The Thinking Profession | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

The Thinking Profession

In an era of ambitious new learning standards, teacher preparation must seamlessly link research and practice

In an era of ambitious new learning standards, teacher preparation must seamlessly link research and practice

Unlike nearly every other industrialized country, the United States has never had a national school curriculum. During the past two years, however, 45 states have signed onto the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a 400-page document that spells out expectations for the knowledge and skills that K-12 students should demonstrate in English Language Arts and mathematics at each grade level.

“The standards represent the most sweeping reform of the K-12 curriculum that has ever occurred in this country,” writes Lucy Calkins, TC’s Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature, in her forthcoming book, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman.

Calkins and other observers regard the Common Core as an important opportunity to help schools teach toward higher-level thinking and problem-solving, but also as an enormous challenge: If they were tested today, 75 percent of all U.S. schoolchildren would fail to meet the new standards, according to some estimates. Thus the ultimate fate of the Common Core rests on the shoulders of the professionals who are essential to the success of any school reform: Teachers. That means that teacher preparation—a hot-button issue in today’s charged education debate—will take on even greater importance.

Fortunately, the Common Core has appeared at a time when enormous advances in cognitive and neuroscience are expanding our understanding of how human beings learn. This emerging brave new world of education includes:

▪A growing emphasis on understanding education from the point of view of the learner rather than the teacher;
▪New “intelligent” Web-based technologies that provide teachers with real-time insight about where their students are bogging down on a given homework assignment, enabling them to make more focused use of classroom time;
▪A movement to go beyond the written word in defining “literacy” as something that harnesses the power of cell phones, video and other readily available media to tap into the intelligence and creativity of young people from a variety of backgrounds;
▪Efforts by teachers, schools, districts and even vast consortia of states to create tests and assessments that move beyond ranking performance to diagnose students’ strengths and challenges.

To TC President Susan H. Fuhrman, the stakes for the teaching profession and education’s future could not be higher.

“We need to provide new teachers with a strong grounding in research, ensure that they are comfortable learning about and making use of research, and enable them to stay abreast of new research throughout their careers,” she says. “Otherwise, their knowledge and skills will become frozen at the current moment.”  

It’s also clear that, beyond simply learning about research, aspiring teachers must be able to apply research knowledge in the real world of classrooms, students, school politics and parents.

“Teaching is a thinking profession,” says A. Lin Goodwin, TC’s Vice Dean, and Professor of Education. “Teachers have to learn to make hundreds of decisions every day about management, planning, curriculum, child development and diverse learners, all at the same time. If they aren’t constantly relating theory and practice, it’s like trying to learn tennis without actually hitting a ball.”


Teachers college is in the vanguard of reshaping teacher preparation to meet the complex needs and challenges of our times. TC faculty are gaining new insights into the ways students learn and what works in teaching; recasting the teaching of math in ways that engage the very youngest students; and developing diagnostic methods, tools and tests that more reliably assess core skills.

Yet perhaps the most pressing challenge in American education today begins with literacy and ways that designations such as “special education” and “English Language Learner” can limit students.

At TC, the approach has been to stand that problem on its head by thinking about how other languages—and other media, beyond print—can tap into amazing strengths in young people.

 “How would we teach if we assumed all youth were literate?” TC faculty member Lalitha Vasudevan asks in a paper titled “Re-imagining Pedagogies for Multimodal Selves.”

That question expresses the raison d’etre of TR@TC, an intensive, medical residency-style program in which aspiring teachers spend four days a week working with mentor teachers in some of New York’s highest-needs schools. The program’s three pathways—secondary inclusive education, intellectual disability/autism, and the teaching of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL)—all focus on working with young people who, even as they are increasingly being integrated into so-called “inclusive” classrooms, too often still are identified by what they can’t do instead of by what they can.

Vasudevan’s point is that in today’s highly diverse schools, where all students seem to have been born using laptops, smart phones and other gadgetry, the ability to put across ideas and information by a variety of methods and media is essential.

Thus, in their field placements, TR@TC residents, who receive a significant stipend in exchange for a commitment to work in city schools after completing the program, don’t merely apprentice. Instead they “co-teach”—a successful model developed at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University in which teaching residents actively plan, teach and assess instruction, beginning the first day of their placement. Residents often have the opportunity, with their mentor teacher, to co-teach with content-area teachers and to find new and better ways to reach students who have learning disabilities or are non-native speakers.

“One of the concepts we learn in the program is a curricular method called ‘universal design,’ which is taken from architecture,” says Tracy Wu, a TR@TC resident in the program’s secondary inclusive education pathway who is spending this year at Bronx High School for the Visual Arts. “A building should be designed so that all people can access it, whether they’re in a wheelchair or on crutches.  And it’s the same in education. The onus shouldn’t be on the student to find a way to learn. Instead, it’s up to the teacher to create a pathway into the subject matter for each student.”

To that end, residents read works that focus extensively on helping young people from impoverished or special-needs backgrounds learn to advocate for themselves. In a course on the history of urban education, the residents learn how today’s vast network of district offices, school boards and mayor-controlled systems has been shaped and reshaped over scores of political administrations, economic shifts and waves of immigration. They go on community walks, touring the neighborhoods around their placement schools in order to get a clearer picture of their students’ lives. They read research on a variety of teaching practices. They teach, spending full days in classrooms right from the get-go. And then they return to TC’s campus for a weekly integrating seminar, where they share and distill their field experiences in discussions led by faculty who provide a context of additional relevant research.  

“We believe teacher preparation should be a constantly iterative story,” says Goodwin, who secured the original $10 million federal grant that created TR@TC. “A teaching resident comes back to the seminar and says, ‘This is my experience. We say, ‘OK, that’s interesting, because the research says…’ And they take that back to their classrooms and adapt it to their practice—and their practice to it. The point is to be thinking, yes, I did a great activity with my kids, it was lively, there was classroom discussion, everyone had a good time—but what, exactly, did they learn? What should I do next and how do I connect that to what they learned last time?”

Wu, who is co-teaching a ninth-grade literacy class in which many students read at only a fourth-grade level, has repeatedly confronted those questions while assigning essays on rap songs such as Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.”

“We get students to make inferences,” Wu says. “My mentor teacher [Juanita Garza] is really great, but at first she was a little tentative about using rap. But the key is to find ways for students to demonstrate what they know. They have really good ideas in discussion, there’s definitely higher-order thinking going on, but when they write, the words don’t match their thoughts. Ultimately, we want them to write powerfully, with words that are meaningful for everyone.”  

In another assignment, Wu played students a reading of the Poe story “The Tell-Tale Heart” performed by an actor who uses cadences resembling hip-hop and rap. Then, she asked them to write stories based on the original. The results were astounding.

“This one boy—a big football player who almost never spoke in class—wrote an amazing piece about a guy getting angry at kids who keep coming over and playing on his lawn,” she recalls. “The grammar wasn’t perfect by any means, but he totally caught the voice and the spirit. When I told him how good it was, he just put his head down. He wasn’t used to hearing praise.”

Another TR@TC resident at the school, Brendan Tateishi, has used Japanese anime-style art, which is wildly popular with students, to convey science concepts in the Living Environment class he co-teaches with his mentor, Rowena Adalla. Tateishi has created a character called “Mrs. Gren,” a spooky-looking old woman whose name is a mnemonic acronym for movement, respiration, and other functions involved in body homeostasis. He’s also helped students to create collages that illustrate cell differentiation and the actions of different enzymes.

“This is an art school, so the kids often respond to information that’s presented visually,” says Tateishi says, adding that he spends little time distinguishing between general education students in the class and those who are “special ed.”  

“In the past, an inclusive classroom often meant simply that there was a certified special ed teacher in the room,” Tateishi says. “There was a primary teacher working with the mainstream kids, and the special ed teacher kept to the side with the special ed kids. It was basically a segregated classroom. But in our classroom, Ms. Adalla and I work together to try to deliver multi-layered stuff. We’re dealing with a range of learners, and the point is to just keep trying different methods until something works, and they get it.”

TC has been able to persuade TR@TC partner schools to set aside significant time for residents and mentor teachers to co-plan their courses—a practice that research indicates is one of the most effective interventions a school can make for planning modifications and accommodations to support special ed students. And in December, Wu, Tateishi and their mentor teachers were chosen to present their classroom work at a special Common Core Learning Standards Peer Review at the Bronx District Office.

Wu and Juanita Garza spoke about challenging their class to come up with a new name for their generation, which is typically referred to in the media as Generation Z.  

“We showed the kids articles that characterized Generation Z, often negatively, and told them to figure out whether they agreed or disagreed. And we said to them, ‘Define yourselves—don’t be defined.’”

For the TR@TC program, it was a clear case of mission accomplished.


If literacy is an area in which non-English speaking students are often unfairly stigmatized, mathematics presents an opposite conundrum: In U.S. schools, math—a universal language—has become something of a national phobia for teachers and students alike.

At TC, psychologist Herbert Ginsburg has been working to empower a new generation of teachers with a different outlook.

Preservice teaching students who take Ginsburg’s course “The Development of Mathematical Thinking” often find themselves immersed in preschool classics such as Eric Carle’s Rooster’s Off to See The World. As the title suggests, one fine morning the hero sets out to explore. He is soon joined in rapid succession by two cats, three frogs, four turtles and five fish. Then, with night falling and no dinner or place to sleep, his new companions depart in reverse order. Left alone, Rooster, too, returns home to sleep on his own perch, where he dreams of the adventures that might have been.

In addition to teaching kids about animals (and, possibly, the tenuous nature of friendship), Carle’s book is also very much about math—and not just plain old counting. Recognizing patterns, from piano keyboards to days of the week, is a form of algebraic thinking, since kids must solve the pattern’s riddle by making predictions.

Those truths have been vividly documented in a final project for Ginsburg’s class submitted by Regina Ferrin, who is earning a master’s degree in the College’s teacher preparation program in early childhood education. For her project, Ferrin videotaped a clinical interview she conducted with Tania (not her real name), a six-year-old Latina student. Thanks to a technology program employed in the class, clips of the interview appear in the paper as clickable footnotes. The clips show Tania performing several feats: accurately extending patterns of circles and triangles created by Ferrin; reestablishing patterns when Ferrin deliberately breaks them; and, when Ferrin reads the Carle story aloud, correctly predicting how many animals will appear on each page, confirming that she recognizes the book’s “growing pattern” of plus one.

Ferrin’s project is further evidence of the theory that Ginsburg—TC’s Jacob H. Schiff Foundation Professor of Psychology and Education—has been demonstrating for years: Children as young as 18 months have a sense of “everyday math” that can be developed both through play and more formalized teaching. In hundreds of videotaped clinical interviews, Ginsburg and his students have documented instances of children displaying their grasp of number operations, shape, pattern, cardinality (recognition that a number represents a definable quantity of things) and more (a word that, in itself, implies an understanding of quantity).

Ginsburg has also co-authored a preschool curriculum called “Big Math for Little Kids,” written a number of landmark texts, and developed several technologies for assessment and teaching. Yet given the potential multiplier effect of each aspiring teacher who takes “The Development of Mathematical Thinking,” his teaching may turn out to be his greatest legacy.  

“I went into Herb’s course not liking math and thinking that I couldn’t teach it because I didn’t understand it,” says Ferrin. “I came out of it not only realizing I did understand it, but actually excited about it and recognizing its importance in everyday life in a way I never had before.”

The course syllabus alone, which ranges from works by Jean Piaget to a cross-cultural analysis of play titled Street Mathematics and School Mathematics, makes for a fascinating experience. But the clinical interviewing—supplemented by technology and pedagogy that enable students to study video, to refer within a paper to relevant clips, and to think deeply about them—is where everything really seems to come together.

“I don’t like my students to talk in vague ideological terms, like, ‘It’s great to let kids construct knowledge,’” says Ginsburg, who co-authored a 2009 National Academy of Sciences study of math instruction for young children, and who last year was elected to the National Academy of Education. “I want them to integrate what they learn about kids, from observation, with what they read and with their own teaching skills. The ultimate goal is for them to understand each kid’s thinking so that they can teach better, and in a more personalized and effective way.”


Clearly, video is a pow-erful tool for shedding light on the ways that children learn. But it can be equally useful for identifying successful teaching strategies and pinpointing precisely why they work. That’s the intent behind a 37-minute clip, currently shown to all TC preservice social studies teaching students, of TC alumnus Bill Kahn, an award-winning teacher at Brooklyn Tech, a high-performing high school in New York City.

“Polls always find that people in this country support freedom of speech—but not if you ask them if the Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to march in Central Park,” Kahn, a burly man in shirtsleeves, tells a classroom full of seniors at one point in the video. “So ‘freedom of speech’ may sound like apple pie, flags waving, people standing tall to say good, patriotic things—but in reality, it’s about those who’d say things that might disgust you. The speech that needs protecting is the speech that you hate.”  

The class is part of a unit in which Kahn covers ground ranging from the Bill of Rights to Supreme Court cases involving anti-draft protests during World War I, the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971, and a 1979 magazine article by a Princeton undergrad on how to construct a hydrogen bomb. The sequence on freedom of speech was videotaped as part of a project carried out by two Teachers College faculty members, Thomas Hatch and Anand R. Marri, with the support of Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning.

“One of the key areas of research in teacher education is to develop an understanding of how different teacher practices influence student learning,” says Hatch, who co-directs TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching. “Video lets us have a common conversation about what’s working and what isn’t.”  

Prior to watching the video footage of Kahn’s class, the TC preservice students read up on three key classroom methods: direct instruction (in which a teacher provides information or step-by-step lessons to ensure that students learn specific content or skills); questioning; and the contextualizing of ideas (that is, using real or hypothetical case examples to dramatize ideas or concepts). The student teachers debate widely held assumptions, such as the effectiveness of working in small groups or the logic of presenting students with lower-level cognitive questions before progressing to higher-level questions. They learn about the Anti-Bullying Act of 2005; the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; chat rooms, buddy lists, text messaging, and “prior restraint” legal battles over publication. They even explore how the organization of classroom space affects learning.

Then they watch Bill Kahn, a teacher who makes clear and deliberate choices around all of these issues. Contextualizing ideas? Kahn tells the class that he’s proposing a new policy: Any boy who doesn’t want to do the homework can simply ask a girl to do it for him—and also to cook him breakfast. There’s a quick vote (boys outnumber girls), and the mock motion carries. “Ain’t democracy grand?” he says, over the howls of protest.

Kahn has ways to involve shy students. He tells a girl named Dina to stand and say anything about him she likes—then ushers her into an invisible soundproof room and asks the class whether she’s exercising her right to freedom of speech. Answer: No, because—in theory—no one can hear her. “There’s also a right to be heard,” he says. “Because if I allow you to print your newspaper, but then burn every copy, then you’re not exercising freedom of speech.”

In a series of written assignments, the TC students analyze Kahn’s use of the three classroom strategies, aided by a powerful new technology platform called Media Thread, developed by CCNMTL, which enables them to include excerpts from the video as clickable footnotes.  

“Videos of teaching can be especially helpful because students can watch complex interactions again and again,” says Hatch. “The analytic tools provided by Media Thread force them to take an interaction apart, slow it down and process all of it—and that gives instructors the opportunity to make connections to different readings.”

This approach has pitfalls. As Hatch and co-author Pam Grossman—this year’s Visiting Sachs Lecturer at TC—wrote in the Journal of Teacher Education, watching a veteran teacher may offer an image of what’s possible, but it can suggest “a vision of the impossible” as well. After all, what novice teacher can hope to approximate the work of someone with Bill Kahn’s experience? Then, too, Hatch and Marri have found that the lessons their students take away from watching Kahn aren’t always the ones they’d hoped to emphasize.

“One thing I really admire about Bill is his use of multiple viewpoints,” says Marri, a member of a group developing the national Common Core Social Studies standards, and the leader of a TC team that developed a highly regarded high school curriculum on the federal budget, the national debt and the budget deficit. “Novice teachers tend to promote just one view—they don’t engage the gray areas. Bill looks at freedom of speech and asks, should it exist at all costs? What are the limits to that in the context of, say, terrorism? And he never lets students dodge those questions or answer without evidence.”

A number of TC students, however, said they would have liked to see Kahn open the floor to more free discussion. Of course, their views may change with time and experience—but it’s not likely they’ll have forgotten Bill Kahn.


Yakety-yak, don’t talk back, The Coasters mockingly intone in their 1958 hit, distilling the prevailing adult response to lippy teens. But attitudes are changing, at least in education circles. Freedom of speech is a right, but to succeed in today’s world, speaking well—informed by a solid base of knowledge—is a requirement. The new common core standards place a heavy emphasis on argumentation—the ability to forcefully present one’s views, buttressed by facts. Of course, the aim of the standards is primarily to produce students who are better at written forms of that skill—but at Teachers College, Deanna Kuhn, Professor of Psychology and Education, has been demonstrating that the best way for kids to learn argumentation is by, well...arguing.

For the past five years, at a public middle school three blocks from TC’s campus, Kuhn and her doctoral students have been implementing and evaluating two curriculum sequences devoted to the core intellectual skills of inquiry and argumentation.

In a multi-year intervention, students choose pro and con positions on a series of social issues. The teams break into pairs that dialogue with pairs of opposing-side students. The exercise culminates in a whole-class “showdown” debate, followed by a debriefing. Each student then writes an individual position essay, ending the cycle on that topic.

One essential twist: The students conduct the debate entirely via computer, using chat software that also enables them to see electronic transcripts of their conversations.  The transcripts allow them to look back and to reflect with their same-side partner on what to say next to their opponents. As a recent back-and-forth among seventh graders on China’s “one-child” policy suggests, debating online also keeps the focus on sustaining extended exchanges, making high-quality arguments and using compelling evidence:  

“Pro” team: Since the one-child-per-family policy began, many problems that come with overpopulation have become less severe. There have been fewer epidemics, and greater improvements in health services, education, housing, law enforcement and the environment.

“Anti” team: But since the one- child policy has begun there has been a report of 60 million missing girls... some people are so ashamed of having a second child, they make their children go ‘missing’ each year.

Pro: Yeah, but the whole thing about killing children because of overpopulation is only partially due to the overpopulation, but not 
totally because of it. It is also because people have a prejudice against girls. Besides, girls are not always killed, they are usually sent to adoption centers as small babies. They are then adopted.

Anti:But if China’s population increases beyond its carrying capacity, people will starve and get sick from bad water.

Pro: OK, but for now, we need that policy to stay stable while they start conserving…how else will they stay stabilized?

Anti: I see your point, conservation does take a long time.  

And on it goes—with impressive results. Last year, in the journal Psychological Science, Kuhn and co-author Amanda Crowell reported that 48 students who were taught using their curriculum produced better-argued essays than a class of 23 comparison students who took on similar topics through traditional whole-class discussion and writing assignments. The students participating in Kuhn’s curriculum were better at marshaling evidence and addressing and rebutting counter-arguments, even though they wrote fewer essays than the comparison group. They also demonstrated better “skills transfer,” meaning that they performed well regardless of the specific subject matter they addressed.

Kuhn is now seeking to refine and test her curriculum. Meanwhile, her ideas have helped Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Program craft new assessments of written argumentation skills, aligned to the Common Core, for students in grades K-8.  

Calkins took on that work at the request of the New York City Department of Education. Last year, she worked with think tanks of city teachers to brainstorm, draft and pilot performance assessments and to develop learning progressions—curricula and assessment tools that reflect the sequence of development students follow in progressing from novice to proficient in skills central to the Common Core. The work with learning progressions was sparked by input from an expert, Thomas Corcoran, TC’s Associate Vice President for International Affairs. Corcoran and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (an organization founded and directed by TC President Susan Fuhrman) have also studied how performance assessments and learning progressions have helped teachers move students along sequences of key skills and concepts.

The new assessments created by Calkins and her team are now in use at schools across New York City and around the world. They are carefully calibrated to target the specific skills emphasized by the Common Core, but also designed to engage kids’ emotions and enthusiasm.

For example, students are asked: Should there be zoos?

To answer that question, fifth graders undergoing the new assessment must absorb and respond to material that doesn’t mask real-life complexity. In “The Swazi Eleven,” an account of the 2003 airlifting of 11 elephants from Africa to the San Diego Zoo adapted from Tom French’s Zoo Story, the students learn that although the move was bitterly opposed by animal rights’ groups, it was undertaken to protect the elephants from local farmers calling for their destruction.  

“Part of what we’re assessing is students’ ability to wrestle with complicated issues,” Calkins says. “Can they discern the different trustworthiness of an article written by an inflamed fourth grader from one written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has conducted years of research?”

Why is argumentation so important? “Think about what many adults are required to do in their jobs,” Kuhn says. “We’re constantly being asked to become experts on new subjects, especially when we change jobs and careers. So, we need to give kids the skills to acquire information on their own, because we can’t tell what information they’re going to need.  And the many complex problems they’ll need to address call for reasoned debate. Our research shows that inquiry and argumentation skills are largely not domain-specific. They can be identified apart from the content of a particular subject, even though we need to develop them in the context of rich, meaningful content.”

Kuhn remains guardedly optimistic that schools will fully embrace her ideas. She cites a principal who recently told her that the curriculum was great “in an ideal world,” but that students need to focus on absorbing information from text in order to do well on standardized tests. Then, too, she says, there have been the occasional complaints from adjoining classrooms that kids in the argumentation curriculum are “a bit noisy.” 

Maybe. Still, they’re talking about ideas—and you can’t argue with that.

Published Friday, Apr. 13, 2012


More Stories