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.”
A group of us just had a proposal accepted for AERA on teacher resistance, as part of a symposium on that topic. Our paper will be on how the teachers we are studying “teach between the lines,” finding ways to “live with” system mandates and teach (in varying degrees) in a holistic, constructivist manner.
I (Clive) just came across a very relevant quote in Nel Noddings’ 2013 book Education and Democracy in the 21st Century that will help us as we write the paper. She says:
“[In this book] we will consider how schools can help students to achieve satisfying lives in three great domains: home, occupation, and civic life…. [H]owever, I want to make it clear that I do not foresee dramatic changes in the basic structure of curriculum in America. We have to work within that basic structure. Sadly, I think we will go right on with English, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign languages as the backbone of our curriculum. Indeed, if we continue in the direction we are now headed, the curriculum will become even more isolated from real life and its subjects more carefully separated from one another. It is this tendency that we should resist, and effective resistance will require collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.” (p. 11, my italics)
Wow! While talking strongly of resistance Noddings says we have to work within the system, which if anything will get worse. What then does resistance mean?
It can mean campaigning publically against the retrograde measures; or negotiating at the school level to modify their implementation. Or it can mean finding holes – or “interstices” as the post-structuralists say – within the system that enable teachers to teach the way they believe in, to the extent possible.
This third approach is important because it allows teachers to keep their jobs and continue to be there for their students. We mustn’t dismiss this type of resistance as mere compromise. Rather, we must join with teachers in looking for ways to teach well within the system. And teacher educators must discuss the challenges and possible strategies at length with their students, so they come to teaching prepared to teach between the lines, rather than having to figure it out on their own.