Holmes Group Ponders Ways To Reshape Preparation of Elementary-School Teachers
Wilmington, Del--At a recent meeting here, representatives of 19 Holmes Group institutions grappled with one of the most divisive questions in teacher education: how to reshape the liberal-arts training of prospective elementary teachers.
Several influential reports have recommended abolishing undergraduate education majors so that future teachers gain a sounder preparation in the arts and sciences.
Nowhere has this criticism fallen more heavily than on the "elementary-education major," which is still the primary course of study for most prospective teachers of grades K-6.
"Prospective elementary teachers take a substantial number of courses in education," notes A Nation Prepared, the report of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession. "The result is that elementary teachers have relatively little exposure to the subjects they will teach."
The report of the Holmes Group, Tomorrow's Teachers, agrees: "For elementary teachers, the [education] degree has too often become a substitute for learning any academic subject well."
Proposals presented here at a meeting of the Holmes Group's Southeastern region on April 28-30 ranged from requiring elementary teachers to major in a traditional academic subject to creating a new major that would focus on how children understand key educational concepts, based on their age and cognitive development.
"We are very vague and nonspecific about what we want people to have studied in the liberal arts," said Frank B. Murray, dean of education at the University of Delaware.
Neither individual institutions nor states "have strong feelings" about what kind of mathematics or English they want future elementary teachers to study, he suggested; whether the social sciences are "more or less important" than the natural sciences; or whether teachers should master a foreign language.
But simply requiring a major in an academic discipline is not the answer, participants warned, because many academic majors are fragmented and haphazard in quality.
"You would at least press the traditional major along the lines of greater coherence and integration," argued Mr. Murray, coordinator of the Holmes Group's Southeastern region.
Harold Kolb, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, agreed that most academic majors rely on a "supermarket" approach to coursework that leaves undergraduates free to pick and choose broadly from the curriculum.
The result, he and others argued, is a "hit-and-miss" series of courses that hang together only by happenstance.
To major in English at the University of Virginia, for example, an undergraduate must have a 2.0 grade-point average and complete 32 hours of coursework, including a survey of British literature and a few courses on literature before 1800.
"In what has been ranked the third-best English program in America,'' Mr. Kolb argued, this is a "second-rate English major."
Others complained about the overemphasis on fact, recall, and "jargon" in introductory courses for under4graduates. Michael LaBarbera, a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, said the average introductory biology course introduces 1,500 new terms, a practice he described as "ridiculous."
Participants also complained about the poor quality of teaching in many courses within the colleges of arts and sciences. They argued that liberal-arts professors must become masters of pedagogy if they are to become role models for future teachers.
One solution, proposed by Mr. Kolb, is to require prospective elementary teachers to major in a traditional academic discipline, but to ensure that the major is a "rich and appropriate" one.
At the University of Virginia, for instance, he has proposed creating an English major for undergraduates who wish to become elementary teachers, as one of several options.
Such a major would require courses in the history of the English language; intermediate or advanced composition, or creative writing; how to teach writing; children's literature; American literature; British literature; Shakespeare; masterpieces of world literature; and several upper-division courses.
That kind of program, he argued, "would be much better than the program that most of our English majors are taking presently."
In general, he said, prospective elementary teachers should major in one humanities discipline, such as English, and minor in math and science, or the reverse.
"To satisfy the requirement of both breadth and depth, it makes some sense to do something with some thoroughness," he said.
Others argued for an interdisciplinary major for prospective elementary teachers.
"Any preparation of elementary-school teachers ought to be general and liberal," suggested Landon E. Beyer, a professor of education at Knox College in Illinois. "We ought not to focus on any one discipline."
Neither the Holmes nor the Carnegie report specifies whether elementary teachers should complete a traditional academic major or some kind of new interdisciplinary program.
A number of those at the conference did not weigh in on either side of the argument. Instead, they proposed a variety of ways to make the arts-and-sciences offerings that students now take more coherent.
Mr. LaBarbera, for example, described a sequence of six natural-science courses for nonmajors at the University of Chicago. The two-year sequence looks at evolution from a variety of perspectives, including the evolution of the universe, biological evolution, and the nature of ecosystems. Each course includes a laboratory component.
Such an integrated, interdisciplinary approach, focused on a major theme, can help engage students in the central ideas in science, Mr. LaBarbera argued.
Several others noted that the math and science preparation of prospective elementary teachers is "notably weak."
The vast majority of elementary teachers do not know science and are not comfortable teaching it the way it should be taught, said Audrey B. Champagne, director of a project on liberal education and the sciences at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It might be preferable to have elementary teachers teach in teams in which at least one member is enthusiastic about science, she suggested, rather than expecting all teachers to have a mastery of scientific subjects.
In addition, she said, every elementary school should have at least one science specialist, who majored in science and can provide support and assistance to others.
David Grimsted, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, argued for more widespread use of primary source material in undergraduate courses, to expose students to "vigorous" and divergent viewpoints about important issues.
Such materials "force the student ... to come in contact with ideas and opinions and problems that are of interest to him or her," he said.
Harvey Flaumenhaft, a tutor at St. John's College, described a project that is helping students read classic texts in math and science. By understanding the presumptions on which current scholarship is based, he said, and how those ideas developed, students gain a richer perspective on the scientific enterprise.
Several participants proposed radically new ways for organizing an academic major for prospective elementary teachers.
In a videotaped presentation, Lee S. Shulman, professor of education at Stanford University, argued that expert teachers possess "pedagogical-content knowledge." They understand both the content to be taught and how to teach it effectively.
Such teachers, he said, can anticipate students' misconceptions about a particular topic, have a rich array of metaphors and analogies to help improve students' learning, and can approach the same subject from a variety of perspectives.
Mr. Murray suggested that based on Mr. Shulman's work, a "strong argument" could be made for devising a major focused on the various ways of organizing a discipline for the purposes of teaching it.
Mr. Murray also suggested creating a new major based on research findings on how children think about key academic concepts at various stages of development.
Cognitive research has focused on "young children's notions of virtually every concept that we would see as a part of the elementary-school" curriculum, he said.
For example, 2nd graders believe that if you change the shape, temperature, or texture of an object, you also change its weight.
"That's interesting stuff to study," he argued. "It certainly is compelling for the prospective teacher in that at least it seems relevant." It would also require teachers to master the actual content being taught, he said, as well as the sources of children's misconceptions about it.
But Mr. Murray cautioned that none of the suggestions broached at the conference "in and of themselves" are going to provide a sufficient basis for the preparation of elementary teachers. "You might say," he added, "that the courses that one would want a prospective elementary teacher to study would have the attributes of all that we've said."