Do Academic Origins Influence Perspectives on Teaching?

Article excerpt


Factors that influence the process of a teacher's development are only partially understood. Some researchers have shown that students enter preservice education programs believing that good teaching is highly related to their knowledge and their ability to convey that knowledge to others (Powell, 1992; Hollingsworth, 1989; Woodlinger, 1985; Weinstien, 1990). Feiman-Nemser et al (1988), for example, found that prospective elementary teachers begin their introductory education course believing that teaching is telling" and that learning is reproducing what the teacher tells you. Although the authors made no attempt to correlate specific disciplines with specific orientations to teaching, their overall findings suggest a possible relationship between disciplinary majors and personal beliefs about teaching.

Yet we know from other research that the types of knowledge to be taught (and learned) do influence the approach a teacher takes. For example, using two of Habermas' (1971) forms of knowledge (instrumental and communicative), Cross (1991) and Cranton (2002) found that the sciences were more concerned with transmitting instrumental knowledge, while disciplines that study human interactions were more often concerned with facilitation of communicative knowledge. This bespeaks differences not only in forms of knowledge, but in forms o f teaching. Moreover, Lattuca and Starak (1995) and Braxton (1995) found that disciplines such as biology, physics, and chemistry tended to be less receptive to concerns for the improvement of teaching (such as changing from transmission to facilitation) than did the humanities and social sciences. Menges and Austin (2001) noted disciplinary differences in the character of thinking that were fostered among students across disciplines. And in a 1991-1992 survey, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that faculty members held stronger affinity and loyalty to their discipline than to their department or their institution. Presumably the common commitment was established during training in their respective disciplines and continued into their professional lives. Finally, Knight and Trowler (2000) found that faculty members tended to take on the normative values, beliefs, and practices of teaching within their discipline. They found, for example, that faculty members believed that the teaching practices of their own discipline were not only appropriate to that discipline but were generally preferable to forms of teaching found in other disciplines. It seems that a culture of teaching exists within disciplines and that students are, wittingly or not, enculturated into the norms of teaching and learning that characterize their disciplines (Pratt & Nesbit 2000).

Thus we know that studying within a discipline, especially to a level commensurate with an undergraduate or graduate degree, is a form of enculturation into ways of thinking, forms of knowledge, and normative roles for both teachers and learners. As Bird, Anderson, Sullivan, and Swindler (1993) suggest, preservice teachers enter their B.Ed. programs as "experienced actors in the school that they have attended ... from that experience, they have formed beliefs about schooling, teaching, and learning that are likely to vary with their histories and circumstances." It would not be surprising, therefore, to expect that students entering teacher training from undergraduate degrees in science, for example, might hold beliefs about teaching that differ from the beliefs of those who enter teacher training fresh out of degrees in the arts or the social sciences. Yet we have little or no empirical evidence to support or refute this contention; nor do we have evidence to say how those normative beliefs might differ, if indeed they do.

To explore these questions and others, we tracked 356 teachers-in-training as they exited undergraduate degree programs in a variety of specific disciplines and entered a one-year intensive teacher-training program. …