Changing Teacher Education Changes Everything

By MARK SONNEMAN

I have been threatening to write something on this topic for some time, and a timely snow day have given me the opportunity to get a solid start on things. If you have read anything I have published or responded to in the past year, you will have noticed that I have identified how we develop new teachers as a critical element to transforming the educational experience for students.

In looking at what is actually makes up a teacher education program currently, I have stayed within my own context here in Ontario. I am curious about teacher formation in other places, and I welcome comments and reflections on your experiences.

In Kingston, Ontario where I live, there is a large and very well-respected university (Queen’s) that has a Faculty of Education. It is generally considered to be at the top end of such Faculties in the province, and so I will use their curriculum as a point of reference. I should say in advance that I am not claiming that Queen’s plan is inappropriate — it is a 2-year program that meets the standards set by the province and the Ontario College of Teachers.

I include the link to their course information here.

Students in the Queen’s (Primary and Junior) program must take subject courses, which amount to about one third of their work. They also have a concentration which works out to about ten percent of their work and that includes a topic such as Aboriginal education, Artists in the Community, or Outdoor and Experiential Education. Next they have listed 3 courses called “Foundations” which are only about 5 percent of the degree. The practicum component is listed fourth and is spread out over the length of the program, working out to 20 weeks in the classroom and amounting to about 17 percent of the evaluated work. Finally, the last third or so of the course work is part of what is termed “Professional Studies” and includes the following courses:

  1. Self as Teacher
  2. School and Classroom Leadership: In Pursuit of School Effectiveness
  3. School Law and Policy
  4. Self as Learner
  5. Self as Professional
  6. Theory and Professional Practice
  7. Supporting Learning Skills
  8. Building a Professional Career as a Teacher
  9. Intro to Aboriginal Studies for Teachers
  10. Supporting Environmental Ed in the Classroom
  11. Educational Technology as a Teaching and Learning Tool
  12. Meeting the Needs of All Learners.

Whether intentional or not, the listing of courses is alarming, at least to my mind. It lists subjects, or content at the top, has the practicum requirement second to last, and has “Meeting the Needs” course at the very bottom of the Professional Studies section (which is dead last on the list). The word student isn’t even in any of the titles!

I will admit, it is foolish to read too much into the way the courses are listed in and of itself, but doesn’t this sound eerily like the way these topics are prioritized currently in our systems and schools?

We place the content/curriculum at the top in terms of importance and value, spend a very small amount of time and energy thinking and talking about why we are in education and what our purpose and mission is (usually squeezed into an overloaded professional development day), push experience with students off to the side, and create Professional studies (or development) that rarely, or reluctantly has students as its core focus.

Learners who graduate from this type of program, I would argue, are more than likely going to create classrooms that replicate the current values and structures we are trying to move beyond. These educators are, in essence, incapable of transforming the system because of the formational experience we give them. Exceptional teaching happens in spite of the programs and in patches too small and isolated to build any kind of coordinated practice or collaboration that might cause systemic change — or even meaningful change at the school level.

Now, let’s extend that formational experience into actual practice — what do we provide, in terms of professional development to teachers when they are in the role? Again, I will speak from my context in Ontario, which may be different than yours.

In my experience, professional development, when it is funded, is tied directly to a political decision or a ministry imperative. The standardized test results are pored over each year and vast generalizations are made about student performance and needs. Ten years ago, this meant we were laser focused on literacy; now, it is numeracy. Over the last few years we have been given training on three-part problem-solving, subitizing, proportional thinking, documentation, consolidation, and technology, to name but a few. This training has either taken the form of telling us about a resource or a way to use a resource, or a demonstration of a method of teaching content (usually through observing a guest teacher work with a random class). Sometimes, when we were lucky, there was an opportunity to try something out and come back to talk about our experiences. When I was in teacher’s college we used to call this type of teaching/training the “sage on the stage” and even back then it was considered ineffective as a methodology for working with learners. So why do we insist on modelling poor teaching methods when we teach our teachers? We have expert learners who could do so much better.

Kind of sounds like a focus on subject/content, a lack of discussion about context and purpose, and a pushing to the side of teacher experience. Oh, and did I forget the students? No, that’s right, they did…..

I would also argue that even if teachers were willing/able to take this training directly back to their classes and replicate it perfectly, we still would not see an improvement in our educational systems. If anything, we would see teachers doing incorrect things more efficiently and effectively, and we would reinforce the idea that content drives the educational experience for learners. Perhaps test scores would increase — though if that is the only metric that matters to you, you likely didn’t read this far!

As Albert Einstein famously said, “ insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” So, if we do the same thing, by training new teachers and developing practicing teachers through the same methods, isn’t it insane to expect anything different from them, and by extension from the system itself?

In my next post, I will look at the first component of a re-imagined lead learner training program. As always, I welcome your thoughts — they help me be a better co-learner for my students.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: We welcome Mark Sonnemann as a new and significant contributor to Community Works Journal. His thinking is on the mark, and his writing engaging and clear headed.

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