Approaches to Teaching
reviewed by Alan Tom - 1987
In Approaches to Teaching, Gary Fenstermacher and Jonas Soltis take on the ambitious task of distinguishing conceptually three approaches to teaching, identifying the key characteristics and philosophical underpinnings of each approach, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and, most difficult of all, helping the reader either make a choice among the three or decide how to integrate them. In my view, Fenstermacher and Soltis do a fine job of developing the nature of the three approaches, but I believe that their advice on choicemaking/integrating is preliminary and incomplete.
What are the three approaches to teaching? Fenstermacher and Soltis contend that it is possible to distinguish three mutually exclusive conceptions of what teaching is and should be: the executive approach, the therapist approach, and the liberationist approach. These conceptions, which the authors argue are not immutable but rather are human inventions, are claimed to play an important part in how one teaches (p. 3).
The executive approach views the teacher as a person charged with bringing about certain learnings, using the best skills and techniques available (p. 4). The executive teacher, therefore, is first and foremost a manager of learning and concentrates his or her effort on being efficient and effective, without much attention to the ends of teaching. As the authors note, research on effective teaching, especially the so-called process-product tradition, is the basis for identifying the generic teaching skills that constitute the managers repertoire. Ironically, the authors do not cite a single such generic skill, even though the work of N. L. Gage is discussed in the bibliographic essay. Instead, they make two generalizations, namely, that the good executive seeks a clear match between what is taught and what is tested and that this executive maximizes student engaged time since how much students learn is largely determined by the amount of time they study. Just what generic teaching skills are involved in matching teaching and testing or in maximizing student engaged time? The authors failure to speak to this issue gives the executive approach a simplistic cast, implying that the executive teacher does nothing more than apply commonsense generalizations to teaching.
The therapist approach sees the teacher as an empathetic person charged with helping individuals grow personally and reach a high level of self-actualization, understanding, and acceptance (p. 4). In contrast to the teacher-executive who attempts to effectively convey predetermined knowledge to students, the teacher-therapist focuses on the student who is seen as capable of identifying appropriate knowledge and mastering it. The teachers role is one of guiding and assisting the student to take on personal responsibility for learning. Some timely quotes from Paul Goodman, Herbert Kohl, and especially Carl Rogers help bring alive and make concrete a conception of teaching that often is vague and difficult to grasp. Yet there is a certain ambiguity inherent in the therapist approach, particularly concerning what the teacher does to encourage the student to assume responsibility for learning.
The liberationist approach views the teacher as a freer of the individuals mind and a developer of well-rounded, autonomous, rational, and moral human beings (p. 4). The authors draw on classic rationales for liberal education to develop the liberationist perspective on teaching, although they could have appealed to such other versions of liberationist teaching as neo-Marxism or feminism. These alternative versions, which the authors acknowledge but chose not to include, might have helped sharpen the description of the major features of the liberationist approach. As developed, the liberal education variant of the liberationist approach suffers from an abstract presentation of the forms of knowledge and the principles of procedure by which these forms of knowledge have been derived. Few examples are given to illustrate how the learning of a discipline, both its major ideas and its methods of inquiry, can free the mind of the student, the goal of the liberationist approach. Such examples are perhaps difficult to derive from the familiar liberal education variant, but they would have given added clarity to the description of the liberationist approach. Examples, probably striking examples, should have been easier to generate if feminism, neo-Marxism, or some other nonmainline version of liberationism had been selected.
The questions I have raised about the way in which the three approaches are presented and developed are not meant to challenge the validity of the distinctions among the approaches. The executive, therapist, and liberationist approaches to teaching are carefully distinguished; their characteristic features, their underlying assumptions, and their important similarities and differences are cogently presented by the authors. What is missing, at times, is specificityespecially examples that would clarify the nature of these conceptual distinctions for an undergraduate prospective teacher, or even for an experienced teacher. I should note that there are about twenty cases at the end of the book, but these cases would have been more useful, in my view, if they had been integrated into the appropriate chapters.
I believe that the only major conceptual confusion occurs when the authors move from describing and analyzing the three approaches to helping the reader choose among the approaches. Initially, these approaches are presented in a way that makes them mutually exclusive (p. 54) categories, yet in the last chapter the authors suggest that the reader may be able to integrate components of the three approaches or may be able to use different approaches at different times. Most of the last chapter involves an attempt by Fenstermacher and Soltis to develop criteria that could serve as a basis for integrating the approaches or for deciding when a particular approach should be employed.
One potential criterion is practical in nature. The authors point out that the teacher is subject to certain social and political realities, ranging from how a teacher is evaluated to what demands parents make on a teacher. However, Fenstermacher and Soltis conclude that the proper stance for a teacher is to start with a clear conception of teaching and then take into account these realities (in a way that is not explicitly discussed). They assert that if the teacher has a clear conception of teaching, then this professional has the opportunity to control many of the practical forces that impinge on you, rather than falling victim to these forces (p. 53). The authors major purpose seems to be to illustrate how social and political realities can be modified, even controlled, not how these forces can serve as a basis for integrating or choosing among the three approaches to teaching. So much for the criterion of social and political realities.
The second criterion the authors suggest is variation in situations. Here the premise is that certain teaching situations may call for a teacher to be an executive, others lead to the need for a therapist, and yet others suggest the appropriateness of a liberationist. The authors, however, interpret variations in teaching situations only in terms of differences in students. For example, they consider how ones teaching approach might be affected by the presence of a nonreader (executive stance), a battered child (therapist), a talented student (liberationist). Then they proceed to argue against this basis of making choices among teaching approaches; the authors fear that decisions based on differences in students will lead to condemning students to preestablished categories for instruction (p. 55) that will tend to magnify academic differences across types of students. They imply that equity in student learning outcomes may well be inhibited by matching teaching approach to student characteristics. Thus differences in students are rejected as a criterion for deciding when to use the various approaches to teaching.
Even though Fenstermacher and Soltis are unable to develop criteria for integrating or selecting among the approaches to teaching, they close the book with the recommendation that the reader attempt to integrate the three approaches. They acknowledge that integrating the three approaches means you cannot be all three in theory and still be logically consistent and conceptually coherent (p. 56), but the practitioner, they argue, can do what the scholar cannot do: . . . be a sensitive, rational, flexible human being in concrete educational situations while trying to balance worthy multiple goals (p. 57).
If only Fenstermacher and Soltis had given more guidance on how to realize this situation-specific and goal-balancing conception of good teaching, I would conclude that their excellent set of conceptual distinctions is useful to the practitioner. Their preferred conception of teaching, however, with its situational variation and balanced goals, is disconnected from the three pure conceptions, and they fail to provide criteria for bridging the gap. Perhaps their book should have focused only on the three approaches, thus making a significant contribution to the differing ways teaching can be conceptualized. In the end, their ambition to link the three approaches to the daily practice of teaching exceeded their grasp.