Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Parsing the Practice of Teaching

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Parsing the Practice of Teaching

Article excerpt

Over the years, teacher educators have tried several times to partition the fluid practice of teaching so that they could articulate its constituent parts, define the specific bodies of knowledge that are relevant to teaching practice, or define the practices that comprise teaching, or those things that comprise "good teaching" in particular. If such an analysis were available to us, we would be more able to converse with each other about our goals and to provide more coherent guidance to novices about their future work.

But we have never reached agreement on any partitions, for a variety of reasons. One problem has been finding the right "grain size" for parsing teaching practice. If we break practice into very small bits, our lists become too long and our curriculum crowded with minutia. However, if the partitions are too large, we may have difficulty clarifying individual parts in a way that helps novices "see" them. Another problem has been making individual parts meaningful, once they are isolated from the rest of teaching. We may define a collection of discrete actions without attention to the role these actions play in context. Yet another problem is that we might be able to identify specific parts of teaching but not be able to articulate why one version of this part is better than another. Finally, because our field is susceptible to fads, we may identify behaviors that are fashionable or valued at the moment, and then lose interest in them over time. Thus, we may stop teaching about a particular kind of task not because it lacks value to teachers but only because we are bored with it or take it for granted ourselves.

There are two versions of this "parsing problem." One version appears when we decide our curriculum should focus more on knowledge; the other appears when we decide our curriculum should focus more on practice itself. Teacher educators have a long history of vacillating between these two approaches to curriculum, but they face the parsing problem either way. A good example of this can be seen in our last turn toward bodies of knowledge. Following an extensive focus on teaching behaviors through the 1960s and 1970s, the field of education turned in the late 1980s toward the role of knowledge in teaching. Much of this was stimulated by the writings of Lee Shulman (1986a, 1986b, 1987). As teacher educators began to think about the knowledge needed for teaching, more and more bodies of knowledge were identified. Whole books were published outlining relevant bodies of knowledge, typically with a chapter devoted to each domain. As time went on, the number of chapters in these books continually increased, going from 13 chapters (D. C. Smith, 1983) to 15 (Kennedy, 1989) to 24 (Reynolds, 1990) to 28 (Murray, 1996). Eventually, we reach a stage where so many bodies of knowledge are relevant to teaching that the curriculum of teacher education becomes unwieldy.

We are now in a moment when we are retuning again toward the things teachers actually do, the visible practices of teaching, and again we are interested in finding a way to parse teaching practice into comprehensible parts. This question of how we parse teaching practice is the focus of this article. It has two main parts. In the first, I examine three different efforts to parse teaching practice into its constituent parts and I use these examples to illustrate the general problems associated with parsing teaching practice. In the second, I argue for an alternative approach, one that does not sort out the visible behaviors of teaching, but instead sorts practices according to their purpose and to how they contribute to overall lessons.

Three Ways to Parse Teaching Practice

Teachers Do Activities

Perhaps the earliest effort to partition teaching practice was the Commonwealth Teacher Training Study (Charters & Waples, 1929), a very extensive and intensive effort in the late 1920s to identify all the activities teachers did. …

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