Tag Archives: Mary Kennedy.

Parsing the Practice of Teaching


I (Clare) and Clive both read the most amazing article on teacher education by Mary puzzle_pieces300x199Kennedy. For those who have followed this blog you will know that we are big fans of her work. You will also know that we believe in thinking about teacher education holistically. Trying to break it down in discreet bits misses the core issue- What are the goals of education? I would highly recommend this article to all teacher educators. Below is the Abstract and here is the link to the article. Well worth the read.Mary Kennedy_2016


Teacher education programs typically teach novices about one part of teaching at a time. We might offer courses on different topics—cultural foundations, learning theory, or classroom management—or we may parse teaching practice itself into a set

of discrete techniques, such as core teaching practices, that can be taught individually. Missing from our courses is attention to the ultimate purpose of these discrete parts—how specific concepts can help teachers achieve their goals, or how specific procedures can help them achieve their goals. Because we are now shifting from a focus on bodies of knowledge to a focus on depictions of practice, this article examines our efforts to parse teaching practice into lists of discrete procedures. It argues that we need to pay less attention to the visible behaviors of teaching and more attention to the purposes that are served by those behaviors. As a way to begin a conversation about parsing teachers’ purposes, I offer a proposal for conceptualizing teaching as a practice that entails five persistent problems, each of which presents a difficult challenge to teachers, and all of which compete for teachers’ attention. Viewed in this way, the role of teacher education is not to offer solutions to these problems, but instead to help novices learn to analyze these problems and to evaluate alternative courses of action for how well they address these problems.

Mary Kennedy on Engaging Student Teachers More Deeply

As I (Clive) have said before, I’m a great fan of Mary Kennedy of Michigan State University. In earlier postings I commented on her complex vision of teaching and her incremental yet radical approach to school reform. Having read a new article of hers in the latest issue of the Journal of Teacher Education (Jan/Feb 2016), I wish to recommend it.

Ever courageous, Kennedy in this piece takes on the currently popular movement for the teaching of “core practices” in teacher education. While an improvement on earlier practice-focused teacher education approaches – in that the practices in question are medium-grained rather than too specific or too general – she believes this approach is (a) too didactic and (b) neglects the purposes of teaching. She proposes instead helping student teachers see that a variety of complex strategies are needed to achieve the purposes of schooling, and constant adjustments on their part are required along the way.

Kennedy is careful to note this is “not an either/or decision. I am not proposing that we abandon specific practices in favor of problem solving strategies. Instead I argue here for (a) less attention to bodies of knowledge, (b) less attention to specific teaching behaviors, and (c) far more attention to the persistent challenges” of achieving the purposes teaching. Her position is that in pre-service (and in-service) education we should “not recite knowledge or dictate practices to teachers, but instead engage teachers in more analysis and exploration of alternatives.” This seems to me to embody the constructivist approach to teaching that – as Kennedy has said elsewhere – most teacher educators advocate.

For those who may see this as an overly idealistic approach that will undermine pupil performance on standardized tests, Kennedy cites the findings of a review that “programs using these alternative pedagogies were generally more effective at raising student achievement than were the didactic programs that focused on either bodies of knowledge or specific teaching practices.”



Reflections on Teacher Education Bashing and What Teacher Education Taught Me

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Reflections on Teacher Education Bashing and What Teacher Education Taught Me

David Berliner’s (2000) list of a dozen criticisms levelled against teacher education struck a real nerve in me. I was not at all surprised by the volume of grievances or by the nature of their complaints: they are all “quite familiar” as Berliner himself points out. But I realized as I scanned these critiques about “Mickey Mouse” coursework and the futility of preparing people for a job that “any reasonably smart person can do” (Berliner, 2000, p. 358) that I hadn’t absorbed these assumptions from a suspicious general public. Quite the opposite, in fact, most of the people I know who aren’t teachers tell me regularly that they could never imagine being one. “I don’t know how you do it,” they often say. Instead, these critiques sounded like the grievances of my colleagues. I heard many of them before I’d even started my initial teacher training at OISE, and most often from graduates of it or a similar program. I heard them aired by a number of my fellow teachers in training, especially those who couldn’t wait to get into the “real world” of practice. I hear them even more often now in the hallways and in the staff and work rooms of the schools where I’ve taught since I graduated six years ago. Why are many of us so quick, I wonder, to throw our pre-service education under the bus?

I am just as guilty, at times, of bashing my own teacher education. Despite promoting itself as an integrated program, my Bachelor of Education at OISE at times felt like anything but. My cohort was bound more or less by common interests—I belonged to the “Global Education” cohort in the intermediate-senior panel—but my coursework, at times, felt disjointed in both content and pedagogy. While I was practicing inquiry-based learning in my social sciences methods course, for example, I was being drilled by weekly multiple-choice tests about stages of adolescent development in my psychology course. The program had something of a collective vision, to borrow Kennedy’s (2006) terms, but there appeared to be disagreement among my professors about the way to enact that vision. My practica felt even more disconnected, as though my placements had been last resorts (they were) instead of intentionally selected to meet my needs as a teacher candidate and the program’s own aims. By the end of the first week of my first practice teaching placement, my associate teacher, who was often mapping out football plays in the back of the room while “observing” my lessons, had taken to leaving shortly after the bell for a coffee run. The massive windows of that first classroom overlooked the parking lot below, and I would watch as his car pulled out of the lot and drove silently away while his twenty or so Grade 10 English students, most of them half-asleep, waited for me to do whatever it is that a teacher is meant to do.

These grievances, to be sure, weigh heavily as I reflect on my time in that program, just as the criticisms Berliner identifies carry substantial weight in conversations about what it is that teachers ought to learn and how they should learn it. However, what I find troubling about mine and others’ tendency to bash our own pre-service education is that it often rests on a flawed understanding of learning, and one that ultimately underestimates teachers’ own capacity as knowers and narrowly defines “practice” as the thing that happens between teachers and students in the classroom. If teaching does involve upwards of six distinguishable and simultaneously enacted areas of concern, as Kennedy (2006) has it, then perhaps we are asking too much of our pre-service programs. Or perhaps, since one of our profession’s hallmarks is the “abruptness with which full responsibility is assumed” (Lortie, 1975, p. 59), we are expecting too much too soon. I want to work against my own knee-jerk tendency to bash my pre-service education and do something I haven’t done as often: reflect on what it did offer me rather than what it didn’t.

First a slight detour. One of the most important lessons I learned during my undergraduate degree is that writing well involves pottery-wheeltaking risks and making mistakes. The professor who taught my fourth-year seminar in social movements explained this by way of analogy: approach writing, she told us, as though you are a potter. A potter puts a slab of clay on the potting wheel, and uses her hands to mould and remould the clay until she’s created something that satisfies her. At any time, the potter can remove the clay, roll it in her hands, and start again. A jeweller, on the other hand, who is cutting a diamond for a ring or a necklace, has only one chance to make the perfect incision or else he renders the stone worthless. Writers, she insisted, are under no such obligation: they can do as the potter does, working and reworking what they’ve written until they’re satisfied. I understood exactly what my professor was explaining—so much so that I now share this analogy regularly with my own students—but it’s only recently that I think I may have “learned” this lesson for myself. Or rather, more accurately, it’s only recently that I’ve begun learning this lesson in practice.

I share this analogy, and my “learning” of it, for two reasons. On one hand, it reminds me that learning is not a simple transaction: that we never simply or immediately “apply” what is “learned”—that learning is not about making deposits which we later cash in. I am still very much learning what I portended to have “learned” as a teacher candidate, just as I am still learning to be a potter rather than a diamond cutter. I “learned”, for example, about inquiry-based learning, about student-centred curriculum, about the importance of community and citizenship education to nurture the whole student—all the trademarks of the teacher education collective vision, really (Kennedy, 2006). But learning, for me, is not teleological—there is no fixed or obvious endpoint at which something is definitively “learned”. Standard curricula assume the opposite and posit that a clear destination is not only in sight, but that it can be reached within a bounded timeframe given the right sort of interventions. I don’t think of learning that way, and so why should I hold my pre-service training against these criteria?

The potter analogy is also instructive to me because I like to think I approach teaching in much the same way—as a process of working and reworking—and I do this because that is what I learned about teaching, in obvious and subtle ways, at OISE. My instructors here—particularly in the so-called “Mickey Mouse” methods courses—actually did what Loughran (2006) proposes: they invited us to “see into teaching” by giving us “access to the thoughts and actions that shape[d] their practice” as teacher educators (p. 5). When my social science methods instructor had us developing units of study, for example, she used an inquiry-based model that began with us musing on the purposes of social science education in the first place, and then reading the formal curriculum vis-à-vis our own images of what social science teaching and learning ought to entail. We threaded our own ways of knowing with curricular ways of knowing to develop lesson plans that resonated with and expanded our own values and experiences. Meanwhile she explained the pedagogical choices on her part—the sequencing, the purposeful arrangement of small groups, and so forth—and invited us to reflect on their efficacy for our own learning.

I wasn’t cognizant at the time of the many layers enacted in this seemingly simple task of unit planning. Or rather, although I knew my instructor had intentionally designed the experience with several layers in mind (she told us as much), it’s really only now, with a few years of being in the classroom behind me, that I’ve begun to understand how it and similar experiences prepared me for teaching in ways that I underestimated. It’s not just that my instructor “modelled” inquiry-based learning, or constructivist approaches, or whatever arm of the teacher education collective vision (Kennedy, 2006) such an exercise evokes, it’s that she positioned us, teachers-in-the-waiting, as knowers and doers. None of us had stepped into a classroom yet—we were not “practicing” in the traditional sense—but I believe, in retrospect, that we were in fact already “learning-by-doing” (Lortie, 1975). By weighing in on her decisions, by pottering with her, I feel that we were already “practicing” what teaching entails.

Kennedy (2006) is suspicious of any teacher education program that “lacks a repertoire of habits and rules of thumb” (p. 209). I could easily concur that my program left me woefully underprepared because I left with few practical ways of “doing” teaching. Sure, much of what I did “learn” was front-loaded, and perhaps necessarily so, but as Loughran (2006) suggests, it requires a different sort of energy “for students of teaching to shake themselves out of their well-established comfort zone of (perhaps passive) learning and to begin to question the taken for granted in their learning about teaching” (p. 4). I am resisting these critiques of “front-loading” and dumbed-down curricula because they posit, in the first place, that teacher education is merely preparation for practice and not a kind of practice in itself. Perhaps the greatest single strength of my pre-service education—and the rule of thumb that has sustained me in my career so far—is that it resisted this notion: it forced me to be a potter. Moulding, remoulding and shaping is what I continue to do.


Berliner, D.C. (2000). A personal response to those who bash teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(5), 358-371.

Kennedy, M.M. (2006). Knowledge and vision in teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 205-211.

Lortie, D. (1975). The limits of socialization. In Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Loughran, J. (2006). Introduction: Developing a pedagogy of teacher education—What does that really mean? In Developing a Pedagogy of Teacher Education (1-10). New York: Routledge.

More on Incremental Change in Education

In January, I (Clive) wrote about Mary Kennedy and her stress on incremental change in education – as opposed to “bold” innovation. Since then, I’ve come across an excellent book that takes a similar stance: Enlightenment 2.0 (HarperCollins, 2014) by Joseph Heath, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto. Though decidedly progressive himself, Heath writes in support of Edmund Burke’s advocacy of cumulative improvement, the rationale for which he paraphrases as follows:

“If everyone insists on reinventing everything, we’ll never get anywhere, simply because no one is smart enough to understand all the variables and grasp all of the reasons that things are done exactly the way they are.” (p. 88)

Hence the title of his book: this is a second take on an “enlightenment” approach to social reform, one that builds on past practice in just the manner Kennedy recommends. But Heath raises a crucial question:

“[O]nce we acknowledge this, is the only alternative to fall back into an uncritical acceptance of tradition? Or is it possible to use this insight as the basis for a more successful form of progressive politics?” (p. 83)

I’ll continue to read the book and let you know about Heath’s alternative (that’s a promise!). Meanwhile, one solution that occurs to me in the education field is to give teachers more voice, so they can share their practices and fine-tune them. More opportunities for teacher dialogue are needed: in school settings, during PD events, in university classes, etc. In this way, teachers can help each other tinker with how they do things, rather than having some “expert” come in and tell them they’ve got it all wrong. There’s a place for outside input, but it should be used critically – and incrementally.

Teaching, teacher education, incremental change, Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0.

Resolutions, Reforms, and Incremental Change in Education

Clive BeckNew Year’s resolutions are notoriously poorly kept. At our local gym, the regulars joke about the “resolutioners,” who sign up for a year but barely make it to the end of January. Sadly, a lot of proposed educational “reforms” are like that.

Clare, Lin Goodwin, and I (Clive) are working on a chapter on teacher education reform for the next Handbook of Research on Teacher Education. In reviewing the literature, we came across a wonderful article by Mary Kennedy called “Against Boldness” (Journal of Teacher Education, 61 (1-2), 16-20). In it, she makes a plea to avoid taking a “bold” approach to teacher education reform. The article has important implications not only for teacher education but for teaching in general and even everyday life (as in trying to keep fit). Kennedy remarks:

[B]old ideas are part of our problem, for by definition they are unrealistic, out of range, over the top. Ultimately, bold ideas fail because they don’t take real circumstances into account or because they expect too much from people. Eventually, each of us runs out of gas, gets tired and disheartened. (p. 17)

In my view Kennedy isn’t a pessimist or anti-idealist: she thinks substantial improvement is possible and should be pursued. But she believes we must pursue it by (a) acknowledging and building on present achievements and (b) proceeding incrementally (like the tortoise that finally won the race). She says:

What we need in education are ideas that develop slowly and that build on what we already have, not ideas that develop excitedly or that deviate markedly from current practice…. [B]old ideas…hinder our progress toward real improvements by distracting educators and making it more difficult to concentrate…. Every helpful idea requires teachers to make adjustments. Every time we help teachers, they have to stop thinking about how to wrap their students’ minds around a concept and instead turn their attention toward accommodating the new innovation…. [T]here is no doubt that we need to find ways to improve teaching and teacher education. But [instead of pursuing bold ideas, we should be] studying our practices closely and deliberately, deepening our understanding of the circumstances in which we work, and finding small and sustainable ways to improve. (p. 19)

As the JTE editors rightly point out, Kennedy’s position is itself bold! Indeed, it is radical in today’s climate. But it is productively bold, offering an alternative to the myriad high-sounding, contradictory, and often damaging measures, frequently promoted for political reasons rather than out of genuine concern for improvement. Let’s be systematic and effective in our renewal work, not “bold.” How’s that for a New Year’s resolution!