Almost two decades ago, while serving as the chair of a search committee for a new dean in a school of education, I was taken aback by the visions for the future, capacious if not detailed, offered by the aspiring candidates. These deans-to-be announced that they would take the school of education in a more practical direction, offering courses that prepared teachers for “the real world.” Professors would work more closely with failing urban schools seeking to “change their culture.” At the same time, they would go on publishing thoughtful articles and books about the schools. I found these candidates vague and utopian, better at offering pleasing slogans than at careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of teacher education faculty members.
Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric coming from schools of education today continues on this grandiose trajectory. Trying to do it all, they fail to define what they might do best, and usurp tasks for which others are better suited, at the same time depressing the quality of work they once performed well. Meanwhile, over the last decade, large school districts, regional service agencies, and for-profit educational entities have developed non-university-based alternative routes to teaching, and schools of education find themselves on the defensive. But rather than defining what they might do best and working diligently at it, the leaders of these education schools, in an odd mix of anxiety and arrogance, announce their omniscience and chase after several goals at once.
Since individual teacher-educators often are the expression of the institution where they work and study, let’s explore the education school dilemma by considering the case of poor “Professor Smith.” Her dean recently enlisted her in a partnership project with a local middle school. At a meeting with the school, the talk was of curriculum change, teacher development focused on state standards, classroom management, and changing the school culture. Professor Smith wants to be involved in the schools, but is not clear about what role she can play. Her department chair, a moment ago, reminded her that her publication record is thin and hoped she would have two more articles published soon in peer-reviewed journals. She enjoys research and writing when she can find time for it.
Recently, a teacher in her graduate class asked, archly, how long it had been since she taught in an elementary school. The remark troubled her because, years back, she did teach 4th grade and tries today to draw on that experience in making her courses more practical. When she taught 4th grade, she was fascinated with the kinds of thinking errors her students made, their manner of synthesizing reading material, the differences in their modes of argument, and the ways they solved math problems. An older colleague suggested she might find work in cognitive studies at a doctoral level satisfying, and she did.
In her studies, she was captivated by the various ways in which thinkers inquired into and developed theories about the learning behaviors she had observed in her students.
But Professor Smith wants to teach practical courses. She wants to prepare her students to teach to a set of common standards. She wants to help change the culture of the schools. She wants to continue her inquiries into the way students learn and to publish her findings, interpretations, and conclusions in a journal respected in her field. She hopes also that classroom teachers will find her writing helpful. Like the education school of which she is a part, she means well, but fails both to identify what she can do best and to recognize her limitations.
A few years ago, in the report “Educating School Teachers,” Arthur Levine cited the voice of a teacher complaining that in his university-based program he had learned to talk about scaffolding, cooperative learning, and the advantages of constructivism, but had no idea what to do “when Johnny goes nuts in the back of the class, or when Lisa comes in abused, or when Sue hasn’t eaten in three days.”
In response to such complaints, university-based educators anxiously try to make their courses more practical. But I would advise another route, a wiser one, I think. I would say first that matters like those voiced by the teacher, and many others, would be better addressed in schools by practicing teachers serving as mentors in a lengthy teacher-apprentice program.
She and her colleagues should do what college professors do best: teach courses reflecting the spirit of the liberal arts and sciences; that spirit points to the manner in which a subject is approached."
It is common knowledge that graduates of university-based teacher education programs find their student-teaching experiences more valuable than their other coursework. It is also common knowledge that many teachers find their first five years of teaching “challenging,” so much so that half of them leave the profession. During the student-teaching period, the students are mentored and supported extensively by at least one cooperating teacher and helped to a lesser extent by a college supervisor. But during the first five years of a teacher’s work life, strong mentoring is rarely provided.
The usually structured and guided experience of student-teaching turns out to be educative and is perceived as more worthwhile than reading and lectures; the unstructured, often chaotic early years of teaching turn out, often and predictably, to be overwhelming and hence mis-educative. For this reason, the universities should welcome schools, districts, regional groups, and other players to take primary responsibility for an extended experiential portion of a teacher’s education.
Of course, many aspiring teachers prefer their well-structured student-teaching experiences to the more “theoretical” parts of their programs, and feel that their readings and class discussions have not adequately prepared them for teaching. Learning to teach has these similarities with learning to ride a bicycle: No amount of lecturing, discussion, or reading will adequately prepare anyone for either task. Both bicyclists and teachers are likely to champion the cause of practice over theory in their learning, and to do so with some degree of disdain or even resentment toward those who have made generalizations apart from lived experience.
But that disdain and resentment should not be the whole story of the tension between theory and practice. Professor Smith and her colleagues still have an important and clearly defined role to play. If, after our bicyclist/teacher has begun traveling about by herself and has engaged with a richly textured experience containing surprises that defy the wisest of generalizations pronounced beforehand, someone were to speak with her of the value of certain destinations, of the challenges of different terrains, of the intricacies of mapping trips, and of the joys to be encountered in one’s travels, that sort of enriching talk might find someone willing to join the conversation.
Recall Professor Smith’s dual enthusiasms: As an elementary school teacher, she was fascinated by the ways in which her students thought about problems. As a graduate student, she was intrigued by the variety of learning theories which intersected with precisely the behaviors she had observed in her elementary school classroom. She is then nicely positioned to lead a class of experienced teachers in an inquiry into the thinking and learning processes of their students, and into an assessment of the worth of a variety of theories, policies, and practices which grew out of efforts to understand how students learn. Professor Smith and her colleagues need to give up their anxious efforts to become, in a badly oversimplified formulation to which nearly everyone subscribes, “less theoretical and more practical.” She and her colleagues should do what college professors do best: teach courses reflecting the spirit of the liberal arts and sciences; that spirit points to the manner in which a subject is approached.
We should help our students to assess the variety of theories, policies, and practices within which they operate. We should adopt comparative and historical approaches that treat these policies and practices as contingent possibilities emerging within particular contexts. We should not take the present language of educational discourse with its litany of national competitiveness, preparation for the 21st-century workplace, high expectations, and individual accountability for granted but, rather, transform it into a subject of inquiry. We should not induct students into a set of policies and practices; we should, instead, help them assess critically the assumptions and efficacy of those policies and practices.
University-based faculty members would offer courses addressing issues of educational purpose, modes of inquiry, changing conceptions of subject matter, connections between schooling and social and economic structures, and other matters which map out the larger context within which teaching practice occurs. Let us cease trying to do things which it turns out, by and large, we do not do very well, and turn to the educational task which brought us to the university in the first place.
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week