Fellow Teacher-Educators: Question Everything

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He did not teach me the power of an answer—he taught me the power of a question. His name escapes me now, 10 years after I entered my teacher-preparation program. But I am indebted to this man, one of my more memorable teacher-educators, for the care he took in teaching his students that if the answer to a question can be found in A, B, C, or D, there are probably better questions to ask. Ten years later, this lesson about the utility of questions has stuck with me.

In fact, every semester, I administer to my class of future educators the same "test" that this professor administered to me and my peers. During this mock exam, my students have one task to complete: Provide answers for numbers 1 through 10, by choosing A, B, C, or D.

As the teacher—you know, one of those gatekeepers of all that is right and wrong in the realm of institutionally sanctioned knowledge—I, of course, hold the answer key. And every semester, I create a new key. And every semester, like clockwork, I have a handful of students who score above average. Out of 10 items on the test, a handful of students answer at least seven correctly.

—Bob Dahm for Education Week

The kicker? I do not provide the test questions or the "answers" to these supposed questions. My students' only task is to number their sheets of loose-leaf paper from 1 to 10, and randomly choose A, B, C, or D—over and over again, until they have done so 10 times. A, B, C, or D.

According to the infinite wisdom about teaching and learning espoused today, the students who manage to get seven or more answers "correct" on this "test"—that is, those whose choices match the letters I have randomly selected—would likely be considered "knowledgeable" about their content area. The students who score lower would likely be considered basic and, in some cases, below basic. Failures. Ill-equipped to teach content on their own, as they "obviously" had not done the "learning."

I administer this meaningless exam for a reason. It often spurs insightful discussion about what we, as educators and aspiring educators, can possibly grasp about our students' learning from rote, multiple-choice tests. Some of my students smile knowingly; others consider more deeply the ways in which this brief activity can promote, for them, a new perspective on teaching and learning.

Ten years ago, my professor taught me not only to think about questions, but also to question. And with his lessons in mind, I am compelled to ask—in the context of ubiquitous criticism of the field and accusations of failure and mediocrity—if we are truly considering the broad world of people and forces that contribute to "teacher preparation." It is a world that exists inside of, and yet far beyond, the teacher education classroom.

Some might have us believe that teacher-educators are one thing and one thing only: people like me, with a degree, who participate in that "dumb teacher-training" we keep hearing about.

Teacher-educators, however, are not just those in teacher education classrooms. They are also, perhaps, those who work for test-development companies—the people who develop lengthy, expensive (as though the steeper the price, the more useful the product), high-stakes exams that ask prospective educators to regurgitate forgettable facts disguised as "content knowledge." In this case, skill-and-drill, as a "necessary" component of what it means to teach and learn, prevails. And, yet, it is a philosophy in constant conflict with those who believe in the importance of pedagogical-content knowledge—the idea that good teaching also embodies the talent and wisdom necessary to teach the content while instilling the understanding of it.

"Teacher education ... is a woeful enterprise today, beaten up and kicked about needlessly."

Pedagogical-content knowledge involves the ability to understand and recognize the aspects of teaching that are not going right. Pedagogical-content knowledge entails, also, the ability to recognize the rich resources that each and every student—without exception—brings to the classroom. Should someone find a way to reliably capture and quantify such intricate and important teacher qualities on a high-stakes, content-centric exam, I am all ears.

And perhaps most formidably, our loudest, most powerful teacher-educators are often not those whom you would find teaching. In fact, these particular teacher-educators do not always have the relevant degrees, or the knowledge, that might qualify them to shape the profession in positive and useful ways. Many of them may not even have seen the inside of a classroom since they were students. No, unfortunately, the most vocal, most influential individuals in the profession are often those who, removed from actual teaching, run "objective" statistics for a living, collecting data and making pronouncements. These researchers and statisticians translate their quantitative findings into arguments, that eventually create policies, which, as the powerhouse educator Lisa Delpit argued some time ago, would have the public believe that what matters in education can be reduced to a number.

Beyond those in the grip of this obsession with quantification, though, is yet another group of unwitting influencers—the armchair critics who believe that increased teacher quality rests in imitating, at the most superficial of levels, what goes on in other, presumably higher-performing countries. The Finnish educator and policy adviser Pasi Sahlberg, writing earlier this year in The Guardian, sheds light on the misconception of this particular group: "A good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers."

We can also wonder about the extent to which corporate interests and politicians place education, and the funding it requires, on the chopping block in order to advance their own agendas, engage in personal vendettas, and make larger points about ... who knows what anymore? It is as if rejecting and dismantling education, and thus rejecting the humanity and diminishing the spirits of the students and teachers who occupy the nation's classrooms, is some sort of triumph to behold—an impressive résumé item of sorts: "Just look at what I accomplished!"

More Opinion

For this latter reason alone, I, too, believe that teacher education, in the way I describe it here, is a woeful enterprise today, beaten up and kicked about needlessly.

To be clear, though, I do not believe that good teacher education is above critique. The difference is that a good teaching practice and the successful teachers who engage in it invite purposeful change. Effective teachers are open to thoughtful revisions to programs, changes that are motivated by the right forces and for the right reasons.

As a teacher-educator, I understand that knowledge and change are important, and that teacher-educators, as well as the teachers in our children's classrooms, should not get by with little understanding of what they're teaching. Such an interpretation would be reductive and add nothing to this important discussion. Instead, the purpose of my commentary is to ask whether the problem rests with conventional teacher education. Or might the problem rest in our national obsession with measurement and the continued devolution of our collective definition of teaching, learning, and the quality of both?

Perhaps the "data" do show that teachers, as a group, don't know enough content. But the data also show that Americans have quite the history of pummeling their schools, their teachers, and their programs of teacher education; it is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. Perhaps, in the end, this is where change needs to begin.

Vol. 35, Issue 09, Pages 21, 24

Published in Print: October 21, 2015, as A Message to Teacher-Educators, From One of Their Own
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