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Should education courses be a primary focus of a teacher education program?


No human being can be adequately prepared to be everything we expect of teachers, particularly those who teach elementary school. Teachers must be knowledgeable about all the major fields of human endeavor. They must teach a wealth of subjects to collections of complex human beings, each of whom is a unique configuration of prior knowledge, cultural mores, home experiences, learning styles, personality, interests, and motivation.

Teachers must organize children's days and behavior-the challenge of which can only be comprehended partially by parents who have struggled to maintain control of a two-hour birthday party. Teachers must maintain professionalism in the face of countless stressors, speak and write with flawless grammar, work well with others, and yet spend days essentially alone. They should be models of citizenship and moral probity, as entertaining as Robin Williams, as reliable as Cal Ripken, with the analytical skills of Barbara McClintock and the wisdom of Mother Theresa.

How do we prepare anyone for such a daunting task? Courses in education, of course, play a primary role-one of three necessary areas of focus. The first area is general education. At Eastern Michigan University all students, including prospective teachers, take general education courses designed to expose them to the broad spectrum of arts and sciences, enhance their critical thinking skills, and help them understand how areas of specialization fit into the broader fields of knowledge.

The second pillar of our teacher preparation programs is the areas of study students choose for their majors and minors. All prospective elementary and secondary teachers in Michigan have content majors and minors (or, in the case of some elementary teachers, three minors). This opportunity for in-depth study is important to learning the structures of disciplines-understanding the "big ideas" in a field and choosing which, of the many concepts that could be taught, will be of the most value.

Sending out individuals to teach with content-knowledge only is somewhat akin to sending prospective nurses into the hospital after a series of courses in biology but without any clinical preparation. One might argue that with sufficient knowledge of biology nurses should be able to determine what the patients need. But, if I arrived in the emergency room having trouble breathing, I'd much prefer a nurse who had learned and practiced how to open my airway rather than one who knew I needed to breathe and determined how to help me by trial and error. Similarly, when a child arrives in school, I want a professional teacher who knows about teaching and learning, has practiced it under supervision, and demonstrated the ability to help students learn.

With the completion of a general education sequence, a major and a minor, most students would be ready to graduate. But prospective teachers need more. Sending individuals out to teach with content-knowledge only is somewhat akin to sending prospective nurses into the hospital after a series of courses in biology but without any clinical preparation.

So the third pillar in our program is a pedagogical sequence-a series of courses designed to teach prospective teachers about teaching and learning. They learn about human development and the types of thinking that characterize students of different ages. They learn about the complexities of intelligence, cultures, learning styles, motivation, and teaching children with disabilities. All prospective teachers study (contrary to much popular press) the teaching of phonics and comprehension strategies. Pre-student teaching experiences in schools help prospective teachers practice the teaching skills and analytical thinking necessary to assess students' learning and adjust teaching for student success.

One could argue that there is not a robust body of research demonstrating that teachers with this preparation do a better job than those without it. There's nothing surprising in this-I'll wager that neither is there a body of research that says nurses with professional training do a better job in the emergency room than untrained volunteers or perhaps someone with a Red Cross first-aid course. No one is going to conduct that research because the proposition defies common sense and we don't want to risk our lives and health, much less the lives of our children, in the hands of untrained nurses. But there are those ready and willing to take similar chances with the educational health of children.

Even exceptionally able learners need good teaching. University professors outside colleges of education rarely have anything but content preparation. Harvard's Howard Gardner and others have demonstrated that without appropriate teaching strategies, students in institutions like MIT and Harvard may memorize content without understanding it. The National Study of Student Engagement, an effort of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, annually assesses the extent to which hundreds of students at four-year institutions participate in educational practices associated with higher levels of learning. The field scoring highest on "active and collaborative learning" was (you guessed it) education. Good teacher educators practice what they preach.

It is easy to hear critics responding to this by saying, "But public schools are failing." The reality is more complex than that. Some schools are failing, typically in large urban centers facing multiple problems. But among the problems is the fact that those schools are the least likely to have fully prepared teachers. Certainly we need alternative routes that will encourage individuals at many stages of life to prepare to be teachers. But they must be high-quality programs that maintain strengths in both content and pedagogy.

Alane J. Starko, Ph.D., is department head of the teacher education program at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.