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Compliant “Devices of Art”: Enlisting Dewey to Question Mandates

by JuliAnna Ávila - October 31, 2018

In this commentary, the author asks: if we, as teacher educators, are subject to external mandates and directives to implement externally-scored assessments (e.g., edTPA), then how can we help students conceptualize them in constructive, and not simply compliant, ways?

In this essay, I use Dewey’s ideas from Experience and Education (1938) to address this question: if we, as teacher educators, are subject to external mandates and directives to implement externally-scored assessments (e.g., edTPA), then how can we help students conceptualize them in constructive, and not simply compliant, ways? In describing developmentally inappropriate content and approaches, Dewey highlighted that “devices of art” can be utilized “to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features” (p. 19). Extending that idea into another area of education, I would argue that efforts to standardize assessments carry the danger of being just that, imposition disguised by “devices of art,” if they are introduced without input and direction from those in the trenches of teacher education. Such devices might include touting assessments as beneficial and equitable without question for teacher preparation programs, while another might be a mandate to adopt without freedom to decide the parameters of adoption.

Dewey’s (1938) description of traditional schooling pertained to the education of young children but bears a resemblance to our current era of high-stakes standardized assessment: “The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside” (p. 18). Clearly, teacher educators would not wish to be treated as children, and one cannot imagine that those “above” would advocate that, but being the subject of imposition can have exactly that effect. Before I elaborate further, I would like to step a bit back in time, not to Dewey’s era, but to my own beginnings as an educator.


Over 21 years into a career in English education, I share with my pre-service teachers how I learned lesson planning. They are surprised that I did not have to adhere to a standardized lesson plan template or prepare an externally scored assessment like the edTPA Tasks. Having taken teacher education courses in California, New Mexico, and Wyoming, I do not recall being forced to follow standardized templates while learning lesson and unit planning; instead, I was required to learn to use different approaches depending upon the particular context of each course. When I landed in my own classroom, I favored an outline approach with more narrative than I probably needed (which might have been due to being an English major). I was free to choose whichever lesson “map” suited me and I was trusted, as a developing professional, to do so. Now, as a teacher educator, I sometimes struggle to help students learn a standardized approach, especially when particular students might be better served by a different map or template. At its worst, lessons that are potentially dynamic can be reduced in a given lesson planning template to columns and rows of boxes that make teaching and learning seem like nearly discrete categories. I worry that the meta-message is that they should just comply with the template and the task without question, and that they might be required to do so in order to gain the teaching license they seek. Dewey (1938) warned us that “any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles” (p. 22). Students need structure as they learn the discourse of lesson planning, but how much structure tilts into dogma and thereby encourages learners to simply be compliant in order to pass education courses as well as licensure assessments?


Dewey (1938) recognized education as “essentially a social process” (p. 58) and one that should be “a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation” (p. 72). Dialogue and reflection, as opposed to one-directional mandates, must be part of that enterprise. While reflection might be a mainstay of teacher education, and in fact, students are asked to reflect upon their choices and approaches as part of edTPA, it is vital that it is not approached as rote and simply for the sake of completing the task. Instead, we should encourage learners not to shy away from asking challenging questions. Queries like the following can encourage dialogue, if not facile answers: Why are we required to pass standardized assessments throughout K-16 schooling? Who is requiring that we do so and with what motivation(s)? What is the history of assessment in teacher preparation and certification? What accounts for our current emphasis on standardized assessment? Are certain sorts of knowledge privileged in a given assessment? Are some ways of knowing excluded? What does it mean to be scored by an external reviewer rather than “in-house”? I would suggest that these questions can be carried into students’ own classrooms as they confront the realities of using standardized assessments with their own learners. These questions do not ask students to simply report back pre-established tenets and ideas. Rather, we are asking them to critically challenge what they, as burgeoning professionals, and we, as the “experts,” assume that we know.

It may well come down to, in some sense, how much untidiness we are prepared to put up with in the name of growth, for the above questions do not have standardized answers. While we might not be able to avoid assessment in teacher preparation, how we implement it and socialize (rather than “train”) students into its adoption and use is crucial. Let us not socialize pre-service teachers into blind compliance and lack of critical reflection. Let’s help them recognize false “devices of art” when they encounter them.


In this section, I share some responses from a question I recently posed in an English education methods undergraduate course that students routinely take during their junior year: What does it mean to treat teachers and educators as professionals? Not surprisingly, some equated it with respect and “support of the communities that surround them,” and one stated that “respect and admiration for educators must first set the tone.” Another student took it even further: “I believe it means never to act, or believe anyone to be, superior over teachers and educators. To treat teachers and educators as professionals is to have an open mind and trust in their decisions.” A classmate echoed this with, “wholly accepting their stance as a professional and an expert.” And this section’s heading comes from a student who explains that, “What it means to treat teachers and educators as professionals is to take them seriously as academics… I believe their craft is something they own.” Interestingly, this student uses the label of “academics,” communicating that educators have devoted themselves to the “craft” of both subject knowledge and pedagogy.

Two students called for a change in how educators are treated as part of their responses. One stated that, “professionals do not need to be micromanaged as most teachers are today. Teachers should be held responsible, not accountable, for their students’ learning needs and requirements.” A classmate feels that “there needs to be an increase in trust given to teachers as they are professional educators.” While pre-service educators are predictably sympathetic to the challenges teachers face in being treated as professionals, they are also deserving of the opportunity to engage in dialogue and reflection throughout their teacher education programs, even when it might be disquieting. We should trust them to be critical.


In 1938, Dewey warned us against “Either-Ors” as they can foreclose “intermediate possibilities” (p. 17). However, in this case, an either-or might well be appropriate: trust us as educators or fail to do so. Professionalism by degrees (e.g., asking educators to make second-tier decisions, like how to implement a mandate once it has been handed down) often has a demoralizing, and counterproductive, effect. Those tasked with assisting pre-service and in-service teachers to become empowered educators must be able to exercise professional judgement and agency themselves.


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 31, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22548, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:06:08 AM

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