PERSONAL CONSTRUCT PSYCHOLOGY AND TEACHER PREPARATION: Reflective "thought objects, " story and metaphor


Tim Hopper, Ph.D.
School of Physical Education,
University of Victoria, BC.

Findings reported in this paper are from a larger study of ten pre-service teachers who were enrolled in the same physical education teacher preparation course. The findings reported in this paper will focus upon one of the pre-service teachers, Grant.


The purpose of the study was to describe how pre-service teachers can reflectively evolve their personal beliefs and values about teaching after their initial experience of teaching in schools. This study addressed the following question: given the findings of a study of pre-service teachers' personal constructs for teaching, how does one pre-service teacher, in his final year of a teacher preparation program, articulate his sense of becoming a teacher? In other words, how did Grant learn, and know he had learned, how to teach? In this way, insights were gained on how teacher thinking evolved for one pre-service teacher.


The method used to research pre-service teachers beliefs about teaching was a repertory grid analysis from George Kelly's (1955) personal construct psychology. Personal construct psychology (PCP) is a procedure used in psycho-therapy offering a way of becoming aware of the biography that structures and guides a person's subjective judgments on a reality of teaching. PCP has been widely used in teacher education as a means of accessing pre-service teachers implicit beliefs about teaching (Diamond, 1991; Pope & Keen, 1981). In PCP Kelly proposed a theory called constructive alternativism that states that reality is subject to many alternative constructions. Kelly's PCP allows a person to probe the personal meaning of a phenomena - the multiple meanings people can have of the same phenomenon. The study that is reported in this paper probed the meaning of effective teaching in physical education.

To explore "new" meaning a repertory grid from PCP was used. As shown in Figure 1, the grid creates a basic number pattern of ordinal ratings of elements on dichotomous constructs. The elements come from a pool of elements with which the participant is familiar. The elements used in this study were teacher roles that had been experienced by all the pre-service teachers during their school days and during their experiences at the university. The constructs are bipolar descriptors, produced by participants from comparisons of elements (different teachers). To produce a repertory grid each of the elements were compared to each of the constructs using a "1" to "5" rating scale.


Figure 1 Grantís initial repertory grid


Data from repertory grids was collected before a teacher preparation course in PE. Initially the course ran for six weeks. Pedagogy in the course concentrated on inquiry-oriented conceptual approaches - emphasizing responding to the play of learners and developing learner autonomy. The pre-service teachers then taught in a school-based four-week field experience. After this experience, they returned to the university for three weeks to complete course requirements. During this period pre-service teachers engaged in a second learning conversation and re-rated their initial repertory grids and constructed new repertory grids that included themselves and teachers from their field experience school. The purpose of this learning conversation was to explore how the pre-service teachers' beliefs and values about effective teachers had changed during their teaching experiences.

All conversations were transcribed with an average 10,000 words for each pre-service teacher. Data from the course were summarized for each pre-service teacher in personal case studies of 3000 to 6000 words. These case studies were given to available pre-service teachers in the following term. A further interview with me on their thoughts and concerns about their case studies resulted in "interview three" of the study. Transcripts from these interviews ranged from 2000-3000 words in length. Informally, several of the pre-service teachers met with me during the subsequent academic year to share teaching experiences that they felt revealed their articulated beliefs and values about teaching.


Repertory grid data analysis

In this study, the computer program GRIDTHINK was used to analyze the repertory grids. This program provided a two-way cluster analysis that re-order the rows of constructs and the columns of elements so as to produce a grid in which there was the least variation between adjacent constructs and elements. The relationships between elements and constructs were visualized as tree diagrams showing the highest relationship between clusters (see Figure 1). Conversation on the relationships between elements and constructs produced certain themes that the student teachers referred to as a reference for the effectiveness of teachers. These themes became known as "thought objects" for teaching.

Metaphor in repertory grid conversations

A conversation with repertory grid generates a commonsense meaning rather than a technical meaning. Such a commonsense meaning is constructed with metaphorical meaning. This way metaphorical content of teacher speech has promise for discerning the unstated ways in which a teacher constructs a professional world, the imagery they use to construct their world of teaching.

Realizing "thought objects" through stories from practice

Conversations between the pre-service teachers and me involved a sharing of stories on teaching. The pre-service-teachers' stories from teaching practice became self-affirming and representative of educational values being transformed into practice.


Grant's first interview

From the first interview it was established that the constructs in Figure 2 associated to the themes of "RELATE TO STUDENTS" and generating "ENERGY" in the class. These became the "thought objects" of Grant's reflexive thinking about teaching.


Figure 2: A summary of Grantís bi-polar constructs in his repertory grid.

After the field experience practicum Grant re-rated his selected teachers on his bi-polar constructs. This produced a new grid where his perceptions of his past teachers had changed. Figure 3 shows the new clustering of Grantís bi-polar constructs based on his re-rating of his past teachers.


Figure 3: A summary of Grantís bi-polar constructs in his repertory grid

Grant maintained his original "thought objects" of "ENERGY" and "RELATE TO STUDENTS," but know he also focused upon the need for a teacher to be "RESPECTFUL." This new "thought object" was generated from a new clustering that Grant saw in his re-rated grid. This new Ďthought object" connected to the "RELATE TO STUDENTS" idea, but had a new significance to Grant which he highlighted in the following story from his field experience.

In Grantís class on teaching practice there was a large pupil, Michael, notorious as the cityís under fifteen wrestling champion. Michael was often suspended from the school for being aggressive to his peers and teachers. On his initial encounter with Michael, Grant shared enthusiastically the joys of playing football, a sport that Grant knew Michael had started to play. As Grant said,

I never had a problem with Michael. There was one time when he was getting a bit rowdy with Cody. I said to Michael quietly, "Michael, I need your help. The kids in this class really respect you. They see you fooling around and stuff -- it makes it tough on me. I know you would not want to do that on purpose. I would not do it to you, right? You know that, right?"

Michael replied, "Yah. O.K. Mr. F., no problem."

When Cody started fooling around again Michael slammed his big fist on the table grunting, "No!!"

As Grant explained, "I just extended the relationship that I felt I had with Michael. I felt I could go to him, be that forward, be that honest with him. I treated him like a fourteen-year-old kid. He had a presence...Instead of just slamming down on him, I acknowledged him."

The story showed how Grant was finding support in his experiences for his beliefs in the importance of "relating to students" and being "respectful" of students. This story was a contrast to the advice Grant was given by his co-operating teacher who told him to "be tough then loosen up." To Grant what was tough about teaching was being consistent and sincere in how he believed an effective teacher should be.

Initial metaphors in Grant's thinking on teaching

Grant's first interview showed a physical, in contact, mobile sense of teaching which was probably connected to his six years of experience teaching karate, coaching hockey, and playing hockey as a child. When describing his effective teachers, Grant made many references to "push," "pull" and "proceed forward." These effective teachers were "moving" work along. Grant also made many references to energy - "full of energy," "full of life and energy," and "pump your self up." This energy was "natural" and "contagious." Metaphorically Grant seemed to imply that energy could be caught like a virus. For Grant humor was a vital component in teaching that energizes students. In this sense Grant seemed to be working with humor as infectious. This metaphor of energy generated from humor did not work for Grant when he taught in a school.

Metaphor in Grant's thinking on teaching after his practicum

After Grant's practicum experience his physical metaphor to understand teaching had developed with words such as "reaching," "crushed" and "squeezing." Grant's comments about his field experience school were that lessons tended to be activities that the students were just exposed to and told "to learn or else." A common response from kids was to fight harshness or to at least feel resentment." Grant felt himself rising to a level of strictness that the pupils expected. As he described, "harsher...I mean like sharp," not like "I was use to being as a coach." As Grant said, "I was fighting not to put my ideas on the back burner."

About his own teaching Grant said, "I was full of emotions...full of energy." Metaphorically he felt that "Kids feed off your energy." This idea of students "feeding" off a teacher's energy places Grant at the center, as the source of energy. However, in a negative sense feeding off Grant's energy creates an image of leeches that cling to a person draining his or her "blood energy." As Grant said about his energy, "The kids were just feeding off it...When I went home I was exhausted."

A 'new' metaphor in Grant's understanding of teaching

Post-practicum Grant had a sense of teacher as researcher. Grant felt he was "researching" how to teach and that he "did little experiments" because as he said "there are things I wanted to discover." The physical metaphor that had initially informed Grant's understanding was present. Indeed, Grant's hockey coaching had changed to incorporate the "researching" metaphor. Grant found himself asking his players to explore "what would happen if..."

A year later Grant's sense of teaching as research was a fundamental way of knowing the act of teaching. Words such as "extract," "synthesize," "focus" and "connect" seemed to frame Grant's notion of teaching. As he said, the key to effective teaching is "learn from it, thinking about researching it and doing it... writing it down, talking about it."

Grant's sense of energy when learning had evolved to a sense of group energy from the class that he, as the teacher, ignites but also draws from.

Capturing Grant's "thought objects" in story

During Grant's teaching practice his commitment to his "thought objects" resulted in him concentrating his teaching on being enthusiastic, energetic and responsive, but also respectful to students. A story from Grant's teaching experience highlights these beliefs. Grant gave the following account:

To get the kids excited about the topic I asked them to discuss their favourite music with a friend...The door was open and the noise was rising. I realized I needed to get the children back on track, but I did not want to shout and bawl. After all I wanted them to get excited. [Here Grant had the energy he felt was important in teaching].... I went over to Elaine. I got on well with her so I knew she would respond. [Grant drew on his experience of relating to students]. I asked Elaine, very quietly, what her favourite music was?...Our discussion got very intense, but quiet. As we were talking, the rest of the class started to take an interest. In a few minutes all the class was silentóthey wanted to know what we were talking about [Grant respectfully had the students quiet but they were still energized]. Grant's alternative strategy to shouting to get control had worked. The class was excited and interested in the topic, they were energized. There was no need to control them, just channel their energy. I asked Grant how he had come up with this strategy. Grant said, "I had a sense that shouting was wrong, disrespectful, I had made them excited. I needed an alternative strategy." This story and many others captured how Grant started to transform his beliefs into effective teaching practice.


Beliefs were articulated in "thought objects" through the conversations from the repertory grid. These "thought objects" were gradually realized by Grant in his practice. Grant's metaphorical language for teaching evolved as he sought to express the reality of teaching that allowed him to transform his "thought objects" into practice. This study and results from other pre-service teachers like Grant, suggest the potential for the examination of teacher thinking on a personal basis in teacher preparation as a powerful catalyst for producing effective, committed teachers.



Diamond, C. (1991). Teacher education as transformation. Milton Keynes, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Kelly, G. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs Vol. I. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Pope, M., & Keen, T. (1981). Personal construct psychology and education. London: Academic Press.