TITLE: Theory and Practice in Education Classrooms AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 01, 2010 3:00 PM DESC: ----- BODY: The Fordham Institute has just published Cracks in the Ivory Tower?, a national survey of K-12 education professors. The publication page summarizes one finding that points out a gap between what happens in education courses and what many of us might think happens there:
The [education] professors see themselves as philosophers and evangelists, not as master craftsmen sharing tradecraft with apprentices and journeymen.
I have seen this gap in my own university's College of Education, with many of its required courses not adding much to the daily practice of teaching. Unfortunately, I've seen another gap in the tension between programs focused on teacher training, like the one at my school, and theoretical research-driven education programs at our R-1 sister schools. Many of the professors at those schools view what is taught at our school as too applied! Most of us in computer science who are looking to help K-12 teachers use ideas from CS in their courses tend to be focused on helping teachers in the trenches. There isn't much value in us teaching, say, high school teaches a bunch of CS theory that is disconnected from what they do in their classrooms. They already have so much to teach and test that there really isn't room for a bunch of new content, and besides, most of them aren't all that interested in CS theory for its own sake. (That's true of many CS people themselves, of course.) With help from Google this summer, my department offered CS4HS Iowa 2010, to introduce computing to K-12 science and math teachers using simulations in Scratch. The course looked at some CS ideas at the abstract level, but the meat of the course was practical techniques, both technical and pedagogical. Our hope was that an 8th grade math teacher or an 11th grade science teacher might be able to use computing to help them teach their own courses more effectively. Mark Guzdial responds to the Fordham Institute report with several thoughtful observations. I certainly agree with this caution:
On the other hand, I don't share the sense in the report that if we "fixed" teacher education, we would "fix" teachers. I learned when I was an Education graduate student that pre-service teacher education is amazingly hard to fix.
I learned this only in the last few years, by participating in statewide meetings aimed at improving the state of STEM education in Iowa. The number and diversity of stakeholders at the table is often overwhelming, almost ensuring that little or no practical change will occur. Even when you narrow the conversation to professors at all the universities who teach teachers, you run into gaps of the sort highlighted in the report quote above. Even when you narrow the conversation even further to professors at a single university, there can be big gaps between what education professors want to do, what STEM professors think is important, and what the state Department of Education requires. Guzdial again:
Education professors seek to avoid being merely "vocational instructors," so they emphasize being "change agents" (a term from the report) rather than focusing on developing the tradecraft of teaching. Doesn't this sound a lot like the tensions in computing education?
Yes, indeed. In a field like CS, students need to learn both theory and application if they hope to find ways to use their knowledge upon graduation and be able to stay relevant as the discipline changes over the course of their careers. But there are many challenges to face in trying to meet this two-headed goal. Four (or five) years is a short time. The foundational knowledge that CS faculty has tends to stay the same as the applications of that knowledge change the world, which over time makes it harder for faculty to keep up and not settle down. Without periodic immersion in applied tasks, how can a prof know the patterns of software their students need to know tomorrow? Education professors face many of the same challenges in their own context. My wife has long argued to me that both CS professors and education professors should be required regularly to work in the trenches, whether that is developing software or teaching a bunch of unruly 7th-grade science students, to keep them grounded in the world outside the university. When I think about the challenge facing graduates of our Colleges of Education, I often wish that more of their education would be devoted to studying their craft at the feet of masters, spending their four years in college moving from apprentice and journeyman and finally to master themselves. They should be learning the patterns of learning and teaching that will help them progress along that path. Building a few courses around something like the pedagogical patterns project would be a great start. I think you could apply the last three sentences of that paragraph to CS education and improve our outcomes as well. -----