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
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
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.