Preparing Teachers for All Fields
In this and the next three chapters, we turn to the third question in our charge: To what extent are the ways that teachers are currently being prepared in three key subjects—reading, mathematics, and science—consistent with converging scientific evidence about how they should be prepared?
We began with an effort to develop a clear picture of what the converging scientific evidence shows. That is, we hoped to find in the literature on teaching and learning mathematics, reading, and science some guidance as to what sorts of indicators would be most useful in assessing the quality of teacher preparation in each field. To do this, we broke the question into four parts:1
What do successful students know about the subject?
What instructional opportunities are necessary to support successful students?
What do successful teachers know about the subject and how to teach it?
What instructional opportunities are necessary to prepare successful teachers?
We address these questions for each subject in turn, and we also examine what is known about how teachers are currently prepared in each of these fields. Chapters 5 through 7 describe our findings for reading, mathematics, and science, respectively. However, a number of issues apply across these (and other) subjects, and this chapter discusses these first as grounding for the discipline-specific discussions.
The first part of this chapter looks at the research on the role of content knowledge in teaching that is relevant across disciplines. The second part of the chapter discusses several key issues that complicate an examination of preparing teachers in specific subject areas.
Common sense suggests that one cannot teach what one does not know. Yet even a wonderfully prepared teacher cannot know everything that is relevant to the material he or she teaches in a given year. Given the practical limitations on the amount of preparation any teacher can reasonably acquire before entering the field, we looked for evidence about the knowledge and skills that are most valuable and should be given the highest priority in teacher preparation programs.
Teaching and Learning
We looked first to research on learning and cognition for insights about how specific material is learned and might best be taught. This field has blossomed in the last few decades as technological advances have expanded researchers’ tools for studying the way people think and learn, which in turn have offered valuable resources for the study of education. How People Learn (National Research Council, 2000a) summarizes this work and offers several points that are particularly relevant to teacher preparation. The book describes findings that have emerged from the increasingly multidisciplinary approach to investigating thinking and learning. The science of learning has been expanded by new methods for testing hypotheses about mental functioning (including sophisticated brain imaging technology), as well as strategies for integrating insights from anthropology, linguistics, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and other fields in order to develop richer models of the role of social and cultural contexts in learning. Although this field is still evolving, it has provided a detailed picture of aspects of cognition and learning (such as memory and the structure of knowledge), problem solving and reasoning, and metacognition, all of which have implications for education.2 Much of the research in this field
is of a different nature from the empirical research on questions about education policy and practice, but it has influenced the research we examined on teaching and learning in the three content areas. Although the connections between this literature and teacher preparation are more logical than empirical, we believe this knowledge base is an important foundation for thinking about the extent to which teacher preparation is “consistent with convergent scientific evidence,” as our charge directed.
Most of the cognitive research has focused on student learning, rather than on teaching or teachers’ learning. How People Learn concludes that “To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” (National Research Council, 2000a, p. 16). The small body of work that focuses on teaching helps to support logical inferences about teaching in a manner consistent with this model of learning. First, How People Learn describes the critical distinction between novices and experts in any context and how the development of expertise is gradual. With continued learning in any field—chess, auto mechanics, mathematics, or English literature, for example—individuals gradually accumulate “extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information” and this accumulation, in turn, “affects their ability to remember, reason, and solve problems” (National Research Council, 2000a, p. 19). Thus, teachers do not have to be experts in every field of knowledge they teach, in the sense that it is not necessary, for example, to have a Ph.D. in physics to teach secondary-level physics effectively or to have spent decades studying Shakespeare’s plays to teach them effectively to middle school students. The report summarizes the implications for teachers of its conclusions about learning this way (p. 20):
Teachers must come to teaching with the experience of in-depth study of the subject area themselves. Before a teacher can develop powerful pedagogical tools, he or she must be familiar with the progress of inquiry and the terms of discourse in the discipline, as well as understand the relationship between information and the concepts that help organize that information in the discipline. But equally important, the teacher must have a grasp of the growth and development of students’ thinking about these concepts.
How Students Learn (National Research Council, 2005) applies the findings in How People Learn to strategies for science, mathematics, and history classrooms. This report was designed to provide examples to illustrate the practical implications of the science of learning in particular contexts, and relies on both research and practice. Experts do not just know more facts in a given area than nonexperts know (in any specific field), they
also have a framework for understanding and applying what they know. How Students Learn describes the essential linkage between factual knowledge and conceptual frameworks, termed learning with understanding, in this way: “competent performance is built on neither factual nor conceptual understanding alone; the concepts take on meaning in the knowledge-rich contexts in which they are applied” (p. 6). Learning with understanding takes time, and is a cumulative process.
This work suggests that content knowledge, defined as a body of conceptual and factual knowledge, is an essential basis for effective teaching in a given field. But, as How People Learn points out, having expertise, or deep content knowledge, is not a sufficient foundation by itself for effective teaching. To foster learning, teachers draw on understanding of how knowledge develops in a particular domain. They also rely on understanding of the kinds of difficulties students typically have as their learning progresses and of how to build on students’ gradually accumulating knowledge and understanding. This kind of knowledge is called pedagogical content knowledge. Teachers constantly weave this kind of knowledge with their regular content knowledge in making countless judgments about how to proceed in the classroom (see, e.g., Shulman, 1987; Grossman, 1990).
There is a critical distinction between pedagogical content knowledge and the advanced content knowledge that one would develop by taking upper-level courses in a subject, and thus it is important to be clear that aspiring teachers cannot develop pedagogical content knowledge simply by taking additional courses in their field, even though a thorough grounding in university-level study for a particular field of learning is an important prerequisite. Much recent research has attempted to disentangle the different kinds of knowledge that teachers have. Particularly in the context of mathematics and science, researchers have paid considerable attention to content knowledge for teachers, including pedagogical content knowledge, and we discuss this research in Chapters 6 and 7.
Another body of research has examined the effects of different kinds of coursework offered in preparation programs on teachers’ practice and outcomes for students. Darling-Hammond and her colleagues (2005) report a basic relationship between “teacher effectiveness and the quantity of training teachers have received in subject matter and content-specific teaching methods” (p. 395). However, these studies did not examine the nature of the preparation and thus offer little guidance as to what aspects of it have value or precisely how they increase teachers’ effectiveness. They also do not provide clear answers to questions about how much coursework would
be valuable in particular areas. The authors describe other, smaller-scale studies that suggest that teacher preparation that focuses on how students learn particular content and ways of helping them develop deeper conceptual understanding have concrete benefits.
Wilson, Floden, and Ferrini-Mundy (2001) also reviewed the literature on content preparation—focusing only on studies that had been published in peer-reviewed journals—and provided detailed descriptions of their methods. They concluded that although it is clear that subject matter is important, the limited research base does not permit more specific conclusions. Some research on elementary teachers has documented gaps in elementary teachers’ understanding of mathematics. Other research (which consisted of small-scale descriptive studies and correlational studies using larger datasets) did not distinguish precisely what makes some kinds of coursework more effective than others. The authors also concluded that proxies for teacher knowledge, such as grade point averages or completion of a major or minor in a subject, are not precise enough to capture the potentially important differences in teachers’ preparation. The authors thus stress that simply requiring that prospective teachers major in a subject or take a certain number of courses is not likely to result in material improvements in teacher quality, partly because they found little evidence of correlation between pedagogical content knowledge and, for example, the number of mathematics courses taken.
Constantine and colleagues (2009) examined course-taking patterns for aspiring teachers in both alternative and traditional pathways and confirmed that the amount of coursework in all subjects taken varies dramatically between pathways and also that that there is considerable variation within both pathways.
Similarly, Wilson and her colleagues (2001) found that although there is support for the assertion that preparation in pedagogy (e.g., courses in instructional methods, learning theories, foundations of education, and classroom management) improves both teachers’ practice and outcomes for students, the research has not yet made clear what specific elements yield results. The authors also examined questions about field experiences, which, though very different from coursework, can play a role in content preparation. Most of what they found was research on teachers’ attitudes, showing that teachers view them as very valuable aspects of their preparation. Field experiences are planned with a variety of goals, which include shaping teachers’ attitudes and expectations of their students, helping them to build classroom management skills, and providing opportunities to apply what they have learned in their courses (the goal most relevant to content preparation). As we discuss in Chapter 3, research has not shown that particular sorts of fieldwork are essential aspects of subject-matter preparation.
Floden and Meniketti (2005) summarize empirical research published in peer-reviewed journals since 1990 that focuses on the effects of coursework in particular content areas, in general arts and sciences, and in the foundations of education. They caution that the empirical base is surprisingly thin and that the bulk of the available research addresses secondary school mathematics. Empirical support is only clear for the general proposition that prospective mathematics teachers should take at least enough undergraduate mathematics to develop a sound (more than mechanical) grounding in the field. Moreover, some research supports the counterintuitive finding that there may be diminishing returns to study that goes beyond a certain number of courses, at least for elementary mathematics teachers (e.g., Monk, 1994).
Floden and Meniketti (2005) call attention to the many questions raised by this body of work, describing the limitations in the amount of empirical research as “sobering” (p. 282). They note for example, that studies that evaluated the effects of particular coursework did not take into account the differences among prospective teachers as they began the preparation programs and that few could control for selection bias in the way teachers were distributed among different programs. Similarly, the few available studies of the effects of general undergraduate arts and sciences coursework seem to support only general conclusions about the value of developing subject-matter knowledge and general cognitive skills. An even scantier body of work on coursework in the foundations of education suggests promising practices rather than providing the basis for broad conclusions. We discuss below reasons why research has not provided firmer answers to questions about subject-matter preparation.
Grossman, Schoenfeld, and Lee (2005) examined the pedagogical content knowledge of teachers of mathematics and English/language arts, drawing on research and professional consensus. They provide examples to illustrate the ways teachers use pedagogical content knowledge in lessons and discuss the implications of the available research for the curricula of teacher education programs. They particularly emphasize that prospective teachers should develop the tools to continue their own learning in the discipline they will teach and that they should be prepared to learn from experience as they progress in their careers. The authors argue that a foundational understanding of the ways student learn the subject matter is a key tool for doing both.
EVALUATION AND RESEARCH CHALLENGES
The research on learning provides not only support for the basic proposition that teachers benefit from substantial study in their fields, but also a sophisticated model for thinking about what it takes to teach subject matter
well. This research, coupled with the more limited findings from research on the effects of particular types of coursework, however, provides only broad guidance to those who plan or oversee the curricula of teacher preparation programs. It is likely to be difficult to translate what is known into indicators that could readily be used in evaluating teacher preparation programs or in a large-scale effort to collect data about how well such programs are putting research findings into practice.
One challenge for those responsible for teacher preparation curricula is that reasonable people may disagree about what it means to be proficient in a subject. Scholars in each discipline make this sort of decision when they design courses of study, but the variation across institutions regarding requirements for majoring in a particular subject, for example, demonstrate wide diversity of opinion. States’ content and performance standards for K-12 students are often the starting point for discussions of what teachers ought to know, yet to ground expectations for teachers in student standards would mean accepting a limiting and limited view of what teachers do.
Establishing research-based recommendations for the quantity of coursework would pose a challenge as well. The number of courses a prospective teacher has taken in, say, mathematics is a very crude proxy for the amount of mathematical knowledge he or she has; moreover, as noted above, it has no clear relationship to the development of pedagogical content knowledge. In addition, teachers often have multiple areas of teaching responsibility and may not know what assignments they will have in the future. Science teachers, in particular, may be expected to teach biology, physics, earth science, or general science—and many aspiring teachers may consider it prudent to try to become qualified in a range of fields.
Grossman, Schoenfeld, and Lee (2005) discuss the complications of determining what sorts of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge elementary teachers need. They argue that prospective elementary teachers have just as great a need for both strong liberal arts preparation and the opportunity to develop expertise and pedagogical content knowledge in a particular subject matter, as do teachers of older students. Acknowledging that prescriptions in this area are based on logical inference and experience rather than empirical research, the authors assert that although all prospective elementary teachers should be well prepared for both mathematics and reading instruction, if they also have the option of specializing in other areas, such as science, social studies, or art, there would be benefits for teachers, students, and schools.
Another challenge for anyone wishing to make firm recommendations about teacher preparation is that, as we discuss in Chapter 3, the people who enter teacher preparation programs are highly varied in terms of their academic skills and preparation, as well as their goals. They include very bright and highly motivated students with strong academic preparation,
and they also include students who are unsure about how interested they are in teaching and students with weaknesses in their academic preparation. Students with interest and capacity in some subject areas, particularly mathematics and science, are in relatively short supply. Because the demand for new teachers is so great, it is difficult for teacher preparation programs to exclude candidates whom they recognize have weaknesses in their academic preparation. The presence of these students, however, creates an extra burden for programs because the programs must address whatever deficiencies these students have while also preparing them to succeed as teachers. The necessary remediation is also costly in terms of both time and financial resources.
As detailed above, the empirical support for the proposition that strong subject-matter preparation is crucial for teachers is limited and inconsistent. Two factors account for this limitation: the inadequacy of available proxy measures of the subject-matter knowledge needed for teaching and the very limited resources that have been invested in high-quality, large-scale research.
We discuss the need for more large-scale research in Chapter 9. On the question of how one might measure teachers’ knowledge and skills for research purposes, we offer several observations. A number of studies have shown weak relationships between the number of courses taken or the degree earned by a prospective teacher and the value that teacher adds to his or her students’ achievement on standardized tests. We believe that this sort of research provides only very provisional answers to questions about the value of courses or degrees because standardized tests of student achievement were not designed to support inferences about teachers’ effectiveness.
Many assessments of students’ knowledge and skills place the most emphasis on the kinds of outcomes that are relatively easy to measure at the expense of other, perhaps more important, content. The challenge of accurately assessing both complex subject matter and skills and variations in how students progress make it difficult for researchers to measure links between teachers’ preparation and the performance of their students (see Chapter 2).
One issue with studies that assess teacher effectiveness using student achievement scores is that the relationship they examine is what statisticians call distal—that is, a significant amount of time lapses between undergraduate course-taking and the teaching that might be expected to influence students’ test performance. Numerous intervening influences may affect a teacher as he or she progresses through a program and into a classroom, which makes it exceedingly difficult to identify the effect of a single influence, such as subject-matter coursework. Another issue is that the available research generally does not distinguish among teachers’ preparation that may vary dramatically. Considering these difficulties, the positive links that
have been found are remarkable—and offer hope that better data will yield insights into what makes a difference and how best to prepare teachers.
Several recent studies of the effects of teachers’ subject-matter knowledge on student achievement gains and other outcomes have identified new measures in reading (Phelps and Schilling, 2004) and mathematics (Hill, Schilling, and Ball, 2004). A study using the new mathematics measures found a positive relationship between teachers’ mathematical knowledge and students’ achievement (Hill, Rowan, and Ball, 2005). (This work is discussed in Chapter 6.) These and other studies may help the field develop more explicit ideas of what it means to acquire strong subject-matter knowledge, how to measure that knowledge, and how to design teacher preparation experiences to promote acquisition of that knowledge.3
On the basis of the limited available research related to content preparation, there are the beginnings of answers to our four questions regarding what students and teachers need to know and what learning opportunities they need. The research on thinking and learning has identified two elements as key to the capacity to teach in a way that fosters the kind of learning described above:
subject-matter expertise that encompasses a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understanding of how that knowledge fits in the conceptual framework of the field of study, and an internal organization of that knowledge that facilitates retrieval and application of his or her knowledge; and
pedagogical content knowledge in a given subject-matter field, that is, an understanding of how students’ learning develops in that field, the kinds of misconceptions students may develop, and strategies for addressing students’ evolving needs.
The specific type and degree of knowledge and skills will likely vary both by subject and by the age group a teacher is preparing to teach, as we discuss in Chapters 5-7. For example, elementary school teachers would likely focus less on developing expertise and pedagogical content knowledge in a single field than would teachers who will specialize in a one field. Nevertheless, these three types of knowledge are important for all teachers.