one’s professional identity develops at the same time as the teacher’s role is being defined.[4]

Many immigrant teachers come from a culture in which education is associated with the wearing of a uniform, lecture-style teaching, memorization as the principal learning strategy, and knowledge assessment through standardized testing.[5] These teachers must change both their practice and their educational beliefs to meet the expectations of the Canadian educational system. They may also have to change their expectations about the amount of work that is demanded of them outside the classroom, particularly relating to lesson creation and planning and the use of evaluation methods based on learning processes.

Some immigrant teachers find that teaching in Canada is too centred on the pupil and insufficiently structured, with an excess of educational activities designed to entertain pupils – especially activities addressing the society and the broader community.[6] They interpret these differences as an indication that Canadian students are not serious about their education.

Managing pupils’ behaviour, particularly instituting a class management system that reflects the teacher’s values, also raises difficult issues for these teachers, many of whom are used to authoritarian and standardized classroom discipline. In an Australian study, immigrant teachers noted major differences between the educational system in their countries of origin and the Australian system, which, like Canada’s, favours a constructivist learning approach. They found that teaching was more focussed on the pupils, requiring more planning and preparation work, that classes were more diversified in terms of skills, culture, and language, and that discipline was a big challenge.[7]

You’re there to listen and that’s all. You’re there, you don’t talk, your arms are crossed. You’re there to receive; you learn…That’s what a class was, that was the theory.

Conceptions of Learning

Seventeen immigrant students in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education – ten men and seven women – volunteered to participate in a study about their conceptions of learning. Participants’ ages varied from 27 to 56 (m = 41.5). During an interview, participants were asked to talk about their general conceptions of education. They were able to relate their experiences, observations, assumptions, and ideals regarding education and learning in elementary school, both in their homeland and in Canada. Many of them had formed their conceptions of the Canadian educational system from comments they heard from other members of their cultural community. Others invoked their own experience as parents of pupils in the Canadian school system.

The students were asked to list the attitudes and behaviours they believe are essential to a pupil’s success. The majority of respondents considered a “good pupil” to be one who listens; does his homework; is calm, attentive, industrious, polite, disciplined, applied, respectful, hardworking, and properly attired; asks questions; and cooperates with others.

Some participants indicated that pupils’ participation in their own learning process is minimal in their native countries. According to Édith, “You’re there to listen and that’s all. You’re there, you don’t talk, your arms are crossed. You’re there to receive; you learn…That’s what a class was, that was the theory. There were no activities…We mainly had to recite and memorize rhymes. It was mostly memorization.” Diane remembered that pupils were given little encouragement to express themselves or ask questions: “Pupils were scared to ask a question. If they did, the teacher would think poorly of them, as in, ‘You’re stupid, you didn’t understand, maybe you weren’t paying attention.’”

Even though they described elementary level learning in their native countries as a process in which pupils play a passive role, take little initiative, and are not encouraged to share what they know and understand, some respondents also evoked in their interviews a rather dynamic conception of the learning process. These students painted a picture of an active learner: a pupil who experiments, observes, explores, and asks for help from her parents; a pupil who plays educational games, works with others and makes jokes; a pupil who shares learning, asks questions, expresses thoughts and feelings; a pupil who develops his talents and sees himself as in charge of his learning; a pupil who learns by diverse means, manifests the desire to better herself, asks for help when faced with a problem, tries to understand, demonstrates openness, and pursues her learning after class. These respondents expressed conceptions of learning that differ dramatically from those to which they were exposed in childhood (and that indeed still prevail in some of those countries). Indeed, their conceptions are consistent with Canadian-style student-centred teaching and favour a constructivist learning approach.

We currently do not have any data about the impact of the initial conceptions of immigrant students on the success of their teaching practicum. However, the Practicum Office of the Faculty of Education reports that, although they represent a little more than one-quarter of registered students in the French Teacher Education Program, students who are recent immigrants constitute the majority of those who require greater assistance during their practicum, and sometimes fail it.

Managing the Transformation

In light of the points raised in this article, we believe that the teacher education program of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa will present a major conceptual challenge for most of these students. They will have to develop a vision of education that is more student-centred and a perspective on learning that corresponds with the constructivist approach they will be asked to apply during their practica; they will have to make use of stimulating and diverse materials and instructional resources to incite the active participation of pupils; and they will have to adopt a point of view and instructional methods that encourage pupils to take charge of their own learning.

For many of them, this means questioning their initial conceptions and adopting new conceptions that are better suited to Canadian educational policies and contexts. In our opinion, in order for immigrant students to manage such a transformation during their teacher training, they must first be open and receptive to such an experience. What is more, they must understand the need for this process and relate it to the practical component of the program, in other words, the school practicum.

Finally, we believe that the transformation of these students’ conceptual structures cannot be achieved without the support of facilitators who are familiar with this process and will offer both supervision and a theoretical and practical training context that meets the specific needs of immigrant students. Professors in the Faculty of Education, practicum supervisors, and partner-teachers who receive these students in their classes should, in our opinion, be very familiar with the immigrant students they are supporting, be on the lookout for the upheaval some of them may experience, and support them throughout the process of conceptual transformation, in order to augment their chances for success, both in their practica and in their teaching careers.

EN BREF - De nombreux enseignants immigrants qui ont du mal à faire reconnaître leurs diplômes obtenus à l’étranger s’inscrivent à un nouveau programme dans un établissement canadien. Bien que les étudiants immigrants de la Faculté d’éducation de l’Université d’Ottawa réussissent généralement bien la partie théorique de leur programme, beaucoup éprouvent des difficultés lors de leur premier stage dans un cadre scolaire, en partie parce qu’ils connaissent mal les politiques et les pratiques éducatives canadiennes. La différence entre les conceptions de ces étudiants et celles qui sous-tendent le système scolaire canadien pourrait être à l’origine de ces difficultés. En fait, beaucoup de ces étudiants vivent un profond bouleversement de leurs conceptions, valeurs et convictions initiales en matière d’éducation. On ne peut engendrer la transformation de leurs structures conceptuelles sans le soutien de la Faculté d’éducation à laquelle ils sont inscrits.


[1] Statistique Canada, Proportion des personnes nées à l'étranger, par province et territoire (Recensements de 1991 à 2001), 2007. [On line] Retrieved from: www40.statcan.ca/l02/cst01/demo46a_f.htm

[2] P. Deters, “Immigrant Teachers in Canada: Learning the Language and Culture of a New Professional Community,” Proceedings of the European Association of Languages for Specific Purposes / Asociación Europea de Lenguas para Fines Específicos (AELFE). Zaragoza, Spain, 2006.

[3] Nina Bascia, “Making Sense of the Life and Work of Racial Minority Immigrant Teachers,” in Making a Difference About Difference, eds. D. Thiessen, N. Bascia and I. Goodson (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1996), 1-14.

[4] E. Peeler and B. Jane, “Mentoring: Immigrant Teachers Bridging Professional Practices,” Teaching Education 16, no. 4 (2005): 325-336.

[5] J. Myles, L. Cheng and H. Wang, “Teaching in Elementary School: Perceptions of Foreign-trained Teacher Candidates on their Teaching Practicum,” Teaching and Teacher Education 22 (2006): 233-245.

[6] Ibid.

[7] K. Cruickshank, “Towards Diversity in Teacher Education: Teacher Preparation of Immigrant Teachers,” European Journal of Teacher Education 27, no. 2 (2004) : 125-138.

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