Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Slow Transformation: Teacher Research and Shifting Teacher Practices

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Slow Transformation: Teacher Research and Shifting Teacher Practices

Article excerpt


How do teachers change their teaching practices and classroom instruction? What really motivates that change? And if change is made, how is it sustained? What model or models could be constructed to serve as guides for sustained change?

As a teacher with more than 30 years experience at the middle school, secondary, and college level, primarily in English studies, I (the first author) decided a few years ago to reexamine my practices and instructional methods. All teachers are familiar with unmotivated students, and while my classes were at least somewhat motivated, I noticed a few years ago that a growing number of students in my advanced novel class appeared unmotivated and apathetic. I had begun to confront some discipline problems and notice shoddy assignments, formerly rare in the advanced classes I was teaching. Although I did not at the time perceive these problems as crucial, I became highly irritated with these students. I realized, however, that I was not supposed to have any problems with this class. What could be a solution to my newborn problems?

It is easy to blame students for what are perceived as their deficiencies, but I wanted to take a careful look at my own teaching practices. Although after attending workshops and institutes that exhorted teachers to adopt a student-centered classroom I would try to practice some of the progressive ideas expressed there, I would soon find myself slipping back into my standard way of teaching: mostly lecture with some question/answer sessions, all emphasizing my personal interpretations of the texts, themselves based on the critical works of various scholars I had studied while a college student myself. When students would express their own ideas about the work of literature in question I would evaluate them positively or negatively based upon how closely they conformed to my own interpretations. Additionally, I found it much easier to retain the tried and true authoritarian methods when dealing with classroom management, methods not suitable for a student-centered classroom. Though I strongly desired to change my methods, I found that I either would not or could not. I found that modification of pedagogical practice is very difficult to realize. These methods, formerly successful when teaching highly motivated students, were not working well in my present classes.

My Literary Background and Pedagogical Practices

As both an undergraduate and a graduate student in English during the 1960s and 1970s I was trained in formalist methods of teaching called The New Criticism. Although I. A. Richards (1925, 1929) could be considered the "father" of The New Criticism, stronger influences towards my development of literary theory were T. S. Eliot (1933), Allen Tate (1936), John Crowe Ransom (1941), and Cleanth Brooks (1947). Essentially, The New Criticism attempted to objectify literature by showing the organic unity and order of a text. A work of literature is effective in direct relation to this organic unity, which can be understood through a close reading of a text. The best readers are those who possess the most comprehensive command of such literary devices as metaphor, paradox, irony, and symbolism. Under this hierarchical system, the authority of the expert stands at an apex, with a sort of filtering down effect. Critics and scholars such as Tate (1936) and Brooks (1947) stood at the apex, their knowledge progressing from university professors through high school teachers, who in turn passed on the knowledge to their students. To Wellek and Warren (1956) a work of literature ultimately is an object of knowledge which has "special ontological status" (p. 144) that should be interpreted by a student as close to its "objective" reality as possible.

Although The New Criticism was arguably revolutionary when first popularized in the 1930s, by the 1960s it had hardened into dogma and could be misinterpreted by many English teachers. …

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