Thoughts on Grossman & McDonald's Call for Research in Teacher Education

Grossman, P. & McDonald, M. Back to the Future: Directions for Research in Teaching and Teacher Education (Complete citation still needed.)

The authors argue that research on teacher education is disconnected from research in both teaching and higher education. In fact, they even refer to it as the orphan child, removed from its parental areas of research. Moreover, research on teacher education needs to be refined, according to them. Teacher education is in its infancy when compared to other areas of research (maybe that is why the authors refer to it as an orphan child). They are critical on this field arguing that a lack in common language, a lack of common instruments to conduct research, and a lack of understanding contexts that impact the field are the reasons for its disconnected and idiosyncratic nature. Essentially, I think that they are calling for standardization, something that most educators reject. Educators like to be unique. They like to think that they are special and they know what is best for their particular classroom, or in this case teacher preparation program. In some ways, we pride ourselves on individualism because individualism can breed creativity (I know that I did). I look at colleagues who are now feeling the heavy hand of NCLB trickling down, and they feel that their creativity is stymied. However, I understand the authors' point - how can we communicate if we can't understand one another? Are we all speaking truly different languages or is it merely that we are all speaking different dialects of the same language? If so, is one way easier to unite than another?

Standardization brings benefits but at what cost? I think that question is a vital one that we as educational researchers need to address. What is the maximum level of standardization that provides us with the essential tools to communicate but doesn't crush the benefits of individualism? Can there ever be a happy medium between individualism and standardization? I think the authors are trying to argue that if a continuum existed between individualism and standardization, the field of research on teacher education would lie closer to the individualistic side. Are they calling for a movement of extremity or merely a movement toward a happy medium?

The question is then - why don't we have a common language? Why can't we agree? Is it that the research hasn't been able to be duplicated? Is teaching that complex that common practices can't exist? Is it that as researchers, we want the glory of creating a new term to describe an old practice that seems more refined? Should our older definitions be more expanded to include aspects acquired from new research rather than finding the differences and then coining it as something new? I'm thinking that, just as the authors suggest, we need to understand the how and the why that brought us to this place before we can move forward. We need to understand the causes that brought us to our current state. Otherwise, we would merely be moving forward without direction, continuing to fumble and grasp at any rope on which we can safely land for the moment. Such practice would not necessarily move us forward. Although it could in baby steps, it won't produce the kind of activity for which the authors are calling. They want a united front moving forward to tackle the complexities of teaching and teacher preparation.

The authors also call for core practices in teaching, but it is currently difficult to identify such practices because, according to them, we have no standard language or comparable research methods, but I have a wondering about best practice. Why is it difficult to get mainstream acceptance and approval? Is it because we are battling practicing teachers who believe (battling teacher beliefs here) that because they can actually see the results of their practice in their classrooms, they are resistant to reform? Is it because, unlike other professions like the medical profession, education exists in the absence of competition? For example, doctors want to identify and utilize best practices in order to keep their business alive and thriving. Otherwise they are out of a job because their patients can choose to see another doctor. Teachers do not have that fear. They are protected and sheltered from the realities of a capitalistic society and therefore have the luxury to become sluggish, resistant, and even stagnant to change.

The authors also discuss that in teacher preparation programs little, if any, opportunity exists for preservice teachers to practices and hone their skills in isolation. They argue that musicians refine their craft by focusing their practice on isolated skills. Teaching does not have a comparable practice except possibly micro-teaching. What I wonder is: Is it possible to isolate and still make the experience authentic? What would such a practice look like? If removed from context, which provides the complexity, will it still remain authentic? Mike Rose, 1999, agreed that such practices in physical therapy did reduce authenticity but he believed that students still developed the critical skills needed when placed in the complex situation (p.190). Could such a practice be applied to teaching? How can we retain the complexity, which is the heart of understanding teaching? The thing is, we aren't dealing with lab rats here - our subjects are children. It isn't ethical to use children as test subjects. It would be comparable to letting medical school students treat patients. Would it be possible to have preservice teachers matched to a particular classroom, where the university curriculum aligns with the district curriculum in such a way that the preservice teacher visits the school for one day a week. During that day, s/he can practice a particular skill. That skill is videotaped and discussed with both the university and classroom teachers. Then the second year, the senior year of university preparation, the student would be enrolled in a yearlong internship with a district that has a partnership with the local university. Such partnerships already exist in the professional development school movement, but I'm wondering if an additional layer could be added to the year before where the junior year preservice teacher is being mentored not only by the university personnel but also by the practicing classroom teacher and hopefully a senior intern who would be in the classroom each day. The philosophy is similar to it takes a village to raise a child - well, maybe it takes a unified, collaborative effort to prepare a teacher. This idea brings with it maybe questions regarding logistics, monetary investments, and restrictions on, the already limited, teachers' time. I'm thinking that a complete restructuring needs to occur, where teachers once they graduate with their Instructional I certificates aren't necessarily ready to be on their own. Let's envision the following:

1. Junior Year of University Preparation - the student is matched up to a classroom in a university/school district partnership. The student attends one day a week in the classroom and attends classes on the university campus. Both the practicing teacher and the university teacher collaborate to help the teacher refine his/her practice of certain skills.
2. Senior Year of University Preparation - the student participates in a yearlong internship where the student adopts the district calendar and is prepared in a collaborative effort between the university and the local school district in a professional development school setting.
3. Instructional I Certified Teacher - Upon graduation, the new teacher now is an Instructional I teacher. S/he may teach in a classroom, but s/he is under the mentorship of an Instructional II teacher who oversees two - three classrooms. There the team engages in supervision and co-teaching opportunities, all of whom are continuing to refine their craft. They would engage in professional development practices such as study groups or critical friends groups, etc. to help them refine such a practice.
4. Instructional II Certified Teacher - Once Instructional II Certification is achieved, the teacher would have the ability to mentor other instructional one teachers. I would also scaffold another layer of Instructional II teachers mentoring five pods (a pod would be the group of one Instructional II mentoring 2 - 3 instructional I teachers). Instructional IIs could have their own classroom and collaborate with others or they could become these lead teachers that would oversee the pods.

These suggestions are merely thoughts provoked by this reading. Obviously such a structure brings with it controversy and implementation barriers, but for now, I'm going to indulge myself in letting such a structure merely exist. Examining the benefits and drawbacks sounds like another blog entry for the future. 

The authors also call for research in teacher education to be aware of three contextual layers - national and state policies, institutional contexts, and local district and labor markets. Because teachers have a tendency to teach in contexts similar to which they were prepared or attended during high school, teacher preparation programs need to understand this phenomenon and its impact on the labor markets.