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Rethinking Teacher Preparation

Although alternative routes to teacher licensing now exist, the overwhelming majority of candidates still enters the classroom through traditional channels. The problem is that so much of what they are taught is based on theory by professors who themselves have not taught in a public school for decades. As a result, departments and schools of education overall are rightly held in low esteem.

Evaluating new approaches fairly is daunting because of differences in opinion about what constitutes effective instruction. I respect these diverse views, but I'd like to make a case for a particular model of instruction that served me well during the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I learned it from W. James Popham in a course at UCLA that was required for a California teaching credential. I was reminded of part of this paradigm by the Academy for Urban School Leadership ("To Train Teachers, a New Lesson Plan," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 17).

Founded in 2001, the non-profit AUSL contracts with a school district to manage schools that remain under the aegis of the district. Candidates are assigned a mentor teacher who guides them throughout the school year. They are expected to tell their students the objective for the lesson at the start of the instructional process. Realizing that students vary in their abilities, they also frequently "check for understanding" as the lesson progresses by requiring active responses from students. I hope they also provide practice that is appropriate for the objective.

As self-evident as these steps seem, they are frequently ignored even by veteran teachers. It's not surprising, therefore, that some of the lessons they take hours to prepare turn out to be duds. According to The Wall Street Journal, a study published in 1968 "found that teachers make an average of up to 1,300 instructional decisions per school day." Without a clear idea of what students are expected to learn and feedback about their progress en route, teachers set themselves up for failure. They also inadvertently create an atmosphere that is conducive to cheating.

The recent scandal at Harvard is a perfect example ("Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted," The New York Times, Sept. 1). According to students, the course titled Introduction to Congress was confusing in its organization, grading and practices. When students do not know what is expected of them and are confronted with a mismatch between exam questions and lectures, they are prone to collaboration among themselves to pass the class. Whether this practice constitutes cheating is a question that school officials will now have to decide. In high school, students will cheat in creative ways when they feel frustrated and confused by instructional strategies. None of this is meant to excuse cheating but instead to provide an explanation.

The usual objection to the instructional paradigm I advocate is that it stifles spontaneity and creativity. I don't see why both can't exist. In fact, I found that the most stimulating discussions when I was in the classroom were the direct result of a well planned lesson. It often provoked lively debates among students. Of course, there will always be a few virtuosos who can ignore everything I've said and still produce outstanding results. Something about their style and personality allows them to do so. I take my hat off to them. But they are aberrations. We serve most new teachers best by providing them with the ability to design lessons built on sound principles. What they do after that depends on their individual preferences.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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