Taking Teacher Education Back to the Future


Our future is in the hands of our children, and our children’s future is shaped and molded by their learning experiences in our schools. “Every road to a sound economy and a more civil society runs through our education system…it is our ability to think, plan and work across disciplines that has been a driver for our economy and a civil society” (Marx, 2015, p. 84).

Where research supports the need for all students to acquire knowledge and skills for the future (Weld, 2005), those not prepared for a new economy could be among “the new disadvantaged” (Marx, 2015, p. 43). But for some, has that future already come and gone? “As we enter the 1990’s thoughtful educators everywhere are calling attention to the importance of developing students thinking skills through their experiences at school” (Resnick & Klopfer, 1989, p. 11).

Sadly, the year is now 2018 and today’s research still points to a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school, and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st Century communities and workplaces (Ait, Rannikmae, Soobard, Reiska & Holbrook, 2014). One reason for this gap is attributed to teacher education programs. “Even as progress has been made, new knowledge has frequently been ignored, misinterpreted, or misused — sometimes by teacher educators and more often by policymakers — with the result that the discourse and debates about teacher education today eerily resemble those of a half century ago” (Darling-Hammond, 2016, p. 18). Schools need to transform in ways that will enable students to acquire the sophisticated thinking, flexible problem solving, and collaboration and communication skills needed to be successful in work and everyday life (Ait et al., 2014). Colleges and universities should consider how incorporating STEM in undergraduate, preservice teacher education programs can close this gap and teach for the future.

In education, the gap in shallow learning can often lead to a “gap cycle:” one that begins with students in K-12, carries with students into college, moves with them into their teacher education programs, and transfers into practice when preservice teachers enter their own classrooms as teachers. When it comes to teaching science, elementary teachers, in particular, are often certified to teach K-5 without having a true understanding of scientific concepts themselves, leaving their own students behind academically (Steinberg, Wyner, Borman & Salame, 2015).

With decades of research telling us how children learn and, therefore, how teachers should teach for learning, why haven’t we listened? Even with research confirming the power and influence of teacher education on the next generation of teachers, many programs still fall short preparing preservice teachers.

The power of the preservice curriculum is its multiplier effect. Where one teacher has the potential to impact the number of students taught throughout a career, a methods course has the potential to impact many future teachers and, ultimately, a far greater number of students” (Powers, 2004, p. 3).

One way to close this gap is for colleges and universities to collaborate with K-12 STEM experts and incorporate components of what researchers call, “A Thinking Curriculum” into preservice teacher education programs. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) publication, Toward the Thinking Curriculum: Current Cognitive Research (1989), reviewed much of the research underlying the concepts for a Thinking Curriculum. Similar to STEM, STEAM, and other interdisciplinary programs, a Thinking Curriculum weds process and content, a union that demonstrates real-world situations: that is, students are taught content through processes encountered in the real world (Fennimore & Tinzmann, 1990). If most preservice programs do fall short of providing experiences consistent with the science of learning (Bransford et al., 2000), how might STEM and the components of a Thinking Curriculum work together to strengthen how future teachers learn?

According to a 2012 report by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) STEM Education is defined as, “an interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new economy.” A Thinking Curriculum is, “one that is high in cognitive demand, embedded in specific, challenging subject matter, and requiring systems engineering where the quality of the end product and the processes used to produce it are both continuously measured” (Resnick, 2010, p. 186).

While there is a misconception in teacher education programs that general teaching strategies transfer to all content areas (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000), thinking processes actually do apply across content areas and all areas of life (Fennimore & Tinzmann, 1990).

But university faculty contend they do not have the time to develop courses that teach preservice teachers how to unlearn, relearn, and teach for deeper learning. Thus, the problem of transferring theoretical knowledge and facts from teacher education programs to professional teaching — the “theory-practice divide” — is well documented in teacher education research (Hemker, Prescher & Narciss, 2017). “Greater than 50% of all new elementary teachers feel ill-equipped to teach the basics of K–8 science when they graduate” (Kirst & Flood, 2017, p. 49).

It’s time to end this divide and close the gap cycle. The system needs to prepare future educators, at all levels, to adopt a significantly different way of teaching than most of them experienced in the course of their own schooling (Resnick, 2010). “Because deeper learning takes time and repeated practice, instruction aligned with these principles should begin in preschool and continue across all levels of learning, from kindergarten through college and beyond” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 9). It is rare, however, in undergraduate teacher education programs, to find courses that take the time to teach future teachers how to learn and, by extension, how to teach for learning. “Typically, future teachers spend more than 100 hours in college classrooms with instructors who model traditional pedagogy. In addition to not modeling effective teaching, “most preservice programs fall short of providing experiences consistent with the science of learning.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 204).

Teachers design the environment in which students learn, and the depth of their own content knowledge can have a profound influence on the strength of their teaching practice. That said, elementary teachers often come to teaching with a huge gap in content knowledge, as well as an understanding of the skills that experts, such as scientists and engineers, need to practice in the real world. “Incorporating these pedagogical practices is challenging, particularly for teachers with limited content knowledge or learning experiences in this domain” (Macalalag & Parker, 2016, p. 110). While it is important for teachers to come to teaching having experienced an in-depth study of the subject area themselves (Bransford et al., 2000), research has shown that many elementary teachers have weak science content backgrounds and had poor experiences as students of science, resulting in a lack of confidence regarding teaching science (Knaggs & Sondergeld, 2015).

Strong content knowledge is especially critical when teaching concepts related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, since science and technology skills ensure competitiveness in a global society (Turiman, Omar, Daud, & Osman, 2012). While historically taught as separate disciplines, “STEM has ‘shifted’ from a subject-based, rigidly scheduled, unintegrated system to become one that is defined by subject integration, project-based learning, relevancy for the lives of children, and structural flexibility” (Myers & Berkowicz, 2015, p. xv). To apply knowledge effectively, requires students to know how concepts are interrelated. “Problems of society and their solutions can rarely be contained within the boundaries of one single discipline” (Stentoft, 2017, p. 53).

Schools of education must provide beginning teachers with opportunities to learn, and teacher programs must involve teachers in the kinds of learning activities similar to the ones they will need to use with their own students. (Bransford et al., 2000). To achieve this, teacher education programs must also put a curriculum of known effectiveness, along with materials and procedures for classroom implementation, in the hands of all teachers (Resnick, 2010). Providing integrated methods courses over multiple semesters and engaging school districts as partners in pilot studies for reforming science instruction would also help to align teacher education with what teachers need to know and do in their future classrooms (Lewis et al., 2014).

To accomplish this, it is important that preservice teachers feel confident in teaching STEM concepts to their future students which, in turn, means that university faculty must also have this same level of confidence. One program that offers a continuum from elementary school through higher education is STEM Studio at Hofstra University. STEM Studio is located on Hofstra’s campus and is a place where children and teachers are supported as they discover new ways of teaching and learning in a university setting.

STEM Studio was born out of a problem: Preservice teachers were not transferring pedagogical understandings and practices learned in university methods classes to their practice. A starting point was creating a vibrant classroom on campus that brings together elementary pupils with preservice elementary teachers and secondary pupils with secondary preservice teachers in a setting that offers problem-based curriculum and just-in-time instructional mentoring. (Plonzcak et al., 2014, p. 52).

To ensure we are teaching future teachers to teach students for the future, integrating the components of a Thinking Curriculum with the concepts of STEM offers the best approach to redesigning our teacher education programs. “Much of what we’ll need to know and be able to do in the future may not even show up on our radar, because we’ll have to incite the curiosity of students to invent it.” (Marx, 2015, p. 78). By integrating the well-researched components of a Thinking Curriculum, with rigorous content of STEM, we can ensure that the theoretical aspects of methodologies taught to preservice teachers are then transferred into deeper learning experiences for future students in practice. “Today’s children, tomorrow’s citizens, depend on teachers to help them prepare for a scientific and technological future (Weld & Funk, 2005, p. 189).

The components of a Thinking Curriculum strengthen how we learn. STEM emphasizes what we will need to know and do for the future. Research also verifies that K-12 teachers and teacher educators in colleges and universities face some of the same challenges in implementing programs that support this approach. Thus, the identified gap cycle is a genuine problem that will continue if, at some point in the cycle, how we learn, what is important to learn, and, therefore, how best to teach for learning, isn’t clearly addressed. Working together, K-Higher Education can close this gap cycle. It’s been close to four decades since Lauren Resnick first coined the phrase, A Thinking Curriculum. To paraphrase one very famous scientist, when it comes to preparing the next generation of teachers, we can’t waste any more time doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.

Finally, Marx (2015) says it best when he says that when it comes to the future, “thinking” is the most important thing we can teach students. To that end, he shares five themes for any thought-filled curriculum: “learning to think, thinking to learn, thinking together, thinking about our own thinking, and thinking big” (Marx, 2015, p.85). To achieve this, we need to break the cycle of shallow learning by challenging colleges and universities to both embrace the concepts of STEM, while also going back to the future and incorporating the components of a Thinking Curriculum into all undergraduate teacher education programs. Our future, and our children’s future, depends on it.


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About the Author

Jean Wallace is the retired CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K-8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning and its academic achievement.

Education is a second career for Jean. Jean’s first career was in law enforcement, where she proudly served the City of Philadelphia as one of the first 100 women to be appointed as a Police Officer. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast difference between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.

Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. (www.earthforce.org). As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in student-directed, service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues.

Although retired from full-time education, Jean believes that learning is a life-long journey and not a destination. As such, she is pursuing her Doctoral in Educational Leadership with the goal to support innovative teacher education programs that create the next generation of great teachers.

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