Core Practices and Philosophy of Education: Balancing Effectiveness With Goodness

by Jeff Frank & Joe McDonough - 2020

Background/Context: This paper is part of the special issue “Reimagining Research and Practice at the Crossroads of Philosophy, Teaching, and Teacher Education.” In it we respond to the question of what role there might be for philosophy of education in an era marked by the demand that students graduating from teacher education programs be immediately effective, with “effectiveness” often narrowly, if not wholly, defined by the results of student standardized test scores.

Research Design: We address the question by offering an appreciative exploration of core practices approaches to teacher education.  We argue (a) that philosophers of education have much to learn by engaging these approaches, and that (b) practitioners and advocates of core practices can deepen their work through a critical appreciation of philosophy of education.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Though philosophy appears marginalized by core practices approaches to teaching and teacher education, we suggest that as core practices gain traction, philosophers of education will find new opportunities to engage with teaching and teacher education. Though much mitigates against this type of work, most notably the pressures related to effectiveness and institutional habits that still often separate methods and foundations courses, we argue that such work is indispensable in rendering teaching, and teacher education, both effective and responsible.

The drive to see teaching through the lens of effectiveness often outweighs other educational values. There is tremendous pressure on teacher education programs to graduate students who are immediately effective in the classroom, where effectiveness is often narrowly defined as how the teacher’s students perform on standardized assessments.1 The same pressure is felt by principals. Teachers must be effective, and principals must locate ineffective teachers and create plans to manage these teachers to improvement or out of the teaching profession. A one-sided drive toward effectiveness crowds out the values of inquiry, reflective dialogue in the classroom, undertaking collaborative work in depth, and the like. It is very difficult to engage in philosophical discussions of teaching when the discourse surrounding teaching is fraught with the language of crisis (Berliner & Biddle, 1996).2 We don’t have time to talk about the philosophical dimensions of teaching, or teaching’s higher ideals, when the public is led to believe that “our nation is at risk” and our students are being “left behind” in growing numbers.

Philosophy responds to the language of crisis by reasserting the importance of taking a broad view of teaching. A good example of this philosophical response is Fentermacher and Richardson’s (2005) discussion of the differences between good teaching and successful teaching. Successful teaching, as they define it, is teaching that gets results. Put simply: Student test scores improve and discipline problems recede; this is successful teaching. But we know that teaching is far more than just this. Teaching is a moral endeavor (Fenstermacher, 2001; Hansen, 2001; Jackson, Boostrom, & Hansen, 1998; Sherman, 2013, that has implications for democracy (Meier, 2002; Zeichner, Payne, & Brayko, 2015), it involves care (Noddings, 2005), it is culturally responsive (Villegas & Lucas, 2002), it calls on us to bring deep attention to our students (Carini & Himley, 2010; Diamond, 2008), and so much else. Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) call this more expansive vision of what the teacher does good teaching and convincingly show that a successful teacher is not always a good one, and that a good teacher is not always successful (we return to this point below). When we allow successful teaching to become the end of teaching, much is lost.

Though this type of philosophical argument is convincing, we have to wonder if it is making an impact on discussions and policies that constrain life in classrooms. If anything, the context of teaching has only become narrower since Fenstermacher and Richardson (2005) published their work. As Santoro (2011a, 2011b; 2018) effectively demonstrates, teachers are demoralized because successful teaching is prioritized to the exclusion of goodness in teaching. When the pursuit of goodness is traded for mere effectiveness, the very possibility of undertaking philosophical inquiry in teaching and teacher education is foreclosed. It feels as if successful, or effective, teaching is all that matters, and that there is very little that philosophers of education can do to change that fact.

At the same time as the language of effectiveness becomes ascendant, teacher education programs are cutting foundations of education courses, like philosophy of education. Foundations courses are cut, in part, because teacher education programs are choosing to focus on teaching students the “core practices” of teaching so that these students will be effective/successful teachers upon graduating (Forzani, 2014; Kennedy, 2016; McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013). Before discussing core practices in more detail, we want to highlight how these two movements—the push for teacher effectiveness and the push to focus on core practices in teacher education programs—can devalue philosophy’s voice. If foundations courses, like philosophy of education, are no longer required, and if successful teaching is valued over good teaching despite philosophy’s protestations, what role is there for philosophy? Are we actually at a crossroads of philosophy, teaching, and teacher education, or is that just wishful thinking on the part of philosophers of education and philosophically minded educators?

We don’t feel like this paper is an exercise in wishful thinking, but we do need to highlight the sense of risk that philosophers of education feel.3 It is not mere nostalgia to lament the fact that the voice of philosophy that once played a more central role in discussions of teaching and teacher education is now marginal. The work of teaching has significant philosophical dimensions, and much is lost when teaching is made into a transmittable skill and not something that can only be fully enacted when the practitioner has a philosophical appreciation for teaching. Our paper is motivated by a general sense of hope that philosophy does, and will continue to, matter for teaching and teacher education. To develop this hope, we will, counterintuitively, turn to core practices, the very thing that seeks to decompose teaching into its central functions so that it can be more effectively taught.4

Though the voice of philosophy alone may not be enough to counterbalance narratives of effectiveness, core practices approaches to teacher education might have the power to offer a compelling counternarrative. Core practices approaches offer up the promise of preparing effective teachers, while also remaining committed to preparing good teachers. As such, core practices may leave the door open to philosophy, even when they aren’t explicitly engaging with philosophy in the form of advocating for things like foundations courses.5 So, instead of using philosophy to speak directly to the problems of narrowing teaching to mere effectiveness, our goal is to philosophically explore core practice approaches to teacher education, hoping that this will help us envision new possibilities for philosophy, teaching, and teacher education in our time.6

Core Practices: Necessary, but not Sufficient?

Core practices approaches to teacher education aim to teach future teachers those things they will need to perform in classrooms if they are to be effective and good. This approach to teacher education is responsive to criticism of teacher education programs that claim they are too focused on learning about teaching, and not very good at preparing teachers who can enact what they learn (Kennedy, 1999; Zeichner, 2010). Some reactions to this criticism of teacher education programs are to create fast tracks to teaching (Holland, 2004), where teachers are taught to copy techniques that will allow them to “teach like a champion” (Lemov, 2010), without engaging the intellectual or moral foundations of teaching. But the core practices approach is not a mere reaction, it is a movement focused on reconstructing university-based teacher education programs from the inside, building on the history and traditions of educational research, theory and practice (Feiman-Nemser, 2006; Green, 2010). This insider reform is admirable, because it aims to bridge the worlds of theory, research, and practice, preparing the best possible teachers in the process (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Grossman, McDonald, Hammermas & Ronfeldt, 2008).

At heart, core practices approaches to teacher education parse teaching into its core components (Kennedy, 2016). Once these core practices are located, then teacher education can focus on making sure that students graduating are able to perform these core practices in classrooms. The TeachingWorks program at the University of Michigan lists nineteen “high-leverage practices” on their website.

1. Leading a group discussion

2. Explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies

3. Eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking

4. Diagnosing particular common patterns of student thinking and development in a subject-matter domain

5. Implementing norms and routines for classroom discourse and work

6. Coordinating and adjusting instruction during a lesson

7. Specifying and reinforcing productive student behavior

8. Implementing organizational routines

9. Setting up and managing small group work

10. Building respectful relationships with students

11. Talking about a student with parents or other caregivers

12. Learning about students’ cultural, religious, family, intellectual, and personal experiences and resources for use in instruction

13. Setting long- and short-term learning goals for students

14. Designing single lessons and sequences of lessons

15. Checking student understanding during and at the conclusion of lessons

16. Selecting and designing formal assessments of student learning

17. Interpreting the results of student work, including routine assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, and standardized assessments

18. Providing oral and written feedback to students

19. Analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it   

One thing that is nice about a list like this is that it gives teacher educators a useful lens to view their work. While there is much of great interest that we would want a future teacher to know, understand and be able to do, a core practices approach distills down the elements of teaching that are necessary for good and effective teaching.

Highlighting high-leverage practices makes it easier to design a teacher education curriculum and it also creates a shared vocabulary that helps support teachers. If everyone at every step of the process of teacher education understands that part of becoming a teacher is analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it, it becomes easier to foreground its significance while helping the future teacher learn how to do this effectively.

New teachers who come into the classroom without knowing how to enact these high-leverage practices will struggle, and this is not fair to the teacher or his or her students. If teacher education took greater responsibility for these practices, teaching their history and theory while also letting teachers try these out in situations calling for increasing levels of independence, it would be a salutary development.

Saying this, core practices approaches to teacher education are not without critics. It is easy to conflate this approach to teacher education with something like “teach like a champion,” where the art of teaching is flattened to a handful of techniques. As well, Zeichner et al. (2015) make the case—one we cannot explore in the detail it deserves here—that core practices approaches to teacher education don’t do enough to highlight the role that democracy plays in teaching and learning to teach. Most interesting to us is Kennedy’s (2016) sympathetic criticism of core practices around the role of judgment when facing the dilemmas of teaching.7 She makes the case that even if a teacher is proficient in all nineteen high-leverage practices, within the finite and time-bound space of school, the teacher will need to exercise judgment.  For example, when does the teacher elicit the individual student’s thinking and when does she encourage small or whole-class discussion? When is a classroom in the quiet of reflection a better place of learning than a classroom filled with the voices of students? When do we need evidence of learning from each individual student, say in the form of a quick formative assessment, and when is it more useful to very informally take the temperature of the room from what one hears as one moves from small group to small group? The classroom is always and necessarily a space bounded by constraints, especially of time and resources, and so we will never be able to do away with teacher judgment (Phelan, 2005).

Even if a teacher knows the 19 high-leverage practices, they will need to exercise a great deal of pedagogical judgment to be an effective teacher. As such, teacher education programs should realize that though learning the core practices is a necessary step in becoming a good and effective teacher, it is not sufficient. Teachers need to learn how to exercise judgment in addition to learning the core practices of teaching. This point suggests a permanent place in teacher education for philosophical inquiry, infused with resources from philosophy of education.

Kennedy is not critical of the goal of teaching the practices necessary to good and effective teaching. Rather, she highlights how these practices, even when they aren’t cast in the mold of mere technique, are not sufficient in themselves. It is in this spirit that we offer what we hope will be a useful expansion of core practices approaches to teacher education. Teachers and aspiring teachers need to develop the high-leverage practices that will make them effective and good teachers.

When we (the co-authors) talked together about teaching, before the conference, at the conference, after the conference, we found that our vision of teaching was almost always centered on the person of the teacher, and the ways in which different teachers seemed to inhabit very different worlds of practice.

Initially, we took this to be an epistemic issue, and turned to pragmatist epistemology to guide our thinking. Developing the work of Elizabeth Anderson (1998, 2010, 2015), herself building on John Dewey,8 we argued that the epistemic framework a teacher brings to her work can change the very objective conditions of that work. What this means is that a teacher who believes that students are capable of excellent work can, in a very real way, will that belief into existence by creating a classroom environment where students can be successful. By contrast, a teacher who subscribes to deficit thinking can create a world in her classroom where those very same students will struggle to be successful. However, as Maria Paula Ghiso and other colleagues at the conference pointed out, it is not the case that structural injustices can be thought or willed away. Just because an individual teacher begins seeing all of her students as capable of learning, it is not the case that the structural injustices that impact students inside and outside the classroom will dissolve. As well, several papers in this special issue reference the work of Walter Mignalo (2009), and we’ve come to appreciate the work it would take to extricate our pragmatic understanding of epistemology from forms of epistemology that exert something like colonialist power.9

Instead of casting our discussion in terms of epistemology, we reminded ourselves that we were more drawn to understanding Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1921/1999) evocative remark that: “The world of the happy (wo)man is a different one from that of the unhappy (wo)man” (p. 87). Though epistemology is a useful lens one can use to understand this remark, our goal is to center our thinking on how the world of one teacher can be very different from the world of another teacher, and how two teachers enacting the same core practice might do so in very ways. The person of the teacher enacting the practice matters more than current discussions of core practices approaches appear to appreciate.10 Just as a teacher needs to exercise judgment when enacting the core practices, we believe that attention needs to be paid to the person enacting these practices. For example, scholars have emphasized the place of teacher dispositions in good practice (Murrell, Diez, Feiman-Nemser, & Schussler, 2010), and in the following section we develop what we mean when we assert that more attention needs to be paid to the person enacting the core practices and how this might impact the ways we think about teacher education. The teacher’s distinctive reasoning and human sensitivity necessarily come into play, establishing a presence in the classroom that is immediately felt by students (Cammarano, 2016), and teacher education will be rendered effective and good by coming to terms with this reality.

Poetics and Presence: Exploring the Person Enacting the Practices

Toward the end of his life, John Dewey became interested in developing a science of education, because he was frustrated by all that is lost when a good teacher retires. Instead of teaching what he or she knows to other teachers, her accomplishments die with her (Dewey, 2008b; Frank, 2017a). Core practices approaches to teacher education have been inspired by this vision, and it, in no small way, drives the work of creating teacher education programs that graduate teachers able to enact high-leverage practices (Hiebert & Morris, 2012). But, Dewey’s vision of a science of education runs into the problem we briefly introduce above. Two teachers can implement the same practice in the classroom— and though we certainly don’t endorse this practice, they might even read from the same script—and yet get different responses from students. This is frustrating for teachers and reformers, but it also points to the irreducibly human dimension of teaching which we will discuss in more detail below.

The frustration, and I imagine we have all felt it in some form, is watching a master teacher promote engagement and learning for her students, and then trying to bring that teacher’s work back to our own students and failing to get the same type of response. We can imagine the reformer feeling something similar as she watches how variously a policy or practice is implemented in schools. On a small scale, we can think of the principal bringing a new character education program back to his or her school, and then finding that some teachers run with the program in ways that transform the schooling experience for students, while other teachers see it as additive, another obligation or burden that proves demotivating and demoralizing.

As much as we should try to learn from other teachers, and research on and from teaching, in ways that improve our own practice, we have to appreciate just how human the work of teaching is. David Hansen (2004) makes this point in a powerful way while developing a poetics of teaching:

A poetics [of teaching] discloses how inseparable are the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching when it is being done well and in earnest. This fusion comes to light in what teacher educators, mentor teachers, and school principals often look for in candidates. In brief, they look for qualities of human being. (p. 131)

Hansen’s analysis summarizes a concern we’ve had while assessing teaching. We worry that even our best instruments somehow fail to measure what we value most.11 When assessing teachers and future teachers we’ve had the feeling that a teacher may do nothing wrong by the lights of even the best rubric, and yet we sense that something significant, maybe even central, to teaching is somehow not touched. The assessments do not allow us to have conversations about the qualities of human being that are central to teaching.12 By focusing on the poetics of teaching, Hansen shows us that we cannot talk about high-leverage practices alone. We should also engage the moral, intellectual and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and aim to touch the qualities of the human being doing the teaching if we are to promote good and effective teaching.  

More, and as Rogers and Raider-Roth (2006) so helpfully remind readers, what matters most in many learning environments is that the teacher is fully present to her students and the world they share (see, also, Cammarano, 2016; Ritchhart, 2015). Even though a teacher does nothing particularly wrong by the lights of a rubric, though they have relatively good facility with the core practices, we—the observers, the students, often even the teacher herself—can feel or perceive that something is off. The teacher is not connecting with students, she or he is not connecting students with curriculum. Though there are no glaring problems or obvious issues, the classroom isn’t animated by the qualities of human being that are central to good teaching.

We worry that it is difficult to talk about those qualities of human being because when we narrow teaching to effectiveness, so much becomes about meeting external indicators and little else. Teacher and principal, or student-teacher and teacher educator, can get trapped in a legalistic relationship. When effectiveness is measured somewhere “out there,” say on a rubric or other official measure, it can be hard to have genuine conversations about the human act of educating. Charles Taylor (2014), drawing on the work of Ivan Illich (Cayley, 2004), writes about how the moral life of organizations gets caught in mere moralism with the rise of modern bureaucracies. What Taylor is getting at can be seen clearly in schools. As schools become more bureaucratic, focusing on external measures of success that are standardized across individual teachers and very different school contexts, it can be hard to have human conversations responsive to the persons in the roles of teacher and student.


In light of this concern, we see an important role for philosophy in facilitating conversations about the difference between the moral classroom or school and the merely legalistic or moralistic one. These philosophical conversations can happen during teacher education, where student teachers can appreciate that high-leverage practices are not mere techniques to be followed. Developing a philosophical understanding of the core practices can teach the future teacher that these practices can be animated, and continuously reconstructed, by the ongoing teaching and living experiences of the person educating (Dewey, 2008c). And, these conversations can continue once the teacher has her or his own classroom. This work can be taken up in graduate school or between principal and teacher, but this type of conversation is essential. As discussed above, good and effective teaching requires that teachers learn the core practices, but these practices are not enough.  

One way to facilitate this type of conversation is to take up the distinction Danish philosopher Knud Løgstrup (1997) develops between the roles we play and the person we are.13 The role of police officer, or lawyer or doctor can constrain our humanity in ways that keep us from being the type of person who can provide the type of care and respect other people deserve and call us to offer. Martinsen (2006), building from Løgstrup, writes about how nursing is constrained in so many ways: by institutional architecture, by profit-oriented hospital policies, and so on. Yet, when the nurse is attending to a patient, what is most needed is the quality of attention and care the nurse can give the patient. Nurses know they must be fully proficient in all the policies and practices that allow them to maintain the role of nurse, but as Martinsen (2006) so profoundly demonstrates, they must never let that role choke out the person. The person is what the patient needs, as much as they need a nurse who understands how to navigate a bureaucracy and find a tricky vein; working within the systems and procedures to provide person-centered care.

Having a conversation with teachers about the relation between role and person, drawing upon a variety of thinkers like Løgstrup and Martinsen, may help illuminate the importance of becoming a certain type of person in the role as teacher. This work will be highly individual, and it certainly should not be mandated or coerced: It should be animated by a moral, and not a bureaucratic, spirit. Just as the move to action research is salutary in the ways it can empower teachers to let their lived experience guide their studies (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009), philosophical discussions of teaching can do something similar. The questions that guide philosophical action research will be personal to the teacher, and these questions can address anything from the conflicted ways a teacher feels about her or his authority, to questions about what students should know and be able to do upon graduation, to how we can collaborate with more experienced teachers, especially when visions of the good life of teaching (Higgins, 2011) come into conflict. These questions are deeply practical, but they also benefit from a philosophical lens.  As core practices approaches to teaching evolve and develop, room can be made to do philosophical action research in teaching.14

Changing the direction of emphasis, there is also philosophical and practical value in core practices for teachers who have never had formal teacher education. That is, we know teachers who are considered good and effective instructors and who have not received formal teacher education. We can think of teachers who are in public schools through alternate route programs or teachers in private schools who never had education coursework. These teachers may excel at connecting with students and creating a rigorous and engaging classroom experience for many of them. Oftentimes, these teachers are considered natural teachers or favorite teachers, and these types of teachers are also often upheld by programs and pundits critical of teacher education as the best argument against so-called traditional teacher education. We should recognize the value of these teachers and their limitations.

There is value to having teachers who can, largely through the force of their person and passion for what they teach, connect with, and inspire, students to aspire to and realize their better selves. But these teachers often give the impression, or they may themselves hold the belief, that teaching is a solitary act and that it is not an art that one can learn in community and collaboration with others. This can limit the teacher’s continued growth as an educator (Stigler & Hiebert, 2009). The so-designated natural teacher can come to believe that she has nothing to learn outside the door of her own classroom, and so limit her connections to other teachers and research on teaching. It is especially important for teachers who have not had formal teacher education experience to seek out an understanding of best practices. While the charismatic teacher compels the admiration of some of her students, this compulsion comes at a cost the teacher needs to account for. For example, though assessment can get in the way of and stifle transformative experience, the teacher who relies on charisma and intuition needs to consider what effective formative assessment accomplishes for students, even if it compels the teacher to transform who they are and how they understand the practice of teaching (Frank, 2017b).

This may be too harsh a judgment, but we worry that just as some teachers are able to enact the core practices to the neglect of the person, teachers can be so focused on cultivating the person-centric dimensions of teaching that they don’t see the opportunity, or need, to learn from something like the core practices. A philosophical approach to teaching should not dismiss the core practices before experimenting with them, for at least two reasons. First, we can all become better teachers, and core practices approaches represent the collaborative work and wisdom of practitioners, scholars, students and researchers and so should be taken seriously as a path toward professional growth. Second, as more philosophically inclined teachers, teacher educators and principals engage with core practices, new possibilities emerge for philosophy and teaching. We see this possibility enacted in an especially compelling way in the article in this special issue by Cara Furman and Shannon Larsen, where the practice of thinking-in-action is taught to future teachers through interruptions. What Furman and Larsen accomplish in practice and described in their paper can be seen as the reconstruction of a high-leverage practice (19 listed above) that allows future teachers to more fully enact work that is central to good and effective teaching. There is much to commend work like this and believe it opens out new possibilities for philosophy, teaching and teacher education and turn to these in our final section.

Reverence and Effectiveness: Opening Possibilities for Philosophy, Teaching and Teacher Education

Core practices approaches to teacher education offer a promising approach to preparing teachers who will perform effectively in the classroom. Teachers will learn, and practice, the essential elements of teaching, and this will put them in a position to be effective teachers. If core practices approaches are successful, and we think they can be, this may have the salutary effect of freeing teacher education programs from the persistent criticism that they fail to graduate effective teachers (Levine, 2006).

But, there is always the risk that breaking teaching into its key elements, decomposing practice so that it can be more effectively taught (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009), will have the unintended consequence of keeping us from appreciating how teaching is a holistic art deeply connected to the person doing the teaching. We may forget, in Hansen’s (2004) evocative way of putting it, that teaching is “a task that calls upon the teacher’s disposition as much as it does his or her formal preparation” (p. 119).

Core practices approaches to teacher education are very clearly not offering anything like a script or a mere teaching technique. And, core practice approaches are also committed to producing effective teachers who are also good ones (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 2005). But, given the pressure around effectiveness that can feel overwhelming in our time, we need to be aware of the risk of unintentionally banishing the human from teaching and teacher education. To help us think about how to avoid this type of banishment, a banishment that would result in flattening teacher education to mere technique, we develop Bertrand Russell’s thinking on reverence.15

These are long quotations, but worth quoting in full, especially because they offer a powerful expression of the role that reverence can play in teaching.16 Russell (1916/1961) writes that a teacher:

must be filled through and through with the spirit of reverence. . . . Reverence requires imagination and vital warmth. . . . The child is weak and superficially foolish, the teacher is strong, and in an everyday sense wiser than the child. The teacher without reverence, the bureaucrat without reverence, easily despises the child for these outward inferiorities. He thinks it is his duty to ‘mould’ the child: in imagination he is the potter with the clay. (p. 402)

Russell goes on:

The [teacher] who has reverence will not think it is his duty to ‘mould’ the young. He feels in all that lives, but especially in human beings, and most of all in children, something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world. In the presence of a child he feels an unaccountable humility—a humility not easily defensible on any rational ground, and yet somehow nearer to wisdom than the easy self-confidence of many parents and teachers. (p. 403)

We find these quotations to be quite beautiful in the ways they capture the spirit of something we’ve both felt while teaching and working with teachers. The teacher educator and the principal have power, and when the person wielding that power is not “filled through and through with the spirit of reverence,” then it is easy to act in ways that make the student or teacher being taught feel as if they are despised for the fact that they need to learn how to improve their practice. So despised, the teacher can easily shut down and resist the education aimed at helping them improve.

More, when the teacher educator acts as if they have the answer to a problem of practice, then they can approach the teacher in the spirit of molding Russell refers to above. In the list of high-leverage practices published by the University of Michigan, number five is: “Implementing norms and routines for classroom discourse and work.” One can imagine a teacher educator, deeply knowledgeable in norms and routines that work in many classrooms, teaching these to teacher candidates in ways that flatten them to activities that can be implemented, not ideals that are lived and enacted (Kennedy, 1999). Because the teacher educator has taught these norms multiple times, it can be easy to forget that the students learning them are engaging them for the first time. More, any norm is lived through the person enacting it, and teacher education can involve studies that philosophically explore the creation, maintenance and repair of classroom environments and how this effectives norms and routines. To remember that there is “something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious” about routines for classroom discourse, philosophical inquiry into classroom discussion and listening in schools may be of special value (Haroutunian-Gordon, 1991; Schultz, 2003). The teacher educator will be most effective when she remains alive (Hansen, 2011) to the unique and strangely precious in the daily routines. This aliveness renders the daily life of classrooms more full of goodness, and teacher education responsive to philosophical inquiry is uniquely positioned to teach how norms and routines can be enacted in ways that lead to goodness and effectiveness.  

A spirit of reverence entails a new way of seeing the teacher or future teacher. Sherman (2013) speaks to this when she writes,

To see teacher candidates with clarity, the teacher educator is highly alert and seeks closeness not solely to the persons teacher candidates are now, but also to the teachers they are becoming and are capable of becoming—for example, teachers who interact with students in genuine, humane ways, can think critically, make reasoned pedagogical decisions, have patience in the most trying situations, and act in the best interests of students, even when it means committing an exceptional amount of time and energy. (p. 128)

Two things stand out from Sherman’s thinking. First, a sense of vision (Hawkins, 1974). We should be able to see the teacher candidate we are working with in her present capabilities, but we can also endeavor to envision the teacher she or he might become. Bringing a philosophical orientation to the work of teacher education, drawing on thinkers like Hansen on poetics and Russell on reverence, helps us achieve this angle of vision. Instead of getting ensnared in the instrumentalities of teaching the future teacher, we make use of the freedom to step back and consider the ways in which our work touches something vital in the aspiring teacher and the work of teaching. To remain in touch with this sense of vitality, we can practice the type of humility that reminds us that even our best practices can be reconstructed.17

Second, Sherman’s thinking suggests a list of practices that are notably absent from the “high-leverage practices” listed above, but which are central to the life of any classroom. Here is Sherman’s philosophically informed list. We need teachers,  

1. Who interact with students in genuine, humane ways

2. Can think critically

3. Make reasoned pedagogical decisions

4. Have patience in the most trying situations,

5. Act in the best interests of students, even when it means committing an exceptional amount of time and energy  

We hope a main takeaway of this paper is to demonstrate the need to create, expand and talk about lists like this, and then think about how we might teach and assess these philosophically reconstructed core practices as a part of teacher education. It is good that we work to name the practices we value, because once they are named, they can be cultivated.18 Though each of us may value the patient teacher when we see him or her working with students, unless we foreground the importance of patience when teaching an aspiring teacher, it is likely she or he won’t just “pick it up,” especially when they are very consciously working to demonstrate how they meet the goals they are assessed on as a part of their teacher education program.

More, research in experimental philosophy and culturally responsive pedagogies make plain that significant ethical and moral change happens within a cultural context and the range and depth of change possible is constrained (Flanagan, 2016; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Our interest in reverence can be judged as nostalgic or sentimental, and any talk of the preciousness of the individual runs these risks. Saying this, acknowledging the difficulties of significant moral and ethical growth is a step along the way to making the attempt to change, not reason for hopelessness.19 Though difficult, moral growth is possible. As Delpit (1995) so powerfully demonstrates, moral and ethical growth are facilitated when teachers and teacher educators do the work of making explicit pitfalls and possibilities that students will face. Core practices help foreground aspects of learning to teach that would be made far more difficult were they left in the background.

Finally, there is a key dilemma that thinking about core practices allows us to see very clearly. There is a tension between recognizing something as valuable so that it can be taught and casting it into a mold that one is fitted to. The philosophical side of our own selves often resists naming and assessing what we value because we can feel so powerfully the risks of losing the human and our sense of reverence when we do this. But, thinking about core practices allows us to see the importance of articulating those philosophical dimensions of teaching so that we might foreground how these can be taught and assessed in ways that promote their acquisition. Here we need to differentiate assessment of learning from assessment for learning (Earl, 2003; Shepard, 2000; Wiggins, 1998). Though assessing that a teacher learned something through her teacher education is valuable (assessment of learning), it is often far more important that we use assessments that make it easier for candidates to learn those practices that we value and that will prepare them for their first classroom (assessment for learning).20

There are new possibilities for philosophers, teacher educators, and teachers to work together to articulate those very practices, and then to think creatively about how to assess and teach them. This work will not get off the ground if philosophers and philosophically minded educators refuse it, fearing that this type of work will have the unintended consequences of narrowing the philosophically envisioned practices to mere techniques. The fear is one that should be acknowledged and lived with, motivating anyone undertaking this work to continuously evaluate the translation of ideals into practices.21 It is risky work, but essential.

In undertaking this work, we can continuously wonder how to balance the need to teach practices that allow teachers to be effective and make continued progress as educators, while at the same time holding on to Russell’s sense of “something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life” in each educational encounter. Here we gesture in the direction of the potential for developing something like core practices for teaching teacher educators. The transition from teacher to student of teaching to teacher educator is not always a seamless one.22 New principals and new teacher educators can also be provided the type of education that will prepare them to exercise humility and vision coupled with practices that will empower them to educate the teachers looking to them for guidance. More, teacher educators also balance bureaucratic roles: reporting data to state departments of education, accrediting agencies, and so on. Learning how to manage these responsibilities along with responsibilities to teach, do research, navigate and negotiate budgets, all while cultivate ways of being human that keep us responsive to the worlds of vitality in teaching is a challenge that many of us were not directly educated for. If we can begin making progress on reverently teaching the core practices of teaching, we might—at the same time—think about how to develop core practices of teacher education that will free teacher educators to do their work with deeper reverence and effectiveness.  

We began this paper commending Fenstermacher and Richardson’s (2005) discussion of the differences between good teaching and successful teaching, and we close on a similar note. When our vision of teaching is narrowed to mere effectiveness, the work of teaching and teachers become demoralized (Santoro, 2011a; 2011b; 2018). But a teacher can be effective and good (Oser, Dick, & Patry, 1992). Becoming this type of teacher, though, is not easy. Striking the balance between effectiveness and goodness in teaching is one of those impossible dilemmas that make teacher education the endlessly interesting and valuable work it is, ensuring that philosophical inquiry will always have a role to play in the education of teachers, even if its current role in teacher education is uncertain at best. We see our paper as reminder that philosophy matters for teaching and are hopeful that this, in its own very small way, keeps the voice of philosophy a live presence for teacher educators.   


1. The widespread adoption of the edTPA exam as a means to certification (Pecheone & Whittaker, 2016)—despite some reservations as to its ability to predict effective teaching (Goldhaber, Cowan, & Theobald, 2017)—is one example of the drive to effectiveness. More, CAEP accreditation puts a heavy emphasis on teacher performance after graduation. For a philosophical discussion of some of these issues, see Frank (2018).

2. This is an old reference, but the analysis remains true today. For an update of the argument, see Berliner and Glass (2014).

3. Some examples of work that highlights the devaluing of philosophy of education can be found in: Arcilla (2002), Bullough and Kriedel (2011), Burbules (2002), Butin (2005), Fenstermacher (2002), Laverty (2014), Wortham (2011). Saying this, it is important to appreciate that the devaluing of philosophy may be as old as philosophy itself. Philip Jackson’s (1986) essay on the mimetic and transformative traditions dramatically captures this sense of ongoing tension and present risk. See also, Frank (2017b).

4. For an excellent discussion of the risks involved in decomposing teaching and a reminder of philosophy’s central importance for teaching see Cammarano (2016).

5. What is very interesting about this is the ways in which core practices aim to overcome the dualism foundation/methods (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009; Grossman, McDonald, Hammermas & Ronfeldt, 2008). That is, though the traditional foundations course may not be offered, central themes from foundations are discussed in relation to how they can be enacted in classrooms. For a discussion of this in relation to philosophy of education, see Frank (2015).

6. As Dewey (2008a) so aptly reminds, direct attacks are often as wasteful in war as they are in teaching (MW.9.176).

7. There is a wonderfully rich literature on dilemmas in teaching, for some examples, see: Lampert (1985), Levinson and Fay (2016), Richart (2012). On the role of judgment, see Hostetler (1997).

8. Here, we think especially of Dewey’s (2008c) thinking that “Every genuine experience has an active side which changes in some degree the objective conditions under which experiences are had” (LW.13.22).

9. This work is very important, but it would take a separate paper. For examples of what this project might look like, see Frank (2013) and Frank (2018).

10. Again, we don’t see our paper as a criticism of core practices, so much as a friendly emendation along the lines of Kennedy (2016).

11. This is not a criticism or even a discussion of the validity or reliability of using rubrics and related instruments to assess teachers, there is extensive literature on this topic (Valli, Croninger, & Walters, 2007; Yusko & Feiman-Nemser, 2008).

12. A beautiful discussion of this sense of the human can be found in Diamond (1991).

13. For interesting discussions of role and person in teaching, see Buchmann (1987), Hansen (1993, in press) and Osguthorpe (2009).

14. We see this philosophy-in-action already existing in many approaches to teacher education, notably in Carroll, Featherstone, Featherstone, Feiman-Nemser, and Roosevelt (2007).

15. A word of comment may be in order here. Bertrand Russell is not a voice that is often not heard in discussions on teaching or philosophy of education, and this may be due to images that flatten Russell to a mere logical positivist. But Russell was a committed educational reformer, and his thinking on education—though he disassociates it from his larger philosophical project (Passmore, 1980)—are rich, as we hope these passages prove.

16. For an excellent discussion of reverence in the philosophy of education literature (Rud & Garrison, 2012).

17. Emerson’s (1841/1983) thinking in “Circles” captures this sense that beyond even our best accomplishment or settled practice new possibilities can be cultivated. For a moving discussion of humility, see Hansen (2001).

18. It is not an exact parallel, but we see Lisa Delpit (1995) making a similar point in her critical discussion of progressive education. Delpit makes the case that some things are important to spell out so that they can be taught. If we don’t, we run the risks of perpetuating injustices, with the best of all intentions. In the case of teacher education, when we don’t articulate and try to teach a value, and yet reward it when we see it in a teacher, we may be doing an injustice to those teachers who don’t just pick it up.

19. For an excellent discussion on the possibilities of moral improvement in the face of injustice, see Calhoun (1989).

20. For an example of this type of work, see Sockett (2012). Instead of leaving the acquisition of important values to chance, Sockett provides aspiring teachers with rubrics that help them see what the value looks like and where they stand in relation to its acquisition.

21. This, of course, is just another way of describing John Dewey’s philosophy of education. As Dewey (2008b) writes: “As far as the philosophy of education effects anything important, this is what it accomplishes for those who study it. Ideas are ideas, that is, suggestions for activities to be undertaken, for experiments to be tried” (LW.5.30).

22. For an interesting narrative of this process, see Zeichner (2005). All the other articles in that issue also touch on the importance of thinking more about how we educate teacher educators. For an excellent brief overview of the issue, see Stillman and Anderson (2015).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 4, 2020, p. 1-22 ID Number: 23075, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:13:01 AM

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