Teacher Preparation Opinion

Is Teacher Education Too Theoretical?

By Dave Powell — April 07, 2016 5 min read
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My friend Jake Knaus, who teaches up in Minnesota and is a policy fellow with a group called MinnCAN, wrote an interesting blog post last week with a simple premise that most teachers would probably agree with. Here, let me let him tell you about it:

Departments of Education [in colleges and universities] tend to be filled with professors who are years, sometimes decades, removed from actual classrooms in real K-12 schools. Most college faculty do make substantial efforts to be present in schools, especially if they have students who are doing teaching practica or student teaching. They are, however, almost exclusively engaged in supervisory or evaluative tasks, and almost never in the actual work of teaching of K-12 students, like planning curriculum and actually teaching lessons.

The result, he says, is “that future teachers are trained by professors who are experts in education but are no longer technically practitioners,” which can lead to “teacher training that is overly theoretical and light on the practical concerns and the day-to-day realities of classroom teaching.”

It’s hard to argue with that—but let me try. Before I do, let me say this: Teacher educators should be good teachers. They should have sophisticated ways of explaining to new teachers how complex teaching is and how hard it will be to do it well. They should be able to draw on deep reservoirs of knowledge from their own practice when they teach aspiring teachers how to teach, and preparation for teaching should most definitely be rooted in the practical challenges aspiring teachers are likely to face. That much should be given.

It’s also true, as Jake points out, that the further some teacher educators get from K-12 classrooms, the more out of touch they become with the worlds that exist there. It’s important for teacher educators to know what’s going on in schools, and it makes sense for them to keep those connections alive. We wouldn’t want doctors being trained by people who never practiced medicine, would we? And we also wouldn’t want a doctor who was trained decades ago but then left the practice of medicine to be responsible for preparing the next generation of doctors.

On the other hand, I struggle to understand what people mean when they say teacher education is “too theoretical.” I know everything I do is really real; I’m not trying to foist crazy theories about what I think will work in schools on my unsuspecting teacher candidates. What I think teachers mean when they say teacher education is too theoretical is this: your ideas sound nice, but they’ll never work in schools. As a teacher (educator), I believe all kids are capable of learning in school. I believe kids are capable of doing more than many teachers think they can. I believe that if kids are being disruptive, sometimes it’s them—but sometimes the teacher has something to do with it too. These are all “theories,” I guess, inasmuch as I’m sharing ideas about teaching that hasn’t happened yet with people who haven’t yet done it either. I’m not describing things that have happened, but things that I think may happen. I can understand why an insecure and inexperienced teacher might respond by saying “I can’t do that” or “I can’t think that way.” But that doesn’t make the basis of my work theoretical any more than planning what to wear tomorrow on the basis of the weather forecast is.

There may be other ways that “theory” creeps into teacher education—for example, teacher educators have been known to explore ideas about different “pedagogies” and have constructed theories about how and why education policy choices are made, theories that are theories in much the same way that the theory of gravity is a theory—but, for the most part, the weakness I see in teacher education programs is that there isn’t enough of this going on. That’s right, I said it: it’s good for teacher education to be “theoretical,” especially if this is how we’re defining it.

I say this because there’s a tension at the heart of the teacher preparation process that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. It’s the tension between the schools we want and the schools we have. Should teacher education programs prepare new teachers for schools as they are now or schools as we would like them to be? Surely we need to keep these things in balance—preparing teachers exclusively for schools we wish existed does nothing to help them survive in the schools we have—but part of the purpose of education, no matter what its intended object might be, is to expand minds and enlighten students and encourage them to think differently about the world we live in. That has to be true for teachers, I think, since schools necessarily reflect society and society is always changing.

I like the idea of teacher educators being a little theoretical, challenging the way future teachers see themselves and the work they plan to do. As we all know, future teachers complete long “apprenticeships of observation” before they become teachers, soaking up every aspect of the school experience as it happens to them. Shaking them out of the complacency of thinking that everyone else experiences school the same way they do is one of the central challenges of teacher education. It’s one that “practical” programs only focused on delivering pedagogical techniques based on principles of behaviorism in five week training sessions to help applicants teach like champions don’t seem well positioned to address.

If making teacher education more practical means focusing on prescriptive techniques or doing things the way everyone in the local school building already does them, then I can’t say I’m on board. The first thing I tell every aspiring teacher I work with is: find a way to be yourself. You can learn a lot about teaching from other people but in the end you have to be who you are. That’s my theory of the case, anyway. And I still believe that there’s nothing as practical as good theory. The guy who supposedly said that, Kurt Lewin, also said if you want to truly understand something, try to change it. I agree with that too.

The truth is that teacher educators are teachers too, and the central acts of teaching—being well organized, preparing assiduously, making genuine efforts to know and connect with your students, just to name a few—are the same in colleges and universities as they are in K-12 schools. Good ones have plenty of practical knowledge to share with their students. Bad ones aren’t going to get much out of going back to school anyway.

So I say: if we’re sending teacher educators back to school, sign me up. If I taught high school students again now I think I’d be ten times better at it every day than I ever was on my best day before. I think being steeped in all this theory has done me some good. Jake’s right that we should send more teacher educators back into the classroom—let’s just not lose sight of the important role teacher educators, theories and all, play in preparing new generations of teachers.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.