M. D. Gall's home page


filename: T. Ed design memo #1

updated: 12/11/00


Notes on the Relationship between Research and Practice

 in Teacher Education


 M. D. Gall

University of Oregon



I have written this "think piece" to stimulate a conversation about how we might improve our teacher education programs. There is much that is right about our programs, but there also are ongoing problems that we put up with, mainly because we lack the time and resources to attack them.

The paper has three parts. The first is a synopsis of the first part of Schon's The Reflective Practitioner, which includes 2 chapters: The Crisis of Confidence in Professional Knowledge; From Technical Rationality to Reflection-in-Practice. I focus on these chapters, because of their insightful analysis of the problems that teacher educators (and educators of other professionals) face.

The second part is an analysis of problems in teacher education programs. I draw on Schon's work as one lens. My personal experience as a teacher educator is another lens. Although I wrote it with the College's programs in mind, the analysis might well apply to programs anywhere.

The third part of the paper suggests, in broad strokes, some directions that we might take to improve our programs. The suggestions focus on entrenched, fundamental problems in the programs rather than on tweakings of current practices.

I use the term "student teachers" to refer to individuals enrolled in preservice teacher education programs. However, the comments might equally well to individuals in university-based inservice teacher education programs.



Schon criticizes the conventional university model for preparing professionals. According to this model, the work of professional practitioners "consists in instrumental problem solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique" (p. 21). Given this view of professional work, the preparation of professionals should emphasize scientific training. In fact, this is the case, according to the following quote from Edgar Schein's study of professional education:

Most professional school curricula can be analyzed in terms of the form and timing of these three elements [of professional knowledge]. Usually the professional curriculum starts with a common science core followed by the applied science elements. The attitudinal and skill components are usually labelled 'practicum' or 'clinical work' and may be provided simultaneously with the applied science components or they may occur even later in the professional education, depending upon the availability of clients or the ease of simulating the realities that the professional will have to face." (Schein, Professional Education, 1973, p. 44)

Schon notes several problems with this science-based model of professional preparation. One of them is that, "The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder, and indeterminacy" (pp. 15-16) and by "conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests" (p. 17). Scientific knowledge, which consists of generalized principles, is ill-equipped to deal with this "messiness" of practice.

Another problem noted by Schon is that "situations of practice are characterized by unique events" (p. 16) for which no scientific principles are readily applicable. Schon cites an eminent physician who claimed that "85 percent of the problems a doctor sees in his office are not in the book" (p. 16).

Still another problem is the status differential that it creates between researchers and practitioners: "The researcher's role is distinct from, and usually considered superior to, the role of the practitioner" (p. 26).

Schon argues that "skillful" professionals deal with the messiness of practice, not by consulting the research knowledge base, but by engaging in "reflection-in-action." He does not offer a formal definition of this concept. Generally speaking, it appears that reflection-in-action is a process of thinking about various aspects of one's work and then trying to improve one's work based on that thinking.

What aspects of professional work are objects for reflection? Schon states that "the possible objects of his reflection are as varied as the kinds of phenomena before him" (p. 62), for example: "the tacit norms and appreciations which underlie a judgment," "the feeling for a situation which has led him to adopt a particular course of action, " or "the way in which he has framed the problem he is trying to solve" (p. 62). What kind of action might be taken as a result of reflection? One possibility is that the professional "carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomena and a change in the situation" (p. 68).



First, I wish to note that, in preparing this think piece, I am engaging in reflection-in-action. I know that the practice of teacher education needs to be improved, and am struggling to figure out how to do it. One of my chief tasks is to frame the problem&emdash;or problems&emdash;to be solved. According to Schon, problem-setting is as important as problem-solving for practitioners.

As a starting point, I will claim that teacher educators are faced with five major tasks in preparing new teachers or helping them experienced teachers become better:

1. Determining what curriculum content to teach student teachers.

2. Determining what methods to use in preparing student teachers.

3. Determining how to motivate teachers to learn.

4. Determining how to assess teachers' learning.

5. Determining how to deal with individual differences among student teachers.


Curriculum Content of Teacher Education Programs

We can, and do, use TSPC's standards as the basis for determining a teacher education curriculum. (Or we can use NCATE or TEAC standards or other standards.) We can, and do, let instructors determine curriculum by choosing what to include in their courses. We can, and do, let supervisors and cooperating teachers determine curriculum by choosing what to emphasize during student teachers' field work.

Each of these approaches is practical and expedient. To some extent, though, they suffer from arbitrariness and an incomplete conceptual foundation.

As a starting point for foundation-building, I will claim that our main job is to prepare teachers for success in the world of practice&emdash;as classroom instructors and as professionals in the various contexts of practice (e.g., the school, the school district, the community).

If we agree with this claim, we are faced with several problems with our existing teacher education programs:

1. Some field placements might not represent practice at its best. The preservice teacher might learn ineffective practices or might not have the opportunity to learn "best" practices.

2. We do not give student teachers a model of practice. In other words, we do not give them a conceptual model of what good practice looks like. We do present things like the TSPC standards and supervisory checklists, but they come across as "laundry lists" lacking an explicit conceptual rationale. If preservice teachers do not have a conceptual model of what good practice looks like, how can they know whether they are, or are not, learning good practice in their field placements?

3. The connection between university courses and field experiences is loose or non-existent. Course instructors generally do not know what practices are being used by student teachers or what they are practicing. (Note: Schon makes a useful distinction between two meanings of the word "practice." First, using the example of lawyers, practice can mean "the kinds of things he does, the kinds of clients he has, the range of cases he is called upon to handle" [p. 60]. Second, using the example of pianists, practice can mean "the repetitive or experimental activity by which he tries to increase his proficiency on the instrument" [p. 60].) If course instructors do not know what student teachers are practicing, how can they possibly facilitate the practice? Furthermore, if courses and field experiences cover different content, they increase the student teachers' cognitive load, making learning of either type of content more difficult.

4. Teacher education programs are implemented by program coordinators, course instructors, field supervisors, and cooperating teachers. The knowledge base that they access in doing their work (theory, research, their personal experience, others' experiences) is under-specified. Furthermore, their respective knowledge bases may conflict with each other and thereby confuse student teachers. Also, we would be in a difficult position to justify why our various programs differ from each other (e.g., ed psych is part of the content of the IT program, but not the Mid/Sec program) and why they change over time (e.g., foundations of education was taught for many years, but not currently).


Methods of Teacher Education

Program content is delivered through university coursework, and field experiences supported by supervision and seminars.

In general, university courses develop student teachers' declarative knowledge. The assumption is that the declarative knowledge will translate into procedural knowledge when the student teacher is in the field. I doubt that this assumption would hold up under an empirical test.

In general, field experiences help student teachers develop proficiency in professional practices. Some of the practices are rituals that are neither effective nor ineffective; they're just "how we do things around here." More ominous is the possibility that field experiences teach practices that are of limited effectiveness, despite the fact that more effective practices are available.

There are promising models of methods for helping professionals get better at their craft, e.g., skill training based on social cognitive theory (i.e., observe a model, practice, receive feedback), situated learning theory, reflection-in-action, and the psychology of development in expertise and problem-solving. The methods in current use are not clearly referenced to these models, nor are they assessed to determine their effectiveness.


Motivation of Student Teachers

In general, students in teacher education programs self-select teaching as a career. Therefore, they are intrinsically motivated to complete a licensure program and master's degree program. However, this does not mean that they are intrinsically motivated to complete all the requirements of the program. Some of the requirements are seen as "hoops" to jump through. These requirements perhaps are reasonable, but may not be relevant to a student teacher's perceived priorities. For example, if the student teacher's priority is to learn how to perform well in a field practicum, university coursework might be perceived as irrelevant. If the coursework were placed later in the student teacher's program of study, its relevance might be seen in a new light.

Several theories of motivation are likely to be helpful in understanding and improving student teachers' desire to bring their professional performance to a high level. Expectancy theory and social-cognitive theories of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation and performance-goals/mastery-goals come to mind.


Assessment of Student Teachers

The most problematic aspect of assessing student teachers' performance involves their ability to bring about learning in a classroom environment. Student teachers are required to submit "work samples," which attest to their ability to demonstrate learning gains in their students, typically over a two- to three-week unit.

In my experience, this demonstration is the weakest feature of work samples. In general, student teachers have difficulty in demonstrating the alignment between their assessment devices, the taught curriculum, and their instructional methods. They have even more difficulty in constructing assessment devices suitable for demonstrating pre-post learning gains. I suspect that this is a problem because student teachers do not observe cooperating teachers use pre-post learning assessments in typical classroom practice. In theory, the demonstration of learning gains might be possible. In practice, it might be difficult to implement, and therefore it is not part of the current culture of classroom teaching.


Individual Differences Among Student Teachers

In my experience teacher education programs are responsive to the individual needs and interests of student teachers. Students can adjust their program of study to accommodate their personal situation; they can select from among multiple licensure and endorsement options; and they can receive timely, accurate advice about Graduate School, College, and TSPC requirements and procedures.



The preceding analysis leads me to suggest four strands for a teacher education program. The strands are in the order that I think they should be introduced. The strands might be done consecutively, or they might be overlapped so that, for example, strand 2 might be introduced when strand 1 is well underway. Some or all of the strands might run for the entire duration of the student teachers' program of study. A guiding principle should be that we not strain the cognitive capacity of student teachers by requiring them to switch attention between complex new tasks in different strands.

I do not include educational technology as a separate strand. However, experts in this field should be able to identify technology applications that can be incorporated in each strand in a meaningful manner.


Strand 1. Real Classroom Practice

A teacher education program should start with an intensive field experience in one classroom. The student teacher can start with observation and tutoring of individual children, but should move as quickly as possible into designing and teaching lessons and units. This requirement will develop the student teacher's experience base and an appreciation for the problematic character of practice (see Schon's analysis of practice, as described above).

The student teacher's practice (practice as enactment of teaching practices and practice as refinement of skills) will be supported by the cooperating teacher, university supervisor, and university instructors. The support will be primarily through clinical supervision (see Pajek's book on established models of clinical supervision).

Other support will be through seminars in which student teachers, aided by experts, can analyze videotapes of classroom practice&emdash;their own practice, their classmates' practice, and expert teachers' practice (which constitute models of "best practice"). Analysis of videotapes of classroom teaching other than their own teaching will increase the student teachers' repertoire of different classroom situations, which is an important step in the development of expertise.

Student teachers' use of inductive processes to discover teaching principles will be encouraged at this point. The teaching will be informal and constructivist in order to stimulate student teachers' interest and self-reflection.


Strand 2. Mastery of Selected Methods of Instruction

Student teachers will learn a few methods of instruction to a level of mastery. They will develop declarative knowledge about the theory and research underlying each method. They also will practice the key elements of each method to some level of mastery.

The following are some candidate methods that sample the key domains of instruction (underlined)

o Classroom management: the behavioral model, as portrayed by Sugai; and a rationale based in behavioral theory.

o Unit and lesson design: the model of explicit instruction, as portrayed by Rosenshine, Madeline Hunter, and others; and a rationale based in information processing theory.

o Assessment: the curriculum-instruction-assessment model, as portrayed by Tindal; and a rationale based in Gagné's theory of learned capabilities.

o Curriculum: teaching to standards and objectives as portrayed by Ralph Tyler and others; (theoretical rationale not known at present?)

o Motivation: emphasis on curriculum relevance and probability of learning success, as portrayed by Brophy; and a rationale based in expectancy theory.

o Individual differences: emphasis on one major individual difference, such as learning disabilities or cultural or gender differences.

The key feature of this strand is limiting the number of methods so that student teachers can develop depth of understanding and expertise in each one.

Each method would be taught by conventional university instruction, accompanied by supervised practice in a field setting. The instruction might not follow the typical structure of university courses; rather, each method might be taught in an intensive workshop format, with follow-up sessions as appropriate.


Strand 3. Exposure to Other Methods of Instruction

Various other methods exist for each of the key domains of instruction listed above. For example, the domain of unit and lesson domain includes such methods as cooperative learning, constructivist dialogue, and project learning.

Student teachers might be taught declarative knowledge about a comprehensive range of methods in each domain. This could be done through conventional university courses. Also, students might select several of the methods, depending on interest, to learn procedurally at some level of mastery.


Strand 4. Professionalism

There is an interesting sociological literature on the nature of professions and professionalism. Student teachers would learn what it means to be a professional at various levels &endash; classroom, school, district, state, nationally. Ethical behavior and the principle of service would be emphasized. Another area of emphasis would be how "formal" knowledge about professional practice is created through empirical research and theory development and how individual knowledge about professional practice is created through reflection and action research.

Much of the knowledge and skills relating to this strand could be taught through conventional university courses.


Ideas for revising and expanding the paper

L. Shepard. The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, Oct '00.

From discussion with Marty: the idea that research faculty would be more interested in teaching a performance-building workshop in their area of specialization than a general methods course.