Does Theory Matter in Learning to Teach?

Teacher asking question
Teacher asking question

Early in my adult life, I discovered that teaching was hard - really hard. Between my sophomore and junior year of college, I taught African and Asian history at a summer program in Atlanta. I remember spending hours on Wikipedia before my first formal observation the following day. The class session was a mess - kids were confused about what they needed to do, then finished their work early. In the debrief with my supervisor the next period in her office, I cried. Through sobs, I remember saying "I just want to be a really good teacher." But I didn't know how.

When I'd settled upon becoming a teacher two years later, I searched high and low for programs that would help me become an expert in the classroom. I quickly decided that any program set in a university wouldn't give me the classroom expertise I needed. I told my friends that in schools of education, you read and talked about John Dewey - I wanted to learn to teach. The program I settled on, with "Learn to Teach by Teaching" as its motto, was a natural fit.

I wasn't alone in believing that studying theories of education were an unproductive use of teacher's time. Fast track, alternative route programs, where teachers take foundations of teaching after becoming a full teacher if at all, have proliferated. Some experts have become increasingly forthright in claiming that courses at traditional schools of education do nothing to improve teaching quality.

Yet even in my carefully chosen, practice-based program, I found that I wanted even more specific instruction than my program could provide. When I asked my directing teacher to describe why students seemed to learn so much from her lessons, she described getting to know each student and of creating a classroom community with learning at its heart, answers which didn't totally satisfy me. What were some proven ways to engage kids whose attention was flagging, I wondered. What were the elements of a good whole class discussion? How do I ensure the kids understand one concept before moving on to the next? Were my attempts at doing these things working? Each night, I read Teach Like a Champion, a list of techniques which includes "Pepper" as a method for calling on students, and "J-Factor," or shout outs to kids for doing good work. This was more like it, I thought. Specific, actionable techniques.

After four years of teaching fourth grade in the New York City Public Schools, I started a PhD program in education this fall. In one of our first weeks of a class on teacher education, we read John Dewey's 1904 essay about the role of theory in the education of teachers. Teacher education, Dewey, opined, should help new teachers develop principles of education and the intellectual capacity to study and make sense of teaching. Rather than helping teachers acquire classrooms skills, which they could accumulate while on the job, new teachers should study psychology, cognition, and deep study of the subject matter they will teach.

Reflexively, I disagreed. I scrawled questions after every paragraph, infuriated by the notion that with courses in theory, teachers could become experts on their own. I knew from experience that helping 25 children learn requires deep professional judgment which could only be acquired through extensive practice and feedback.

Yet soon, forced by our professor to explain and consider Dewey's argument, I began to wonder. I certainly held beliefs that guided my teaching - children learn best through inquiry, all students' cultures should be recognized and valued, elementary school classrooms must build culture around reading, and children learn not in lockstep but in fits and starts, just to name a few. Could any success I had as a teacher be attributed more to these principles than any of the practices I employed?

I thought back to upsetting exchanges I'd had with fellow teachers where their theories on children might have been hindering kids' learning. In my first year of teaching, a colleague across the hall used to rip up his students' work if they failed to use proper punctuation. This was the only way they'd get it, he'd said. After school, teachers would often complain about kids and their lack of effort rather than critically examining their own practice or examining what may be affecting that child. How did this this kid blaming start, I wondered. Could it have been avoided if these teachers had greater knowledge and respect for the thinking of children?

Recently, many universities and alternate route teacher education programs have worked to become more practice-based. Students in the teacher education programs at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan are expected to master a set of core practices of teaching before graduation, practices which vary from asking questions that bring out students ideas to facilitating whole class discussions to modeling reading strategies. Courses assess student teacher's ability to master these practices through assignments where student teachers upload video of their lessons and receive feedback from their course instructors and peers. Unlike the techniques that I so wanted to acquire, these practices are larger in size and grounded by a vision of equitable and ambitious teaching and learning.

I admire this work. Asking teachers to learn the work of teaching on the job does a disservice to the students in our classroom. But I've come around to believing that theory matters too. For when I finally listened to Dewey, I realized he had a point.