Professing Education

 

Where Do We Start? A Response to Joseph
Newman's Address on "No Intro Course Left Behind"

John Carter

East Carolina University

At the annual meeting of the Society of Professors of Education (2004), Professor Joseph Newman critically examined the first course being offered to prospective teachers in university education programs. Foundations of education faculty often teach this course. Its purpose is to introduce prospective teachers "to careers they're considering…courses that may (or may not) be titled `Introduction to Education' or `Introduction to Teaching' or `Foundations of Education.'" He states,

I'll suggest that to keep our [foundations of education faculty] jobs, our courses, and especially our contributions to teacher education from being left behind, we can and should do several things. I have four points to make _ four suggestions _ four pieces of friendly, collegial advice. People like us can and should:

1. Talk about children

2. Talk about teachers

3. Talk about the social context of education _ especially specially politics and diversity

4. Talk about practice as well as theory.

In addition to these four suggestions, Newman proposes that foundation of education professors who teach these courses need to place greater emphases on the students' concerns, on current situations that emerge out of the school environment, and on issues that emerge out of the society at large. He envisions the course content initially starting with a practical situation and moving into theoretical understandings that are grounded in academic areas of the professor's specialty (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, policy studies, and diversity studies in education, etc.).

In the following three sections, I make three suggestions for implementing Newman's four suggestions and three proposals:


1. When examining Newman's address, I wondered how his four suggestions and his three proposals for change (mentioned above) might be incorporated into present introductory education courses. At the same time, I was guided by the recognition that many of my colleagues do not want added topics to a course viewed by many critics as overly crowded. On the other hand, many of us continue to struggle as we pull together a seemingly disparate list of educational topics into a unifying whole while attempting to give the course a simplifying theme. Using Newman's proposed starting point for constructing an introductory course, let us "focus on the concerns of students." What are their concerns? Based on my thirty-five years in teacher education, two concerns of prospective teachers seem to stand out: First, they are concerned about helping others. They go into teaching (putting aspirations for upper mobility aside) expressing a desire to help and serve others. They seek to bring about a better situation in their surrounding world. Second, many of these same individuals hunger in their university classes for "real-world" situations where they can have hands-on, practical work involvement. A thread or method that can link these two student concerns together in an introductory education course is a service-learning component. In addition to the desire to serve and the desire to be involved in the practical environs of the world, a service-learning component is consistent with another one of Newman's proposals, namely, that the course begins literally with practical experiences.

In this course prospective teachers study a number of constructivist, historical, and cultural/social concepts. Grouped in teams, they are first introduced in class to an assigned concept and follow that study up with background readings. They study one academic course concept each week. Then each prospective teacher applies that concept in a field-based volunteer community project with one or two persons (children, adolescences or adults). While interacting and helping the person(s) for one hour each week, the prospective teacher studies how the academic concept plays out in that person(s) life. Subsequently, the university student returns to the academic classroom and writes one paragraph that defines the academic concept that is being applied in the community, in a second paragraph writes an example of the concept taken from an assigned academic reading list, and finally writes a paragraph discussing how it played out with an individual in the practical service-learning situation. For example, in class the student studies and defines the concept of "experience" in relation to its forming one's perspective. She writes an example of the concept in a paragraph that briefly discusses Dewey or Piaget on the topic of experience, and finally she writes a paragraph discussing the experiences that helped form the perspective of the individual in the service-learning situation. Overall, the introductory education course focuses on four concepts from constructive theory, four from critical sociology in education, and four from educational history; one concept for each of the twelve weeks.

Such a service-learning course not only addresses Newman's proposal that professors focus on the concerns of students and that they begin with the practical situations, it also employs his four suggestions for changing our courses: (1) It involves the prospective teacher in the lives of children; (2) it involves them in actually teaching; (3) it involves them in the social context of the community where they see politics and diversity issues played out; And, (4) it involves them in theory as they read about and apply concepts in "real-life" situations. In addition to those four suggestions by Newman, an added benefit comes from involving students in community situations instead of another school experience. Many prospective teachers come to the university with established preconceived notions and myths about schooling and teaching. With service-learning in the community, the prospective teacher is forced to question many of these myths as they focus on enabling the child to work through his/her own issues in the lived-world of daily existence.

In such a community based course, many formal standards and accreditation outcomes are met; most students see the value of the course to their professional preparation; they tend to grasp the role of theory in guiding their practice; and, many of our fellow university colleagues see the course as making a valuable and unique contribution to our overall program.


2. Professor Newman's suggestion that receives the most coverage is one that we have already discussed above, namely, focus on the lives of children. However, we did not discuss that he means by this to focus directly on the "everyday lives" of children. He encourages us to talk about children as people, and make them the center of our concern. The course begins by focusing on children and then subsequently "moving to social and political understandings, not the other way around." Thus, he claims that we avoid the customary approach of talking "around" children and turning them into "abstractions."

Can we simply add this topic of the `everyday life of children" to our course syllabi or is Newman asking us to change our perspective? We all change our syllabi from time to time. Each of us can point to changes that we have made in activities and content. But what impresses me in my years in higher education is the staying power of our perspectives, our paradigms of thought. What I am arguing here, and I suspect that Newman would agree, is that changing a syllabus will not be enough, but a more fundamental change in perspective is needed. Many of us may find our efforts to focus on children short lived as our accustomed paradigms reassert themselves. And even if we begin by talking about children, our courses are not likely to change very much for they will continue to be massaged by our individual perspectives. And, as people we tend to remain stuck as if glued to our perspectives, our habitual ways of understanding. After doing things one way for some time, we may find it difficult to begin with children and allow that starting point to put us on a different path of learning. I am afraid that many of us may not be able to move from our honed perspectives in the content areas of foundations, thus leaving any new addition to be molded and massaged into something similar to the old course. The everyday life of the child just becomes dressed up in new clothes. As long as our perspectives are grounded in our area of specialization, the course will more or less remain much the same. I am reminded of Martin Heidegger's discussion of starting points. He says, "Wherever you choose to start out there you will remain."1 In other words our starting point will focus us to move down a path in a particular direction. I am arguing that to change this course the starting point has to be a change in perspective not an additional topic added to the syllabus.


3. Professor Newman raises a concern that recent policy changes may squeeze some education faculty in introductory courses out of a job. He proposes four innovative and exciting changes in the course content that should make the course more receptive to students, colleagues, and more consistent with a number of new policies and standards. A thorough analysis of this topic by Newman has been needed for some time and his suggestions for change clearly demonstrate here the insight and wisdom of a well-seasoned educator.

As I heard him speak on what we could do in this introductory course, I would like to redirect our focus to his concern about introductory courses providing a job. If we began with this fact, "I need a job," is there anything that we may add to his suggestions? For example, let us look briefly at another profession and see how it handles its job situation. Do artists perceive their job situation in a similar manner to ours? Artists and potters often work in museums or galleries to provide support for doing their art, for doing that to which they are fundamentally interested and committed. No doubt the museum worker enjoys her job, cannot walk pass a Picasso or Monet painting without studying it, and is eager to teach a tour group about light, form, and color. No doubt there is much taken from the studio that the artist includes in her talks with the tour group and much taken from the museum that is included into her own studio work. Artists working in museums and galleries often speak about loving their job, about how much they learn, and how much it means to them intellectually. However, given their preference they would readily choose to be in their studio creating art. My point here is that artists seem to be able to make a distinction between their activity in a gallery or museum and their work in a studio. As a result, they have a different starting point in each place and their activity differs in the two realms of endeavor. They have a job, albeit related to art on one hand, but on the other hand, they produce art. When they work in the museum their activity is given focus by events within the museum. When in the studio they create art using their primary concern.

In our situation, as university professors of introductory education courses, we seem to have greater difficulty in separating these activities. What supports us and what is our primary endeavor become mixed. We begin with educational issues, problems, and methods and apply them to everyday life situations in both cases. By allowing our specialty areas to define the activity in both areas we have found that our work is not always receptive to other educators. If we were to separate or distinguish our activities in a similar way to the artist, then the events in the introductory class would be the deciding factor in determining what we do and not our specialty area. As such our content may meet with greater acceptance and we may not be having this discussion now. When we focus on the workplace a different starting point is called for when working with others. Although we would be involved thoroughly in education, our area of specialization would not be the starting point for choosing the content. At the same time, applying our area of specialization unencumbered by the activity in the work place may open new possibilities for its application.

In summary, I have argued that Newman's suggestions and proposals for change can be met by incorporating a service-learning component into Introduction to Education courses. Secondly, I argued that Newman's call for change was in actuality a call for foundations faculty to modify their perspective to focus on the needs of prospective teachers instead of the content topics of a particular academic discipline. Finally, in a third section, artists were shown to perceive their employment and their creative work as distinct activities. Subsequently, foundations faculty are asked to re-conceptualize their teaching of introductory courses as employment and as distinct from their perceived life's work.


Notes

1Holderlin, cited by Martin Heidegger in On the Way to Language, Edited by J. Glenn Gray and Fred Wieck. Translated by Peter Hertz and Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, p.7.