Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

How the Alchemy Makes Inquiry, Evidence, and Exclusion

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

How the Alchemy Makes Inquiry, Evidence, and Exclusion

Article excerpt

An odd thing happens on the way to school. As the sorcerer of the middle ages sought to turn lead into gold, modern teaching and teacher education produce a magical transformation in the disciplines of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. School subjects transmogrify the disciplines into social and psychological concepts about, for example, developing children's intuitive understandings, meeting academic standards, or forming the dispositions, attitudes, and content knowledge held by children. I call this transformation an alchemy.

The alchemy of school subjects provides a way to think about the theory or frame of reference that organizes inquiry and constitutes evidence in teacher education. First, the organization of teaching school subjects is directed to the administration of the dispositions, sensitivities, and awareness of the child and teacher, what in earlier times was called the soul. Second, the alchemy obscures the normalizing and dividing practices of teaching. This includes reformulating questions of diversity into a particular curriculum enactment that has consequences for social exclusion and inclusion.


Research on pedagogical content knowledge and clinical experiences assumes that teaching school subjects brings the academic knowledge of science, social science, the arts, and literature to children. But an alchemy occurs as the knowledge of an academic field moves into the school. School subjects are organized in relation to the expectations related to the school timetable, conceptions of childhood, and organizational theories of teaching. The question of academic or disciplinary fields is transmogrified into social psychologies of instruction and theories for changing the dispositions and characteristics of the teacher and child. The magic of the transformation is to reconfigure the academic fields in schools so that only the namesake appears, as a ubiquitous doorplate to mark a house.

The fact that an alchemy exists in schools is not surprising. Children are not scientists or mathematicians. What is surprising is the peculiar school alchemy, three aspects of which are explored in this article. First, psychology is superimposed onto pedagogical practices. Its focus is the administration of the child. Second, teacher education research evaluates and calculates the governing of the soul of the teacher and the child. And third, school subjects are treated as secure, fixed things of subject content and propositions. This crystallization of disciplinary knowledge enables the pedagogical enactments that govern the soul. The three elements of the alchemy shape and fashion inquiry and evidence of teacher education.

Psychology as the translation tool. The translation of school subjects into psychological concepts is obvious when curriculum standards are examined. Music and mathematics education, for example, are different practices, but they have the same organizing principles. The standards of curriculum are retrofitted into psychologies of the child. National curriculum standards in music are fundamentally about the child's ability to think (informed decision making or problem solving), to develop skill in communication (defending an argument, working effectively in groups), to produce quality work (acquiring and using information), and to make connections with community (recognizing and acting on responsibilities as a citizen). The standards of mathematics education are no different. They are arranged through psychological studies of age-related learning. School subjects are thus transmogrified into the performances of the psychologies of the child and teacher!

In mathematics education, the alchemic transformation can be explored further. On the surface, the discussion is about teaching children about mathematics. Teacher education research focuses on the content and structure of teachers' knowledge, such as learning about the development of children's mathematical thinking and problem solving. …

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