The collective writing of the professional dissertation: another view on the teaching profession
Maguy SILLAM and Marie-Jo BIRGLIN-DUBANT
I.U.F.M. at Creteil, France
Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Lisbon, 11-14 September 2002
This article offers an original approach to the professional dissertation by student-teachers. Written jointly by several authors, the dissertation serves to introduce student-teachers to an in-depth approach to the teaching profession.
During the professional workshops and training sessions, student-teachers commit themselves to working in pedagogical partnerships between the IUFM and other schools, partnerships that include writing dissertations by twos or threes. What, then, is specific to these partnerships and what do they contribute to the learning experience ? How does using Computer Techniques for Communication in Education help find answers to the necessary sharing of knowledge so inherent in today's changing teaching profession ?
This first experience of working as a team requires the use of media technology in education as they allow for an easier sharing of knowledge through networks in both initial and continuing teacher preparation. Data processing is essential to writing professional dissertations collectively as the process serves to reveal new stances for teachers beginning their careers in this 21st century.
The professional dissertation, more commonly drafted by a single student, may, however, be written by two or three student-teachers. We have thus asked ourselves what is original in this plural approach. How does working together in small groups of two or three to write the professional dissertation contribute to advancing theoretical approaches to teaching, the relationship with knowledge, the particular view of the teaching experience, reflective thinking on the profession, and the construction of a self-image for the student who is becoming a teacher ? We will refer to the work by Goody (1994) on the cognitive aspect of writing and its role in collecting and distributing knowledge. Since the professional dissertation is not the only element for assessing students in view of hiring them as teachers, how should we relate it to the other necessary elements in teacher preparation, classroom teaching and workshops ?
I. Joint Writing: a novel professional approach
The professional dissertation, used both in preparation and assessment, are written tasks where the problems of professional activities are examined and where the student-teacher fully enters into his/her future profession. What is the real impact of two or three authors writing their dissertation together ? Since such a professional dissertation implies numerous interactions among the authors, we will refer to the studies on interaction (Kerbrat-Orecchioni, 1990, 1992), on partnerships between schools and business (Landry et al., 1994) and on the studies by Kaddouri and Zay on partnerships in education and teacher preparation (1997).
Our research is based on twenty semi-directed interviews with student-teachers who wrote their dissertations by twos or threes and whom we contacted through the seminars for first-year students at Bonneuil in the academic years 1999 - 2000. We analysed these interviews for content in order to define the uses and subjective views expressed in the work by these students. We will also take up the mutual sharing of experiences by these teachers-to-be who are engaged in defining their future profession by searching for innovative activities that are an expression of either a continuity or a radical break with what exists in the field.
II. The Specific Characteristics of writing the professional dissertation by two or three student-teachers
-A negotiated project.
One might wonder what the motivations for that kind of project are. Is it the fruit of choice or the result of constraint ?
Even though a large number of student-teachers chose to write their dissertation by twos or threes, a minority among them admitted to having been encouraged to do so by the professor of the seminar who was faced with too many students and thus grouped them together by theme.
Drafting the dissertation together allows the students to work in small groups in the same classroom, to conduct classroom lessons at the same level and compare their different views and activities. Indeed, the prospect of working as a group is stimulating for the student-teachers who know each other, who have already collaborated on putting together professional reports during their first year of study at the IUFM, who pursue their studies together and who, above all, know that their work methods are similar. One second year student (PE2) states "a contribution of knowledge from someone else helps to open up perspectives different from those I already know. It forced me to think, to respond to my fellow student's questions and to repeatedly re-position myself.".
-Professional workshops and partnerships
The programme for preparing student-teachers at the IUFM at Creteil (2000-2004) includes professional workshops for PE2 students of half a day per week in addition to the time spent on in-class responsibilities and supervised activities. Three or four student-teachers enter the classroom of a temporary teaching supervisor in order to, on the one hand, integrate scientific, disciplinary and didactic knowledge and, on the other hand, become specialists in learning in the primary school  through experience with the realities in the field. Under the supervision of their teachers PE2 students conduct, observe and analyse classroom activities that are coherent with the general programme set up by the school in which they are working.
- Initial preparation and partnerships
The seminar work and individual supervision are adapted to the particular needs of those authors of collective writings, as this second-year student says, "Thanks to the encounters with our dissertation advisors, we were able to link our different approaches to a common problem, develop a plan for the dissertation, begin our research, collect data."
Choosing goals, documents, strategies to be put in place, along with setting up a pedagogical progression are all decided together, but the reality of the classroom requires each one to intervene one after the other. Each student-teacher takes his/her turn in working with the pupils while the other second-year students watch the classroom session which, at the end of the morning, is then analysed by all the partners working with the IUFM on the site. Their shared observations are used to assess the activities, the pupils' results, and to suggest adjustments in view of pursuing the chosen pedagogical project. While this work of preparation, analysis, evaluation and of successive adjustments represents an important initiative for beginners in the teaching field to experiment with pedagogical partnerships, it also gives them the opportunity to perfect their skills in the classroom during the school year. This is why the PE2 students are eager to work in groups, to work as partners within their peer group and undertake writing their professional dissertations in groups of two or three. In this way a partnership between pupils, classroom teachers and student-teachers develops in parallel with the partnership between the IUFM, the teaching establishment and student-teachers.
The idea of communication is essential and, in these groups of PE2 students, involves notions of research, setting up mutual aid inensuring competence when it has been only partially mastered, the possibility of exchanging written tasks between two or three classes in different schools, or even between different countries in an intercultural approach. Sometimes, at the initiative of the dissertation advisor, written texts, which thus take on another status, are included in a more ambitious project of communicating. Both written and oral exchanges are continued while two or three students draft their texts, thus creating a permanent balance between collectively shared work and personal writing.
III. Process of writing and distribution of tasks
Our accompanying the drafting of the dissertation, the professional workshops and the responses of the PE2 students during interviews have helped us to better understand what is specific to the process of writing the professional dissertations by twos or threes.
- Writing alone and jointly
Most often the theme, the problems, the dissertation outline, all defined in common, lead to attacking the theoretical approach together as well. After distributing individual reading assignments, followed up by discussions based on different approaches, we see students sharing information in order to make progress with their ideas and to enrich certain sections of the dissertation. The theoretical part, the bibliography and conclusion, sometimes the same for all, sometimes discussed individually, provide the student-teachers with material for their practice in the classroom. The linking of research-theory-practice reveals a whole play of stands; the practical section illustrates the theory and is presented apart, thus applying the traditional conception of teacher-preparers.  Sometimes the dissertation swings from theory to practice, sometimes theory and practice mix together reflecting the coherence of the approach as expressed by these second-year students. "We drafted the theoretical part together and the applied practical part individually. We stated in the introduction and at the beginning of each section who the author or authors were."
In general, theory influences and enriches the practice that serves to verify the hypotheses formulated in the theoretical section. It either corroborates or contradicts them, resulting in a well-balanced regulation. By twos or threes, the PE2 students build their theories through the incessant confrontation between research, theory and practice and theories dealt with individually or collectively, which leads to some difficulty in identifying students' references. "Each one of us drafts her/his part that is then submitted for critical comment by the other partners, and then is re-written. There is no way to identify a part written by a particular author, as each section was re-worked and re-written collectively."
- Partnership and critical distancing
If writing a professional dissertation obeys rules of discourse corresponding to university norms (Nonnon, 1995), it is also based on the practices of second-year students and their personal experiences. The classroom sessions, prepared by a group, follow the same plan as those prepared in the professional workshops. When a student-teacher gives a class, the others observe and take notes. Then their respective presentations are evaluated by the group; assessments are enriched by a whole series of complementary approaches that help the students to stand back for a better critical view. The comparison, evaluation and analysis of lessons raise new questions that refine the definition of a particular problem, and those results help the students progress beyond the initial theoretical presuppositions. That offers the possibility, within the context of similar problems, to develop different classroom activities or, exceptionally, to draft the dissertation by twos or threes.
- Research practices and reflective practice
Looking at a few outstanding examples of dissertation supervision, we see a dialectic play between differing points of view that leads to re-writing the dissertation through a give-and-take between theory and practice in constant evolution. Here the narrative choice between "I" and "we" seems to be fundamental. The professional dissertation becomes a rough draft for projects to come (Sillam, Birglin-Dubant, Ricard, 2000). The languages of research, action and reflective thinking complete each other and tend towards a project as the PE2 students consider the dissertation as a rough draft for future activities. "The fact that we compare our research, problems and hypotheses, then summarise our activities for comparison with those of my colleagues and co-authors forced me to clarify certain points, to question myself about how I conduct my lessons, to analyse them, to imagine improvements and innovative extensions. All that had a significant impact on my work. This dissertation is a rough draft for my future pedagogical projects." As the writing task represents a way to learn and prepare, the dissertation serves as a transitional passage from preparation to profession. "In this dissertation", one student says, "each of us developed his/her class activities before the same audience. We had critical views that were sometimes similar, sometimes different, as to our activities, our strategies and the results for the pupils. But this confrontation led us to think back on our lessons, to give each other advice on possible changes and activities to offer pupils."
Even if the first writing process is an individual one, the student does not think and does not write alone, but refers to other writings. Thus, the multiplicity of styles of discourse in references can be seen just below the surface in the choices made by students.
Behind the texts of reference appear the voices of theoreticians, researchers and even of the institution itself. Through these oral and written exchanges the students find their own voices in counterpoint to those of the dissertation advisor, of resource persons, associations and finally to the discourse of their own peers. The polyphony of voices, far from being limited to theoretical resources reappears when conducting classroom activities. Assessment helps students to stand back and better evaluate, regulate and suggest experimental approaches to test hypotheses, and this leads them to raise questions and better define the initial problem. "This confrontation led us to reflect upon our work, on our preparation and lessons, to plan new pedagogical activities that none of us had thought of at first." The examination of and discussion about far removed points of view lead to different approaches to lessons through constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing activities in order to elaborate new thinking better adapted to the initial project. Thus research, professional practice, reflective thinking and writing alone or collectively appear in a variety of forms.
IV. The Internet and partnership on writing the professional dissertation
The continuing negotiations among our PE2 students demonstrates the usefulness of joint authorship, but how does the latter help them overcome the difficulties inherent in the variety of tasks undertaken during the second year of preparation ?
- Joint writing and negotiations
Managing time, something so crucial to second-year students, is related to the absence of planning of school time, and this in no way encourages change in the individualistic practices of students. Along with incompatible schedules, there are the problems of long distances between workplace and residence that make setting up meetings difficult. Each encounter leads to the discovery of new perspectives and the close examination of elements that a priori benefit from collective agreement. For three PE2 students "writing together was reassuring. You are no longer alone in confronting the blank page. Moreover, expressing your doubts and fears to someone else pursuing the same objective is a way to share your 'burden'. Finally, confronting others ideas is a way to enrich your own reflection and give it form."
The concrete distribution of tasks becomes reality : documentary research, sharing research for the bibliography, reading, taking notes and organising classroom lessons. But the warm atmosphere, the emulation among students and, most of all, the contributions of partnerships to reflective thinking have their positive impact thanks to tight calendar planning. The commitment to the peer group is more effective than when only the dissertation advisor is involved. Students are surprised by the amount of time saved when working as a group on a project, as each participant comes up with answers to questions that the others did not find. As three students put it, "Working together requires a strict organisation of time. We had to set aside time slots during which we would be available. Deadlines were set and we respected them. Keeping to ourselves was out of the question, and that was stimulating for us."
Differences in points of view, opening up to the opinions of others both contribute to debate which is a source for sound arguments on readings and recent research. In groups of two or three, students raise questions that they might not have thought of alone, and this turns even disagreement into a positive experience. There is nothing like working in a group for experiencing the socio-cognitive conflicts that are a part of life in the classroom. The succession of exchanges helps to unblock complex problem-situations, while the cross-exchanges through re-reading and re-writing can only be intellectually enriching. The common sharing and confrontation of personal experiences raises issues for discussion that are at the origin of an enriched reflection through the continual comparison of viewpoints, even if they might be conflicting. This process of exchange and interrogation relative to the joint writing task serves to prepare the students for their viva voce exam.
- Internet, a tool at the service of partnerships
Recently, discussions among peers, dissertation advisors and teachers have become easier and more immediate thanks to the Internet. Traces of writings and interviews reveal the multiple changes due to divergent points of view among the co-authors and to negotiated analyses that are part of a joint writing via e-mail. Despite the difficulties in finding places for workshops, the different levels of classes and, above all, in managing schedules, the second year students discover little by little their own space for creativity via e-mail. Writing the dissertation becomes a tool for clarifying ideas developed collectively that give meaning to the students' practice. "The e-mail exchanges allow for an almost instantaneous reaction from peers, dissertation advisors, and thus theory and practice are continually regulated. We are reassured by this method; we react instantaneously; we evolve and make progress quickly."