Intelligent Dispositions: Dewey, Habits and Inquiry in Teacher Education

By Nelsen, Peter J. | Journal of Teacher Education, January-February 2015 | Go to article overview

Intelligent Dispositions: Dewey, Habits and Inquiry in Teacher Education


Nelsen, Peter J., Journal of Teacher Education


We teacher educators have long desired that our students become people who do more than merely execute the rudiments of instruction in their classrooms (Russell, 2002). More than adopting techniques we may recommend, we want teachers to embrace the visions of education we espouse so that the spirit of such ideas animates how they think and act in their future classrooms. As Parker Palmer famously observed, technique is what educators rely upon until the "real" teacher shows up (Palmer, 1998). This recognition of the importance of the real teacher, that who we are-our values, our beliefs, our personalities-matters a great deal in the classroom, much more than any technique, motivates the current focus on dispositions in teacher education. The desire to see teachers enact the values that particular education programs espouse is understandable, and it captures the heart of the difficulty of preparing others to enter into such a complex endeavor as teaching: Knowledge does not guarantee action, and yet, we want to inspire our students to become certain kinds of teachers and not others, even if our conceptions of "good" teaching admit disparate notions of what that entails.

Such desires have sparked the current emphasis on insuring that future educators possess the right dispositions toward teaching, leading some to conclude that developing dispositions is the most important aspect of teacher education (Wilkerson, 2006). While many agree with the underlying motivation, an unresolved conceptual debate has led others to view the focus on dispositions as educational malpractice. As a result, both critics and advocates alike call for more conceptual precision (Damon, 2007; Murray, 2007; Stooksberry, Schussler, & Bercaw, 2009). Despite the debates, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (C AEP) remains focused on dispositions through requirements that teacher education programs demonstrate that their students do, indeed, possess the requisite dispositions deemed necessary for licensure (CAEP Commission on Standards and Performance Reporting to the CAEP Board of Directors, 2013).

CAEP Commission on Standards and Performance Reporting (2013) has adopted the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education's (NCATE; 2008) definition, which describes dispositions as follows: "Professional attitudes, values, and beliefs demonstrated through both verbal and non-verbal behaviors as educators interact with students, families, colleagues, and communities" (pp. 89-90). NC ATE (2008) left most of the identification of what specific dispositions to include to individual programs while requiring two: "fairness and the belief that all students can learn" (pp. 89-90, emphasis in original). While attractively concise, the definition leaves several important questions unanswered.

For example, a central set of questions emerges regarding how mutable dispositions are: Are they unchanging or can they be developed through educational experiences? Mary Diez (2006) puts it well: "Are dispositions stable traits or can teachers develop appropriate dispositions for teaching?" (p. 64). In response, some researchers view dispositions as subject to development and growth, while others see them as defining personality traits that are more persistent and thus resistant to change. The conflict over how fixed an aspect of individual personality a disposition might be is complicated by a closely related debate about whether or not dispositions are subject to external influence or if they are best understood as primarily internally driven, as well as whether dispositions mark intentional actions or ones that are unconscious (Borko, Liston, & Whitcomb, 2007; Burant, Chubbuck, & Whipp, 2007; Diez & Raths, 2007; McKnight, 2004; Sockett, 2006; Wasicsko, 2002; Welch, Pitts, Tenini, Kuenlen, & Wood, 2010). Questions about how much dispositions are responsive to educational experiences raises a second important question that affects program design: How does the larger context of a program, its details, and what Katz and Raths (1985) describe as a program's ethos affect the development of dispositions? …

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