Saturday, October 24, 2009

Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan went to Columbia Teachers College last week and challenged the nation's teachers colleges to do a better job of preparing teachers for today's classrooms. His visit was described in a Time magazine article Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?
"By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom," he said to an audience of teaching students who listened with more curiosity than ire — this was Columbia University after all, and they knew Duncan wasn't talking to them. It was a damning, but not unprecedented, assessment of teacher colleges, which have long been the stepchildren of the American university system and a frequent target of education reformers' scorn over the past quarter-century.
Of course, Duncan wouldn't be talking to them, would he? After all, Columbia Teachers College was one of the four leading universities in America that were responsible for the manual training movement. But times change. Columbia Teachers College recently dumped books from their library related to manual training in schools. Who needs manual training books when you have completely forgotten what manual arts were really for in the first place.

The article points out that some educators believe that teaching is more art than science and thus can't be taught and that instead of teacher colleges working so much on theory the teachers should have much more time in practice teaching. Sounds great, but practicing what? And with whom? How do we identify those teachers with whom new teachers should practice? Perhaps they should look for the ones who inspired them.

If teaching is art, and can't really be taught, that certainly doesn't mean it can't be inspired. No doubt every student inspired to enter college with the intention of becoming a teacher does so on the foundational inspiration offered by some teacher from their own past, and with the meaning of educe in mind, "to draw forth", teacher's colleges perhaps had best wonder, how do we prepare our students "to draw forth" from theirs. Unfortunately, our system of education has so long discriminated against non-linguistic intelligence that teachers of manual arts, fine motor skills, work of the hand and voice, and muscle and motion have become in very very short supply. As discussed by Elliot Eisner and many others, non-linguistic intelligence continues to be marginalized in American education.

What we most need in teacher's colleges, at Teachers College in New York, and in universities all over the US, is an affirmative action program for the hands. Putting the hands back in place has the power to bring new energy to education. Why is this so hard for some to understand? Just as some have said in political context, "It's the economy, stupid!" I'll say the same thing about the arts. While there are great minds discussing the future of education, I am a craftsman standing at a busy street and wondering how to cross without being run over. Secondary ignorance means that you can't seek what you've never known was missing in the first place and that is why I, a simple craftsman from Arkansas would enter the fray, risking the traffic, to remind that the hands still and may always have an important role to play in the development of intelligence and character.

At the present time, in my small library, I am holding a few books from Columbia Teacher's College in trust. They were to be "discarded" and due to a kind librarian who saw that they might have value to me, I received them to hold and share with you, and I offer Teachers College the promise that I will return them to their shelves preserved but well digested if they ever come to their hands-on senses and want them back. These may be only the tip of the iceberg of what had previously been discarded, but I'll gladly share with them what I have learned while I've held them in trust.

Arne Duncan asks that we prepare teachers for 21st century education. Perhaps we should not so quickly forget the 19th. Students now, like then, needed teachers who would inspire them to learn. Some now might be surprised that a school wood shop would be the kind of place where that could happen.

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