Monday, April 21, 2008

Monthly Forum: What should teachers know and be able to do?

She had imagined that she knew the material on Thoreau and Emerson almost by heart, that preparations for these first lectures would be easy, but she soon discovered that knowing something and teaching it are as different as dreaming and waking.
May Sarton
The Small Room

This is the second in my April series of musings about teacher education. Thanks to all who commented after the first post about whether one can be taught to teach well. Today's question: what must teachers know and be able to do?

This is the usual way of phrasing the curriculum question. The usual answer to the knowledge part of the question is some listing that includes subject matter content, teaching methods, knowledge about students (their development, motivations/interests and cultural backgrounds, and understanding of the contexts of teaching. The usual answer to the skills part of the question might list planning instructional units and lessons, managing classrooms, connecting with kids, differentiating instruction for students with special needs, selecting/creating instructional materials, etc. NCATE has added "dispositions" – the tendency to act in ways that might be characterized as professional -- to the mix.

Let's think for a minute about the epistemic assumptions that underlay this answer. How do we have to imagine knowledge for this answer to make sense?

The simple response is that knowledge comes in the form of items that can be stored and listed in columns. Planning for teaching involves choosing one from Column A (some piece of content), one from Column B (a "method"), and one (or more) from Column C (representing student profiles), and one from Column D (based on the resources of my location). The act of instruction requires that I paste this all together and make sense of it, somehow both managing students and motivating them to want to learn while being sure to meet the needs of each and every individual.

This may be the way that beginning teachers – whose knowledge is often "thin" -- operate but it clearly is not the way that experts proceed. As I suggested before, expert teachers engage in an ongoing cycle of interpretation and response, trying to make sense out of the experience of students in light of the goals (academic standards) society sets out for them. Think with me about a concrete example.

It is the second week in September and I plan to mark "Constitution Day" with my seventh grade social studies students next week. I don't know them well yet but I know a little something about them. I know, for example that seventh graders are no longer the youngest students in my middle school and will test me more that six graders would. I'm not confident that they "get" our classroom routines yet. I know that each of my four classes has a particular character, one chattier than another, one more willing to engage with ideas than the others. I know that Constitution Day can be a "snooze" But that my students have a fierce sense of what is fair and not fair. I know that fewer than half of them have any real sense of what the Constitution is but that most of them read well. I know that I know and care the most about the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. I remember watching the HBO special "John Adams," admiring Charles Willson Peale's portrait of George Washington, reading The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, and loving the thoughtfulness of The Federalist Papers. Would those sources help me? Our social studies text is a World Cultures book that barely makes it to the Renaissance. Given what I know, what shall I do?

Before imagining the process of answering this question, ponder for a minute how we might categorize the "knowledge" above. Which column and box does each bit occupy? Is it easily categorizable? I would argue no. Most of teachers' viable knowledge emerges in lived experience, in what we later label the "intersections" of categories content and method or child and curriculum. In other words, knowledge arises and is warranted as a function of action and only later is classified in a way that wrenches it away from the terms of experience that give it meaning. It is the categories of knowledge that are the later reconstructions; the act of knowing is primary.

If this is accurate, how can we ask and answer the epistemic questions related to teaching?

I really loved the John Adams special and would like to use it somehow. I love the series' focus on the culture of the time and the fact that gender perspectives are spotlighted. But wait, these kids aren't there; it would take me too long to get them into Adams. And anyway, the Constitution isn't the focus of that series. What do I really want them to get out of this? Is there any way I can tie it into what I'm really supposed to be teaching? I know! I'll compile the "constitutions" of several ancient cultures – perhaps the Code of Hammurabi and the Hebrew Covenant along with a "fragmentary" version of the US Constitution, give them to the students without identifying them, and ask them to red them and figure out the differences in the cultures that ordained them – and which culture they would want to live in. We'll see how many of them figure out that one of the documents is their own Constitution. That should open up some discussion about why the Constitution we have is the one we want.

Oh, I can't forget to find a state standard I can cite in my lesson plan … .

Knowledge is a mode of participation, valuable in the degree in which it is effective.
John Dewey

What kind of education would enable a teacher to do the sort of thinking described above? The answer is not a simple function of coverage and courses. Rather, it's a complex constellation of encounters with texts and ideas and students over time. Those encounters involve ways of knowing, of wrestling with text and ideas and students (well, not literally wrestling ☺), that have different purposes. And if we can articulate those purposes, we may generate a conceptual apparatus constructing a teacher education – not teacher training – curriculum.

Teachers make claims on developed bodies of knowledge for logical, pedagogical, cultural, and professional purposes. They make logical claims on their academic disciplines, i.e. they must know the basic outlines of the discipline – its facts and its forms of inquiry -- as an expert; this logical understanding provides credibility within the field though only slight pedagogical power in that students are generally not prepared to "hear" the logically-formulated claims of any discipline. For purposes of teaching real students who don't yet "get" the field, teachers make pedagogical claims on the body of knowledge that they are responsible to teach; i.e. teachers know their subject matter in terms that students can grasp and manipulate. This is what John Dewey called "the pedagogical formulation of subject matter" and what we are now calling "subject matter knowledge for teaching" or "pedagogical content knowledge."

It is often overlooked that teachers have to know more than a single discipline in order to teach that field of study to students; they must know quite a lot about many different domains of formal study and popular culture in order to construct the metaphors and similes (the "It's like … 's) that are the stock-in-trade of good teachers. Thus teachers lay cultural claims to what we call in universities "general education" as well as the everyday education limited only by the constraints of our concept of communication and community.

Finally, teachers make professional claims on the theoretical bodies of knowledge that inform their pedagogical interactions with other persons and with public demands within an educational intention. These include what we call psychology -- especially educational psychology, the social sciences – as formulated among educators as the social foundations of education, curriculum theory, and, recently, assessment theory.

[Caveat: When I use the locution "bodies of knowledge," I mean discourses formed and framed in human interaction; I do not understand bodies of knowledge as sets of true facts that match the world and somehow pre-exist the actual lives of real persons.]

The point of talking about a person's claims on "bodies of knowledge" that are the discursive residue of past personal experience is to keep the focus on action, to understand knowledge-in-use (ideas/skills embedded in action) as the premier focus in framing teacher education.

If we think about teacher knowledge in this way, how might it reshape our attempts to educate teachers?

First, I think it explains why an academic major does matter but is not enough to ground effective teaching. I need to "know my stuff" if my students (and their parents) are to take me seriously, but knowing my stuff in a way that impresses and knowing my stuff in a way that connects unknowing others to that stuff are not the same claim. We need to find ways for future teachers to think through what they know with both logical and pedagogical intentions in mind.

Second, it explains why general education – not just the kind that universities provide but also the kind that media and culture and human interaction provide -- is not a luxury but an integral piece in the puzzle of teacher education. This may also explain why older persons often seem better prepared for teaching. They simply have greater experience to which they can lay cultural claim as an entrĂ©e to stimulating students' motivation.

Third, it makes clear that the theoretical studies that are often part of certification requirements are not included for theoretical purposes. They are included for professional purposes. Whatever experiences are made available and/or required, those experiences must include grist for the mill of professional reflection on practice.

Fourth, note that these claims sidestep what is normally considered an integral part of learning to teach: methods courses. Teaching is, as Alan Tom and others have argued, a craft, one that incorporates intelligence and habit. Teaching methods are habitual ways of responding, grown from what Dewey calls "the method of intelligence." The schema for understanding teacher knowledge I outline above calls into question the centrality of methods courses as they currently exist.

A teacher's claims (logical, pedagogical, cultural and professional) on bodies of knowledge aren't purely instrumental. They are constrained by one's way of being a teacher and one's way of being in the world. Both ways of being are moral stances and it is here that the moral shapes the educational intention, shapes the academic. Every teacher, whether he or she knows it or not, lives a way of being – partly chosen, partly socialized – as teacher, as human. The claim he or she brings to various knowledges are a function of how the role of teacher is understood relative to the student and social educational imperatives. This is what people often refer to as a teacher's "philosophy of education" but it involves far more than a statement of belief. It involves one's self. Attention to this is a critical facet of "what teachers know and can do."

There is nothing in what I outline here that requires that teacher education continue in its present guise, set in the university with P-12 push-in (what we call field experience.) I raise this question in this way to leave open the possibility that the university is the wrong, or partly inadequate, setting for teacher education – while leaving open the value of a college education generally for those who would be teachers. The question of who should do teacher education and how is the topic of my next installment.

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