More Light: An Argument for Complexity in Studies of Teaching and Teacher Education

By Florio-Ruane, Susan | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

More Light: An Argument for Complexity in Studies of Teaching and Teacher Education


Florio-Ruane, Susan, Journal of Teacher Education


 
   It takes a lot of variables to describe a man, or for that matter a virus; 
   and you cannot often usefully study these variables two at a time. Animate 
   nature also exhibits very confusing instabilities, as students of history, 
   the stock market, or genetics are well aware. (Weaver, cited in Mead, 1976, 
   p. 904) 

The title of this article borrows a metaphor used by Michael Cole (1996) in his book Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Describing the historic "marginality of cross-cultural research to mainstream psychology" (p. 62), Cole commented,

 
   Such a position is uncomfortably reminiscent of the man who searches for 
   his lost car keys only within the arc of light provided by the street lamp, 
   except that psychologists who fail to encounter culture in their carefully 
   designed experiments declare, in effect, that the keys have ceased to exist 
   because they are not under the lamppost. (p. 68) 

Cole urged "approaches that enlarge the `circle of light' in which to look for the keys to relationships between culture and cognition" (p. 68) and illustrated with examples of psychological research taking into account the role of culture in human thought and activity. American educational research in the 20th century is a child of the field of psychology. As such, it shares many of the challenges Cole described. Broadly speaking, research on teaching and teacher education is concerned with the study of mind, culture, and activity. Its focus is the nexus of these in what Erickson (1982) called "taught cognitive learning."

A hallmark of our species, explicit teaching is a skilled craft as well as a cultural tool. By means of teaching, knowledge is encoded, passed on, and transformed over time. This process of teaching operates in the life history of the individual as well as the history of a society. It acts reflexively to conserve a society's norms and standards while enabling individuals' agency and the possibility of social transformation (Eisenhart, 1995). In making teaching and teacher education topics of research during the 20th century, scholars responded to optimism that social science could be mobilized to serve human needs and problems. Their efforts can usefully be thought of in terms of Cole's (1996) metaphor.

Social scientific efforts to understand the complexities of teaching and teacher education--for purposes of improving pupil as well as teacher learning--add more light to a complex subject. However, applied research does not occur in a vacuum. As a social, discursive practice in its own right, research is sensitive to the ebb and flow of resources and problems in society's history and its politics. Thus, what counts as research for informing policy and practice in teaching or teacher education shifts with perception of the problems it might inform, the availability of resources to support it, and the particular interests and values of powerful practitioners and policy makers who use it in their decision making. The remainder of this article is about the light shed by research on the complexities of teaching and teacher education in our time. It is also about circumstances that change the light by which researchers view teaching and teacher education. The article closes with some cautionary thoughts about the tendency to narrow the scope of research to focus only on the spaces immediately relevant to a pressing problem framed by powerful consumers and benefactors of research.

CONSIDERING COMPLEXITY

While on sabbatical in the mid-1980s, I audited an inquiry course at Harvard University taught by Eleanor Duckworth. In it, fledgling researchers were treated to many intriguing and challenging activities. We tracked the behavior of the moon as it made its way through a month of skies. We responded to poems and paintings. We played with mirrors to figure out how they work. …

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