While it’s generally not my area of research, I’ve started to pay more attention to current debates about teacher quality and training that one inevitably encounters when in the education field. Even outside of taking any policy or curriculum courses, Learning Sciences students and professors at my University teach courses, mostly educational psychology, to undergraduate pre-service teachers and so invariably have to grapple with the questions about what it means to prepare those students well for their roles in the classroom. And so this article in the New York Times about teacher education programs caught my eye.
The article reports, mostly positively, on a new movement in teacher education that’s focused almost exclusively on in-field placements and instructional practice and technique. The movement builds off of, in my opinion, valid critiques of traditional teacher education programs in which students mostly spend their time in courses, with some field placements that are often largely observational. I know of at least one undergraduate teacher education program where the students don’t actually get into any sort of direct instructional role until their third semester spent in the field. That there are enormous retention problems for teachers in their first three years in the classroom is no surprise – they’ve been ill-prepared by a broken teacher education system.
Both personally and as student of learning, I’m not a huge fan of the model of education we find in higher education courses (with some recent exceptions). The best learning experiences I’ve had were after I left college and were a result of diving deeply into real problems, grappling with solutions, and watching others. The best learning theory agrees with my experiences here too. And yet I’m deeply disturbed by this new, entirely practice oriented teacher education movement’s apparent disregard for theory. Take a look at this quote from the article:
“I can study Vygotsky later,” said Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade teacher at Empower Charter School in Crown Heights. She was referring to another education school staple — Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet theorist of cognitive development who died in 1934. “Right now,” she added, “my kids need to learn how to read.”
Ok, never mind that I happen to be a huge fan of Vygotsky and have never read anybody that articulates how learning happens as well as he does. Never mind that the article also takes some pots shots at John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Paulo Freire, all people whose ideas, if they were actually well heeded, would result in a radically different, more creative and more equitable society. Never mind that. This comes down to a basic truth about the relationship between theory and practice.
Kant, among many others, put forth that theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind (and yes, the irony of quoting a philosopher’s theory on this point is not lost on me). But I truly believe that any good teacher, and really any good practitioner or designer, will have balance between these two realms. In most of the tech world, for instance, companies both large and small engage in iterative design processes that lead to the emergence of design principles (aka, theory), which lay the groundwork for more effective design processes (aka, practice) down the line. Learning Sciences’ core methodology, design-based research, does the same.
I understand and empathize with the desire to be more practical and hands on in our approaches to education. Hell, this is everything that I study and advocate for and that I think young people’s learning environments, including but not limited to school, should be based on. But if we swing the pendulum too far on this one, if we cut out spaces that allow teachers in training to pull out patterns in their experiences working with kids, we do just as much a disservice to them as we’re doing now by not giving them enough direct experience.