Innovations in Teacher Education: A Social Constructivist Approach
reviewed by Jacqueline Grennon Brooks - September 29, 2006
Title: Innovations in Teacher Education: A Social Constructivist Approach
Author(s): Clive Beck and Clare Kosnik
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 079146718X , Pages: 157, Year: 2006
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Isnt all learning, whether its prompted by listening to a lecture, or puzzling out a problem with a group of peers, or roaming the Internet alone in a room, a social constructivist process? The learner interacts with people, objects, and ideas, and that interaction ignites cognitive processing. The learner constructs knowledge through this self-regulating cognitive processingknowledge of all typesfrom the complexity of algebraic functions, to the formal structures of spelling, to the intricacies of human relationships. As Clive Beck and Clare Kosnik point out in their book, Innovations in Teacher Education: A Social Constructivist Approach, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and others researched and developed the constructivist theories through which we understand the processes that govern human learning. Although these theories have withstood the tests of time, teacher educators and teachers continue to confront the dilemma of transforming these theories into practices that enhance student learning in educational settings.
Many pre-service teacher education programs include, to varying degrees, constructivist learning theory as part of the curriculum. For somethose highlighted in this bookconstructivism is the foundation on which the program is built. Sadly, as Beck and Kosnick indicate, many teachers inaccurately come to label any unstructured class activity as constructivist, in the mistaken belief that constructivist teaching approaches and structured classroom lessons are mutually incompatible. The authors make the case that without a fundamental understanding of social constructivist theory, a new teachers education isat bestincomplete, andat worstmisguided. It is an important case to make.
The authors provide clear guidance through thoughtful eyes on how to educate new generations of teachers to enter the field with a sense of purpose, the ability to look at and understand the whole child, the psycho-social advantages of acceptance, and a discerning mental framework on which to design classroom learning environments. Beck and Kosnik highlight the well regarded pre-service teacher education programs at Bank Street College, Edith Cowan University, Mills College, New York University, Stanford University, the University of Sydney, and Teachers College, Columbia University, as well as their own program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. They provide details of the formal policies and practices associated with these programs, as well as the local cultural norms that developed among faculty and student cohorts within each setting.
From their descriptive reporting of the history and current operations of the programs selected as their case studies, and from the literature at large, Beck and Kosnik present clear images of how each of these programs was developed, how each functions, and the challenges that each program has faced in becoming successful. The authors offer a range of strategies that program developers can use to meet goals, such as grounding the program in a transparent and well-accepted philosophy (and hiring people who agree with that philosophy), ensuring that the institution has the proper number of staff members, creating caring and supportive relationships among teachers and students, establishing an electronic network for enhanced communications, and aligning administrative policies and practices with the programs philosophic approachall important actions linked to the accomplishments of the programs discussed in the book.
However, many of the logistical and organizational principles the authors cull from the case studies can also emerge from schools anchored in other pedagogies; for example, a direct instruction model. The authors describe the role and nature these factors play in their case studies, but I question whether or not it is this particular set of factors that makes the social constructivist approach to education so powerful in their case study sites. Thats the question that accompanied me on my journey through the text.
Beck and Kosnik present a logical format consistent with the tried-and-true non-fiction directive: tell the readers what you plan to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. This accessible format takes the reader from an overview of social constructivism, through the descriptions of pre-service teacher education case studies, to discussions of action research. The authors also address important political matters related to teacher education. Often, teacher education programs work at the margin of university settings, and the authors offer strategic recommendations on how to move teacher education from the hinterland to the core of the university mindset.
Beck and Kosnik are on to very important issues, and they compel the reader to consider a critical and under-studied paradigm. The authors have provided the field with a revealing look into the excellent pre-service programs at fine centers of learning. But, reading the text reminded me of Piagets wonderfully descriptive phrase: but not sufficient. The book, while providing illustrative images of the caring, responsive learning environments necessary in a social constructivist teacher education program, stops just shy of sufficiently discussing the dynamic features of the curriculum and teaching within the teacher education classes that distinguish them from other, more traditional, teacher education classes.
The authors build a strong case for collegiality, community-building, and inquiry as essential elements of curriculum development. They articulate the quests of their case study sites to integrate curriculum and create learning environments that pursue equity and social justiceall important features of schools for all ages and purposes. But, as a book on social constructivist innovations in teacher education, it omits some pieces of the picture that, I suggest, are needed in order to speak directly to the issues of its title.
The profession needs to tell more stories of programs that link constructivist teacher education with the nature of teaching in which graduates of those programs engage. Too often, there is a perceived disconnect between the two. The profession needs to tell more stories that link evidence of real and meaningful student learning with constructivist classroom practices. Frequently, constructivist classroom practices are thought to be child-directed and therefore off point. The profession needs to collect more data to convince the general public that a teachers deliberate structuring of ever-changing and contextually invented learning experiences in the classroom is the process that enhances the likelihood of student learning and cognitive growth. Too often, lifeless lessons are repeated over and over because they cover the content. This book takes us a step closer in telling the stories that need to be heard.
Much of this book is devoted to the procedural aspects of the highlighted programs, and, while helpful, I had hoped to learn more of the authors conceptual insights into how these programs illustrate the instructional changes needed to enhance learning. For example, the reader learns from the book that the highlighted programs often disrupt the assumptions of their students (p. 57). If, according to constructivist theory, no one can disrupt your assumptions for you (disruption of your assumptions is a mental accommodation that only you can make), then what are some examples of the classroom discourse or events that provoke students to engage in a process that might lead to this mental disruption, or cognitive change? I am eager to know more about that and I have more questions. If what we learn is tied to how we learn, then how do the programs highlighted in this book go about provoking disequilibrium, contradicting and disrupting, not programmatically, but conceptually? What is the nature of the discourse in which prospective teachers in these programs engage? What is it about the way in which the discourse proceeds that makes it a social constructivist approach? And, do we have evidence that the new teacher takes from these classrooms in which he/she is a student to the classroom in which he/she is the teacher?
I wonder if those unfamiliar with social constructivist theory, or those antagonistic to it, will be able to link a teachers intentional professional practice with the elements of social constructivist theory that inform those intentional practices. In todays world of standards, curriculum uniformity, and ever-increasing testing and accountability, the stakes are very high for students and teachers; it is therefore essential that local, state, and federal policy makers have access to this link. I applaud the authors for bringing such a critical and historically under-discussed issue in teacher education to the fore, and I await their sequelthe book that furthers the important discussion they begin by asking: what is the link between social constructivist teacher education and student learning in the classroom?