Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Making of Teachers

Since the reform of the teacher training at the newly created university in Luxembourg I have met a some teachers complaining that student teachers had been sent to their schools for practical training with their heads filled with theories about education, but lacking the most basic teaching skills. The answer to my question which kind of basic teaching skills they expected the students to have were not very clear to me and since I continue to ask myself: What is it that teachers do? And, how do you learn to become a teacher? But also, under what circumstances new answers to these questions could possibly be found.

For years, in Luxembourg, student teacher's practical pre-service training was (and sometimes still is) based on a collaboration between a single teacher working as a tutor and a single student teacher or a pair of student teachers. In this constellation, lesson planning, interpretation of the curriculum and reflection on pupils development is most of the time part of the hidden work of the teacher because she/he usually doesn't stay in school to accomplish these tasks. What teachers do in the presence of student teachers, is performing in front of the classroom, managing and coordinating pupils' tasks, and maintaining classroom order. And this is mainly what the student teachers can observe. The tutor serves as a role model, a master who transfers her/his knowledge to the apprentice, an experienced practitioner who rarely needs to refer to a theoretical framework to justify his/her choices, and seldom struggles - in public - for solution in the face of pedagogical dilemmas. The job of referring to theory and discussing pedagogical dilemmas is most of the time left to the university lecturers doing supervision and visiting the student teacher once or twice during their teaching practice at the school. The concept of a teacher that a student teacher has constructed throughout the years during her/his own school life is more or less equivalent to the concept she/he constructs during practical pre-service training. This pre-service training cloning approach strongly depends on finding good "self-made" teachers serving as tutors and as role models for future teachers. The schools in which they act, only play a secondary role.

Since more and more teachers have started to work in small teams (usually 3 to 5 teachers taking in charge an extended group of pupils) student teachers have the opportunity not only to copy teaching techniques from one isolated expert teacher but to witness the negotiations between teachers sharing ideas, preparing lessons together, defining common objectives and, hopefully, discussing the progression of their pupils and if there is enough time left, also discussing their personal understanding of their pedagogical mission. This insight in the off work is possible because when working in teams, teachers stay in school more often to do their preparation work instead of leaving the campus. Here student teachers can be present and develop a more realistic concept of what teachers do, when they don't "teach". But still, what we have here, is a reproductive cycle, a kind of single-loop learning, through which teachers or team-teachers are "made".

What is missing, is the opportunity for student teachers to be part of a deeper reflection in a school community on educational practices and purposes. They need to experience that the process of developing an explicit shared school culture transforms the teachers themselves. This can be the case in schools evolving as learning organizations, where single teachers and teacher teams are transformative actors pursuing a common goal. which is, developing their school, and at the same time, developing themselves, collaboratively. In such a school teachers meet not only to plan and organize but to controversially discuss their approaches, their key concepts and beliefs, as well as their relationship to teaching and learning. Here new patterns of teaching behavior and reflection can emerge which cannot be reduced to the change of a handful teachers' behaviors, attitudes and understanding alone.

The process of negotiating common objectives is inextricably linked with the effort to uncover espoused theories or tacit knowledge. But, this latter process doesn't take place when teacher communities engage in open discussions without an external participant observer or coach. When individuals are deeply involved in an organization it is extremely difficult to them to sustain enough mental and emotional distance to their roles to act simultaneously as observers. (What I don't mean here, is that schools are in need of charismatic leaders somehow intentionally controlling school development. The risk would be to high, that the organization falls back to a previous more or less stable state of evolution as soon as the leader leaves the organization, because new practices have been imposed to teachers instead of having been negotiated among them.)

If we want schools to evolve faster and better than today, becoming teachers should be exposed to communities of teachers articulating multiple perspectives on what learning and teaching means to them in general and in the specific context of institutionally organized education. Even more important, student teachers should not learn from but learn with teachers arguing in favor of their specific viewpoints by referring not exclusively to teaching experience or personal preferences, but also to their own learning biography and, of course, to theory and research.

But can this really be achieved if teachers are mainly used to refer to their experience and if they tend to ignore or even to depreciate theory and research? I don't think so. That's why we should stop keeping one process secret to the eyes of one of the actors and develop a practice school model where pre-service, in-service training and organizational development are strongly connected and not approached separately. In a framework where the making of teachers and the making of schools are deeply connected, theory will be easier recognized as being inevitable.

But what about research? Certainly there is great potential to do research in practice school where pre-service training, in-service training and school development are intentionally interconnected. But there is also a need to discuss the purpose of research and the types of research that should be in use. If the way to find new teaching patterns is not build on a behaviorist framework where mainly copy-paste or input-output processes are at work but on a complex adaptive system approach where self-organization gives room to emergence, creativity and unpredictability, the role of research is very different too. It tends more to describing the conditions under which a certain type of teaching and learning may be possible than to identifying in a linear way the link between specific actions and its presumed outcomes.

I would like to conclude by affirming that a best practice school is more than a school with good scores and some highly motivated expert teachers where universities can sent their students to.
Not only student teachers, but all actors involved, need to understand that teachers are not made during 4 of 5 years of higher education and by passing future teachers through some kind of cloning processes, but through an ongoing dialectical rearrangement of ideas, references and practices. To find new answers to questions like, What is it that teachers do? And, how do you learn to be a teacher? we have to change the circumstances under which these questions are posed.

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Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967


  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967



Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain

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