Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Limits of Teacher Education Reforms: School Subjects, Alchemies, and an Alternative Possibility

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Limits of Teacher Education Reforms: School Subjects, Alchemies, and an Alternative Possibility

Article excerpt

Central to contemporary U.S. school and professional reforms are calls for teachers to have greater disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge for teaching school subjects such as physics, mathematics, history, and literacy education. A solid foundation in subject matter and pedagogical knowledge, reformers argue, will enable teachers to improve the quality of education. Thus, they will efficiently "anticipate and respond to typical student patterns of understanding and misunderstanding within a content area, and [demonstrate] the ability to create multiple examples and representations of challenging topics that make the content accessible to a wide range of learners" (Grossman & Schoenfeld, 2005, p. 201).

The democratic promise of a just and equitable society embodied in the reforms is important; yet the particular principles about school knowledge and participation assumed to fulfill this promise cannot be taken for granted. Schooling and its school subjects embody translation processes that move complex disciplinary fields into pedagogical practices. The system of reason that orders school subjects and its modes of learning embodies principles that are not merely about learning content. The principles generated in making school subjects are processes of governing reflection and action through pedagogical rules and standards.

In asking about the "reason" that orders and governs the school subjects in teacher education reforms, this article recognizes that processes of translation that produce school subjects never merely replicate the original. The pedagogical discourses that form school subjects are acts of creation: Pedagogy is a practice that converts the practices of mathematics, for example, into concepts related to the psychology of the child and learning, systematizing particular strategies about what is recognized and enacted as classroom experiences. I use the notion of alchemy to think about those principles (Popkewitz, 2004, 2008). As with the 16th- and 17th-century alchemists who sought to transform one type of metal into another, (1) pedagogy is a process of translation that moves the "things" of disciplinary practices from one space to another and is not merely one of replication that captures, for example, what scientists or historians do or know.

This discussion is organized as follows. The first section argues that the principles of didactics or "the methods courses" of teacher education are drawn from educational psychologies that historically have little to do with the understanding of disciplinary knowledge. The psychologies of pedagogy are designed historically to govern who the child is and should be, whether that talk is about becoming a problem solver, a good citizen, a lifelong learner, and so on (Popkewitz, 2008). Furthermore, there is an ironic quality to the school alchemy of current reforms. The pedagogies of problem solving and participation to democratize schooling may insert a particular hierarchy of expertise that narrows the range of reflection and action and, to use a current phrase, conserves rather than enables social reconstruction. The second section explores an alternative register for construction of school subjects, drawing on the studies of science, technology, and mathematics. The sociologies and histories of these disciplines are methods to translate the very fields that form school subjects and, in doing so, provide an alternative interpretative framework for thinking about teaching methods and school subjects (e.g., Czarniawska & Sevon, 2005; Serres, 1983). The use of science and technology studies, however, is not meant to be reductive but to recognize Michael Polanyi's (1967) observation. He suggests that the poet and the physicist do not see the same thing when they wake up in the morning and see the rising sun.

The approach taken in this article is synoptic, drawing on different historical, ethnographic, and discursive studies of pedagogy (e. …

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