11/01/2010 05:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Theory or Bust -- What are Teachers Learning?

This week I had a great discussion with a friend who is nearing the end of her elementary accreditation program at a state university. She has worked diligently over several years to prepare herself to be an instructional leader in a bilingual classroom. In her formal teacher preparation program she has taken courses on strategy, child development, and theory, in addition to receiving hands-on experience as a student teacher. Because she has always wanted to be a school teacher, my friend considered various alternative routes, but she decided on a full credentialing program so that she did not miss anything important or enter a classroom ill-prepared to serve her students. In essence, she has done everything in her power to become a qualified new teacher.

As she reflected on her program, she noted her frustration with the pedagogy-heavy curriculum, wishing she received more practical instruction. I was impressed because throughout my graduate school experience, I was let down by the flippant ways in which we glossed over educational history and philosophy. What became apparent as we continued talking, though, was that as much as her classes were theory-based, they were far from stimulating or intellectually challenging.

Graduate schools are designed to foster academic investigation and cultivate an environment of deep thought. One would hope that graduates find themselves learned and enlightened in their field, capable of understanding, contemplating, and reacting to related pedagogy and philosophy.

In teaching, a thorough understanding of the educational landscape -- history, policy, child development and best practices -- seems imperative. This knowledge distinguishes educators as experts and endows them with the capacity to work with students and parents to advocate for what is best, not only for the children in the classroom, but also for a thriving educational culture. The reality for many teachers, however, is that theory is paraphrased and spewed at them in poorly written textbooks. History is thrown at them like a fact sheet instead of events and artifacts that they must interpret and synthesize. Ethics and social justice issues are latent or an afterthought. Instead of reading Dewey, Locke, and Piaget, many schools only require that teachers read about them. Frankly, I was insulted by the fact that we were not expected to delve into academic articles, substantial research, or controversial literature. The lack of depth and floor-high expectations made me feel like no one trusted my colleagues or me with complex material.

We hold students to high expectations. We know that challenging them is crucial to building skills and helping them become critical thinkers. We study Bloom's Taxonomy to understand levels of thought and creativity among our students, noting the importance of guiding them to high-level thinking. Why then are we satisfied with providing teachers a superficial overview of pedagogy? Instead of frameworks for how to reason and make conscious decisions about a teacher's role in society, accreditation program curricula tend to function in the basic rungs of Bloom's Taxonomy. I do not mean to say that teachers are not capable of profound study. They certainly are, and they should be treated like the highly competent, brilliant people that they are. I dare say, more challenging courses might be a helpful tool in coaching some out of the profession. If programs better fused intellectual, socio-political aspects of education with enhanced practical application in a clinical practice (student-teaching or residency) setting, we would be one step closer to a more highly qualified, socially conscious teacher pool.

There are some excellent schools of education. I took some powerful courses in the education department during my undergraduate career. Nonetheless, I find it shocking how poorly crafted and minimally academic many education programs are. I am surprised that there has not been a backlash within accreditation programs among teachers who want more rigor and stimulation.