Friday, April 04, 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.


irasocol said...

I could respond to many things here and agree with many, but I think the problem is that we do indeed "teach people how to teach." That is, we "teach people how to teach" in the same way missionaries are created - and for the same reason. We teach people to go out into the world and convert the people they meet into people "just like us." So I will respectfully suggest that I hold the opposite opinion regarding your paragraph in which you state, "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."

I think what we do an extremely poor job of is letting pre-service teachers discover that they are not "missionaries" out to fix children, but that they should be "guides in the woods" helping students get from where they are to where they need to go and want to go.

Of course the problem is systemic - no system appears more resistant to change than education. College students sit in classrooms as they always have, following non-individualized syllabi as they always have, learning industrial teaching methods as they always have. Then they go out and have that "opportunity to teach" in buildings that do everything as they always have - stamping on student after student, assuming that each is simply raw material which can have 'value-added' as long as enough pressure is applied.

And almost nowhere along the way do we really get them to question - what white northern European Protestant - modernist view of the world creates this system and gains from it? Why do we keep enabling a system so destructive to so many children?

Radishes said...

I appreciate this conversation and the comments of narrator. However, I find that the question posed, while critical, lacks a concerns with more practical measures of reform.

I think that pedagogy and the university system in general needs drastic reforms. I was sorry to find that this blog seems to have become a little less radical than it once was.

State universities are, like politicians, are by and large beholden to their corporate 'partners,' not the public. Students are the product, a commodity auctioned off to corporate bidders at more or less fair market value.

The higher-ups in the university bureaucracies have a vested interest in maintaining this system of corporate and military partnerships, and churning out the dependable products on which this system ultimately relies.

I think students and professors alike have to unite to challenge the university administration, and resist the 'constellations of power' that exist within their own institutions.

My intuition is that there are some very shady, back-room politics, and underhanded deals going on in the smoke filled rooms backwards university administrations. I'm speaking as a student however, and much of this may be more transparent than I realize.

We should remember that universities are a public asset that are going to be continually overrun by private interests, 'corporate partnerships,' and increasing militarism.

Dr. Waltz said...

Barbara's comments on "shaping an environment" shift the question in ways I think are significant. Teaching becomes an activity of the environment and all that informs it, which is saying something more complex, more accurate, more nested and less person-centered than "Can we teach..."

I would go further to frame the question in terms of learning. Can future teachers learn to teach? This is important because it calls upon what someone can realize or gain or grow-into that makes a difference in the kind of educator they become.

Currently I am wading through a stack of Capstone reflection papers that ask the students to look back upon their undergraduate experience and comment on the significant moments. The majority sidestep course content and focus on the time in the public school classrooms engaged in service learning. The papers often express realizations students have come to about cultural identity, learning differences, and the tensions between effective pedagogy and institutional constraints. These realizations DO change how the student see themselves, pupils, school communities and the profession. Further, the college classroom,content, assignment, discussions, service learning requirements, etc. DID play a role in fostering these realizations.

The troublesome part is not the effect, but the causal relationship. It is the question that Skinner asks: What contingencies are the contingencies that made the difference? For any individual these vary both in type and degree. And even then, there are further complication of turning the descriptive into the prescriptive. For any group, e.g., teachers across the state, the same set of variables are amplified.

So what's to do? Well, we know a number of things that make a difference:
1. Rich, interpersonal relationships. Vague as something like Noddings sense of "care" is, it has lead the Gates' to channel a fair bit of money in the direction of Small Schools. I would suggest that teacher education is no different.
2. Local effort. Teaching spanish-speaking Kinders in California is different from teaching Hmong adults in Wisconsin, but preparation for each will be more successful the more attention is paid to the significant contingencies. (BTW, I think that also speaks to the school reform, Casey)
3. Troubling circumstances. Michel Serres uses the metaphor of the left-hander learning to write right-handed. Learning comes with having to grapple with the new, the difficult, the frightening.

(I am sure there are other not coming to mind on a sunny Friday afternoon.)

Honestly, I am not sure what I am doing in the classroom, but I try to pay attention when students convey realizations and growth. And I continue to read the literature for a more pubic expression of the same. In doing this, I continue to have my own realizations about "shaping the environment" in ways that I suspect will "teach someone to teach."

irasocol said...

Reading Dr. waltz's comments with interest, and wondering, do his about-to-be teachers come to understand their power relationships with their students? Do they move away from the idea of a career as "helper," "educator," "savior." I'm not simply trying to channel Popkewitz here, but the critical thing I do not see students gaining in their four or five year journey through teacher preparation is an understanding of their role in the governing of society.

But if others are seeing something different, I'd love to know what pedagogies are guiding pre-service teachers to think outside of that all-encompassing box.

Aaron Schutz said...

My first thought about this comment is to observe that schools of education are almost never attached today to "laboratory" schools. If we really cared about teaching practice, you would think that we would have contexts where students could see the "best" practice, especially with students of color or impoverished students. But we don't. For a whole range of reasons.

Instead students intern with teachers with a range of skills and perspectives. I don't teach pre-service teachers much. But when I have, I have not infrequently had them tell me about how their cooperating teacher informed them that low student achievement was "all the parents' fault" and that "parents don't care."

I wonder if this is a somewhat unique problem. Is it easier to find business or engineering or public policy internships where the practice looks more like the kind of practice we would like to see?

Our failure to actually run our own schools where students can see success in a reliable ways indicates real problems with the incentives that drive schools of education.

teacherken said...

Let me come at this from the perspective of a classroom teacher in a professional development school (for the Univ of Maryland College Park) who has mentored a number of student teachers, and who throughout his now 13-year career as a public school teacher has also served as an informal mentor for a number of other teachers.

The answer is yes and no. First, there has to be some basic aptitude with which to work, and that is something that might not be measurable by tests or grades. Second, there has to be some ability to connect with the age group one is teaching. Particularly with secondary students, they have very effective BS detectors and tend not to cotton to those who are not being genuine with them. And I am not sure you can teach empathy per se, although one can work with a student teacher or prospective teacher on ths kill set that can allow for empathy to be more effective.

That said, one can clearly work on pedagogical skills - of organization, of not having blind spots in the classroom, on effective methods of classroom management beyond merely raising one's voice, of more structured planning, on reflecting on one's teaching practice, of learning how to observe oneself . . . all of these are thing that can be taught.

But unless there is first some basic aptitude, and some empathy with the students whom one is teaching, it is not clear that one will be able to help someone become more than a minimally competent teacher - although we could probably do with some more of those.

Of course, one can always teach the content, effective ways of presenting the content, and all of that. But these - while necessary - are insufficient for truly effective teaching.

I tend to agree with Parker Palmer that effective teaching involves a series of overlapping relationships, and that all of the relationships must be respected if one is to be an effective teacher.

But then, maybe that is just me?


Sherman Dorn said...

I'm going to reverse Ken's perspective and see where that leads us: I suspect it's easier to teach and assess content knowledge than it is to teach and assess pedagogy, because we have all grown up seeing the content as teachable--i.e., part of the formal curriculum. But lots of pedagogical skills fall in what Phillip Jackson called the hidden curriculum, so those of us in the U.S. generally are not socialized into thinking of teaching skills as content of what itself could be taught.

Undergraduates who want to be teachers and come into my class fall along a broad spectrum of skills in teaching. Some of them clearly have a great set of skills, from organization to passion to the ability to work with and inspire students. Most of them have an interesting mix of strengths and weaknesses. And some of them are facing an uphill battle, and for these students that struggle is both in pedagogy and in academics.

Maybe we need something akin to a resilience model to discuss teaching and teaching skills: while some clearly have a great package, others are not going to be as resilient in different environments.

Sherman Dorn said...


I'm a little confused: you say you're disappointed by a practical discussion here, because you'd rather see rippingly radical discussions. While some of us on the blog have jobs outside colleges of education, many of us work inside colleges of education. Does that automatically make us sell-outs? If so, what accounts for ... say, David Labaree's criticism of ed schools' relationship with professional development schools, when he was at Michigan State?

James Horn said...

The question of whether or not one can teach someone to be a teacher is an odd one for teachers of teachers to be asking, it seems to me. If we cannot, then what is that we are doing for those huge salaries that are paid to us teachers of the professing variety?

Yes, I know that part of the argument goes back to the nature-nurture vault of golden oldie ideas, and there are those either-or-ists who remain committed to keeping the quite dead argument on life support. Most of us, however, have come around to the notion, as Ken alludes to, that all acorns share the same phylogenesis, so that one must have an acorn and not peach pit to get started in making an oak tree. This is to say nothing about the inherent (or potential) value of being a peach pit, just as it says nothing about which acorns will become great oaks or which teacher candidates will become great teachers.

It is all in the growing, it seems to me, and that is where teacher educators come in. Just as we cannot get our acorns to the seedling stage by talking to them, even though talking seems to have some minimal benefit, we cannot get them sprouted and leafy, either, by treating our acorns like mushroom spores--if you know what I mean.

Good light, fresh air, proper nourishment, regular watering, protection from large animals, lawn mowers, and buzz saws, and, yes, a kind word—and maybe even a little music.

irasocol said...

Jim Horn's comment strikes me as representing the essence of the problem that I am presenting - which will be ignored because, obviously, it is too big to tackle.

Horn makes the allusion oh so pleasant by moving from industrial to agrarian metaphor, "one must have an acorn and not peach pit to get started in making an oak tree," but this remains an underlying assumption based firmly in Calvinist theory, in modernist belief, in scientism. So we will raise a crop of modernist farmers turning out the very best crops... trying to hybridize out diversity and weeding the fields of those nascent peach tree saplings.

And yes, as I have said above, we certainly can teach that. we can teach those skills quite well. I see new teachers everywhere working on fertilizing, cross-pollinating, weeding, and spraying for pests. I see very few though who can look at the field and wonder if there is a better way to find what we need in nature.

Corey Bunje Bower said...


Before becoming a teacher I would have seen more merit to the arguments presented and implied by Andy Rooney -- that all that matters is knowing your stuff and having the right personality. And then I discovered that teaching is much harder than it looks -- and much more complicated. The Rooney view is disproved by the number of well-intentioned faculty with deep knowledge who walk into the classroom each day and bore a group of college students. Anybody who attended college knows that being knowledgeable doesn't make a professor a great teacher, so I don't know why we continue to assume that it will make K-12 teachers great.

mindelei said...

I have to agree with corey bunje bower about the fact that a knowledgeable individual does not also make a great teacher. It is apparent. We have all been in a classroom where the professor is brilliant, yet is also extremely boring.

Personally, I do believe that - like acting or singing - there is a certain amount of innate ability to teaching. However, we all know that with the right instruction anyone can learn to sing or act. In that same sense, if we are willing to provide pre-service teachers with the necessary pedagogical knowledge and give them the opportunities to become a part of an environment which scaffolds that knowledge with the appropriate experiences, then they will be successful. However, I think that we must take a moment to reflect upon the current strategies we are using to teach future teachers. In my mind we need to spend more time creating master teachers and less time creating content experts.

Anonymous said...

On Mindelei's note I would like to continue that teaching, like acting, singing, or playing an instrument is an art. There are naturals and savants, but even a natural must practice to their ability. I agree with her statement about creating master teachers instead of content experts. Learning the content is not the most important goal; learning the skills needed for understanding and future learning is.

On a separate issue on the post, quality educators, I like what Finland has going. It seems that our culture wants more and more out of its teachers, but continues to give them less and less. Are we all insane for choosing this profession? Someday we might all realize that we are intelligent people who could be compensated and appreciated more for doing a lot less work.

Aaron Schutz said...

Another issue that surrounds questions about whether we can teach teachers to teach, concerns the environment they teach in. There is a lot of evidence that teachers trained in a constructivist approach, whatever that might mean in specific, can give it up pretty quickly in schools where this isn't supported. It may be that training administrators is as important if not more important for effective teacher education. And my sense is that we don't usually do a good job of training administrators for schools in low-income urban areas.

Being a principal is a tough job, and it may be that many of the people who want the job as it is currently configured aren't the people we actually want. This may intensify the training problem.

I have a doctoral student who is trying to teach police recruits to think differently about inner-city neighborhoods and their jobs there. I constantly remind him that the key influence won't be his teaching but the system that these police are inserted into. It's easier to see, I think, with police, but just as important for teachers.

What we do in ed schools may be less important than some of us think or would like.

irasocol said...


Interesting comparisons. Having been trained in both kinds of schools, I'll say that my police training was far better at this than any education training I've ever had - but that might be because it was "the best" police training institution (the pre-Giuliani New York City Police Academy).

The question, I don't think is constructivist or not, or about principals though. I think it is about ways of seeing. Education is seen by its practitioners as either a colonial endeavor or a bit of religious missionary work. We pretend to be constructivists so we can make the argument that we're not into "industrial education" - ok, maybe we don't think we should be stamping out products, maybe we're just converting souls so we create "good citizens" and "good students" in our own image, or we're about teaching these "primitives" to be "good European-types."

When police act that way, of course it is highly visible. Years ago I wrote a piece in the New York Times re: Rodney King - we do indeed want our police to be an occupying colonial army in the inner city, we just don't want to hear about it. In schools it is just a bit different. We want the teachers to convert these poor children. We want them to make them "good." We just don't want to hear about the way the kids are brutalized by the conversion process.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what narrator says:

"I think what we do an extremely poor job of is letting pre-service teachers discover that they are not "missionaries" out to fix children, but that they should be "guides in the woods" helping students get from where they are to where they need to go and want to go."

When we talk about pedagogies like Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Pedagogy of Freedom, I often hear education students say, well, I can't integrate this into my classroom.

There is often a disconnect to the ways we wish we could teach and the ways we think that we can. One problem is that we do send education students into schools where they are forced to adapt to the status quo, rather than challenge it.

The risk is that we do not fully allow our students to reach their ability as educators who will engage in reflective praxis and attempt to question a system that is in much need of questioning.

Much of teacher education today focuses on fitting into a dominant system rather than questioning it. As an education student I was given a set of standards to reference in my lesson plans, rather than first being asked to look at the standards and whether I agree with them.

I think the problem today is that we do think we can teach people to teach. We can't teach people to teach, but we can encouarge them to pose problems, interrogate, and reflect on their experiences teaching.