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College of Education > News and Publications > News: April-June 2013 > Some Reflections on Teacher Education: A Dean’s Perspective

Some Reflections on Teacher Education: A Dean’s Perspective

(This Spring Connections Column has been updated. This new version was posted on July 1, 2013.)

Some Reflections on Teacher Education: A Dean’s Perspective

David H. Monk


by David H. Monk, Dean, Penn State College of Education

I welcome this opportunity to share thoughts about the state of teacher preparation and reflections from my perspective as the dean of a college of education with a significant commitment to research. My musings reflect the economics lens through which I tend to view the world. This lens has its own limitations and problems, but I’m of the opinion that the economics lens has been underutilized within the field of education. My hope is to encourage greater interest in this perspective and what it can reveal.

The Role of Tradeoffs

Imagine a continuum with three points each corresponding to three distinct and nested views about what is required to become a truly excellent teacher. At one end of the continuum is a point reflecting the view that no preparation is needed and that a high level of innate intelligence is the only necessary ingredient. Those holding this view stress the importance of attracting “smart” people into teaching and are dismissive of entrance requirements other than measures of “smartness.” While pure versions of this view may not be common, the logic holds water and defines a useful point of departure.

Moving along the continuum, let’s define the next point as a reflection of the view that “content is king” with the accompanying belief that excellent teachers are those who are intelligent and who also have thorough knowledge of their content areas. The requisite content knowledge does not arise magically and it follows that deliberate preparation efforts, focused on developing content knowledge, need to be designed and implemented.

Pushing further along the continuum, we reach the view that content knowledge alone, even if coupled with a high level of intelligence, is not sufficient and that excellent teaching also presupposes knowledge about how to teach effectively which includes an understanding of learners coupled with the ability to form meaningful and caring relationships with them. This view sets the stage for building preparation programs that attract bright candidates and combine efforts to develop content knowledge with efforts to develop teaching skills.

Now, to make things more interesting: It’s not clear at all what we mean when we say things like “you need to be smart;” or “you need to know your content;” or “you need to know how to teach.” There are lots of ways to be smart; knowing content can mean many things; and knowing how to teach can mean many things. Vast amounts of research have opened up in each of these three areas.

And to make things even more interesting: Think about the three points along the continuum in terms of tradeoffs. Tradeoffs arise because of resource constraints and because of what economists call separability (in contrast to jointness) in production. In the absence of resource constraints there would be no limit on our ability to attract phenomenally intelligent men and women into teaching and to prepare them without limit in terms of content as well as pedagogical knowledge. But resource limits are an important part of reality, and these limits force choices or tradeoffs.

Moreover, tradeoffs can be avoided if we can find ways to jointly generate basic intelligence, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge. This is, indeed, a happy place where we are able to have our cake and eat it too. Efforts to achieve jointness in production are worthy and should be encouraged. But, true joint production can be elusive and tradeoffs come into play to the degree that one type of outcome (basic intelligence, content knowledge, or pedagogical knowledge) comes at the expense of the others.

Let’s assume tradeoffs are relevant, at least to some degree, and in this light, it becomes meaningful to ask how willing you would be to trade some level of basic intelligence among teaching candidates for a higher level of content knowledge or a higher level of teaching knowledge? Or, holding the level of basic intelligence constant, how willing would you be to trade knowledge about teaching for knowledge about content? I suspect we all can recall a very bright teacher who knew his/her subject matter well, but who was a disaster as a teacher.

I sense a strong prevailing drumbeat in favor of ever greater content knowledge and this suggests considerable reverence for the “content is king” frame of mind. While it is clear to me that content knowledge is important, it can be foolish to privilege it above basic intelligence and knowledge about how to teach. We are in serious need of accurate information about the nature of the tradeoffs among intelligence, content knowledge, and knowledge about teaching as we design teacher preparation programs. And what counts as content knowledge for teaching is an interesting and unsettled question.

The Evolving Nature of the Research Base

It is customary these days to lament what is sometimes referred to as the fundamental thinness of the research base that undergirds teacher preparation. And, of course, as the dean of a research oriented education college, it is easy (and self-serving) for me to join this chorus and use the refrain as justification for more funding of research. Part of what gives rise to the perception of thinness are the recurring difficulties researchers have had at definitively determining what kind of intervention or approach works with what result under particular circumstances.

These difficulties are not to be denied, but they may overstate the “thinness” claim. A skillful teacher can draw upon his/her experiences and tailor responses to the needs of individual learners. This kind of effective tailoring can co-exist with the plethora of “no significant difference” findings that seem to accompany formal experiments with randomized controls. Yes, the tailoring can be going on and can be highly effective, but what is the evidence? The field needs to have more than anecdotes and self-congratulatory descriptions of experiences to capture whatever knowledge is being gained by highly effective teachers through their practice.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in a linear algebra class as a graduate student. The professor dutifully explained some point, but I was befuddled. I raised my hand and tried to frame a question. The professor pondered the probably poorly framed question and then proceeded to repeat word for word precisely what I had not understood in the first place. I recall being tempted to say that a loss of hearing was not my difficulty. Saying it again (even if it was said louder) was no help to me. My professor simply did not know how to help me with what I was struggling to understand. Maybe a more skilled teacher would have known what to do, but it is also possible, perhaps even probable, that the knowledge needed to facilitate my learning simply did not exist.

Limits on our knowledge about what to do when learners struggle are all too extensive. The grim reality is that even the most excellent teachers have relatively few resources at their disposal to turn struggling learners into highly successful learners. We are in serious need for this additional knowledge, and we need to recognize that it can come from multiple sources and as a result of multiple types of research.

The Importance of Hitting the Wall

I favor the idea that truly effective teachers have first-hand knowledge about what it means to struggle with their learning. I worry about students in pre-service teaching programs who have never “hit the wall” in terms of their own learning. The “wall” exists for us all. Its location varies enormously, and its encounter can be quite humbling, but also quite empowering, particularly for those aspiring to teach.

One of the presumed benefits of hitting the wall is the resulting empathy for others facing their limits. My speculation is that empathy is perhaps the least important of the benefits and that there is more to be gained from the fact that a teacher is pushing the limits of his/her understanding with the attendant willingness to struggle when success is not guaranteed. This is fertile ground, perhaps, for the kinds of insights that give rise to the ability of experienced teachers to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their struggling learners.

I heartily encourage quests for teachers, both practicing and prospective, to find and attempt to scale the “wall.”

The Dysfunction of Competing World Views

Rather than celebrate and capitalize on the multitude of world views within the field of education, we seem more inclined to divide ourselves into competing camps with fortified perimeters. Consider as an example the divide that can exist between those using fMRI devices to study brain function and its links to cognition and those who study teaching and learning in classroom settings. Those in the former camp are attracted by the ability to narrow and sharpen the focus, but run the risk of slicing and dicing the relevant phenomena to the point where the implications for practice are hard to discern. Those in the latter camp celebrate the complexity of classrooms and all that transpires, but run the risk of becoming mired in the denseness and multi-dimensional nature of what they are trying to understand. The resulting parallel play is not so much dysfunctional, as it is a missed opportunity. Both camps need to work harder at building bridges.

I see more overt elements of dysfunction in the divides that can exist between content area specialists like educators with interests in mathematics, science, or the language arts and those with more cross-cutting interests like supervision, special needs learners, and the role of culture. As I view the field, I occasionally see instances where students become pawns in the intellectual disagreements that exist among the various points of view. It is troubling to see instances across the field where faculty members are openly dismissive of colleagues with differing world views, and it is especially disheartening when students are caught in the middle. I do not mean to suggest that every view is as good as every other view and that we need to tolerate idiocy, but I do think we owe one another professional courtesy. Indeed, the professional courtesy I seek includes making sure the critiques we offer are based on accurate and up-to-date information.

The Crowding of the Curriculum

Teacher preparation curricula are already crowded, and it’s disgraceful to see how many requirements are heaped upon those seeking licensure. Moreover, there seem to be calls at every turn for adding more. Witness the calls in recent years for preparing teachers to be better prepared to handle the tragedy of an active shooter in a school; to be more knowledgeable about the needs of children coming from families with members in the military; to be more skilled at recognizing the signs of child abuse along with reporting obligations and intervention options; to know more about how to teach in online environments; to know more about how to handle bullying in and around classrooms; and to know more about how to ensure safety in online environments, to name just a few. These calls for “new” skills build on the longstanding expectations for teachers to be ever more knowledgeable about the content being taught, the measurement and assessment of learning, the uses of technology, the management of classes, the individualization of instruction, and the list goes on (and on).

Again, we face the grim reality of limits on resources. We cannot just add requirements and lengthen programs, regardless of how well-intentioned and justifiable each individual addition might be on its merits. Some refuge can be found in the recognition that there is more to the preparation of a teacher than a pre-service program. Moreover, I detect some welcome progress toward blurring the distinction between pre-service and in-service learning thanks to endeavors like induction programs that can be coupled with effective ongoing professional development programs.

The Emerging Role for Technology

At Penn State, we take pride in how we are infusing the creative and effective use of technology into how we prepare teachers and how we expect our graduates to teach. (These are two distinct, but inter-connected ambitions.) We see this as an emerging signature of our teacher preparation programs, and we do so with sensitivity to the risks which are real. It is dangerously easy to be caught up in the glitz of the latest shiny new device. Promises of technology revolutionizing the field have been around for many years, and one need look no further than the debate surrounding MOOCS to see a lively and provocative contemporary example. We need to stay focused on what really makes sense from a teaching and learning perspective. The phrase: “Any teacher who can be replaced by technology should be” has been attributed to Paul Welliver, one of the pioneers in the field of instructional design at Penn State. More recently, Kyle Peck has built on Welliver’s insight and refines the “replacement” idea. According to Peck, teachers do need to be “replaced,” but not in the sense of being eliminated. Rather, he sees the door opening on teachers being re-placed in the sense of being re-positioned to play new and more important roles (Peck, K.L. (2012, July) Re-placing Educators: How Innovation is Changing the Teaching Role. In Evolllution. Available at:

Concluding Thoughts

There is an April 9, 2013 Huffington Post column by Randy Turner with the title, “A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher,” that is making the rounds. It is a powerful piece of writing that is also very disturbing. It is an open letter from an English teacher advising young people to eschew teaching as a profession. My perspective is different, even in the face of the dour cast my economics lens tends to impose on the world. I see teaching as a fine profession, filled with opportunity and hope, and I also see teacher preparation as a fine, intellectually stimulating and highly rewarding line of work. I was very much buoyed recently by the affirmations I heard from current student teachers at a reception we held in their honor. Without exception they spoke from the heart about their reverence for teaching and their gratitude for the help they’ve received along the way from their professors, their supervisors, and their mentor teachers. Their testimonials were poignant, articulate, and powerful, and I have every confidence that they will go on to distinguish themselves in a vitally important profession. It is this powerful spirit that keeps me deeply engaged in this significant work.