Teaching Practice

November 22, 2011

This weekend, the Times ran a story on legal training that echoed recent reports on the shortcomings of teacher education.  In it, David Segal writes: 

Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.”   

While the fare within schools of education may or may not be quite so chin-strokingly academic, the impact on new teachers entering the classroom after attending a program that favors the theoretical over the useful can be just as jarring, if not more so, than the reality faced by newly minted J.D.’s entering the legal profession.  After all, according to Arthur Levine’s oft-cited report, Educating School Teachers, more than three in five education school graduates report feeling “unprepared” for the realities of the classroom.  Many new teachers don’t have the equivalent support of a law firm’s training program to ease their journey up the learning curve.

Citing the legal academy’s “aversion to all things vocational,” Segal’s article implies that law schools ought to adopt a more practice-based curriculum that prepares future lawyers to enter the profession ready to draft a contract or settle a case. 

A practice-based approach to teacher education has been a theme of a cross-sector “community of practice” that NewSchools has convened semi-annually since 2009.  Called “Learning to Teach,” this group includes schools of education, entrepreneurial teacher preparation programs, districts, researchers, policymakers, and funders.  (A list of participating organizations is on the event page; the group has also been the subject of previous blog posts).  At their most recent meeting earlier this month, organizations shared approaches to a set of core teaching practices, such as leading small-group instruction, introducing new material, and building relationships with students and families.  As one participant noted after the event: “There is no other opportunity, that I know of, where so many educators, researchers, and others come to learn and work together on the important issue of quality teacher preparation, teacher retention and, most importantly, quality practice.” 

 At NewSchools, we believe that the adoption of a practice-based curriculum by teacher training programs could improve the skills of teachers entering the profession and result in better outcomes for children.  However, like all those advocating for practical training, in law as in teaching, we take seriously the limitations and potential pitfalls of this approach.  Indeed, it’s instructive to browse readers’ responses to Segal’s article.  As many of them note, practical training divorced from conceptual understanding risks preparing trainees to act without understanding the context of their actions.

Richard from New York writes:

If you don’t have a grounding in the concepts and reasoning of the common law of, for example, contracts, property, and crimes, you will not be able to assimilate, make sense of, and deal competently with actual contracts, actual property issues, and actual criminal law systems.

If a teacher doesn’t have a grounding in adolescent development, he will struggle to adapt his practices when he introduces new material to his ninth-grade class and then, the following period, transitions to introducing material to his twelfth-grade class.  If he can create a calm and orderly classroom environment, but he does not have pedagogical content knowledge, he will struggle to move students beyond misconception to understanding.  In short, adopting a practice-based curriculum, in law as in teacher training, need not mean gutting conceptual training, but rather determining the right balance of practical skills and conceptual understanding that builds highly effective beginning teachers.

That’s hard work.  Who pays for it?  And how do we evaluate effectiveness?  Those are topics for a future blog post.