An exploration of teacher learning in a life sciences cluster in Mpumalanga Province.
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Teacher professional learning is a terrain that continues to prove challenging to be clearly understood by key role players. Many initiatives and policies have been designed, redesigned and replaced within no time after the previous one had just been introduced. This has happened without an impact evaluation being conducted to check why the policies are not working. To encourage teacher initiated professional learning, the Provincial Department of Basic Education (DBE) in Mpumalanga has been using teacher clusters as models of teacher development since 2012. The study explores the nature of learning that takes place in one Life Sciences cluster in a district in Mpumalanga. The purpose of the study was to investigate how teachers learn, how collaborative learning occurs and what roles teachers and Departmental officials play. The study draws from Wenger’s concept of social learning to have a better understanding of how learning takes place in the cluster. Wenger’s learning dimensions offered a useful tool for analysing teacher learning as it happens in the cluster. The study offers a critique of the appropriateness of using Wenger’s framework for analysing the activities in the cluster. Methodologically the study used the qualitative approach. Multiple forms of gathering data were used, namely, interviews with teachers and departmental officials, observations of cluster meetings, document analysis and informal conversations with the respondents. Wenger’s three learning dimensions were used for deductive analysis of data, namely, Mutual engagement, Joint enterprise and Shared repertoire. The findings of the study show that the clusters are set up for the main purpose of improving the learners’ Grade 12 examination results and that all the activities that take place in the cluster meetings at provincial, district and circuit level are focused on this goal. Thus, the purpose of the cluster meetings is established by the Department, and the teachers come to use the same discourse, although there is no discussion of the joint enterprise. While there are indications of shared repertoires in the groups, these are established by the Departmental officials and not initiated by the teachers. The teacher learning that takes place in the meetings is narrowly focused on how to teach ‘to the test’ so that the learners will perform better in the exam. The nature of the teachers’ learning is learning by acquisition and there is minimal focus on learning through participation. Overall, the conclusion is that the cluster operates in a managerial way to ensure that the Department’s policies are implemented and teachers are held accountable.