21st Century Professional Education

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In 1985, Harvard University's medical school introduced a pilot curriculum called the New Pathway. Twenty-four students enrolled. In 1987, the university extended the program to the entire medical school. Over the past nine years, the Harvard medical school has completely restructured the way in which it prepares physicians for the future. Where the traditional medical student spends 90 percent of his or her time in large lectures and on rote memorization, working alone in a highly competitive environment and not having contact with patients until the third year of the program, New Pathway students are involved in a variety of active-learning formats, including small-group tutorials focused on problem-based learning. They spend a very small percentage of their time in lectures, study interdisciplinary core-curriculum blocks prepared and taught by teams of faculty members representing a range of specializations, and begin a precisely planned clinical experience their first week as medical students.

Harvard is not the only medical school to revise its program, though it may be the most well known. (The Public Broadcasting Service thought it was interesting enough to do a documentary series on the change as it occurred.) In 1990, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded 12 other medical schools $150,000 grants to restructure their medical education. Brown University's medical school was one recipient. In the spring of 1993, Brown published "An Educational Blueprint," which proposed a competency-based curriculum. The Brown program is called MD 2000. Like the Harvard program, MD 2000 is concerned with developing skills and values which will enable physicians to continue to learn over the course of their careers, and to be sensitive to their patients' concerns and the social contexts in which they provide services. An interesting component to the Brown program is the way in which it proposes to evaluate student learning. Instead of the commonly used short-answer tests or oral examinations to examine basic knowledge, medical students at Brown now have to demonstrate their competence through a series of tasks they have to perform for their mentors. When students know they will have to perform in their evaluation they concentrate on learning different things and they learn them in different ways.

Inspired by the reforms at Harvard, the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University has designed a new curriculum called Veterinary Education for the 21st Century. Veterinary students at Cornell, like medical students at Harvard, meet their prospective patients from the very first day. They, too, study in small tutorial groups and are presented with real cases to problem-solve together. Students learn to ask questions and seek information and resources to help answer them.

Other professional schools are also reviewing their programs in light of changes that are occurring in the environments in which their graduates will be working. A report on the nation's business schools in Business Week in the fall of 1992 described the extensive changes the best-rated business schools have undertaken. Many have introduced approaches to learning that encourage teamwork and leadership development--requirements in today's corporate settings. The Kellogg School at Northwestern University has its M.B.A. students live together in one building to encourage a group culture. At Duke University, new students go through a weeklong "integrative learning experience," which organizes them in small teams in the first day and then takes them off campus for an "outward bound" experience to build a team culture. Impressed with the medical model of internships and residencies, business schools increasingly are requiring apprenticeships and internships for their M.B.A. students. Teams of students are placed in corporate settings at the University of Michigan. The internship programs are carefully planned by academics and corporate executives working together. Just as the medical schools are concerned with their students' values and ethics, and their skills in understanding the social contexts of their work, and want their students to have sensitivity to patient concerns, so business schools have similar goals. Field experiences designed to develop self-awareness include mandatory diary keeping. Social awareness is fostered through such programs as required community service.

For their restructuring, business schools have turned to their students, alumni, corporate recruiters, and other business representatives for feedback on what they are doing and recommendations for what they should be doing. The participation of these groups was deep and broad, for example, at Columbia University's business school when it revised its entire curriculum.

In the fields of engineering and computer sciences, a similar process of examination, reflection, and restructuring is taking place. In a blueprint for the redesign of engineering education he laid out in 1992, Peter Denning, the associate dean of information and technology and engineering at George Mason University in Virginia, included many of the same elements stressed by other professions: active-learning approaches, assessment through exhibitions, teamwork fostered by integrative learning experiences, and students taking increasing responsibility for their own learning.

It is not surprising that these varied professional-education programs have so many similarities. For one thing, they share a basic motivation to prepare professionals who are well equipped to practice in a 21st-century world. Dissatisfaction on the part of students and clients of professional schools, changing practice in the field, and an exploding knowledge base characterize the professional fields described. Teamwork, active problem-solving, and the ability to continue to learn are all critical to professional practice. Each professional group must be sensitive to social contexts and changing organizational patterns. They are all preparing practitioners to function in a changing world.

But even more important, they are similar because to guide the changes they are making in their programs, they are all drawing from the same well of knowledge about teaching and learning. The same well of knowledge has been feeding education reform in elementary and secondary schools. (Kindergarten teachers can smugly claim they were at the well first).

Just what are medical educators and kindergarten teachers drawing on to guide reform in their classrooms? Cognitive science now offers insights into how people learn, and on various forms of intelligence and achievement. Research on children as natural learners (from Jean Piaget to Robert Sternberg) and on learning in natural and structured environments suggests that traditional school approaches depend upon a very narrow view of intellectual activity and therefore do not provide the range of opportunities that would maximize broad student success. For example, in nonschool settings, learning is often social and interactive. In traditional schools, however, whether preparing doctors or 6th graders, learning is structured to be individual. Similarly, traditional schools demand that learning be abstract; in contrast, most nonschool settings use tools as an important part of the learning process. Another stream of research describes the process by which knowledge is built. Scientists speak of elements of conflict, contradiction, and collaboration as processes out of which learners make meaning of their experience. The Harvard University researcher Eleanor Duckworth describes the learner's engagement with phenomena and the challenge to explain it as the essential tasks of learning. Academic problems with only one correct answer, all necessary information provided, and artificial in their context, do not offer the possibilities to develop the skills needed for real-life problem-solving. Real-life problems are not presented in discrete subject areas, one at a time, in a highly controlled environment.

The implications of this research can readily be seen in the attempts to restructure K-12 schools and the professional-education programs described. They devolve to a few simple but important characteristics:

1. Learning is often social and collaborative, therefore learners work in teams.

2. Learning involves active engagement with phenomena, therefore learners have ongoing clinical or field-based experiences and well-designed problem-based and case-method curricula.

3. The evidence of having learned is being able to use knowledge or explain a phenomenon, therefore assessment is through demonstration or exhibition.

4. Knowledge does not get used in discrete subject-area packages, therefore curricula should emphasize relationships among disciplines.

This is the way young children learn and the way kindergarten teachers have learned to teach. Professional schools are finally paying attention.

One would think that schools of education would be leading the charge for change in professional education. After all, education faculties know the lessons of cognitive research. More important, the schools they are preparing their students to work in are changing to accommodate these principles. Perhaps the strongest imperative for change in education schools there is, in fact, is this: Prospective teachers must have a unique learning encounter that mirrors the kind of learning they will support in their work with students; one which fundamentally challenges their earlier school experience. Only then will they be able to change their mindsets and beliefs about teaching and learning and schools, and be able to integrate changed expectations into their own practice and their own expectations for students.

One thing we know is that teachers tend to teach the way they have been taught. What stronger leverage for change could education schools have? If they could give prospective teachers the learning experience they want them to provide for their students, they could have a powerful impact on school reform. But this is not yet happening. True, there are a few education schools out there trying to restructure themselves. The Rockefeller Foundation has funded a group of five to form a coalition of sorts, acting as critical friends to each other in their efforts to redesign. Harriet Tyson, in Who Will Teach the Children?, has written about several schools around the country that have developed outstanding programs for preparing teachers to practice in the changing schools of tomorrow. But there is not a great movement yet.

What might it take to bring the same kinds of innovation to education schools as we are reading about at Harvard's medical school or Northwestern's business school?

Once resolved to create an education experience that will break the chain of teachers' expectations, there are some steps an education school might consider taking to move along that road.

  • First, the school has to form partnerships with practitioners and the policy community. Restructuring teacher education cannot be done in isolation. It needs to be a joint venture--not only in the planning, but also in the implementation. Broad and deep involvement of the education school's constituencies must be a hallmark of the change process. We see it in business-school reform and medical-school reform and engineering education. We need to see it in the redesign of schools of education. Don't form faculty committees that just talk to each other.
  • Second, the school must carefully scan the horizon of policy and practice to determine how the work of teaching is changing and what implications that has for preparing new practitioners. A review of education reform in the 1990's suggests a working environment and set of expectations for students and educators which are dramatically different from those which have existed up until now. Learning for understanding makes heavy demands on a teacher's content knowledge and pedagogical skills. New norms of collegiality and inquiry in schools require problem-solving skills, decisionmaking skills, and comfort with public practice not experienced before. Administrators, teachers, and counselors all need to be prepared to work together in these kinds of settings. The list goes on.

    The diversity of students, the problems they bring to school all argue for greater teamwork and collaboration. There are dramatic changes being called for in the schools and equally dramatic changes will have to take place in the preparation of educators to make these expectations real. Education-faculty members must ask themselves, and each other: Given the changes we identify, what do practitioners need to know, and what must they be able to do? What are the best ways for them to learn? What institutional arrangements and organizational changes are needed to provide the appropriate education?

  • Third, the education school must establish a set of principles for restructuring the professional preparation of educators. These principles should derive from the nature of school reform and what we know about how people learn.

    The principles might include the following:

    Strategies for learning in professional school should model desired practice; in other words, prospective teachers must learn the way their students should learn. This might include:

    1. Learning strategies consistent with the ways adults learn and which model teaching and learning in restructured schools. This means, for instance, problem-based learning using case methods, teamwork, experiential learning, and tutorials, combined with appropriate instructional technologies such as multimedia.

    2. An interdisciplinary core curriculum for all who work in schools. All education professionals need to share a common core of knowledge, and need to learn to work together. A common-curriculum block might focus on learning or on organizations.

    3. A research approach to instruction which emphasizes an inquiry orientation to teaching and documentation of student learning. This is a major departure from teaching as telling, which represents most of a student's experience in traditional schools.

    4. Portfolio development and assessment of experiential learning. This is an important way in which prospective teachers can learn to value nonschool learning experiences that are significant models for teaching and learning in restructured schools.

    Practitioners need to learn in context.

    This means intensive learning in clinical settings over a long period of time. The planning and preparation of clinical experiences needs to be done with school practitioners. Strategies for contextual learning should be developed.

    Appropriate assessment strategies should measure what practitioners know and are able to do. These should include assessment through performances or exhibitions and portfolios that are consistent with the standards being developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Interstate New Teachers Assessment and Support Consortium, or INTASC.

  • Fourth, the school must formulate a set of guiding questions that will serve as screens through which all decisions made about its program need to pass. These questions should be directly connected to the principles the school has established.

There are at least three additional considerations to be made as the school goes down this road. Those involved should:

  • Consider how technology can help achieve the school's goals. Some technologies are particularly appropriate for the development of certain skills associated with professional practice: reflection, problem-solving, and decisionmaking. For example, the combination of case methods with interactive multimedia technology is especially promising as it provides an opportunity for the learner to observe, analyze, diagnose, and make decisions about real teaching problems and have available extensive, multiple data bases as a resource.
  • Make preparations for assisting faculty members to develop new knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to carry out different roles and relationships with each other, with students, and with their colleagues in practice in elementary and secondary schools. The Harvard medical school, for example, has invested heavily in educators to help its faculty learn to team-teach, work with small tutorial groups, and make themselves available as resources to students in independent study.
  • Invest the time and resources necessary in developing new sites for professional education. The clinical-education component of a restructured education school is central. Close coordination between the campus-based program and the clinical site is essential. Practitioners need to be full partners in the education of new professionals. The structures to support this need to be built. Adequate funding for clinical programs is equally essential.

With so many good and relevant models of restructuring in professional education in other fields, why aren't we hearing more about major restructuring in schools of education? It probably has something to do with the economics of it. The first two tiers of business schools and medical schools compete for students in a national marketplace. These are the places we are reading about. They need to compete for the best students, so they try harder. But an important secondary effect is that they are models for other schools, leading the way in innovation and reform.

There are no equivalent tiers in teacher education. Preparing classroom teachers (and school administrators, too) is a local enterprise and not a competitive one. Perhaps that will change with INTASC standards for beginning teachers and advanced certification from the national board. Portable pensions for teachers would really change the marketplace. But without the market incentives, education schools can continue to do what they have always done.

For now, when my young friends who want to teach, after graduating from the nation's elite colleges and universities, ask me where is the best place to to for a master's degree in teacher education, I still have to reply, "Go to where you want to get a job after graduation." The pity, of course, is that in not making the much-needed reforms, education schools make it harder for the nation's schools to change. Let's laud the leaders and hear more about those who are trying. For now, their only reward is that they are doing the right thing.

Vol. 14, Issue 19, Pages 33, 36

Published in Print: February 1, 1995, as 21st Century Professional Education
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