The Art of Mingling Practice and Theory in Teaching

This article is the Fourth in a series on The Artistry of Teaching.  

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened its doors under the directorship of John Dewey (Fishman and McCarthy 1998).  Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation.  Theory and practice should mingle, and the laboratory school as Dewey conceived it would be a place for teachers to design, carry out, reflect on, and test learner-centered curriculum and practice.

What is the relationship between practice and theory, and how does this relationship relate to artistry in teaching?

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

If you can’t explain it to six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself

enstein_on_bikeIn my career as a science teacher educator, I valued both practice and theory.  But in my day-to-day work with people who wanted to be teachers, it was important to give a balance between practice and theory.  Indeed, in the first secondary science teacher preparation program that I had a part in designing, we engaged students in this program who held degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and engineering with students in elementary, middle and high school during their one-year program.  As Einstein also said, “if you can’t explain it to six year old, then you don’t understand it yourself.”

So, early in the student’s first quarter at Georgia State University, they found themselves co-teaching in an elementary school working with students ranging in age from 6 – 11.  We believed that if students in teacher preparation programs were going to appreciate and value educational theory, then they had to start from the practical, day-to-day experiences of elementary age students and their teachers.  In the “Science Education Phase” program, teacher education students followed the first term with an internship in a middle school teaching students ages 12 – 14, and then in the third “Phase” they did a full internship in a high school in metro-Atlanta.  The Phase Program, which was implemented from 1970 – 1983 prepared science and engineering majors to be secondary science teachers (grades 7 -12).

Because of the range of experiences with K-12 students that these teacher education students had, it was possible to mingle practice and theory, and help them construct personal and social knowledge about teaching and learning.

In Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, researcher Linda Darling-Hammond focused on identifying good (powerful) teacher education programs.  According to Darling-Hammond, they are rare.  In their research, seven programs were selected for intensive study (she makes the comment that there were many other candidates).  Case studies were written for Alverno College in Milwaukee; Bank Street College in New York City; Trinity University in San Antonio; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of Southern Maine near Portland; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; and Wheelock College in Boston.  All of these programs “mingled practice and theory,” were characterized as learning-centered and learner-centered, as well as being clinically based.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of these teacher education programs was that the curriculum linked theory and practice, and one was not more important than the other.  In successful programs, which typically take more than a year of graduate work, there is a to and fro, back and forth between courses and field work.  The programs were also based on the idea that students build knowledge about teaching, and construct meaning from experience (observation, co-teaching, teaching), reflection, advanced study of pedagogy.

In the science education teacher preparation experiences at Georgia State University, students were immersed in a program that valued practical, field-based experiences and experiential learning in university courses.  Our theory of teacher preparation was to mingle practice and theory.  And, we believed that we should move in the direction of practice to theory, not the other way around.  We accomplished this in the TEEMS Program (Teacher Education Environments in Mathematics & Science) which was inaugurated in 1994 and is the teacher education program for secondary teachers at GSU.

In the past, students took education courses, and then “practiced” what they learned during student teaching.

Little to No Mingling in Teach for America

This antiquated approach, however, is exactly how the Teach for America program trains candidates for teaching.  Most of the TFA graduates then are placed in schools in urban or rural areas, in schools that could benefit much more with experienced and wise teachers.  There is not enough time for TFA to advocate a powerful program that mingles practice with theory.  They are exposed in 5 weeks to education methods and then parachuted into schools unprepared for the realities they will face.

It is one of the great tragedies of contemporary teacher education, that the Teach for America program prepares so many teachers, most of whom do not have a commitment to the teaching profession, but instead use these experiences as stepping-stones to something else, and on the backs of many citizens in poor neighborhoods.

Teacher education programs that provide intensive preparation over time actually challenge students intellectually while helping them learn hands-on approaches that help K-12 students learn (Darling-Hammond).

Back to School

One criticism of teacher education programs is that they are staffed with Ph.Ds that know only about theory, and little about practice.

Disclaimer:  I was one of those teacher educators for over thirty years, and I must say that my colleagues were very experienced in the practical realities of the K-12 environment.  I guess we had bad press.  But that should change.  Read on.

IMG_0173In a research project which was just published by Michael Dias, Charles Eick, and Laurie Brantley-Dias, entitled Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach, sixteen science educators went back to school and wrote important and astonishing autobiographical papers about their experience.  They all stepped away from their role as a science teacher educator and entered the world of K-12 teaching. They immersed themselves into the real lives of students and teaching, and in this process, experienced the complexity of teaching, and in some cases the difficulty in being successful in the classroom.  The project was the brainchild of Mike Dias, Charles Eick and Lauri Brantley-Dias.

One teacher education researcher revealed, “I lacked the essential knowledge that contributed to my immediate failure as urban, low-track science teacher.”  Another colleague found that because students were not used to doing hands-on activities, they became too excited leading to the breakdown of classroom management.  Another teacher educator realized that not taking into account students’ diverse backgrounds could lead to problems of mundaneness and disconnectedness.  And, another colleague points out that his biggest challenge was to take the content that he knew and teach it in a constructivist, hands-on way that very young students could understand (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

So often teacher education is viewed as an ivory tower experience, with those preparing teachers having little knowledge or experience in real classroom actions and life.  No so with these science teacher educators.

There are 16 examples of teacher educators mingling practice and theory.  I don’t have the space for all of them, but I would like to highlight a couple of them here to support the importance of mingling practice with theory.  The following two accounts are based on (Hassard, J. (2014). Closing. In M.Dias, C.Eich, L. Brantley-Dias (Eds.), Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Educators: Practicing What We Teach (pp. 287 – 302). Dordrecht: Springer.)

Charles Eick: Realistic Teacher Education

IMG_0163Charles Eick gives us his insights into realistic teacher education, a model of teacher education based on the work of Korthagen and Kessels (1999), that draws upon constructivist and inquiry-oriented science education in which teacher education moves from practice to theory, instead of the norm for teacher education in which prospective teachers learn theory and strategies first, followed by practice during internships and student teaching.  In reality, theory and practice are entwined, and Charles provides ample evidence of this.

Charles Eick asked Michael Dias, from Kennesaw State University, to work with him as the lead collaborator in documenting his experience in the classroom.  The Eick/Dias collaboration provides a model for other science educators planning to return to school to “practice what they teach.”

Working together reflectively, Eick and Dias were able to describe for us how they modified the curriculum to meet the needs of their students by including more practical activities, activities that characterized Charles Eick’s middle school teaching when I visited him more than a decade ago, and Michael Dias’ high school biology classroom.  Together they decided that activities and projects including problem solving, engineering, societal issues, and seeking creative solutions by means of technology and creative arts were just the ticket to engage the students.

One of the important aspects of this chapter by Eick, and the others is the goal of democratizing teacher education by encouraging the “mingling of minds” (Robertson 2008).  By going back to the classroom, these teacher education professors show a willingness to change one’s views on teaching, and perhaps move away from ”ivory tower” disconnectedness to the real fulfillment of teaching which arises from daily interactions with youth.

As Eick points out, this is an important aspect of realistic teacher education. Eick explains how perceptions change when one commits to a realistic teacher education approach:

We learn to accept that the classroom teacher is the expert in practice and we are the experts in theory on how to improve the practice of others to maximize student learning. They live in the ‘real world’ and we live in the ‘ivory tower’. However, when one has become both the professor and the teacher through recent classroom teaching experience, this arrangement changes. These traditional lines begin to blur. Teachers in the classroom begin to see you as having expertise in both areas. You have earned the respect as someone who ‘walks the talk.’ And this fact not only enhances your professional credentials, but also allows entrée into further school-based research, collaborative work in teaching and learning, professional development, and many other possibilities for innovative arrangements that benefit both school and university programs.

Ken Tobin: Students as Partners

Students have a source of wisdom that many teachers value in their own practice.  Research by Ken Tobin shows how collaborative self-study can mitigate the top-down reform efforts that as he suggests, “ignore structures associated with curricula enactment and seem impervious to the voices of teachers and students.” Tobin’s discussion of co-teaching (cogenerative dialogue or cogen) is a model that is relevant when we think of mingling theory and practice, but more importantly of professors’ willingness to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching–high school students and teachers.  And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

 Although it took us some time to label the activity cogen we created rules to foster dialogue in which participants established and maintained focus, ensured that turns at talk and time for talk were equalized, and that all participants were respectful to all others. The end goal was to strive for consensus on what to do to improve the quality of learning environments. In so doing all participants would endeavor to understand and respect one another’s perspectives, their rights to be different, and acknowledge others as resources for their own learning.

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships.  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.

Return to Dewey

I started this article referring to John Dewey and his wish to create environments for social and pedagogical examination.  A contemporary science educator who speaks the language of Dewey is Dr. Christopher EmdinEmdin is an urban science educator and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.  His research on teaching science in urban schools focuses on Reality Pedagogy.

Here is a video of Dr. Emdin in which he takes us inside of schools to show how the practical realities of students’ lives can be a part of school science.  Here practice and theory meet in real classrooms.

Like Dewey, Emdin’s pedagogy extends beyond any existent approach to educating urban (hip-hop) youth.  Emdin’s approach is a biographical exploration of how he mingled theory and practice in urban science classrooms (Emdin, 2010).  One of his ideas that resonates with Eick’s and Tobin’s accounts is this:

Becoming a reality pedagogue not only requires an understanding of the hip-hop students’ ways of knowing, but also attentiveness to the researcher/teacher’s fundamental beliefs.  This involves awareness that one’s background may cause the person to view the world in a way that distorts, dismisses or under-emphasizes the positive aspects of another person’s way of knowing.  This awareness of one’s self is integral to the teacher/researcher’s situating of self as reality pedagogue or urban science educator because an awareness of one’s deficiencies is the first step towards addressing them.  The teacher whose students are a part of the hip-hop generations must prepare for teaching not by focusing on the students, but focusing on self.  The teacher must understand what makes her think, where the desire to be a teacher come from, and what the role of science is in this entire process”(Emdin, 2010).

Teaching is not tidy.  It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  Mingling practice and theory is a powerful approach to prepare any professional, including teachers.



Global Warming: It’s Only a Theory & Balanced Treatment in South Dakota Science Classrooms

Yesterday, I reported that the South Dakota state legislature moved a bill along that calls for a balanced teaching of global warming, “especially since global warming is a scientific theory and not a proven fact,” to quote HR1009.  This notion of using “theory” in science as not being viable, or as having not gone through a process of peer review, discussion, and exploration is a tactic that has been used by politicians and corporations to cast a pale over the nature of science, and play on the misconceptions that the public has about science.

The degree to which evolutionary theory is taught in American schools, C. 2002

For example, here is a map that was generated some years ago by Lawrence S. Lerner of California State University at Long Beach, and that was published in Scientific American (March, 2002).  The map his Lerner’s evaluation of how evolution theory is taught around the country, and here in the map you can see by means of his comments and colors how the theory of evolution is approached.  There has been a long history in this country of attempts to limit or to demand equal or balanced treatment of the teaching of evolution with the teaching of creation (often appearing as creation science or intelligent design).  Can intelligent design or creation science be taught alongside evolutionary theory?  That question was answered with a resounding NO by Judge John Jones, the Dover, Pennsylvania case in which the judge ruled as follows: We have concluded that it [intelligent design] is not [science], and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

The same logic that groups and individuals have used to try and force schools to teach according to religious view, or because they deny the facts that have been presented to support a particular theory, were used in the case in the South Dakota House.  Suggesting that global warming is only a theory, and therefore requires that it be taught in a balanced manner is a clever tactic being used by the 36 politicians that voted for HR1009.

Stephen H. Schneider, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate explores these tactics.  One of the tactics that he identifies is the “tactic of persistent distortion.”  He put it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is the perceived need for “balance” in journalism.  In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue.  Got the Democratic view?  Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different.  There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of each possibility.

If you read the HR1009 document (which is only a few paragraphs) you are left asking if you are going to teach global warming, what are you going to balance it with.  Well, the answer that comes to my mind is global warming is a hoax.  Another way of saying this, is that the proponents of balanced treatment assume that there is another credibly valid case.   And Schneider helps us distinguish between skeptics and deniers.

When I give a public talk on aspects of climate change, I always take the time to explain the difference between climate deniers and skeptics.  All good scientists are skeptics—we should challenge everything.  I was a big-time climate skeptic, changing from cooling to warming and nuclear winter to nuclear fall when that is where the preponderance of available evidence led.  As more solid evidence of anthropogenic global warming accumulates, the numbers of such legitimate climate skeptics are declining.  Climate deniers, however, are not true skeptics, but simply ignore the preponderance of evidence presented.  Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.  The latter is, at best, bad science, or, at worst, dishonesty.

The case in South Dakota, advocating balanced treatment of the teaching of global warming, will spread to other states, and will be supported by the same groups that supported intelligent design.

Perhaps there is some good news on the horizon.  The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the National Research Council, along with participation of other groups such as the National Science Teachers Association are working on a framework for the development of a new generation of science standards.  They probably will not insist on balanced treatment for the teaching of climate change and global warming theory.

Time to Teach Evolution?

I’ve written several posts over the past several years about the teaching of and opposition to teaching evolution.  Right now, there is evidence that the resistance to teach evolution is fading, although, if history is helpful, this lack of resistance will not last very long. In the article cited below there is a very interesting chart that traces the history of evolutionary theory beginning with Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, through the famous Scopes Trial, to the insistence that “equal time” be given to “creation science,” to the now very significant Kitzmiller vs. Dover, PA case ruling that teaching intelligent design (deemed a religious idea) is unconstitutional and could not be presented in science courses.  Follow the link in the following image to see the complete chart.

Click on this image to a full chart exploring the issue of evolution in USA schools.
Click on this image to a full chart exploring the issue of evolution in USA schools.

In a recent New York Times article entitled A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash, several teachers are featured who have contributed to lessening the resistance to teaching evolution, and have indeed worked toward insisting that the science standards in their states include specific goals to teach evolution as a fundamental idea in high school biology.  The article focuses on Florida, and the state board of education decision to put evolution into the science standards.  It’s seems odd that it wasn’t always included, doesn’t it.  Yet, the way the Board enacted the evolution standards went to the heart of our failure to help citizens understand the nature of science, and the depth that is embodied in a theory.  As it is, we use phrases such as, well you know, its (evolution) only a theory.  And the implication is that a theory is simply a hunch, or a guess.  Consequently students leave science courses misunderstanding the nature of science, and therefore lack depth in their understanding of science.

In the New York Times article there is a very interesting seven minute video exploring how a middle school teacher approaches the teaching of evolution in her science class (go to the article, scroll down, and click on the video—sorry, I couldn’t find it on

Click on this image which will take you to the New York Times article; scroll down the page, and click on the video.
Click on this image which will take you to the New York Times article; scroll down the page, and click on the video.

This is an example of teacher who understands inquiry teaching, and realizes that students need opportunities for hands on activities, and chances to discuss their ideas, and activities to write about their ideas.  The video nicely captures how difficult it is to approach the teaching of evolution.  We advocate a social constructivist approach to teaching, and it is nicely exemplified by the teacher in the video.  And in so doing, we need to value the belief system (world view), prior experiences, and conceptual understanding that students bring to science class.

As you view the video you will hear a range of student opinions on evolution, especially as it relates to human evolution.  Students appear to be able to explore the evolution of the horse, but when it comes to homo sapiens, many students will not budge from their tightly held religious beliefs.  But in the spirit of creative teaching, and social constructivism, it is what it is.  Perhaps we need to start in a less controversial topic area to help students understand how theories are developed.  Or even better, involve students in projects in which they have to develop their own theory to explain data they have collected, or information that they have collected from various sources.

Here are some resources that might be of value:

Theory as Art and Science

The other day I was at my favorite book store, and purchased two books with the following titles.  Book 1: Only a Theory by Kenneth R. Miller; and Book 2: Final Theory by Mark Alpert.  I wasn’t looking for either book.  Alpert’s book was sitting on the display table as you walked into the store, the title intrigued me, and after a quick review, I decided to buy it.  Miller’s book was on a shelf in the science section, and the subtitle “evolution and the battle for America’s soul” and the fact that I had read other books by Miller caused me to buy this one.  But here on this one visit to the bookstore, I found two books with the word theory in them.  Later, I’ll tell you a bit about each book—they are very very different from each other—but first I have to tell you where my mind went when I thought about the word theory.

Many years ago I read a book by Jacob Bronowski that had a great influence on my view of science and culture, and it was entitled Science and Human Values.  In this book, Brownoski ended it with a play he had written called The Abacus and the Rose, a kind of exploration of science and art by means of a dialogue between two characters, Sir Edward and Potts.  The two books I bought last week brought me right to this play that Brownowski had written.

You see, in the play Bronowski talks about theory in science (he focuses on Rutherford’s theory of atomic structure), and compares and contrasts the imagination that the scientist uses to “discover” a theory to the painting that an artist creates.  He particularly uses Rembrant’s self protraits in his dialogue.  To Bronowski, the theory and portrait are both original and personal constructions, not the result of the eye of the camera, or a machine.  The painting is a picture and vision.  This is also true for a scientific theory.  Theories in science are constructed by people, and are flashes of vision when the scientist sees a new link between “different and apparently unrelated aspects of reality.”  The scientist’s vision is as imaginative, as much a creation, as the painter’s vision.

Bronowski elevates theory to the highest level of achievement in science.  I really recommend that you read not only his play, The Abacus and Rose, but the little book, Science and Human Values.

Now back to the two books that I purchased.  Final Theory makes use of Albert Einstein’s attempt at discovering The Theory of Everything (Unified Theory), and raises the question that maybe he did discover this ‘final’ theory, but was afraid to publically announce, but instead revealed parts of it to very close colleauges and assistants.  A Columbia University professor is murdered, another scientist is arrested by the FBI, and then is on the run as governments and organizations try and retreive Einstein’s final theory from the fleeing scientist. If you enjoy reading fiction that boarders on non-fiction, then I think you will enjoy this book.  I am.

Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth Miller ought be a late summer reading before you begin teaching for the fall semester.  Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University, and author of several biology textbooks, one of which is a major text used in America’s high schools.  He has also been a key witness in several court cases involving the teaching of evolution, the so called idea of Intelligent Design (ID), the famous “sticker case” brought by citizens in the county that I reside (Cobb County, Georgia).  The book is important to those of us that teach science because it helps probe deeply into the nature of science, and in particular the central idea of evolution, not only of life on the Earth, but in the Cosmos.

I’ll explore the book and Miller’s ideas in more detail later this week.  In the meantime, search inside Miller’s book and read sample pages, and look over the table of contents.

Science Literacy in Letters to the Editor

There has recently been a flurry of letters to editor in the Marietta Daily Journal (Georgia) that were promted by a editorial two weeks ago by a Rev. Price concerning intelligent design. There has also been another subset of letters prompted by a Jeffrey Selman who has for years challenged Cobb County officials (schools and government) on First Amendment issues. For instance, he organized a legal fight against the school district which had authorized placing “evolution is only a theory” stickers on all middle and high school life science and biology texts. The district was ordered by a Federal Judge to remove the stickers, which they did. Writers to the paper have made their arguments using personal reasons, as well as making claims about various concepts in science, and other topics.

For example, a writer today, who claimed that “Selman is not as tolerant as he thinks he is,” expressed his anger about Selman’s views on several topics. In fact the writer stated: “…And then Mr. Selman’s friend, Dr. Benjamin Freeed, has the nerve to insinuate that parents who don’t agree with him and Mr. Selman are not good parents, his belief being that they are ignorant.”

In the same writer’s letter, I also found a couple of interesting references to science. I am not trying to claim that this writer is ignorant, but his statements shed some light on level of science literacy that exists in our culture. Here are the two points he made that I think are revealing:

1. “Of course, there are many scientists who believe that evolution is a fact, even though no one was there at the time to verify, it cannot be duplicated scientifically and no one has ever seen one kind of animal evolve into another kind. There are also many scientists who believe otherwise.”

2. “If he (Selman) will check carefully, the sticker that he was successful in getting yanked out of the textbooks only stated the truth: Evolution is a theory that cannot now, nor can it ever, be tested scientifically, just a no other theory of the beginnings of the world can be tested scientifically.”

I think the writer has hit the nail on the head about what and how we can know in science. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University says this about this issue:

“Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation. Therefore, science can address only phenomena that are brought into the laboratory and examined under controlled condtions…but this argument would deny scientific inquiry to any situation that does not lend itself to laboratory science. The natural history of the earth is just a situation. Since there were no human witnesses to the earth’s past, the argument goes, all statements about the past, including evolution, are pure speculation.”

Then he raises the question, “Is scientific inquiry restricted to what we can actually bring into the laboratory and see happening right in front of us? Is there really any scientific way that we can know anything about the past at all?”

And of course, as he shows in his book, the answer is yes. Let me explore a few examples.

1. Here is one example from the news of a week ago.A few days ago, NASA scientists announced new results from the WMAP Mission (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). WMAP has produced a new, more detailed picture of the infant universe (shown below).

This new information helps to pinpoint when the first stars formed and provides new clues about events that transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe. Here is a beautiful example of using scientific methodology to probe into the past, and answer questions about about what was the universe like at the moment after the Big Bang.

2. Another example the geological time scale, which has over time gone through many revisions, and improvements detailing events (geological and biological) in the earth’s history. You can view some graphical geological timelines to get an idea of how geologists have divided geological time into EONs, ERAs and PERIODs.

3. A third example, closely related to the geological time scale, is the fossil record (paleontology), which is a record of the histoy of life on the earth.

All three of these examples are part of K-12 science curriculum. Students in an earth science class or a physics course would find out about the Big Bang Theory, Students in earth science (elementary and middle school) would create geological time scales in their course, and geology, earth science and biology classes would help students learn about the fossil record. In all of these cases, students would learn something about the nature of science, and how we can know about what the universe was like in the past, and the history of the earth. Apparently, these lessons were lost on the writer to the Marietta Daily Journal.