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Schools Must Shed Outdated, Industrial Model, Gaudelli Says to Obama

In one of a series of faculty letters of advice for the second Obama Administration, Bill Gaudelli writes that schools need to be "reimagined" for 21st-century realities.
Moving Forward: What are the qualities of the best teachers and how are they prepared?
Part of an open letter to President Obama and Secretary Duncan

By William Gaudelli

Now that the election is over, the question looms:   how do we move forward with respect to schools? First, we need to reimagine schools for present and future social and economic realities; second, we need highly qualified, professional teachers who embrace this work; and third, we need to commit to high-quality teacher education to develop the profession while supporting the growth of current teachers.  

What types of classrooms are most appropriate for current social and economic realities? Classrooms are still characteristic of an early industrial age that sought uniformity, linearity, lock-step progression, and static knowledge. While at the University of Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey (who later joined the Columbia University faculty, taught at Teachers College, and became a leading intellectual and philosopher of education) went seeking movable furniture for his and his wife Alice's Lab School, to replace the chair/desk combinations that were often bolted to the floor. The furniture maker indicated that if they were not bolted down, they wouldn't be school desks. This iconic image of students sitting in rows, listening to teacher lectures, reciting notes, and memorizing facts is as deeply emblazoned in the national psyche as it is counter-productive to our economic viability.

Too little has changed with respect to how learning is understood and engaged. Recent reforms that organize curriculum around competencies, require student inquiry, employ online resources and social media, build-in collaboration among students and invite creativity and personalization go a long way towards shifting from a national/industrial model towards a global/information mode of education. Ramping up initiatives to support this way of learning would do much more than rearrange the furniture of schools; it would reorganize how we think about the work of our nation's schools in keeping with a rapidly changing world.

What are the characteristics of a highly competent teacher for these types of learning environments? First and foremost, she must be committed to personalized instruction that recognizes each student's learning style and abilities. The one-size-fits-all style of education that wasted so much human potential in the industrial era will no longer suffice. Rather, we need to recognize and value the unique possibility of each child if we are to achieve national progress. Second, this teacher must herself be an inquirer, someone alive to the possibility of learning about her field of practice, her content area, and her community of learners. Encouraging her students to use evidence-based approaches to learning will reap the benefits of being a highly engaged, intellectually curious teacher. Third, she must be able to collaborate and see the value in this democratic practice, both as a professional with her colleagues but also among her students. Effective cooperation is required, not optional, in today's and tomorrow's schools.

Most important, quality teaching needs to be measured by the performance of students. Any discussion of teaching must consider the learners, and that if something was not learned, it was by definition, not taught. This has been a welcome change in educational discourse and policy lately. But we also have to be careful that the indicators of performance are not so narrowly conceived as to miss much that was learned. 

How do we prepare teachers for a changing educational landscape? Teaching is bedeviled by a dual reality. On the one-hand, it is a massive profession of some 7.2 million members in the United States that has a high attrition rate, particularly in the most challenging schools.  On the other hand, effective teaching is a highly demanding, time-intensive activity, both in the preparation and development of skilled educators and in their support while in the field. High quality teacher education needs to identify and cultivate a large pool of applicants, particularly in high-demand fields such as mathematics, special education, TESOL, and science, while providing candidates with an outstanding experience.

Such teacher education should include rich, field-based experiences working with highly innovative and committed teachers who are identified as masters of their craft. The schools in which candidates learn to teach need to be environments that embrace diversity, support equitable opportunity and encourage innovation and personalization with technological support. Higher education institutions, in partnership with these schools and teachers, should provide intellectually challenging course-work to support teacher candidate development as well as those of their mentors. The latest research and scholarship generated by HEIs should serve as the intellectual backbone of this preparation. 

We can move forward in reshaping schools to meet the demands of the 21st Century, identifying and supporting teaching for these reconfigured schools and providing a firm foundation and launching point for teacher candidates in high quality, research-based institutions of teacher education.  This is the task ahead, and it is my hope that we will rise to the challenges.

The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.

Published Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012


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