Syntactic Knowledge in History and Science Education: Teacher Education and Neglect in the Academy

By Slekar, Timothy D.; Haefner, Leigh Ann | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Syntactic Knowledge in History and Science Education: Teacher Education and Neglect in the Academy


Slekar, Timothy D., Haefner, Leigh Ann, Journal of Thought


Introduction

What does it mean to be a generalist? The term generalist is often used in the teacher education literature to describe the preparation of elementary teachers because they are prepared narrowly across a breadth of disciplines, rather than in any one discipline in-depth. However, this same literature struggles to conceptualize an "essential knowledge base" for teaching (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005). If we cannot clearly identify and articulate what teachers prepared within specific disciplines need to know and be able to do, what does it mean to be prepared across multiple disciplines? Although elementary school teachers are prepared as generalists, they still need a strong grounding in disciplinary ways of knowing (Grossman, Schoenfeld, & Lee, 2005) and be able to use that knowledge to develop powerful content representations that support meaningful student learning. Unfortunately, how teacher education programs support the development of this knowledge is fraught with difficulties. Teacher education has been characterized as fragmented and disconnected because coursework and classroom practicum experiences are often separate, courses are divided to address different professional skills, and courses taken in the arts and sciences are isolated from education courses--leaving the prospective teachers to bring it all together and make it meaningful in school classrooms (Darling-Hammond, 2006).

While this paper focuses primarily on the role of the preparation of disciplinary knowledge in elementary teacher education, this attention is not meant to detract from the notion that teacher development also needs to be rooted in the knowledge of children's developmental, social, and cognitive abilities. One of the greatest challenges in teacher education is bridging understandings of the content with those of children (Darling-Hammond, 2006). Aspects of subject matter knowledge are critical to developing pedagogical content knowledge and therefore have an important place in courses related to the teaching of subject matter (Grossman et al., 2005).

Theoretical Base

Teaching is a complex action that is purposeful, yet dynamic and responsive to the classroom environment, the learners, and the subject matter. Teachers must rely on multiple knowledge bases to make daily decisions in their classrooms (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). It is generally agreed that effective teaching broadly requires foundational knowledge oflearners and learning, pedagogical strategies and assessment, educational context and curriculum, as well as the subject matter to be taught (Grossman, 1990; Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko, 1999; Shulman, 1986, 1987; Smith, 1999). In other words, effective teachers know more than their disciplines and more than good instructional strategies.

It goes without saying that teachers need to understand the subjects they teach, however, what they need to know to teach at various levels, as well as what the appropriate outcomes should be, is still a point of discussion (Evans, 2004; Floden & Meniketti, 2005; Grossman et al., 2005). Researchers and educators may generally agree that robust subject matter knowledge is important, but disagree about what specific knowledge within the disciplines is essential (Evans, 2004; Floden & Meniketti, 2005; Shulman, 1987). This presents an interesting dilemma given recent literature that is clear about school children's reasoning abilities and, therefore, how they should learn within certain disciplines (NRC, 2007; Evans, 2004; NRC, 2008; VanSledright, 2002).

In what follows we use science and history education to illustrate what happens in teacher education programs in these areas and is the result of the authors' attempts to bridge these disciplines in the context of concurrent science and social studies methods courses (Haefner & Slekar, 2006, 2008; Slekar & Haefner, 2007). It does not assume that history is exhaustive of all the other disciplines of the social studies. …

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