You’d think so, if you were paying attention to the news this past week. First, there was the news of the New York State Board of Regents voting to allow “alternative” programs like Teach for America to award masters degrees, where that right had previously been given only to accredited schools of education. Then there was an NPR story on Boston’s Teacher Residency Program, which supposedly uses a “residency” model, borrowed from medical schools, to get aspiring teachers more actual practice as part of their training.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these things. However, what struck me was the degree to which both stories seemed to take it on faith that, somehow, current methods of teacher education simply aren’t working. This is from the NYT article on the Regents’ vote:
The programs would need to have a strong emphasis on practical teaching skills, a nod to criticisms that traditional education schools spend too much time on theory.
In a similar vein, here’s what the NPR story says:
“Most teacher training institutions focus more on content and less on practice and how people teach,” Payzant [founder of the Teacher Residency Program] says. So, he wondered, why can’t schools be more like teaching hospitals with seasoned teachers, just like seasoned doctors, responsible for the induction and training of the next generation of teachers?
An underlying (and unexamined) message in both of these pieces is that teacher education programs are too much about “theory” and “content,” and not enough about “practice.”
I find this disturbing for a number of reasons. First of all, at least in the case of the residency program, the analogy to medical school is bullshit. Medical students in the US typically spend their first two years in classrooms learning “theory” and “content,” and only then are they set loose in a clinical setting (under strict supervision). And all this happens after required undergrad work in biology, physics, and chemistry. Just as physicians need a deep understanding of human anatomy, so too do teachers need a deep understanding of human learning. There is nothing intuitive or obvious about it.
Another problematic assumption is that the best people to teach that “theory” or “content” are experienced teachers. I disagree. There’s no reason that practitioners can’t be very knowledgeable about theories of learning, but it is not necessarily their area of expertise. The people who do research on learning and teaching, however, are more qualified to explain how people learn. If new teachers are permitted to bypass those experts in their rush to stand at the front of a classroom, then all they will have to go on are the existing practices of the schools in which they are placed.
One of the reasons teacher education programs focus so much on theory and research is, frankly, because they are trying to inoculate new teachers against the corrosive and ineffective teaching practices they are likely to encounter when they finally do get placed into school settings. That is, they are trying (with admittedly limited success) to do something other than maintain the status quo in schools; they are trying to transform them into something better. If the only teacher training comes from other teachers, then our schools are never going to improve.
Finally, what I really can’t abide is the implicit anti-intellectualism, and the false dichotomy between “practice” and “theory.” I think theory and practice always do — and must — inform each other. What we need are teachers who not only have some sense of what to do, but also some understanding of why they’re doing it. In short, they need to be reflective practitioners. It is an open question whether current teacher education programs are doing a good job of that, but the problem isn’t too much theory and content. Those classes aren’t arbitrary hoops to jump though; they are an integral part of becoming a teaching professional.