Practice versus theory: Is teacher education headed for a revolution?

Should colleges that train teachers focus on educational theory, instructing future educators in how children develop and how the brain learns? Or should they focus on the more practical skills teachers need to run classrooms and teach children algebra? Is it possible for training programs to do both well?

These are questions that have become increasingly controversial as debates about how to reform U.S. public education have focused on improving the quality of teachers. Groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality have issued critiques of education schools, and new programs like Relay (a graduate school for teachers that is “practically focused”) are putting pressure on more traditional schools of education to pay greater attention to the practical side of teaching.

“Unless we rethink teacher education, we are faced with a critical stance toward us that I think is going to overwhelm us,” said Gary Natriello, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University. He was speaking at a conference on Thursday, July 19th, hosted by TC to discuss, in part, how to infuse more practical skills into teacher training without losing the theoretical foundation that helps teachers understand how children learn, and which can help them adapt to the various situations that come up in classrooms. (The Hechinger Report is published by an independent institute based at TC.)

The way teacher training programs, including TC, have traditionally worked, as Elizabeth Green of GothamSchools explained in a 2010 New York Times Magazine piece, is like this:

“Education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; ‘foundations’ courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally ‘methods’ courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.”

As a result, teachers can emerge from education schools armed with a lot of theoretical ideas about child development or content knowledge about rules of mathematics, but little sense of how to apply them in the real life of a classroom.

In figuring out how to solve this problem, Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the education school at the University of Michigan, invoked medical education in a presentation at the conference—as did many other presenters. A medical student learning how to treat heart attacks, for example, would most likely learn about the cardiovascular system in a classroom and then practice using a defibrillator on a mannequin—under the watchful eye of a professor who might explain how the concepts they learned in class connect to the practical experience—before being allowed to treat a patient.

New cognitive research also shows that people learn more effectively when they can connect abstract ideas to physical experiences—a finding that might apply to how teachers learn to do their jobs, too, not just to how their students learn how to read or multiply. But letting teachers-in-training “practice” on real children may not always be ethical or that useful, at least at first, when they’re still trying to grasp the basics.

So teacher educators are experimenting with programs that include more classroom observations, which are paired with debriefing sessions in which prospective teachers dissect what they’ve seen, and role-playing, where teachers-in-training try out lessons on their professors. And new (and not so new) technologies, including videos of lessons that can be deconstructed in class, also offer potential ways to include a try-it-on-the-mannequin step in teacher training.

One new program that presenters promoted, LessonSketch, uses cartoon simulations to demonstrate teaching skills, complete with thought-bubbles hovering over cartoon-teachers as they instruct cartoon-students. Unlike in a real classroom, the simulations can offer “Choose Your Own Adventure” options, where the teacher might make one choice and face a series of classroom consequences, or make another with a different set of outcomes.

So is teacher education headed for the revolution that critics have been calling for? Maybe.

“We are really ready for some new things, and some fresh thinking,” Natriello said.