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The Twisting Path of Concept Development in Learning to Teach


by Peter Smagorinsky, Leslie Susan Cook & Tara Star Johnson — 2003

Teacher education is often viewed as too theoretical and not sufficiently concerned with the realities of classroom practice. From this perspective theory and practice are cast as distinct realms whose only connection comes when theory influences practice. We argue that the theory-practice dichotomy lacks the richness of Vygotsky's notion of concepts, in which abstract principles are interwoven with worldly experience. More specifically, Vygotsky distinguishes two types of concepts, spontaneous concepts and scientific concepts. Spontaneous concepts are learned through cultural practice and, because they are tied to learning in specific contexts, allow for limited generalization to new situations; scientific concepts are learned through formal instruction and, because they are grounded in general principles, can more readily be applied to new situations. Vygotsky argues that while spontaneous concepts may be developed without formal instruction, scientific concepts require interplay with spontaneous concepts; hence the problematic nature of the theory-practice dichotomy. He further identifies two types of generalization that approximate concepts yet do not achieve their theoretical unity: complexes, in which some members of the set may be unified with others but all are not unified according to the same principle; and pseudoconcepts, in which members of the set appear unified but include internal inconsistencies. We argue that teacher educators should strive to teach concepts, though the overall structure of teacher education programs makes it more likely that their students will learn complexes or pseudoconcepts. We illustrate these problems with examples from case studies of teachers making the transition from their teacher education programs to their first jobs.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 8, 2003, p. 1399-1436
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11552, Date Accessed: 10/17/2017 9:55:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Peter Smagorinsky
    The University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    PETER SMAGORINSKY is professor in English education at The University of Georgia. His research interests are centered on activity theory approaches to studying school-based literacy and teacher thinking relative to literacy instruction. His recent article, ‘‘Acquiescence, Accommodation, and Resistance in Learning to Teach within a Prescribed Curriculum,’’ coauthored with Andrea Lakly and Tara Star Johnson, is the recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Janet Emig Award for the article published in the journal English Education that most contributes to the field’s thinking about English teacher education and most informs the field’s research.
  • Leslie Cook
    The University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    LESLIE SUSAN COOK is a doctoral candidate in English education at The University of Georgia. Her dissertation research focuses on the mediational tools used by adolescent and young adult women diagnosed with depressive disorders to construct their identities. She has coauthored articles recently published in Elementary Education and Journal of Teacher Education.
  • Tara Johnson
    The University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    TARA STAR JOHNSON is a doctoral candidate in English education at The University of Georgia. Her dissertation research focuses on the body and desire in the careers of young woman teachers. She is cowinner of the Janet Emig Award presented by the National Council of Teachers of English for ‘‘Acquiescence, Accommodation, and Resistance in Learning to Teach within a Prescribed Curriculum.’’
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