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To Transmit or To 'Construct'?

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Teacher professional development is prone to infatuations. But that must not detract from its mission.

As children, we were young, innocent, and prone to infatuations. Of course, we certainly did not recognize it at the time. Our devotions were passionate, totally consuming, and held in staunch resistance to alternative points of view. We saw positive qualities only and were blind to faults, regardless of how blatant or obvious to others. What imperfections we did notice were dismissed as inconsequential and unimportant.

As we matured, however, we realized that infatuations are generally short-lived. We developed a more balanced perspective that combined adoration of positive qualities with recognition and acceptance of shortcomings. While our innocence was lost, in its place was a deeper affection and richer understanding more likely to endure the tests of time.

Although professional development in education certainly cannot be considered young and innocent, it still appears to be caught up in infatuations. Ideas, techniques, and innovations are latched on to with innocence and naivet‚. Devotion to these ideas is passionate and unfettered by criticism. Only positive attributes are perceived, while weakness and flaws pass unnoticed. And as is true in the case of most infatuations, the devotion tends to be short-lived.

As a result, earnest but confused education leaders careen from trend to trend. Their infatuations compel them to invest in the perspectives and programs that are currently in vogue, even though their use may not be justified by the current state of theory or sound evidence. Teachers, who are typically the recipients of the in-service du jour, are overwhelmed by the demands of these various programs and become cynical about the "support" provided to help in implementation.

Not so long ago, for example, educators were infatuated with process-product research and the development of teacher competencies. Many were convinced that if teachers could be helped to incorporate the behaviors that researchers found to be associated with higher test scores, students would learn better. Shortly thereafter, attention shifted to teacher empowerment and the belief that teachers should be given a stronger "voice" in their own professional development. This infatuation held that ideas for improvement must come from within teachers rather than being imposed from outside.

The current infatuation is with "constructivist" approaches. Supporters believe that not only should teachers incorporate constructivist techniques in their teaching, but that they should learn about these techniques through constructivist-oriented professional development. The premise of a constructivist approach to professional development is that teachers must individually interpret and then "construct" their own understanding of new ideas related to teaching and learning. A premium is placed on teacher autonomy, initiative, and the development of personalized meaning. Constructivist approaches are often contrasted with "transmittal" approaches, in which new ideas are presented to teachers through lectures, discussions, readings, and demonstrations.

Advocates of constructivist approaches to professional development are passionate in their devotion. They have difficulty seeing any flaws in constructivist perspectives, and are personally and professionally resistant to alternative points of view. The notion of balancing constructivist with other perspectives is seen as corruptive to the fidelity and validity of constructivist ideals. But if past trends are any indication, the infatuation with constructivist approaches will be short-lived as well.

Why is professional development in education so prone to infatuations? Why are more balanced approaches so rarely greeted with the same enthusiasm as those that are more extreme? Perhaps it is because educational improvement is a highly political process in which extreme positions always garner greater attention than balanced ones. Like the general public, educators want simplicity, not qualifications like "the answer depends on many factors, including the characteristics of the persons involved and the implementation context." Extreme positions offer direct and easily understood solutions, despite the fact that most of the problems in professional development are snarled and complex.

Educators have an obligation to keep up on the knowledge base. Whether they attach personalized meaning to such knowledge matters little to their students.

Consider what would happen, for example, if professional development in the medical profession were based on a similar, strictly constructivist approach. Suppose that a new medical technique is developed that is shown to be not only safer for patients, but also far more effective in treating a particular disease or ailment. Would professional-development sessions for physicians be conducted to help them attach personal meaning to the new technique? Would we expect physicians to delay their use of the technique until they individually interpret and construct their own personalized understanding of it? Probably not. In fact, we might even consider such action or inaction to be professionally irresponsible or unethical.

In medicine there is a recognized professional knowledge base. It is expected that medical practitioners keep abreast of that knowledge base for the benefit of all those they serve. In fact, most practitioners in medicine consider it their professional obligation to do so. Whether or not they attach personalized meaning to a new and better technique matters little to their patients.

At the same time, we expect those in the medical profession to have a personalized understanding of treatment consequences. We expect physicians to know what it is like to be a patient under their care. We want them to be able to adapt treatment techniques to the specifics of individual cases. In other words, we expect a balance of professional knowledge and sensitivity. Still, it is the knowledge base that remains most crucial. While a knowledgeable but insensitive physician may not be our first choice, it is a far better option than one who is sensitive but uninformed.

In education, we also have a professional knowledge base. We know more today about teaching and learning than ever before. We have greater knowledge of the effectiveness of different instructional techniques, distributive practice, various types of assessment, grading practices, homework activities, discipline and attendance policies, and ways to encourage student involvement. Practitioners in education have a professional obligation to keep abreast of this knowledge base in order to be optimally effective. Whether or not they attach personalized meaning to such knowledge matters little to the students they serve.

But teaching and learning are also contextually based. Educators at all levels must be sensitive to the backgrounds and characteristics of their students so that they can adapt instructional practices to best suit students' needs. Like physicians, educators too must balance professional knowledge and sensitivity. Although the knowledge base remains most crucial, it is the balance of knowledge and sensitivity that makes educators optimally effective.

If education is to advance as a profession, the professional development of educators must be similarly balanced. Regular and systematic professional-development programs must be planned to help educators keep abreast of a rapidly expanding professional knowledge base. Educators at all levels must continually upgrade their conceptual and craft skills to avoid lapsing into professional obsolescence. And like practitioners in other professional fields, educators must come to see such refinement as their professional obligation.

Constructivist perspectives also have their place, especially in helping educators make the adaptations necessary to attain the optimal effectiveness of new ideas and techniques. The key to success, however, is balance: finding a good mix of structured opportunities to acquire both the new professional knowledge and the learning experiences that encourage sensitive adaptations to individuals' needs.

To accomplish this balance, we must abandon our propensity for infatuations in professional development. We must give up our innocence in education and mature as a profession. We must recognize more fully our rapidly expanding professional knowledge base and accept efforts to keep abreast of that knowledge base as our professional obligation. Doing so will not only advance education as a professional endeavor, but also will yield a richer understanding of our field and far more effective practice.


Thomas R. Guskey is a professor of education and the chairman of the department of educational-policy studies and evaluation at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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