M.S.U. Education School Is on a Mission: 'Teaching for Understanding'

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When Judith E. Lanier wants to make a persuasive argument for why both schools and the institutions that prepare teachers must change, she pulls out a typewritten worksheet.

At the top is a paragraph about a fictional product called "traxoline," "a new form of zionter montilled in Ceristanna." At the bottom are questions to be answered after reading the text: What is traxoline? Where is traxoline montilled?

When her listeners realize that they can read the nonsense paragraph and answer the questions without understanding what the words mean, Ms. Lanier has made her point.

This kind of regurgitation of information, she says, is what passes for learning in far too many schools.

At Michigan State University, where Ms. Lanier is on leave as dean of the college of education to head a statewide school-improvement project, faculty members are trying to change that pervasive style of education through what they have come to call "teaching for understanding."

The phrase echoes through much of the work under way here--in the research conducted by faculty members, in the courses taught to undergraduates studying to be teachers, and in the university's expanding relationships with surrounding schools.

"We're getting smarter about what it means to teach at higher levels for all youngsters," Ms. Lanier says.

But the university still has a long way to go, she adds. "M.S.U. knows more about cows and pigs than what kind of intellectual stimulus is needed for kids in schools," she says.

A National Model

Michigan State's college of education is the home of two nationally known research centers on teaching and teacher education and is the seat of the Holmes Group, a consortium of nearly 100 research universities committed to improving their teacher-education programs.

Despite a series of budget cuts over the past decade that continue today, the college has recruited respected faculty members from around the country and built a reputation as one of the nation's best education schools.

The fourth-largest producer of teachers in the state, msu graduates 540 teacher candidates each year. The teacher-education department, with 60 full-time faculty members, is the largest enterprise in the college, which employs 160 faculty members. All of the faculty members appointed to the teacher-education department are involved in the preparation of undergraduates.

In addition to their more traditional roles in the college, some faculty members also work in the seven "professional-development schools'' that Michigan State operates with local school districts. In these schools, faculty members and their public-school colleagues conduct research, team-teach classes, devise ways of improving the school's curriculum and instruction, and work with M.S.U. students who are preparing to teach.

The ambitious plan of action here for the next few years includes not only overhauling the undergraduate teacher-preparation program, but also expanding the network of professional-development schools. The vehicle for this growth is the Michigan Partnership for New Education, directed by Ms. Lanier, which, with a planned budget of $48 million, is the largest public-private education partnership in the country.

At the same time, of course, faculty members must keep up with the demands of their own research projects.

"It's a huge agenda," says Gary Sykes, an assistant professor of educational administration. "It's very hard to know what's going on here. Everybody has a different sense of what's happening. There's a lot of uncertainty and anxiety" among professors.

Creation of Five-Year Program

One of the most fundamental changes being planned here is the elimination of the four-year teacher-preparation program and the creation of a five-year, integrated bachelor's- and master's-degree program for prospective teachers.

The university still must approve the creation of such a program. The college hopes that it will coincide with m.s.u.'s planned move from a quarter system to a semester system in the fall of 1992. Some faculty members here say the universitywide change to a semester system has slowed the college's progress in adopting a five-year teacher-education program--a centerpiece of the Holmes Group's recommendations.

Both of the planned changes mean that all of the college's courses must be redesigned.

Currently, there are five different programs for students who want to become teachers: a "standard" program, in which students take a traditional series of education courses and then spend a quarter student teaching, and four alternatives. Each of the alternatives is organized around a different theme or perspective on teaching; two are offered only for elementary-education majors, while the others are also offered to prospective secondary teachers.

Approximately half of the college's undergraduates are enrolled in the standard program, while the rest are spread among the "academic learning," "multiple perspectives," "heterogeneous classrooms," and "learning communities" programs.

In each alternative program, students move through their studies as a group and are taught by the same set of professors over the two years they spend in the college. They are also exposed to real classrooms immediately through a series of field exercises that continue over the course of the program and are designed to complement and expand on their academic work.

In contrast to the traditional program, explains Henrietta Barnes, chairman of the department of teacher education, the alternative programs explicitly "articulate between theory and practice."

Under the college's proposal for a five-year program, all students would study a common curriculum made up of elements of each of the four alternative programs. They would remain grouped in "cohorts" during their studies and would complete a student-teaching internship during the fifth year.

The goal of the longer program, Ms. Barnes says, is to give students more time to both understand their major subject areas and to work in schools.

The college also is recommending that teacher candidates have both a major and a minor in the academic subjects they plan to teach.

Knowledge of Subject Stressed

Knowing a subject in depth lies at the heart of Michigan State's philosophy of "teaching for understanding." Faculty members here believe that teachers must be absolutely secure in their knowledge of a subject if they are to be able to probe what students know and are learning about that subject. If they cannot do that, the college believes, then teachers cannot take full advantage of all the clues available to them in helping to shape students' understandings.

Two faculty members here, in particular, personify M.S.U.'s emphasis on this kind of teaching and are mentioned frequently as models of the kinds of teachers the college eventually hopes to produce: Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert. Both teach mathematics to elementary-school students, as well as prepare undergraduates to teach mathematics.

Ms. Lanier frequently uses a videotape of Ms. Lampert's elementary school to enlist the support of the state's business community in the Michigan Partnership for New Education.

A visit to Ms. Ball's 3rd-grade classroom at Spartan Elementary School immediately makes clear how different--and how difficult--this kind of teaching is.

Ms. Ball, who was an elementary-school teacher for 10 years before earning her doctorate and becoming an assistant professor at M.S.U., treats her students like young mathematicians as she leads them through the reasoning behind positive and negative numbers.

Each suggestion made by a student for solving a particular problem is treated as a valid theory and is fully explored. Ms. Ball makes no attempt to guide students away from potential "wrong answers," believing that students must learn to explore all avenues if they are to gain an understanding of what it means to reason mathematically.

She also refrains from using traditional teacher-talk, such as "good" and "that's right," on the theory that students should not be taught to find the right answer to a problem just to please their teacher.

At the same time she is conducting a lesson, two undergraduates enrolled in her mathematics methods course at M.S.U. are sitting in the back of the room interviewing two students to find out what they know about fractions. The students are asked to divide common objects like pizzas, cookies, and candy bars into various amounts to share with different numbers of children.

The undergraduates also are asked not to validate students' responses, and are encouraged, instead, to say things like "That's interesting," or "Does it make sense to you? Why?"

Later that afternoon, in Ms. Ball's mathematics methods class, the undergraduates separate into groups to discuss the results of their interviews. The teachers whose students were interviewed are also in class, listening to the discussion and offering insights into their students.

The undergraduates talk about how hard it was not to praise the children. They also mention that the exercise helped them appreciate the thinking processes that the students went through to solve the problems--even if some of their answers were wrong.

"We're finding out that there's more than one answer to a problem," says Michelle LeRoux, a senior majoring in elementary education, "and that's different."

'Engaging Intellectually'

Although M.S.U.'s teaching program is competitive--students must have at least a 3.0 grade-point average to be admitted--faculty members say that undergraduates are frequently made uncomfortable by the approach to teaching stressed at the college.

"I'd like them to engage intellectually with math," Ms. Ball says of her students, adding that, initially, though, "they were looking for teaching tricks."

Students tend to be scared of her class, she says, because many have not had much preparation in mathematics. But the hardest undergraduates to reach, she says, are the ones who think they are good at mathematics. Such students, she says, can be more unwilling to learn new approaches than students who are less certain of their own abilities.

As part of its agenda for change--also recommended in the Holmes Group's first report--professors in the college of education have been meeting with their colleagues throughout the university to engage them in discussions of how the entire academic program offered to prospective teachers can be strengthened.

David Cohen, a professor who is serving as interim dean of the college, says the quality of the talks has varied considerably.

"The work with arts and sciences has just begun, really," Mr. Cohen says. "Pedagogy is just not on the agenda in most departments--it's a bit like speaking Greek to these people."

As part of the research that went into recommending a five-year program, faculty members in the college of education spent last year meeting with colleagues throughout the university to determine what teachers intending to teach different subjects would need to know, Ms. Barnes says.

"I'm more encouraged than I thought I would be," she adds. "Change will come out of shared understandings and commitments."

Ms. Ball spent time talking to professors of mathematics and found them receptive to the education school's concerns.

"They see the problems with their majors," she says. "The prospects are promising, but there's a lot of work ahead."

Professional-Development Schools

The college's decision to make professional-development schools the centerpiece of its work in both research and teacher education has meant that the reward structure for faculty members has changed.

The majority of faculty members are encouraged to conduct clinical research and must also teach M.S.U. students and provide service to schools in order to be favorably evaluated.

When the first professional-development schools opened two years ago--some in schools in which M.S.U. had longstanding relationships--the college "had to spend a substantial amount of time so that provosts and others understood that there would be, in our view, a reduction in the quantity, but an increase in the quality," of research, Ms. Lanier says.

Even with that recognition, several faculty members say they are stretched thin trying to keep up with the varied demands on their time.

The schedule of Suzanne M. Wilson, an assistant professor here, provides a case in point. Ms. Wilson currently teaches a graduate-level course, instructs elementary students in a professional-development school in Lansing, and conducts research for three different research centers at M.S.U.

Only a handful of M.S.U. faculty members actually teach in professional-development schools, but many more are involved with various projects connected to them.

For Ms. Wilson, the decision to teach elementary school for the first time stemmed from her belief that people who teach aspiring elementary teachers "should have some sense about elementary practice."

She works with two veteran teachers who agreed to team teach a curriculum that integrates social studies, science, and language arts.

The unusual arrangement works, she says, because "I don't think we have any answers, so that makes it easy to sit down with these teachers and be confused and let them take the steps they want to take."

But the work has cut into the amount of time Ms. Wilson and her colleagues can devote to research.

"It's made everyone feel very vulnerable," she says, "because you don't get a lot produced when you're working in schools. Your moral responsibility is to help them understand."

Penelope Peterson, a tenured faculty member who directs the Center for the6Learning and Teaching of Elementary Subjects, part of the Institute for Research on Teaching here, worries that the level of activity may be difficult for faculty members to sustain.

Working in professional-development schools "takes a toll," she says.

"Many of us believe that thoughtful teaching takes time for planning and reflection," Ms. Peterson says. "That kind of in-depth focusing and time is the kind of thing I worry about we ourselves losing in this enterprise."

'A Broader Perspective'

The college of education, according to Mr. Sykes, is still figuring out how to integrate the professional-development schools into its programs. The involvement of faculty members in those settings is "more a matter of individual faculty members collaborating than of institutional arrangements," he says. "It's going to unfold over time."

At Holmes Middle School in Flint, for instance, teams of M.S.U. scholars and teachers are working to design new curriculum units. Some undergraduates also do their student teaching at the school, but their involvement with the programs being developed by the teams is somewhat limited.

The program at Holmes, which is now in its second year, has not matured enough to fully involve teacher candidates, faculty members say. But at times when they have tried to involve M.S.U. students in their projects, the teams have not always succeeded.

Sandra Wilcox, an assistant professor who is working at Holmes, says she tried last year to have undergraduates teach part of a curriculum unit on the multiplication of fractions. But the gaps in their own mathematics education made it difficult.

"We found every time in class they'd bump up against their own limitations," Ms. Wilcox says. "The kids would ask a question, and they'd answer incorrectly or not be able to answer."

In contrast, at Averill Elementary School in Lansing, M.S.U. students are an integral part of the school. Each of the 12 teachers is a mentor to a student in the "multiple perspectives" program, and some university courses are taught at the school. Bruce Rochowiak, the principal of Averill, says the school's long relationship with the university eased the transition to becoming a professional-development site two years ago.

Because M.S.U. students are at the school throughout an entire year, the principal notes, they are learning "a much broader perspective of teaching than just standing up in front of a group of kids." In turn, the teachers in the school audit the m.s.u. courses and freely question the practices that the students bring to their classes.

For instance, when some student teachers began using cooperative-learning techniques, Mr. Rochowiak says, "We almost had a confrontation.'' Teachers in the school did not believe the strategy was accomplishing very much and thought it took up too much time.

Through ironing out such controversies, the school has managed to forge a new identity as a professional-development school.

"The P.D.S. is not a project," Mr. Rochowiak says. "We're trying to create a whole new institution. I really struggled with this the first year, but I am so comfortable with it now."

For Cheryl Kelley, a fifth-year senior teaching 5th grade at Averill, the experience has shaped the way she thinks about herself as a professional.

"I think about going into a [traditional] school where teachers close their doors," Ms. Kelley says. "I'm going to feel very uncomfortable until I can break those bonds. I don't want to adjust to it, I want to bring change to that school."

Vol. 10, Issue 15, Pages 22-23

Published in Print: December 12, 1990, as M.S.U. Education School Is on a Mission: 'Teaching for Understanding'
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