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Changing the Teacher Education Curriculum: A Shift From Knowledge to Practice December 10, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Aaron Sickel

From 2008-2014, I was a teacher educator in the U.S. At the University of Missouri, I had the great fortune to be involved in a large-scale research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The longitudinal study investigated how pre-service teachers developed specialised knowledge for teaching mathematics and science during their teacher preparation program and throughout the first two years as fully employed teachers.

As a researcher, I collected data that included classroom observations, interviews, and lesson materials. Specifically, I had the interesting experience of observing the same teachers over a three-year timeframe. Throughout the project, the research team collaboratively analysed the data and noted an emerging trend. When we observed beginning teachers in the classroom, many of them struggled to use the reform-based strategies they had learned in the teacher preparation program (e.g. the 5E instructional model – Brown, Friedrichsen, & Abell, 2013; Sickel & Friedrichsen, 2015). Despite having these strategies modelled for them in their coursework, these teachers often had difficulty implementing them in ways that made them feel successful or worked for their students.

In a related episode, I began working as an assistant professor of teacher education at Ohio University in 2012. The movement toward accountability was and remains a strong force for educational stakeholders in that state. K-12 students were subjected to increased testing, teachers were adhering to a new state-wide teacher evaluation system, and initial teacher education programs were expected to meet more rigorous standards developed by a new accreditation organisation.

Another significant reform was the utilisation of a new evaluation tool for pre-service teachers to be employed at the conclusion of their teacher education programs. The teacher performance assessment (commonly referred to as the edTPA), is a performance-based assessment developed by Stanford University faculty to assess pre-service teachers’ readiness for entering the profession. The assessment is being used widely in states across the U.S., and in some cases pre-service teachers must earn a passing score in order to become a licensed teacher.

The edTPA requires pre-service teachers to engage in three basic practices for a small-scale instructional unit taught in a school placement: 1) construct detailed lesson plans; 2) video-record their teaching practice from one of the lessons; and 3) develop assessments and collect examples of graded student work. Reflection on each of these components is embedded throughout. Pre-service teachers are then assessed on these three components with a series of rubrics.

As with any new evaluation tool, the edTPA has its strengths and weaknesses. Regarding its implementation as a requisite for teacher licensure, I have many concerns, but that is for another post. I do believe the basic design and scope of the assessment is appropriate, aligned to a large amount of research on effective teaching, and potentially useful for pre-service teachers’ professional development. Pre-service teachers have to really think through their decisions, considering both their local context and research-based practices.

During my time in Ohio, the edTPA was in a pilot stage, and faculty were given the opportunity to score pre-service teachers’ work from their own programs. My colleagues and I worked in groups and collaborated to assess our pre-service teachers’ edTPAs. While marking could rarely be described as a fun endeavour, I must admit that the experience was incredibly enlightening. Regarding Part 1 of the edTPA, we began reviewing our pre-service teachers’ lesson plans. For the most part, lesson plans were detailed and well-considered. Many pre-service teachers demonstrated the ability to align curricular goals, assessments, and learning activities in meaningful ways, give consideration to the learning demands of activities, and articulate strategies for meeting those demands.

Needless to say, my colleagues and I were quite pleased, both with our pre-service teachers’ performance and with our teacher education program. Next, we moved on to Part 2 – instructional practice. We began watching videos of our pre-service teachers in the classroom. As we reviewed the rubrics’ criteria for instructional practice, which focused on creating a challenging learning environment with higher-order thinking tasks, eliciting and working with students’ ideas, and facilitating opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills, something was immediately apparent. Many of the research-based practices that were referenced in the lesson plan did not seem to be used effectively or at all in the teaching videos. While our pre-service teachers were quite adept at ‘talking the talk,’ many of them struggled with ‘walking the walk.’

I would like to note that my aim with recounting these experiences is not to denigrate the beginning teachers I have observed or taught in teacher preparation programs. To the contrary, I am quite impressed with the ingenuity of beginning teachers I work with, the ideas and enthusiasm they bring to their instruction, and in many cases the success they experience in schools. But my experiences with observing beginning teachers has also made something quite clear. Reading about pedagogy, discussing pedagogy, and even experiencing pedagogy as learners in a university context does not automatically translate to success with implementing pedagogy in a school classroom. That last phase of implementation requires practical knowledge and skill. For example, it is one thing to talk about the importance of differentiated instruction in an essay assignment, and quite another to enact several modifications during lessons based on specific curricular goals and students’ individualised education plans.

A promising approach to teacher education is one in which the central focus shifts from espoused knowledge to teaching practices. There are several researchers attempting to identify ‘core practices’ of teaching, which represent the most important skills for beginning teachers (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). Core practices embody the enactment of knowledge in the classroom. They should be research-based, have potential to improve student achievement, occur in high frequency, and acknowledge the complexity of teaching (Grossman et al., 2009, p. 277).

One key practice that has been widely supported includes the skill of orchestrating classroom discourse. Lampert et al. (2013) describe how they help beginning elementary teachers engage in the practice of eliciting and responding to students’ ideas due to its significance for improving mathematical understandings. Based upon their NSF-funded research project, Windshcitl and colleagues at the University of Washington identified “planning for engagement with important science ideas,” “eliciting students’ ideas,” “supporting on-going changed in student thinking,” and “pressing for evidence-based explanations ” as key practices for science instruction (Ambitious Science Teaching, 2015). In addition to classroom discussions, Grossman et al. (2009) describe the skill of teaching group work routines to improve cooperative learning environments as a core practice.

Much more work needs to be done to identify the practices that influence learning, and to do that, we must also be transparent on the types of learning we value. It is probably not realistic to strive for one set of practices that works for all grade levels, subject areas, and school contexts (McDonald et al., 2013). For example, one can envision variations of practices based on the subject area, as teaching instrumental music brings about a different set of challenges when compared to teaching geography. Rather, it is important for teacher education programs to identify practices that are necessary for teacher readiness, and consider how approximations of those practices can be scaffolded throughout program components.

Teacher education programs should consider not only practices that focus on instructional strategies (asking higher-order questions), but also practices that are essential for building foundational elements that support students’ success (e.g. developing a classroom community). Beyond the examples listed above, potential practices might include:

  • Responding to challenging student behaviours
  • Developing positive social interactions among students
  • Implementing conceptually-rich tasks aligned to unit and lesson outcomes
  • Flexibly altering tasks while responding to students’ needs
  • Enacting culturally relevant pedagogy during a lesson
  • Drawing upon assessment data to inform and enact future instruction
  • Using rubrics to assess student work in fair and equitable ways

A shift toward teaching practices necessitates a shift in the learning activities and program structure of teacher education programs. Key pedagogical activities include the use of authentic teaching cases, in which pre-service teachers examine examples of student work and use the information to make future instructional plans, analysing video-cases of exemplary teaching, teacher educators modelling core practices followed by targeted reflection, and providing ample time for pre-service teachers to engage in micro-teaching and rehearsal opportunities as part of assessments (McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013).

These practices are not new to teacher education, but they could be emphasized to a greater extent and become the foundation for a program’s curriculum. In addition, there is a clear need to work toward a stronger alignment between curricular goals of teacher education classes and school internships, and provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to spend more time in K-12 contexts to develop these practices (Darling-Hammond, 2014). For far too long, teacher education programs have been criticised as fragmented and not able to reconcile the gap between theory (taught at the university) and practice (learned in a school setting) (McDonald et al., 2014).

A shift toward practices does not mean we have to completely exclude learning or assessment activities that focus on teacher knowledge (e.g. writing an essay explaining how educational research supports the design of a lesson). Rather, it means that core practices can serve as an anchor by which we can meaningfully connect knowledge to the work of classroom instruction. Teaching is a complex activity, which requires a sophisticated amalgam of knowledge, skill, reflection, resilience, and emotional intelligence. Under the best circumstances, teaching is hard. The most prepared beginning teacher in the most suitable internship setting will still encounter many challenges.

With a finite number of years and program components, teacher education courses are charged with the responsibility of preparing beginning teachers for full-time employment. It is a daunting task for everyone involved, but I believe more authentic approaches to teacher education, such as shifting our emphasis to practices, has great potential for improving teacher readiness.


Ambitious Science Teaching. (2015). Tools for ambitious science teaching. Retrieved from                 http://ambitiousscienceteaching.org.

Brown, P., Friedrichsen, P., & Abell, S. (2013). The development of prospective secondary biology           teachers’ PCK. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 24(1), 133-155.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2014). Strengthening clinical preparation: The holy grail of teacher education.        Peabody Journal of Education, 89(4), 547-561.

Grossman, P., Hammerness, K., & McDonald, M. (2009). Redefining teaching, re-imagining teacher         education. Teachers & Teaching, 15(2), 273-289.

Lampert, M., Franke, M., Kazemi, E., Ghousseini, H., Turrou, A., Beasley, H., & Crowe, K. (2013).               Keeping it complex: Using rehearsals to support novice teacher learning of ambitious teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 64, 226-243.

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., Kavanagh, S. S. (2013). Core practices and pedagogies of teacher        education: A call for a common language and collective activity. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(5), 378-386.

McDonald, M., Kazemi, E., Kelley-Petersen, M., Mikolasy, K., Thompson, J., Valencia, S., & Windschitl,   M. (2014). Practice makes practice: Learning to teach in teacher education. Peabody Journal of Education, 89(4), 500-515.

Sickel, A. J., & Friedrichsen, P. J. (2015). Beliefs, practical knowledge, and context: A longitudinal               study of a beginning biology teacher’s 5E unit. School Science and Mathematics, 115(2) 75-87.

A.Sickel Professional Pic-smallDr Aaron Sickel is a lecturer in secondary science curriculum at Western Sydney University, and teaches classes focused on science teaching and educational research in the secondary master’s program. He studies science curriculum, the development of knowledge, beliefs, and practice for teaching science, and the interactions between education policy initiatives and teacher learning. He is interested in using results from this research to inform curriculum development, teacher preparation programs, and professional development initiatives.

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