Teaching Profession Opinion

Ed Schools Are the Key to Reform

By Frank B. Murray — March 05, 1997 10 min read
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There is a popular view that the nation’s need for teachers can be met with well-meaning liberal arts graduates who are willing to work in the schools. Higher education, after all, finds its teachers among those who were trained only to research their subjects, and look how well that has worked out. This argument against education schools and professional teaching relies on the fact that teaching is a natural act, part of the ancient repertoire of human behaviors, vastly older than formal schooling and formal teacher education. The question is whether university-based teacher education offers anything that can take anyone much beyond the natural teaching skills everyone has. And, even if ed schools could, can the nation’s needs still be met, less expensively and adequately, by the people who majored in what they plan to teach and have the natural teaching techniques and styles we all have in varying degrees?

The view that “natural teaching” is enough for today’s challenges is wrong. Natural teaching leads to serious pedagogical mistakes that harm both weak and superior students. When the teacher and the pupil have dissimilar backgrounds, increasingly the case in the modern school, we can expect that the natural teaching skills that support familial instruction will not operate to the benefit of all the school’s students.

Well-meaning and well-read persons with good college grades make certain pedagogical mistakes with their pupils for whom they have low expectations. They treat these pupils not as individuals but as a group, seat them further away and outside the classroom zone of frequent teacher-pupil interaction, look at them less, ask them low-level questions, call on them less often, give them less time to respond, give them fewer hints when they are called upon, and give them less praise and more blame than other pupils. And they do all this out of a mistaken sense of kindness that is seemingly oblivious to the pedagogical harm their undisciplined actions have caused their pupils.

This untrained and kind person, believing the pupil does not know very much, does not want to embarrass the pupil by calling on the pupil often, asks appropriately easy questions when the pupil is called upon, gives fewer hints and less time when the pupil fails to respond, as it would be unkind to prolong the pupil’s embarrassment, and so on. The professional teacher, like all professionals, and in stark contrast with the natural teacher, must discipline many of his or her kinder instincts and implement an equitable and disciplined professional approach to bring about high levels of achievement from those pupils for whom the teacher would otherwise have low expectations. These professional actions are frequently counterintuitive and as a result require prolonged study and practice.

A further limitation of the natural teaching regime, apart from the harm caused to weaker pupils, is that it doesn’t take the superior pupil much beyond the kind of information that can be told and demonstrated. While this kind of information is important and relatively easy to teach and test, the forms of knowledge that are constructed by the pupil, not merely transmitted to the pupil, are the keys to advanced levels of academic performance.

A pupil can be told and shown, for example, that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but the knowledge that it must be a straight line, and not some other kind of line, cannot be simply given to the pupil. Our idea of necessity has its origins elsewhere; showing and telling have not been found, except in very unusual circumstances, to be effective means of “teaching” it. It is one thing to know that a statement is true, but quite another to know that it must be true. The pupil’s grasp of truly important ideas stems from a less direct and more subtle form of instruction than that supported by the direct “show and tell” natural teaching style.

Along with the natural teaching techniques comes a naive theory of the human mind. The pupil’s achievement in the naive or common-sense view is tied to only four commonplace factors--ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. With these four factors, the natural teacher believes the pupil’s success or failure can be completely explained. The problem with this view, apart from its circularity, is that we know that ability, to take only one example, is not fixed or stable and that it varies from moment to moment interactively with many other mental factors, not just the few in the naive theory. The naive view of forgetting, equally problematic, is that it is the inevitable decay of stored information, while the educated professional sees it as a consequence of an active thinking process.

A pupil’s reasoning may look illogical to a natural teacher.

These naive views of how the mind works, coupled with equally naive views about the nature of subject matters as received and objective truth, further limit the benefits that can be expected from nonprofessional teaching. A pupil’s reasoning may look illogical to a natural teacher, while the educated teacher will see that the pupil’s reasoning is intact, but has operated on different premises from those of the set problem. The naive teacher will be distressed when a pupil who had pluralized “mouse” correctly suddenly pluralizes it as “mouses,” while the professional teacher will see the new plural not as an unfortunate regression, but as a positive sign of cognitive advancement in which the pupil is exhibiting a newly developed appreciation of a linguistic rule that is merely overgeneralized in this instance.

Naturally, it is very difficult for the natural teacher to accept any error as a marker of progress, and yet the failure to see some errors as markers of progress is another serious pedagogical mistake that stems from a nonprofessional view of teaching and learning.

The fact that many liberal arts graduates have succeeded in meeting the expectations of the faculty in their fields of study should also not be taken as evidence that they are ready to take up work as teachers, because many of these graduates, despite their high grades, have not mastered many of the fundamental ideas of their disciplines. Most, for example, cannot think of a real-world example of the division of one fraction by another (for example, 1-3/4 divided by 1/2).

While mistakes in the subject matter are a problem under any view of teacher employment, some people hold the belief that, while some professional knowledge should be acquired, a sufficient level can be reached easily and in a short period. Such a view, although it is a small advance in professional education for teachers, has its own problems. For example, on a simple reading of educational psychology, prospective teachers may believe that positive reinforcement (or reward) is an effective and preferred way to increase desirable pupil behavior. Without an awareness of the important exceptions and qualifications in which rewards actually weaken a response, teachers will make mistakes by implementing procedures that run counter to their intentions.

Upon a quick reading, the naive teacher could get the idea that student grades should follow a bell curve or that 3rd graders who read at the 6th grade level can read 6th grade books. Errors of judgment multiply when events in the classroom are not routine and when past practice is an insufficient guide. How does the natural teacher decide whether to adopt “ITA” (the initial teaching alphabet), which regularizes spelling by having 44 letters, one for each of the sounds of English?

Today’s professional teacher, unlike the thousands of teachers in the United States and Britain who adopted ITA in the 1970s or in the 1860s (when the innovation was called “phonotaby”), could predict the likely benefits to reading and harm to spelling from the innovation.

Similarly, how does the natural teacher evaluate the competing claims about whether failing pupils should repeat a grade or be socially promoted to the next grade, or whether a gifted pupil should skip a grade, enter school early, be grouped separately from less gifted pupils? How should the untrained teacher, for example, decide whether or not pupils should use calculators in their arithmetic lessons and homework or be taught first in their first language, and so forth? How can the naive teacher avoid making mistakes in answering these questions unless he or she studies the relevant research and scholarly literature in the ed school? Professional lessons like these cannot be easily abridged or rushed because many educational innovations are counterintuitive and subtly tied to hidden factors.

Despite the many weaknesses in the natural and naive approach to teaching, a strong case for professional education is still difficult to make, owing to the failure of educational scholarship to coalesce around any powerful and generative theory of schooling and teaching. Although it is unfortunately a negative example, one test of the tentative and embryonic nature of much educational scholarship is that there is still no consensus among educational scholars and practitioners about what would constitute educational malpractice.

Without a clear sense of what constitutes educational malpractice, teaching lags behind other professions.

Apart from acts which are expressly illegal, there is regrettably no accepted view, except in a few extreme instances (like no longer forcing left-handers to switch hands to write), about what educational practices should never be employed in classrooms. Even antithetical practices, like “whole word” and “phonic” reading methods, have reasonable levels of scholarly support and adherents. Without a sure sense of what constitutes educational malpractice, teaching and teacher education are behind some of the other professions that have fairly well-articulated codes of good practice, which define malpractice as the failure to follow good practice.

Teacher education is probably not warranted at the university level, however, if the teacher is held only to the standard of presenting material truthfully and clearly, to giving students an opportunity to practice, and to testing the student’s grasp of the material. The modern teacher’s obligation is at a much higher level. It is not enough that students simply learn the material. They must understand it.

Ironically, the teaching profession is held back by the very fact that it has all the attributes of the other professions--accreditation, professional associations, standardized tests, licenses and credentials, advanced degrees, and so forth. Teachers, since the end of World War II, have been required to have college degrees (in some cases, graduate degrees), pass standardized examinations, meet state licensing standards, fulfill the district’s requirements for tenure, complete annual update courses, and show other evidence of professional growth. The irony is that none of these requirements, all demanding in their appearance, has credibility within or outside the profession, as each is routinely waived when there are shortages of otherwise qualified persons for the public schools. In the case of the private schools, the states typically set and require no standards at all, a practice that only reinforces the lack of standing the current standards have.

None of these standards, collectively or separately, apparently provides the public any assurance that the teacher is competent. Few feel the nation is at risk over these lax professional standards because, sadly, the naive view of schooling is held by large numbers of policymakers and the public. Yet, many feel the nation is still at risk, and it is largely over the fact that today’s graduates do not seem to understand very much of what they have learned.

The remedy, however, is not to abandon the education school, the hallmark of any genuine profession of teaching, but to strengthen these schools along the lines advocated by an array of reform groups, nearly all of them led by the schools of education themselves. These reforms all reduce to a demand for a much higher standard for teachers’ work--namely, having all their students understand the curriculum and requiring a teacher education program that can deliver that outcome for all teachers.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1997 edition of Education Week


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