Between constructivism and connectedness.
I have seen the price we pay for a system of education so fearful of soulful things that it falls to address the real issues of our lives, dispensing data at the expense of meaning, facts at the expense of wisdom. The price is a schooling that alienates and dulls us, that graduates people who have had no mentoring in the questions that both vex and enliven the human spirit, people who are spiritually empty at best and spiritually toxic at worst. (p. 379)
For Palmer (2003), cultivating the spiritual dimension of our beings has to do with forging connections with something larger than our egos, such as relations with other human beings, with the world of nature, with a literary text, or with a cause aimed at making our world a better place to live.
Palmer (2003) is certainly not alone in his belief that self-knowledge and establishing relationships, meaning, and spirituality are all missing from education today; other theorists and educators like Nel Noddings, William Ayers, Alison Cook-Sather, and Ron Miller share his concern. For instance, Noddings (2006) wrote that "possibly no goal of education is more important--or more neglected--than self understanding" (p. 10). Ayers (1995) insisted that genuine learning is not primarily the passive ingestion of information, but "requires assent, desire, action; it is characterized by discovery and surprise" (p. 5). Cook-Sather (2003, p. 95; 2006, p. 9) pointed out that when students learn, they not only construct knowledge, but they also construct and transform themselves. Finally, Ron Miller (1997), one of the staunchest advocates of holistic education, claimed that
by dwelling on discrete facts rather than wonders and mysteries, by standardizing learning processes and assessing them quantitatively, by turning children away from their passions and intuitive insights, and in many other ways, modern schooling cuts the child off from knowing the world in its wholeness. (p. 80)
The concern with cultivating our spiritual dimensions and with forging connections is not new in Palmer's writings. In his famous book, The Courage to Teach, Palmer (1998) had already addressed these issues in the context of his discussion of good teaching:
Good teachers posses a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts--meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. (p. 11)
I share Palmer's (1998) conviction that the capacity for connectedness is more integral to good teaching than technique and that when teaching is reduced to technique, something fundamental is lost. When I first started teaching in an undergraduate teachers college in Israel many years ago, several veteran professors advised me to "be very strict with the students and to lay down the law from the very outset so that they don't take advantage of you." Not having much experience of my own at that point, I initially followed these professors' advice and tried to portray a tough, no-nonsense persona to my students. The problem was not only that I felt uncomfortable in this persona but that my students recognized fairly quickly that I was not being authentic and therefore resisted my trying to teach them. Being disconnected from myself, I struggled to connect with both my students and my subject. As Palmer (1998) observed,
When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life--and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject--not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the world as I am from personal truth. (p. 2)
Palmer (1998) is probably right in his claim that knowing our students and subject matter--both necessary conditions for good teaching--depend heavily on knowledge of ourselves. Because bad teachers are often fragmented (have not established a coherent identity), they find it difficult to connect with both the subject they are teaching and their students. Which of us has not had the experience of a class taught by a disjointed and detached teacher? My own memory of being in such a class is clear, although the subject matter that was taught is nebulous at best. This particular class, Politics and Education, was an elective course I took in graduate school as part of a doctorate program in philosophy and education. The professor, who frequently seemed unprepared, had a very passive and unenthusiastic approach to teaching. Each lesson, he would walk into the room, pose a question to the entire class about one of the texts, and then facilitate a discussion about this question that turned into a tedious free association after about 15 minutes. Although discussions can be very exciting and fruitful, in this case they were always unfocused and did not seem to lead to any new insights. The professor never took charge of the discussion during the 2-hour class and himself seemed confused about the course's goals. Other students in the class shared my frustration with the professor and with the wandering and aimless nature of the conversations we had. The only thing I remember about the content of this course is writing a term paper about Machiavelli.
Although good teaching is informed by theories of how students learn and often relies on some proven practices and methods, Palmer (1998) has a point when he says that it is impossible to argue that all good teachers use similar techniques. My own experience interviewing scores of teacher candidates and asking them to talk about a teacher whom they admired and who made a significant impact on them confirms Palmer's assertion. When asked this question, teacher candidates typically recall teachers who "really cared about their students," ones who "were passionate about their subject and able to get others excited about it" and ones who "challenged [them] to think outside the box and learn in a deep way." Thus, my students' comments support Palmer's (1998, pp. 10-11) claim that good teachers have no unified method of instruction. Instead, these teachers are characterized by a strong sense of personal identity and an ability to connect with their students. This insight suggests that good teacher education programs are ones that respect a diversity of instructional styles and help their students develop their own approach to teaching. Specifically, Palmer seems to be challenging more teacher education programs to embrace an educational approach that will help teacher candidates cultivate a coherent sense of self and personal identity.
Assuming that Palmer (1998) is correct in his claims that good teaching depends more on our capacity for connectedness than on technique and that helping teacher candidates cultivate a strong sense of personal identity is crucial, to what extent are these claims compatible with the various constructivist models of learning that are now prevalent in many colleges of education? Moreover, if good teaching has to do with our ability to connect to our authentic selves and if many teacher education programs emphasize constructivist theories and practices, how do we integrate the goals of Palmer's approach with those of constructivism? This essay responds to these questions and, in general, negotiates between constructivism and Palmer's educational approach. I begin my analysis by laying out a prevalent constructivist worldview and then discuss how it has affected teacher education programs. Next, I explore some potential limitations and dangers facing constructivism, ones that are generally not recognized by the advocates of this model. I argue that Palmer's notion of connectedness can help mitigate against some of the shortcomings of constructivism. In the final part of this essay, I examine a specific example from an English methods course that represents an attempt to integrate the virtues of Palmer's approach with those of constructivism.
Constructivism and Teacher Education
In the past few decades, a constructivist worldview has emerged as a very powerful model for explaining how knowledge is produced in the world and how students learn. For constructivists like Joe Kincheloe, knowledge about the world does not simply exist "out there," waiting to be discovered, but rather is constructed by human beings in their interaction with the world.
The angle from which an entity is seen, the values of the researcher that shape the questions he or she asks about it, and what the researcher considers important are all factors in the construction of knowledge about the phenomenon in question. (Kincheloe, 2001, p. 342)
To assert that knowledge is constructed rather than discovered implies that it is neither independent of human knowing nor value free. Indeed, constructivists believe that what is deemed knowledge is always informed by a particular perspective and shaped by a specific ideological stance.
Informed by the insights of theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, and Freire, constructivism has helped to shift the way in which knowledge is understood and assessed. Piaget believed that to understand the nature of knowledge, "we must study its formation rather than examining only the end product" (Kamii & Ewing, 1996, p. 260). His developmental theory demonstrates that the way in which one arrives at knowledge is equally as important, if not more important, than the final result. Vygotsky's (1978) concept of the "zone of proximal development" enables us to realize that human learning, development, and knowledge are all embedded in a particular social and cultural context in which people exist and grow.
Since mental activity, he maintained, takes place in a social and cultural context, thought will operate differently in diverse historical situations. Cognition thus is shaped by the interactions among social actors, the contexts in which they act, and the form their activities assume. (Kincheloe, 1999, p. 9)
Freire (1994) insisted that knowledge is not a gift or a possession that some individuals have and others lack. On the contrary, knowledge is attained when people come together to exchange ideas, articulate their problems from their own perspectives, and construct meanings that make sense to them. It is a process of inquiry and creation, an active and restless process that human beings undertake to make sense of themselves, the world, and the relationships between the two.
Although the constructivist worldview presented here attempts to synthesize various ideas from Piaget, Vygotsky, and Freire, I do not wish to downplay the differences among this particular group of constructivist theorists. Clearly, there are important distinctions between the psychological, participant-centered constructivism of Piaget and the social constructivism of Vygotsky. For instance, Rebecca Oxford (1997) argued that "Piaget's concern was for the individual child, not the child in a social context. He portrayed the child as a lone scientist, creating his or her own sense of the world" (p. 39). In contrast, Oxford maintained that Vygotsky recognized that constructs have social origins and that they are learned through interaction with others. "It is within this social interaction that cultural meanings are shared within the group, and then internalized by the individual" (Richardson, 1997, p. 8). Freire's constructivist discourse is definitely more political than either Piaget's or Vygotsky's theories. Thus, D. C. Phillips (1995) was correct when he argued that there are numerous versions of constructivism with major differences among them. Yet my contention is simply that Piaget, Vygotsky, and Freire share a conception of constructivism that asserts that genuine learning occurs when students are actively engaged in the process of discussing ideas, interpreting meaning, and constructing knowledge.
In light of the insights of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Freire, a constructivist approach to education is one in which learners actively create, interpret, and reorganize knowledge in individual ways. According to Mark Windschitl (1999), "these fluid intellectual transformations occur when students reconcile formal instructional experiences with their existing knowledge, with the cultural and social contexts in which ideas occur, and with a host of other influences that serve to mediate understanding" (p. 2). In this view, teaching should promote experiences that require students to become active, scholarly participators in the learning process. Windschitl went on to note that "such experiences include problem-based learning, inquiry activities, dialogues with peers and teachers that encourage making sense of the subject matter, exposure to multiple sources of information, and opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in diverse ways" (p. 2).
To be sure, constructivism has come under increased scrutiny in recent years amid an era of testing and accountability and experienced its fair share of criticism. For instance, William J. Matthews (2003) argued that there is a lack of empirical evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of constructivist teaching practices and that "employing this approach for which there is a lack of evidential support, means not employing instructional practices for which there is empirical support" (p. 51). Matthews went on to note that most research studies have suggested that students who learn in teacher-directed models outperform those who are taught in learner-centered/constructivist models. Other researchers have charged that teachers who rely on the constructivist model do very little formal teaching but merely "set up the learning environment, know student preferences, guide student investigations, and then get out of the way" (Baines & Stanley, 2000, p. 330).
However, both these critiques are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of constructivist teaching, which when used correctly is neither teacher centered nor student centered but rather learner centered. In this view, a constructivist classroom is one in which there is a balance between teacher- and student-directed learning and requires teachers to take an active role in the learning process, including formal teaching. Dewey (1902/1956), who was one of the pioneers of modern constructivism, taught us long ago that in education extremes are dangerous and that we should avoid approaches that either marginalize the needs, experiences, and interests of children or focus entirely on these factors. Other constructivists like Kincheloe and Freire have stated quite bluntly that educators who have nothing to teach their students should look for a different profession.1 Thus, many critics of constructivist teaching practices have chosen to focus their attention at a very extreme and misguided interpretation of this model, one that many of its strongest advocates reject.
How has the constructivist worldview presented here affected curriculum and instruction in teacher education programs? There is a growing body of literature that suggests that constructivist teaching practices are becoming more and more prevalent in teacher education programs across the nation (e.g., Davis & Sumara, 2003; Gordon & O'Brien, 2007; Oxford, 1997; Richardson, 1997). As Baines and Stanley (2000, p. 327) wrote, "the momentum of the constructivist movement has had a profound effect on how prospective teachers are educated and on how they perceive the duties of the teacher." Still, the point made by Michael O'Loughlin (1992, p. 337) 15 years ago is probably still correct today: Most teacher educators who consider themselves constructivist adhere to a Piagetian notion of constructivism (focusing on helping students develop cognitive and analytical skills) rather than the critical constructivism espoused by feminist and critical educators (who seek to empower teachers to change the world).
Although teacher education programs vary widely in the ways in which they apply constructivist models of learning, it is safe to say that many subscribe to the belief that constructivism is a learning or meaning-making theory. They assume, according to Richardson (1997), that "individuals create their own new understandings, based upon the interaction of what they already know and believe, and the phenomena or ideas with which they come into contact" (p. 3). Thus, constructivist teacher education programs typically agree on the following four principles formulated by Marlowe and Page (2005, pp. 7-9):
1. Constructivist learning is about constructing knowledge, not receiving it.
2. Constructivist learning is about understanding and applying, not recall.
3. Constructivist learning is about thinking and analyzing, not accumulating and memorizing.
4. Constructivist learning is about being active, not passive.
One example of constructivist learning is the "Butterfly Project" that Shirley Vaughn Greves (2005) uses in the Exploring Teaching course she teaches in the Secondary Education Program of the University of North Dakota. Greves begins this project by asking her preservice teachers to make and bring a butterfly to class for a specific date, which she does as well. Typically, the butterflies that the students bring "are in a variety of shapes and sizes, plain or highly decorated with sequins and puffy paint" (p. 98). Greves discusses with her students the construction and special features of each of the butterflies, emphasizing how different they all are from one another. Next, she asks her preservice teachers to write a profile of their butterflies, pretending that they are prospective students in their classrooms:
The future teachers' creativity flows with descriptions of the tough jock who puts on a steel-like exterior (butterfly made from an aluminum can); the student who is the class clown, but no one notices the solid core on the inside (butterfly is corrugated cardboard covered in comics); or the invisible student the one who sits quietly at the back of the room and no one even notices he is around (from the student who forgot to bring a butterfly). (p. 100)
From their experience with the Butterfly Project, Greves notes that preservice teachers are able to construct a more complex understanding of adolescents and the diversity of issues that future students in their classes are likely to face. Writing the profile forces these preservice teachers to reflect on what it means to be an adolescent and to draw on their own experience in the process. Moreover, the butterfly metaphor not only gets these students to be creative but also serves as a model of how constructivist teaching and learning can be used in the classroom. In this way, Greves maintains, preservice teachers begin to challenge more traditional models of teaching and learning while developing a pedagogy that is more consistent with constructivism.
Greves's example of the Butterfly Project is fairly typical of activities used in teacher education programs that attempt to introduce candidates to the various benefits of constructivist teaching and learning. A much more extensive attempt to integrate constructivist learning in a teacher education program is the Collaborative Masters Program at Georgia State University. According to Julie Rainer (1999), one of its founders, "this new program was the culmination of a collaborative process and the beginning of a lifelong process of teaching, learning, and program development" (p. 192). Rainer noted that the program consists of a sequence of experiences--an initial experience, a formative experience, and a capstone experience--that are determined collaboratively by faculty and participants. The initial experience is a 2-day retreat for students and faculty aimed at building a community of learners.
The second stage of the program seeks to introduce participants to the theoretical foundations of constructivism while modeling and applying this approach. Rainer noted that
Participants learn in conventional ways but also from being involved in the constructivist teaching/learning process. Students take an active role in ways such as formulating essential questions and planning for their own continuous growth. Participants and cohort faculty discuss plans, progress and accomplishments in regularly scheduled conferences. Their ongoing collaboration is a major component of the program design. Students may satisfy program requirements in a variety of settings and through a variety of experiences, for example, classes, seminars, field trips, dialogue, reflection, classroom research, group and/or individual projects, book groups, and workshops. (p. 193)
In the final stage of the program, students need to develop and present a major project, which demonstrates their mastery of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that were highlighted throughout their entire experience. The Collaborative Masters Program is unique in that all participants are involved in the development of a scholarly learning community and the goals, content, and methods that guide this community. Moreover, the learning that takes place in this program is integrated and fluid, thereby enabling students to easily see the connections between constructivist learning theory and pedagogy. Finally, this collaboration is based on a commitment to using democratic practices to empower participants. In Rainer's (1999) words, "a conscious effort exists to learn about democratic educational philosophies and practices and to reflect on their implications for elementary teaching" (p. 194).
This very brief survey of two teacher education programs that embrace a constructivist model of learning indicates that despite some major differences among them, these programs share the vision that students need to be active participants in the learning process and that we need to help teacher candidates learn the material in a deep way. The main difference between the Secondary Education Program at the University of North Dakota and the Collaborative Masters Program at Georgia State University seems to be in the extent to which they apply constructivist principles, not in their basic assumptions about good teaching and learning. The Collaborative Masters Program is a much more ambitious attempt to involve students in every aspect of this program, from planning the goals and methods to assessment of candidate performance. In what follows, I attempt to negotiate between the constructivist model and Palmer's (1998) approach to teaching described above.
Constructivism Without Connectedness
From everything I have argued so far, the surge of teacher education programs that embrace a constructivist model of teaching and learning makes a great deal of sense. Designing curricula and tasks that require candidates to become active and scholarly participants in the learning process can help them develop better skills and gain a much deeper understanding of the content than they would in more traditional teacher education programs. For instance, in their study of preservice teachers' interpretations of a field-based reading block consistent with a constructivist model, Fang and Ashley (2004) found that these teachers "developed substantial knowledge about, skills in, and insights into teaching children who experience reading difficulties. Specifically, they became more knowledgeable about reading/literacy education and gained more confidence in themselves as reading teachers" (pp. 50-51). Fang and Ashley went on to argue that their students' growth in terms of skills and knowledge can be largely attributed to a learning context based on a social constrnctivist model. In their words,
the students in the reading block were immersed in the learning process through participation in extensive reading, thoughtful discussion, guided practice, critical reflection, and intensive tutoring. Their engagement in these course-related activities was consistently high because of the functional nature of course assignments and the supportive classroom learning community we fostered together. (p. 51)
In most teacher education programs that emphasize a constructivist model of learning, the focus seems to be on helping candidates develop a deeper awareness of content knowledge, pedagogy, and students with diverse needs and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to help all students learn. As Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) explained,
an important element of the teacher's role is to realize that individual students may approach a topic in quite unique ways, to learn how individual students understand the topic, and to work with the students in adding to or reconstructing their understandings. (p. 203)
Yet, relatively little attention is given in a significant number of teacher education programs to help candidates become more mindful of their own strengths and weaknesses as teachers. Thus, Palmer (1998) seems to be correct when he argued that we do not give enough attention to what he called the "who" question:
Seldom, if ever, do we ask the "who" question--who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form--or deform the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? (p. 4)
The "who" question is essential, as Parker (1998) suggested, because the qualities of one's selfhood shape the way in which one interacts with students, subject matter, and colleagues. In other words, who a teacher is as an individual--intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually-plays a significant role in the choices she or he makes regarding the curriculum, classroom management, relationships to colleagues and parents, and so forth. Parker rightly insisted that the "who" question cannot be reduced to a list of one's preferences or likes, but pertains to the whole person. When teachers become more conscious of their underlying qualities, their strengths and weaknesses, they are more likely to respond to the challenges they face in a way that not only is consistent with who they are but also is beneficial to their students. Becoming more aware of their selves is especially crucial for new teachers who are trying to negotiate a wide range of challenges they encounter in their classrooms and schools.
To be sure, there is no inherent contradiction between Palmer's (1998) educational approach with its emphasis on self-knowledge and forging connections and a constructivist model of teaching and learning. In fact, in requiring teacher candidates to become active learners and critical thinkers, constructivist teacher education programs may be indirectly helping their students become more mindful of themselves, including their strengths and weaknesses. However, following Palmer I would argue that many teacher education programs are not doing enough to cultivate the inner terrain of teachers-in-training and nourish the capacity for connectedness from which good teaching comes.
How do I know that this is the case? First, on the basis of my interviews with several disciplinary methods instructors in my own teacher education program, I have found that they not only model constructivist teaching but also require students to demonstrate the ability to design and teach lessons that reflect this pedagogical approach. Although these instructors expose our candidates to other models of teaching, the merits of constructivism in comparison to other approaches are clearly stressed. Those candidates whose assignments and participation are not consistent with this approach to learning are marked down. The problem is that the privileging of a constructivist model means that there is a pretty good chance that some teacher candidates, who may prefer a different pedagogical approach, will feel devalued because they are forced to conform to norms that are not their own. Hence, teacher education programs that emphasize a single model of learning, be it constructivism or traditional education, are not likely to help all students develop their unique gifts as teachers because some students will inevitably feel estranged or marginalized. Allan MacKinnon and Carol Scarff-Seater (1997) raised a similar concern in the context of educating science teachers:
We worry that a constructivist perspective on the teaching and learning of science is often presented to student teachers, not as a way of examining teaching events, but as the only viable perspective. Perhaps we need to view constructivism as one kind of lens through which to view science teaching events--a way of examining events, not the only way. This would be much more consistent with a constructivist epistemology. (p. 51)
To illustrate this point further, let me share a personal anecdote. A colleague of mine who is a teacher educator in a southern university was recently chastised in her annual review by some of her peers for teaching students in an overly traditional manner. This particular educator happens to be revered and beloved by her students in large part because she takes the time to cultivate close relations with them. The students always give her glowing evaluations each semester, which are among the highest in the entire university. In light of these facts, it seems to me that we need to ask what gives us the right to condemn this professor for not being constructivist in her teaching? And why should she be required to teach in a way that she may not be comfortable with and that conflicts with her sense of self? I raise these questions not because I think that there is an easy answer to this dilemma. My intention is rather to call our attention to a potential problem in the education of teachers in which constructivism is stressed at the expense of connectedness. Put differently, the lack of attention given to connectedness and exploring one's identity, illustrated by the two examples discussed above, may be detrimental for teacher education programs. Like Palmer (1998), I would argue that something significant is lost in education when we put methodology above connecting with students and external solutions over exploring our own inner terrain.
Compounding the relative inattention placed on connectedness in teacher education is an overly narrow and technical view of excellent teaching that is currently widespread in the field. Sonia Nieto (2003) maintained that the prevalent view is that highly qualified teachers "are those with superior verbal ability and content matter knowledge who have ability to use instructional strategies that draw on 'scientifically-based research,' and who are adept at so-called best practices" (p. 387). Of course, these objective, external variables of teaching are stressed because we know how to measure them. But the problem is that, as Louise Berman (1999) wrote, in the process, "what is seen, spoken, and tested becomes the essence of education" (p. 19). Interestingly, on the basis of a study that Nieto (2003) did with a small group of gifted and committed Boston public school teachers, she concluded that what keeps good teachers going is not so much the content knowledge, the strategies, and the best practices advocated by laws like the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, her research suggested that "a combination of interrelated conditions and values keeps excellent teachers going, including love, autobiography, hope, anger, intellectual work, and the ability to shape the future" (p. 386).
Nieto's (2003) findings echo Palmer's (1998) insight that teaching is not a technical profession and that the capacity for connectedness is more important to good teaching than technique. With respect to the increase of constructivist learning models in teacher education, my concern is twofold. First, there is a danger that the constructivist worldview will be presented to teacher candidates as the only legitimate lens through which to view teaching and learning rather than one perspective among many that can be used to examine educational phenomena. There is also the possibility that teacher educators and candidates will interpret constructivism in an overly technical manner, considering it merely a method or skill as opposed to a way of thinking about teaching and learning that has practical implications. Palmer's notion of connectedness can serve as an antidote to both these concerns by reminding us that good teachers use a variety of methods and that the ability to connect with one's subject matter, students, and self is more essential to good teaching than technique.
To be perfectly clear, there is no doubt that good teaching depends on the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and as I have argued, constructivist models have been shown to help teacher candidates gain a deep understanding of content and a more critical awareness of students with diverse needs. Moreover, it would be naive to suggest that teacher education programs do not need to equip candidates with some worthy skills and techniques like classroom management and lesson planning, especially ones that are informed by constructivist learning theories. To do this would be akin to throwing teacher candidates into deep water and insisting that they sink or swim on their own. However, my basic claim is that introducing teacher candidates to the virtues of constructivism is not enough and that teacher education programs need to find a way to integrate constructivism with connectedness. So the question is, How do we design teacher education programs that are constructivist in their approach and help candidates gain a better awareness of their personal identity? That is, how can we introduce teacher candidates to the virtues of constructivist learning while simultaneously helping them develop a strong sense of self? In the last part of this essay, I analyze an example from an English methods course that represents an attempt to move us in this direction.
Constructivism and Connectedness
In "Integrating Theory and Practice in an English Methods Course: Developing a Teaching Stance," Emily Smith (2007) takes us inside her English methods class to illustrate how teacher candidates are helped to become students of teaching, students who know how to learn from their teaching and who understand how theory and practice interact in shaping their teaching. Smith's essay "examines one approach to helping teacher candidates develop an integrated understanding of theory and practice through the development of a teaching stance" (p. 32). Drawing on Robert Fried's (1995) concept, Smith maintained that a "stance" is a physical, emotional, and intellectual way of relating to students based on a set of core values about their learning potential. For Fried (1995), a stance
starts in a physical way. There is a posture, a way we hold our bodies, that can communicate to students a sense of acceptance, respect, and expectation: how we greet them when they arrive ... where we stand or sit when we talk to them; how we move about the room. And, of course, there is the emotional and intellectual sense of the word "stance": the way we prepare ourselves for what students will be bringing with them into the classroom, and what we want them to leave with. Who are these kids? How great is their potential? What are the talents they've got that nobody has yet discovered? What's holding some of them back from using their minds creatively in school? (pp. 139-140)
Fried's (1995) understanding of a stance is similar, although certainly not identical, to Palmer's (1998) notion of the "who" question. One difference is that Fried's notion of a stance seems to be broader than Palmer's idea of connectedness in that the former includes both the teacher's physical posture and knowledge of his or her students. Another difference is that the "who" question incorporates deeper levels of selfhood (i.e., the spiritual) than those meant by the notion of a stance. Still, in both cases, what is at stake is attaining a higher awareness of how we as teachers relate to our students on all levels--physical, emotional, and intellectual. Moreover, both the "who" question and the concept of a stance emphasize self-knowledge and self-understanding.
In her English methods course, Smith (2007) tries to help her teacher candidates realize that although they come into the class already possessing a teaching stance, their stances are fluid and amenable to change in light of their experiences with students and engagement with various ideas and practices. Smith writes that
one of the first goals of my course, thus, is to help my students to recognize: a) that they have a stance towards teaching English; b) what this stance includes; and c) how they will draw on this stance to identify and study their practice and the theories that shape it. (p. 33)
Consistent with Palmer's (1998) approach, Smith's methods course assists teacher candidates to become more aware of their personal identities and how their identities will shape their teaching.
To help her teacher candidates develop a more critical and coherent stance that draws on current ideas of teaching English, Smith (2007) introduces them to a selection of theories and practices developed by some prominent scholars and teachers of English education. For instance, in the unit focusing on grammar instruction, Smith intentionally selects authors who represent a wide range of perspectives and experiences:
Like the students', the authors' stances draw on and reflect their many experiences teaching and learning grammar, and a variety of theories and ideas they have encountered in their work. The process of examining and discussing these public stances encourages students to think about theories of teaching English they may not have considered and may want to adopt in their personal stance. (p. 37)
In addition to various theories of grammar instruction, Smith (2007) purposely exposes her students to a variety of methods of teaching grammar that correspond to the different theories discussed and reflect diverse and even conflicting stances. She argues correctly that "having to contend with these competing practices creates some disequilibrium, which discourages the teacher candidates from quickly adopting a particular practice" (p. 38). In this way, Smith gets her students to consider various theories that inform the various practices, rather than just being content with finding the "right way" to teach grammar. Instead of just feeding them some proven techniques of teaching grammar, her intention is to get teacher candidates to construct their own teaching stance on the basis of current theories and practices. By challenging her students to develop a teaching stance, Smith gets them to become active and scholarly participators in the learning process, a goal that is consistent with a constructivist model of learning.
To get her teacher candidates to evaluate and revise their stances, Smith (2007) requires them to put their stance into practice by microteaching a lesson to an audience of their peers. Smith points out that the abbreviated time and the supportive audience helps teacher candidates focus more on the process of designing and teaching a lesson than on the product. She also notes that
following each teacher candidate's lesson, the class reflects--in writing and discussion--on the lesson, both as learners in the lesson and as teachers learning about teaching. In this sense, the microteaching lessons function along the lines of Dewey's laboratory, where the goal is not to become immediately proficient, but rather to help students to be thoughtful about what they did, why they did it, and what effect it had on learners. (p. 39)
Through analysis of their microteaching, Smith's students can better visualize the relationship between what English teachers do and the theories about teaching English embedded in their teaching. True to a constructivist model of learning, reflecting on their own teaching and that of their peers helps them become more thoughtful and knowledgeable about the relationship between theory and practice in English education. Yet, the microteaching exercise also gets Smith's teacher candidates to become more mindful of their own teaching stance and how this stance will affect their teaching. As such, this exercise helps teacher candidates realize Palmer's (1998) goal of focusing more on their personal identities as teachers. In Smith's (2007) words, "Students leave the course not with a set of methods to employ, but with a set of lenses--a stance--that will help them to make educative decisions about practice" (p. 42). Smith's English methods course is, therefore, a successful attempt to integrate the virtues of constructivism with those of Palmer's approach.
Yet, what is it that enables Smith (2007) to achieve this integration of constructivism and Palmer's (1998) approach? To begin with is the fact that she is careful to merely expose her teacher candidates to the merits of constructivism without requiring them to espouse this approach to teaching and learning. As she wrote, "We can ensure that they understand constructivism, differentiated instruction, and writing workshop. But, we cannot ensure that they adopt or enact these ideas and practices when they leave our classroom" (p. 43). If we try to force students to adopt a constructivist model, some of them might simply pretend to embrace it to please us or get a good grade, yet still hold on to attitudes or beliefs that are at odds with this model. Encouraging students to develop and evaluate their own teaching stance, as Smith does, is a much better way of helping them identify problematic teaching approaches than demanding that everyone conform to a constructivist model of learning.
Second, Smith (2007) helps her students realize the merits of both constructivism and Palmer's (1998) educational approach by making her own stance visible to them. Typically, the professor's stance, his or her personal identity, which shapes the choices he or she makes about texts, methods of instruction, and the tasks assigned, is taken for granted rather than made visible. However, in this methods course, as students develop and evaluate their teaching stances, Smith makes her own stance manifest:
I uncover the thinking process I underwent as I selected specific texts. I share my rationale for asking them to work in small groups or do a particular activity. They see how my experiences and theories about teaching and learning shape what occurs in our classroom. They are invited to ask questions about my choices as I attempt to model my own process of reflecting on my stance. (p. 44)
By making her own stance visible, Smith (2007) models for her teacher candidates the process of developing, evaluating, and revising a teaching stance, one that is consistent with her personal commitments. Smith's openness about her own stance and the specific choices she made in designing and teaching this course enable her students to realize not only that teachers have stances but that these stances reflect their sense of who they are as individuals. In effect, she is demonstrating to them that the pedagogical choices that teachers make are ideally connected to their inner sense of self.
However, in making her stance visible, Smith (2007) also demonstrates some of the virtues of constructivist learning. By making our implicit choices and decisions explicit, students begin to see that questioning what we usually take for granted is a good practice that can lead to new insights about ourselves, our students, and the relationship between the two. In this way, teacher candidates gradually come to understand Freire's (1994) insight that knowledge is not something fixed or final. Rather, knowledge is generated through a continuous process of inquiry and examination that teachers and students undertake to make sense of themselves, their beliefs about how people learn, and their choices of text, activities, and methods. Ultimately, Smith's course is successful at integrating Palmer's (1998) approach with a constructivist model by illustrating to students two essential insights: that we need to teach in ways that are consistent with our stance (identity); and that our stances are never finished products, that they need to regularly come under close scrutiny, evaluation, and revision.
The example of Smith's (2007) English methods class is not intended as a panacea for integrating a constructivist model of teaching and learning with Palmer's (1998) educational approach. Rather, it should be viewed as one attempt that begins to move us in this direction. There is no doubt that there are many possible ways of incorporating a constructivist model with Palmer's approach. Indeed, my hope is that other scholars and teacher educators will take up this challenge and propose additional ways of introducing teacher candidates to the virtues of constructivist learning while at the same time helping them develop a strong sense of self.
Such a challenge for teacher education programs is far from trivial; I would argue that it is essential. Because teaching is such a complex and nuanced vocation involving numerous factors that cannot be anticipated or controlled, to provide teacher candidates with only insights into how students learn, solid content knowledge, and best practices is not enough. Of course, we do need to equip teacher candidates with some basic knowledge and skills, and constructivism has advanced us greatly by providing us with a profound theory of learning that has redefined what such knowledge and skills mean. Still, if we truly wish to prepare excellent teachers, we also need to help teacher candidates become more critically aware of their personal identities, their strengths and weaknesses, and how those will affect their teaching. Unless we can help teacher candidates develop a coherent sense of self, they will not be able to discern how the choices they make in the classroom reflect their underlying beliefs and attitudes. Without such awareness that comes from engaging the "who" question, teacher candidates might easily fall into the trap of blaming their students or the system when things do not go smoothly. They will lack the critical ability to look at themselves closely and reflect on how they may be contributing to the difficult situation.
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(1.) This statement was made by Joe Kincheloe in a private conversation with me in 1999.
Mordechai Gordon is a professor of education in the School of Education at Quinnipiac University. His areas of specialization are teacher education, foundations of education, and democratic education. He is author of Ten Common Myths in American Education (Holistic Education Press, January 2005) and the editor of Hannah Arendt and Education: Renewing Our Common World, winner of the 2002 AESA Critics Choice Award. Gordon has published numerous articles in scholarly journals such as Educational Theory, Journal of Thought, and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice.
Author's Note: Please address correspondence to Mordechai Gordon, School of Education, Quinnipiac University, 275 Mount Carmel Avenue, Hamden, CT 06518; email@example.com.
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|Publication:||Journal of Teacher Education|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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