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Committee of Teacher Educators Seeks 'Community of Learners'

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A Conversation with Joseph Featherstone

The curriculum committee of the Holmes Group, a consortium of 96 research universities committed to improving their teacher-preparation programs, last month released a report detailing the principles it believes should guide both the teacher-education curriculum and the continuing education of practicing teachers.

The report says that schools and universities must strive to create ''communities of learning" in which knowledge is not passively received, but is actively sought by curious students and teachers.

Joseph Featherstone, a professor of education at Michigan State University, served on the committee and helped write the report. He discussed its recommendations with Staff Writer Ann Bradley.

Q. What does a "community of learning" look like?

A. On a classroom level, think of it as people who are able to talk together, share common ideas, and have some sense of common inquiry. You could also talk about cohorts [of students] in an education school who know each other and talk about education out in the halls and in the dorms. If they're older students, they would still get together sometimes on projects with other students and faculty and teachers who would be working on issues together.

There would be, in effect, many cross-cutting conversations about the work, critical conversations, conversations about dilemmas, conversations about ideas in books, and conversations about children.

To say the least, that often does not happen in schools of education now. We're not kidding ourselves--the Holmes agenda is a very ambitious agenda. It is not as though there is an arcane or weird new angle on this, it's just that to institutionalize it on a large scale for students is something we think will take several generations.

Conversation, although it sounds low-keyed and ordinary, isn't so ordinary.

Q. What kind of changes must education schools make to develop intellectually curious teachers?

A. If teachers experienced that kind of excitement and community in their schools of education and in the schools in which they student teach, they will have been, so to speak, out on the dance floor. They would have a feeling for what it looks like. There would be some congruence between what their education school professors say and their experience as student teachers.

If you took part in a program at an education school in which this was the norm, you would begin to have an idea of what community felt like, particularly if it was reinforced in a school in which this was the norm.

Right now, it's scattershot and lucky for people to hit on a mentor teacher and a professor in the education school who really do work together and really do share disasters as well as successes and learn from them--while in the middle of talking to students.

Q. The committee's view of teacher preparation seems to conflict with what school districts want from new teachers, which is the ability to handle students and deliver a prescribed curriculum. What evidence, if any, do you have that this attitude toward teaching is changing?

A. In many places it's not changing at all, but there's also around the country a growing interest in some alternatives to what we have. Restructuring is a vast, baggy word, but a lot of what people mean is pointing teachers and faculties of education and teacher education students in these directions.

At its best, I would say that whatever restructuring means, it means things like these--the themes of conversation and critical inquiry and engagement. Rote learning and minimal expectations of new teachers are alive and well, but so are these other bigger ambitions.

Q. The report also talks about the "extended communities" of families and neighborhoods with which schools must interact. Can teachers be taught to work successfully with these groups?

A. So many of our schools are backing into this role because of the issues with poor kids, minority kids, and immigrants. Whether they like it or not, they are engaged with social welfare. But they don't have a clear sense that that's O.K.

I know teachers who spend time after school calling around to get eye examinations for their students, but right now that's defined as extra and weird and something you do because you're a soft touch. This agenda has got to be part of what student teachers and schools see also as legitimate.

Our task now is to try and make schools of education tap into that kind of work so that new teachers know and see that you can do that without being consumed or turning into a breed of social worker. The successful practitioners are way ahead of universities and other schools in this. It's a big challenge.

In theory, it can be done. The question is whether you can get institutions to point in this direction.

Q. Do you believe this agenda is achievable, given all of the longstanding criticisms of teacher education with which colleges and universities must contend?

A. Certainly, to have the kind of conversations we're talking about people have to be liberally educated, they have to experience learning communities in colleges of education, experience learning communities in their school placements, and it certainly helps a lot if the schools they are placed in have veteran teachers who see themselves as members of learning communities, too.

If I were a betting person, I don't know what odds I'd give on this, but I'd much rather spend my time working on the complete, right package than a lot of side issues. It's refreshing for Holmes to keep saying that this may take several generations. This is really not the kind of three-year thing a governor likes, or a foundation.

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