A liberal education can help the elementary-school teacher become a ''critical problem-solving professional,” writes Hugh G. Petrie, dean of the faculty of educational studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in a new book of essays.
But a grasp of fundamental concepts in a variety of fields is needed--and may be more valuable than advanced expertise in a particular discipline, he argues in the following excerpts from Crisis in Teaching: Perspectives on Current Reforms, edited by Lois Weis, Philip G. Altbach, Gail P. Kelly, et al.
Yet another area exists in which the liberal arts might contribute to the content preparation of elementary teachers.
Elementary teachers must deal with an extremely broad range of subject matter. Thus, whether an academic major is required of the elementary teacher, attention must be given to the wide range of content area to be covered in the elementary grades.
Given the introductory nature of most elementary-school subjects, the advanced esoteric course work required for a standard colle4giate major may not be necessary. More appropriate would be carefully designed basic courses that acquaint elementary teachers with the specific content they must teach.
Too often liberal-arts departments scoff at the apparent implication that they should teach subjects such as spelling, arithmetic, or reading. So the responsibility falls to education departments, and they are scorned because they “teach college students elementary content.”
It is absolutely essential to break free of such a simple-minded understanding of the “content” of elementary education. Of course, teachers must know how to spell and do arithmetic, but that cannot be the content of college courses.
Rather, that content must be placed in the context of a college-level course by paying attention to the logical and disciplinary structures underlying the various elementary content areas and the ways in which those structures might inform the selection of methods for teaching the content to young children.
Lee Shulman has coined the8phrase pedagogical content knowledge to refer to this approach. These would not be standard courses in “mathematical methods,” for example, but would rather concentrate on such things as the most central and powerful concepts, metaphors, and methods of discovery and validation in mathematics itself.
Such knowledge would also add to the understanding of the major learning problems students of a variety of ages tend to have in grasping those concepts, metaphors, and methods.
Even the most elitist professor of a discipline should be able to appreciate that this kind of study of “elementary” content is worthy of college credit. Moreover, this kind of knowledge of content would be far more valuable to elementary teachers than advanced esoteric courses in the field.
State University of New York Press, State University Plaza, Albany, N.Y. 12246; 289 pp., $44.50 cloth, $14.95 paper.
In Curriculum Reform in the Elementary School: Creating Your Own Agenda, M. Frances Klein suggests that the weak preparation of many elementary-school teachers in given disciplines undermines elementary curricula.
To ensure balanced instruction, the University of Southern California professor of education writes, schools should seek teachers with different specializations. She discusses findings from a seven-year study of a small group of schools in the following excerpt:
English and general education accounted for the academic work of the majority of teachers, both during college and their postcredential work.
Thus, although most of these teachers had the expected amount of education, a bachelor’s degree, the balance of work in subject-area preparation was skewed. These schools had little expert help from teachers who had majored in subject areas such as math, the arts, science, and physical education.
This could have been a factor that accounted for the imbalanced curriculum in these subject areas. Teachers may have been reluctant to teach areas in which they had little preparation.
Unless the districts assisted them in becoming better prepared, as many often do, particularly in math, our teachers were not likey to offer strong curricula in these areas.
The professional preparation of your teachers is worthy of your special attention. ... Any attempt to develop curriculum at your school will require teachers with some expertise in the subject areas.
The teacher with strong preparation in English, math, social studies, art, or physical education is in a position to offer leadership in curriculum-improvement efforts within that subject. Where there is no expertise at your school in a particular subject, the chances are that curriculum-improvement efforts in it will not be strong.
Selecting teachers with varying expertise in their professional preparation could be an important consideration when filling new or vacant faculty postions.
Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Ave., New York, N.Y. 10027; 192 pp., $30.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as On the Schooling of Elementary Teachers