Rethinking Teacher Education: Collaborative Responses to Uncertainty
reviewed by Daniel Katz - 2004
Title: Rethinking Teacher Education: Collaborative Responses to Uncertainty
Author(s): Anne Edwards, Peter Gilroy & David Hartley
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415230632, Pages: 164, Year: 2002
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It is no secret that economic reality and educational reality are historically entwined. From the beginning of compulsory education in the United States, its advocates have named the “social efficiency” of serving economic aims as one of education’s primary purposes (Labaree, 1997). Horace Mann named more effective and moral employees for New England textile mill owners as a major reason for them to support public schools. From the turn of the last century forward, “scientific management” principles were applied to school organization (Callahan, 1962), treating education as a factory production affair. Both in the 1950s and early 1980s, American schools responded to perceived threats to the economic and military security of the United State by retooling curricula meant to ensure students capable of meeting the needs of a modern economy.
Given the amount of newsprint dedicated to the “new economy” in recent years, Professors Anne Edwards of the University of Birmingham, Peter Gilroy of Manchester Metropolitan University and David Hartley of the University of Dundee, provide readers with a timely examination of the philosophical, political, and economic uncertainty surrounding teacher education, “modernist” policy solutions that have been put into play in recent years, and collaborative responses to aid teacher education in confusing times. While eschewing prescriptive recommendations for teacher preparation, the authors are clear on one important point: “We suggest that a way forward is the contextualist approach to teacher education argued for here, where teachers and teacher educators inform and contest the core knowledge that underpins their actions as professionals” (pp. 131-132).
The authors place great stock in the movement of the “new economy” from “Fordist” notions of scientific management, tight control, rigid requirements, and close oversight of works to “post-Fordist” models that include team work, redistribution of authority, negotiated work, and self-supervision. The discourse should be familiar to American readers who have listened to ever increasing claims, both legitimate and exaggerated, that we reside in a new, information-driven economy. Given the strong influence of social efficiency upon educational goals (Labaree, 1997), it is appropriate for both schools and schools of education to consider how teachers need to operate in an economy that is more tolerant of ambiguity.
The authors note that for much of the modern period, political structures, economies, and schools have been structured around attempts to effect certain, predictable outcomes. However, in the later part of the twentieth century, many of the structures associated with “Fordist” models began to seem burdensome and incapable of reacting to the rapid economic changes. The authors identify “post-Fordism” as means of production identified with technology, new management processes (i.e. Total Quality Management, flat hierarchies, franchising, etc), flexibility, globalization, and employment insecurity, all meant to produce adaptable and specialized organizations (p. 17). Education now finds itself bombarded with a “new vocabulary” of “efficiency, choice, effectiveness, excellence, targets, standards, monitoring, audits, plans, appraisal, relevance and entrepreneurship” (p. 20).
In order to define the professional knowledge of teachers and teaching with changing times, various schools of thought have arisen, most of which are problematic and leave teacher education attempting to identify its contribution to teacher development. The authors identify objectivist knowledge (attempts to provide clear-cut answers), subjectivist knowledge (attempts to locate knowledge entirely within autonomous individuals), and reflective knowledge (attempts to locate teacher knowledge in the act of teaching itself), and find them all wanting. The authors are especially critical of modernist policy solutions that have come out of recent debates about teacher professionalization. These initiatives are typified by rational methods and models of teacher education based partially upon medical education and capstone clinical experiences. Further, the authors question the use of psychology as an instrument of certainty, claiming policy makers “invoke the discipline when a scientific basis is required and ignore it when convenient” (p. 90).
These criticisms are justified. Teaching is not a profession that can be easily rationalized into clear procedures taught step-by-step in clinical experiences. Learning, also, is not a process left solely to easily tested routines and procedures. To contrast rationalizing teaching and learning, the authors embrace a contextualist and collaborative approach to teacher education:
There is no simple checklist of teacher knowledge….Instead, the practice of teaching reveals interconnected sets of rule-governed behaviour which vary from context to context from social context to context. It is possible to identify some of these rules, but it would be a basic mistake to attempt to generalize from them so as to produce a definitive list of teacher knowledge… (p. 39)
Avoiding the trap of creating universal teacher criteria requires collaborative approaches. Far from a clinical model with checklists of behaviors, the authors favor, among other approaches, close work with “supervising experts who model, guide, enhance and even challenge student teachers’ interpretations and responses while teaching” (p. 110) as a means to build novices’ ability to make informed interpretations of their teaching. Their approach is not prescriptive, calling upon both teachers and teacher educators to continuously visit and challenge professional knowledge (p. 132).
Although primarily based upon English governmental reform efforts, Rethinking Teacher Education offers American audiences much food for thought. Education systems have long been described as “loosely coupled,” (Weick, 1976) meaning that different parts of the system exercise little direct control over others. In fact, the most recent federal attempt to reform education, The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, is decidedly post-Fordist in that states and municipalities have been given targets by the federal legislation (all teachers will be “highly qualified” by 2005-2006, for example) but have been left almost entirely to their own to define what those targets mean and how to achieve them. American educational systems have historically relied upon local providers to interpret requirements set higher up the chain.
Several conceptual questions raised by the book deserve further inquiry. Critics of the new economy may legitimately question to what degree “self-programmable workers” (p. 127) are actually desired. Also, we can question how much so-called post-Fordist models of organization truly embrace or accommodate uncertainty. While strictly organized hierarchies of control are clearly loosened in modern organizations, the organizations themselves have not loosened their interest in specific outcomes. If a business organization demands a target for sales but leaves the specifics of meeting the target to different departments, it has effectively spun decision making to a lower level, but it has not relinquished certainty of outcomes. In today’s education environment, American schools are told that they must meet undefined targets of quality or risk the loss of Title I funding. Certainty may not be what it used to be, but it is clearly a factor.
Further, we need to examine the desirability of uncertainty itself within a policy sphere. Historically, academicians have chided political leaders for ignoring the subtle nuances of implementing policies and for having too little theoretical basis before engaging in changes. Conversely, political leaders have complained that academicians are too concerned with theories and ignore the need for plans that work in “the real world.” In reality, both are probably correct. Policy without theoretical grounding is guesswork, but theory without practice has no basis for growth and change. So while the contextualist approach described here is an attractive balance among objective, subjective and reflective knowledge, the discussion leaves important questions of accountability still to be explored. Public education in America is a massive operation, the single largest expense in local budgets, so there is little wonder that people are not willing to truly embrace uncertainty at the policy level, even though most familiar with school know full well that it exists in implementation.
What is required here is a new political discourse as well. If we expect policy makers to embrace uncertainty and contextualist approaches in teacher education, it is necessary for the public to accept it as well, both in the education of their teachers and their students. Edwards,
Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: a study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools.
Labaree, D. (1997). Public goods, private goods: the American struggle over educational goals. American Education Research Journal, 34 (1), 39-81.
Weick, K. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21 (March), 1-19.