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.

 

 

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