The title of this week’s blog comes from a sentiment I’ve used multiple times over the past week, though in this case I am referring to how we often approach teacher training/preparation.
At this point, my thoughts are somewhat rambling, and I fully admit I’ve been guilty of many of the practices I’m calling out in this blog. That said, we have a lot of work to do if we are going to get the training of teachers right.
Back in February, I attended the Deans for Impact Building Blocks Workshop with a team from our USF Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program (UTRPP). You can read more about the Building Blocks on the link I’ve provided, but in short, Deans for Impact identified Modeling, Practice, Feedback, and Alignment as the four Building Blocks discussed at the workshop. The experience gave us time as a team to discuss where our program is in offering these four building blocks to our pre-service teachers. We chose to focus our next steps on Alignment, since being aligned with our school partners is the first step in ensuring our pre-service teachers have opportunities for the other three building blocks based on a shared vision. It takes a village, and that village is as much the university as it is the schools and school districts with whom we partner.
What the program also did was make me think more about the theory to practice divide that is so often an argument against teacher preparation programs. I am a firm believer that our students need to understand the ‘why‘ behind the practices we are teaching them. However, this is not the same thing as needing to develop a philosophy of education, particularly when they are often not exposed to competing theories. It is incredibly difficult to articulate your philosophy of education before you’ve had ample opportunity to practice teaching from multiple perspectives. Just ask any academic how challenging it can be to identify the theoretical framework from which they approach their latest research project…
This of course leads me to think about the way we arrange coursework, and what we expect of pre-service teachers in terms of scope and sequence. As course lead for our reading classes, I have attempted to focus on the ways in which children develop as readers and match appropriate teaching strategies to that development. Without ample time to test these approaches in the field, however, the chasm between theory and practice grows wider. We make a lot of concessions in our curriculum based on the fact many pre-service teachers spend only one day in the field during the semesters they take the reading courses. For those in UTRPP, they spend considerably more time in the field, but due to our issues of alignment, they don’t often see in practice the approaches to teaching reading that we are teaching (this, by no means, is meant to place blame on either party. It is, however, a call for conversations relating to alignment). This makes practice of those approaches difficult. It also highlights the need for modelling by course instructors and opportunities for pre-service teachers to rehearse their teaching practices with a knowledgeable other (McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanaugh, 2013; Vygotsky, 1978).
This makes me think about the book Practice Makes Practice, and how important it is for us to offer quality opportunities for pre-service teachers to practice what they are taught. It isn’t enough for them to try out a new approach. They must do so multiple times, receive feedback from a knowledgeable other, and refine their practice. Otherwise, they are practicing only for the sake of practice. Graham Nuthall argued that our current approach to supervision only perpetuates this idea of practice making practice, rather than practice leading to quality teaching. When you consider the amount of money teacher preparation programs put into traditional supervision, taking a closer look at the purpose and role of supervision is essential to our future.
And that leads me to planning, and what we expect of our most novice educators in terms of planning for lessons. At the university, we often ask them to plan lessons from scratch. I think we do this because we often disagree with the scripted approaches to teaching sometimes observed in schools. However, we do no-one any favours when we take this approach. Novice teachers need access to high-quality resources in order to revise effective lessons for their context. Asking them to plan from scratch is not only a waste of their time, but it is also likely to lead to less impactful teaching (because novices don’t yet have the professional knowledge to sequence lessons based on learners and standards).
High-quality resources are much, much different from scripted curricula. If you know me, you know I will never support the use of scripted curricula because context matters too much. That said, teachers scripting their own lessons in order to think through next steps and possible misconceptions is a better use of novice time (and I’d argue most teachers’ time) than planning lessons from scratch.
Along those lines, teacher educators quite often infuse their courses with their own research projects. I’ve certainly done this in the past. But, what I now realise is that we often do this without considering the pre-service teachers’ readiness and development. To be clear, I want teachers to be thinking deeply about critical and digital literacies, for example. I think they must first have deep and facile knowledge of how children learn to read and the teaching practices that match children’s development. Thus, it may not be in the best interest of either novice teachers or children to overlay these ideas in teacher preparation. (Which is why CPD and advanced degrees are so important to the teaching profession, though that’s a blog for another day.)
Speaking of research, I question the heavy focus on inquiry in teacher preparation programs. Having returned to the classroom this term, I recognise the challenges involved in studying your own teaching practices. And I have both considerable knowledge of teaching and learning and experience with varied research methodologies. What, exactly, are we asking novice teachers to study? Why not have them study the practices of expert teachers and learn ways to notice and name the approaches those teachers take in ensuring every child receives a quality education? At what point are we addressing the misconceptions pre-service teachers build when studying their own practice, given that the practice has the flaws noted above? This is not to say I don’t value teacher inquiry broadly. However, I think we would be better served using the time spent on inquiry with novices focused on expert teaching and providing them opportunities to engage in high-quality teaching practices.
I recognise this post might feel controversial to some of my teacher education colleagues. I am okay with that so long as we begin having conversations around these topics and start questioning whether the pedagogies we employ are best suited for our most novice educators.
McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., & Kavanaugh, S. S. (2013). Core practices and pedagogies of teacher education: A call for a common language and collective activity. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 378-386.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.