Conference Publication Details
Mandatory Fields
McGarr, O. & Munk, K.
European Conference of Educational Research (ECER)
Pre-service Teachers' Reflections on Critical Incidents: Exploring the Role of Available Resources in Considering Alternative Actions
Optional Fields

Pre-service teachers draw on a range of resources when experiencing and dealing with critical teaching incidents. These resources come from different domains, one of them being their past schooling experiences, i.e. their apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 1975). Pre-service teachers’ memory of past schooling experiences provides heuristics, expectations and associations readily available for the pre-service teacher to draw from (Feldon, 2007). For example, when reflecting on ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ thoughts following critical incidents, McGarr and McCormack (2016) found that pre-service teachers frequently changed (or counterfactually mutated) their actions on the basis of traditional understandings of teaching drawn from their past schooling experiences. Another domain from which resources are drawn is the local institutional context of the placement school that the pre-service teacher teaches in. Accountability structures, traditions and social and physical arrangements guide how pre-service and newly qualified teachers can and are expected to respond to critical incidents. A desire to ‘fit in’ can heighten the importance of expectations to comply with prevailing norms and values. A third domain is the teacher education programme which, hopefully, provides pre-service teachers with resources for dealing with critical teaching incidents along with expectations about how to respond. These three domains and their contribution to pre-service teachers’ responses to critical incidents can be studied by focusing on a detailed analysis of the resources they employ. To do this, the research reported in this paper analysed pre-service teachers’ recounting of critical incidents experienced during their practicum. It examined what they thought, in hindsight, they should have changed about the situation. It studied how the pre-service teachers selected and counterfactually mutated critical incidents and the resources they drew on in these counterfactually mutated versions of challenging teaching experiences. The study focused on the following two research questions:

  1. In pre-service teachers’ counterfactually mutated versions of critical incidents, what resources are employed in the hypothetical ‘if only’ responses and how do these compare with their original actions/inactions?
  2. Which domains did the pre-service teachers’ resources come from, which domains dominated responses and how did the resources and demands from different domains interact?

Pre-service teachers’ resources and the domains of these resources were, in this study, conceptualised by drawing on cultural historical theory, which emphasises that individual human action is guided and achieved by means of artefacts (e.g. Daniels, 2008). Such artefacts include not only physical objects, but also words and verbal expressions, sounds, visual and gestural representations (Wartofsky, 1979). Although artefacts are drawn on and used in individual action, they are produced and learned within social interaction. Artefacts originates from social and institutional domains that go beyond the individual and the artefacts are fitted for and reminds the user of the actions and activities that the artefacts are known to be used for. Hence, artefacts are not neutral. They guide the actions of those who use them and, in being fitted for particular use, they help the individual to achieve certain ends. This study is guided by the idea that the availability of artefacts has a central role in contributing to which goals and objectives individuals can and will pursue. The study also drew on the psychological theory of counterfactual thought mutation, a theory exploring the ‘what if’ or ‘if only' thoughts experienced by people after an event. Research in this area indicates that counterfactual thoughts are influenced by both inter- and intra-personal beliefs.


This study uses interview data from a sample of 20 pre-service teachers in their final year of study on a 4-year undergraduate programme in initial teacher education in a university in Ireland from a cohort of approximately 250 students. The student teachers have all completed their final ten-week school placement and are in their final semester of study on the programme. In compliance with the institution's ethical guidelines, all participants were invited to participate in the study and all participants provided consent to participate. The interview asked participants to recall critical incidents from their placement practice and asked them to describe how they dealt with those incidents.  Following this description, the participants were asked to consider whether they would have changed anything about their original actions. The interviews afforded participants with the opportunity to describe any incidents, both positive and negative, that they define as critical. In analysing the responses, we plan to identify these counterfactually mutated versions of the critical incidents and examine the uses of various artefacts in them, paying particular attention to how such artefacts are employed in the counterfactually mutated scenario and comparing this use to the artefacts they employed in the original incident. The artefacts, i.e. the supports, that mediated the teachers’ actions and their counterfactually mutated accounts of the critical incidents were, furthermore, examined to specify the domains from which these resources originated.

Expected Outcomes

It is anticipated that the study will uncover the resources employed by the sample of pre-service teachers in their responses to critical teaching incidents and in their 'what if' and ‘if only’ accounts of these incidents, when engaging in post-reflection. In addition, we expect to identify the domains that the sample of pre-service teachers drew from, the domains that dominated responses and the interaction between resources and demands from different domains. The findings of this study will be of benefit to teacher educators in assisting student teachers to reflect on their practice and to unearth assumptions that have not been interrogated. They are relevant to teacher education because they have implications for our understanding of how to equip pre-service teachers with robust resources for dealing with the challenges of teaching. In addition, it is hoped that the findings of this study may identify whether pre-service teachers’ responses to critical incidents initially rely more on past school experiences, rather than resources and demands from placement schools and teacher education programmes, and whether reflection on the origin of one’s resources can help student teachers develop better responses to critical incidents in their practice.  


Daniels, H. (2008). Vygotsky and research. London: Routledge.

Feldon, D. F. (2007). Cognitive Load and Classroom Teaching: The Double-Edged Sword of Automaticity. Educational Psychologist, 42(3), 123–137.

Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

McGarr, O., & McCormack, O. (2016). Counterfactual mutation of critical classroom incidents: implications for reflective practice in initial teacher education. European Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), 36–52.

Wartofsky, M. (1979). Perception, representation, and the forms of action: Towards an historical epistemology. In R. S. Cohen & M. Wartofsky (Eds.), Models: Representation and the scientific understanding (Vol. XLVIII, pp. 188–210). Dordrecht, Holland: Springer Science+Business Media.
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