Teacher Preparation Opinion

Riding the Reform Rapids

By Marianne B. Cinaglia — August 08, 2001 8 min read
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Between theory and practice runs a treacherous river of custom.

The slow, inexorable course of reforming the schools can bear a surprising resemblance to a more exhilarating pursuit: rafting down the Yellowstone River. How stimulating it is, as a tourist on the river, to view centuries of geological evolution, to feel the sheer power of water rushing down a steep gradient and swirling in deep eddies around underwater rocks. The unremitting power of this mass of flowing water corresponds, in a way, to the force and relentlessness with which large organizations such as our education system move along: How futile are the efforts of a small boatload of tourists on the Yellowstone to do anything but take a semi-controlled ride down the river. And how unavailing are small and partial reform efforts set on redirecting the course of students through the steep gradient of the K-12 education system.

The goal of our present school reform is to educate productive citizens for the 21st-century economy. This will require teachers capable of implementing state and national standards. But while legislation has been written to address student testing and teacher responsibility, few strategically planned programs are in place to guarantee that classrooms will function any differently in 10 years than they do now.

Few strategically planned programs are in place to guarantee that classrooms will function any differently in 10 years than they do now.

One of the reasons for the slow progress of writing and implementing effective standards is the ubiquitous culture of schools and teaching. As an illustration of its longevity, I offer the following anecdote. While I was participating in a professional-development activity recently, a 30-year teacher, jovial and articulate, shared with me the origin of his classroom methods. “I have modeled myself after one of my favorite teachers,” he said. “I present material, evaluate students, and manage my classroom just about the way he did.”

Is it surprising, then, that while calls for reform are the main staple of educational journals and conferences, so little evidence of change can be detected in classroom practice? Teachers may agree that a teaching strategy seen at an in-service presentation has merit, but they do not come away with the skills for implementing it into classroom routine.

The disjunction between professional knowledge and classroom practice needs to be studied carefully, because all of the various players in our education system believe they are promoting reform. Legislators mandate continuing professional development. Colleges offer courses that stress recently developed knowledge, inquiry, and student-centered classroom practice. Those who accredit teacher education programs require that certified institutions offer courses in research-based classroom organization and the use of current technology. School districts seek professional-development opportunities for their employees. Teachers enroll in these activities.

Is there an approach that the university sector, in conjunction with local schools, could use to more effectively promote change? I believe there is.

Put simply, we should use the educational theory we preach. Teacher education programs try to provide professional-development courses and teach educational theory in pedagogy classes. But a gap remains between what we preach to teachers and how we devise courses to help them internalize the changes that today’s standards require. For example, the domains of learning (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) are concepts included in methods courses. Their use enables teachers to plan a sequence of learning activities that guides the progress of students from the lower thinking skills of knowledge and application, to the higher skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

A gap remains between what we preach to teachers and how we devise courses to help them internalize the changes that today’s standards require.

We expect preprofessional teachers to use these domain levels when they prepare lessons.

Practicing teachers should be viewed essentially as students in the school reform endeavor. In this light, the process of moving practice toward inquiry-based, student-centered instruction may be slow because we haven’t applied to that task the very frameworks we stress. Thoughtful professional- development providers must include the affective and cognitive domain levels in the construction of prerequisite attitudes, values, knowledge content, and skills necessary to reformulate teaching strategies. Because teaching is a career that involves hopes and dreams as well as facts and procedures, the mix of affective and cognitive domain levels required for transforming classroom practice makes the change process intricate and complicated.

Students’ existing knowledge bases and beliefs are the foundation on which new knowledge is built. We teach that it is necessary to confront present beliefs before moving on to unfamiliar concepts. Yet how effectively have we factored in time to do this same groundwork with practicing-teacher belief systems? Research indicates that many students incorporate conceptual changes long enough to pass tests, but revert to former beliefs at the end of a course. This is exactly how many teachers seem to be reacting to information gathered at conferences and short courses—"interesting, but ...”

Teachers must have time both to confront present attitudes about instructional methods and to progress up the affective scale, from the receiving level (the simple consideration of a new concept while participating in professional-development activities) to the internalizing level (the level at which new methods are actually used as daily practice).

Because most teachers believe they are performing satisfactorily, considering the milieu in which their particular schools function, the chances for change are minimal unless attitudes about what is important shift. Many dedicated instructors, for example, feel that teaching involves bathing students in the security of “knowing,” of “comprehending,” and of “applying” present knowledge. This will give high school students the solid basis on which to begin a college experience, and colleges will finish the job. At the university level, students will use the ability to apply knowledge to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize or extend the knowledge into new frontiers. Present standards change the scope of the gamethe underlying tenets of the educational communitywithout the acceptance of staffs at either the K-12 or college level.

Change takes time. New skills must be understood, developed, and then incorporated into the daily routines of teachers. Strategies for addressing change must include consideration of all these factors.

What we need is a plan that incorporates professional development for practicing teachers, the commitment of school administrators, cooperation between K-12 schools and colleges and universities offering certification programs, and a system of promoting cooperation and reflection among practicing teachers. A model could be implemented at the point where there is existing contact between universities and schools. It would involve restructuring the student-teacher program.

Some practicing teachers already take advantage of having student-teachers to try new or special projects. This kind of activity could be built upon. Since many practicing teachers as well as student-teachers are new to incorporating student-centered learning and inquiry experiences into the normal routine, a type of student-teaching that assisted both parties’ practice could be designed. The model would move from one that gives student-teachers the opportunity to test subject-matter and classroom-management skills to one that establishes a partnership between student-teacher and cooperating teacher. The two would be able to communicate with other practicing teacher/student-teacher pairs in the same school building. A college supervisor and a committed school administrator would complete the team.

Teachers then would not be alone as they made the transition from one kind of practice to another. An intense methods workshop would begin the transition and build a community of involved practicing teachers. Then, practicing and preprofessional teachers would work as a team to reformulate lessons, classroom-management systems, and student assessments. The college supervisor and other teams would act as resources. At the end of the semester, classroom teachers would have a cache of materials and a half-year’s experience to build on, and both they and the student-teachers they worked with would receive appropriate college-level credits. States would fund such a graduate-level enterprise.

Effective organizational and systems change takes time, money, and the commitment to analyze and work with complex relationships, attitudes, and value systems.

Effective organizational and systems change takes time, money, and the commitment to analyze and work with complex relationships, attitudes, and value systems. Identifying the strengths of the present system and then moving that system toward a metamorphosis should be part of any organized attempt to change the way classrooms operate. A blend of theory (Bloom’s taxonomy and constructivism), the student-teaching experience, and professional development is worth considering.

Other approaches could be used to structure our path from present to future practice, but all are long, intricate, and costly. Unless the policy world accepts the price of a paradigm change, the river of prevailing educational culture will flow on. Pockets of schools and teachers using today’s reforms will be like the eddies around underwater rocks, affecting the course of a few but losing impact over time, as their efforts are diluted and the “true believers” leave the profession.

Marianne B. Cinaglia, an assistant professor of education at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., has more than 20 years of high school teaching experience.

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Riding the Reform Rapids


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