Friday, April 4, 2008

I hope to generate some conversation about teacher education and development this month. So I'll post a "provocation" once a week and welcome comments from member bloggers and guests about this issue of particular interest to me. Right now, I imagine asking the following questions:

1) Can we teach someone to teach?
2) What must teachers know and be able to do?
3) Are the people currently responsible for teacher education doing the job well?
4) In what kinds of schools can talented, well-educated teachers be most successful?

So here goes: Can we teach someone to teach?

I've spent three decades trying to do it, so I guess my answer is yes. But I don't ever want to stop asking the question.

A decade ago at the May commencement in the normal school turned state university at which I educate future teachers and instructional leaders, commentator Andy Rooney was the featured speaker. Partway through a typical Rooney speech, he noted that some 40% of the graduates were receiving education degrees and wondered aloud whether it was possible to teach somebody to teach. He allowed that teaching was both difficult and important. He suggested that "really knowing the subject matter" was the key, but that teaching well was something one came to on one's own with the help of a solid disciplinary education.

Rooney's question is, it seems to me, an important question to answer if the enterprise of teacher education is to flourish – and I'm delighted that Rooney raised it in so blunt and public a way. At the same time, I am well aware that lots of folks aren't too sure that the answer is "yes." Most people would agree with Rooney, I suspect. As long as a teacher "knows his/her stuff" and has the right personality, that teacher will be fine – or so the taken-for-granted wisdom goes. Educating a teacher is a matter of insuring extensive study in an academic discipline and then throwing the candidates into a classroom (we call that student teaching) to see if they can "handle the kids." The NCLB requirements for "highly qualified teachers" seem to want to tilt in this direction.

Teacher educators tend to swing the pendulum in the other direction. They specify a long list of courses (courses that justify their own existence, of course) that a teacher must have taken in order to be a good teacher. That list of courses translates into the "requirements for teacher certification," and includes things like reading in the content area, multicultural education, and methods of teaching some subject matter. When the teacher educators let go, the state regulators step in. In Pennsylvania (my base of operations), we are implementing regulations for 12 new credit hours of study in special education and ESL. With undergraduate prospects for liberal arts education already being squeezed out by professional mandates, prospects for developing teachers who are broadly educated may be diminishing. I'll talk more about what kind of education might push in the direction of teaching that is both effective and inspiring in my next post.

For now, let me say this. I can teach someone to become an excellent teacher if "teaching" implies inspiring, provoking, prompting and coaching. I can shape environments (within college classrooms – liberal arts and professional education, and by placing students in novel school and community setting) so that candidates will inevitably learn to navigate the compelling (and sometimes competing) calls of official curriculum, disciplinary inquiry, time-tested habits of mind, prior knowledge and experience of specific students, the specific data of students' learning, developmental crises and possibilities, cultural and institutional contexts of schools, pedagogical strategies and tactics – all the while making use of what John Dewey refers to as "the method of intelligence." What I can't do is tell them what to do. So if teaching is telling, then the answer is no. We can't tell someone how to teach. But we can give them opportunities to teach, invite them to reflect on what they intended to do and what they did do and what actually happened in the light of accepted theory, time-honored practice, and richly conceptualized research, and we can coach them through this process. In this way, they can be led (in another Dewey locution) "in the direction of what the expert already knows."

Please note that there is nothing in this view that suggests that "anything goes" or that "everyone has their own teaching style" or that the quality of my teaching is independent of what my students learn. Implicit in the process I recommend above, there is a faith that this kind of thoroughgoing inquiry will result in teachers who reconstruct the knowledge of those who have gone before. They reconstruct both in the sense that they come to know – and in the sense that they bring new value, new understanding to what has passed for pedagogical wisdom previously.

Note too that there is no "allergy to prescription," as Michigan Dean Deborah Ball would characterize it, in my formulation of how future teachers learn their craft. There are what Lee Shulman might call "signature pedagogies" for various fields of study. There are "best practices." There are specific pedagogical interventions that have a proven track record. These must be taken seriously, taken on and tested anew in instructional practice. But I can't just tell students to do this or that and expect their actions to translate into rich growth on the part of their students.

Finally, note that our present system of educating teachers – lots of undergraduate teacher education courses sprinkled with early field experiences and capped off with student teaching – doesn't obviously fit the demands of the answer I articulate here. But that will be the topic for another post.

One other provocation for now: Recent studies show that Finland (always at the head of list of countries where schools succeed) recruit only highly talented persons into the teaching profession and then compensate them well. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation seems to be taking that seriously. They recently announced the lucrative Leonore Annenberg Teaching Fellowship Program for "the best and the brightest" who choose to pursue teaching credentials in math and science at the graduate level at four "leading teacher education programs" (Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, and University of Washington). They also announced a similar program involving four institutions in the state of Indiana. The recipients of the tuition plus $30,000 stipends for the one year certification programs must commit to teaching in disadvantaged high schools for three years. The Foundation has lofty goals:
1) Transform teacher education—not just for Fellows but for the universities that prepare them, other teacher candidates in the same programs, and the high-need schools where they are placed as teachers;

2) Get strong teachers into high-need schools. Indiana has chosen to focus on attracting math and science teachers, though other states may choose different subject areas;

3) Attract the very best candidates to teaching through a fellowship with a well-known name and high visibility, similar to a National Merit Scholarship; and

4) Cut teacher attrition and retain top teachers through intensive clinical preparation and ongoing in-school mentoring, provided by veteran teachers and supported by able principals.

It will be interesting to see what happens with respect to the first and last of these goals. The middle two goals suggest that the best way to get good teachers is to recruit more talented candidates. But talk of "transforming teacher education" and "intensive clinical preparation" have some congruence with the answer I offered above. Of course, one-year graduate level, clinical-intensive programs are not new. I helped design and now teach in a very successful program. The difference is that our students are offered no tuition and stipends of $3000 per semester. Money does make a difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment