Theory matters…

Theory is part of my life as a doctoral student. It was part of my life as an undergrad but in a very different way – it was music theory and it was a tough class for me. I had to learn, understand, and apply the underpinnings of how music was constructed – scales, modes, tempo, motifs, etc.  I also had to take music history classes to understand the historical contexts that composers wrote and musicians performed. All of this helped me to become a better musician – both performing and consuming. Theory mattered a lot, even though I did my share of complaining about it.

Students in undergraduate teacher education programs across the U.S. take courses that often include theory, and often complain that it has nothing to do with practice. There is a perception that theory won’t actually help a teacher teach – that classroom management is more important. Does theory matter? How can it help someone learn to teach?

I am currently rereading Teaching Children’s Fiction edited by Charles Butler, in particular the chapter by Roderick McGillis titled Looking in the Mirror: Pedagogy, Theory, and Children’s Literature. One quote that has stuck with me is:

The resistance to theory we sometimes meet in the classroom stems from an ingrained notion that literary activity ought to be natural, fun, and self-evident. p. 89

While McGillis is referring to literature classrooms, I have heard this repeatedly in various courses I teach and the undergraduate and graduate level in a college of education. I see this imagined notion regularly in both my children’s literature and literacy methods courses. It’s interesting because it serves two purposes: it means that the students shouldn’t have to “work this hard” to engage with course materials, and also that they don’t really need to understand any theory to become an elementary school teacher. Before I continue I want to be clear that I realize not ALL preservice teachers think this way, but this way of thinking has been prevalent across my own 5 1/2 years of teaching at a large midwest University.

Faculty at colleges and universities are currently teaching THE MOST TESTED generation of students ever to come through our doors. Our students were starting elementary school when NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was passed. They have been tested, practice-tested, re-tested, taught to the test, and tested again. Many come in wanting “absolute” answers and rubrics for everything. This isn’t always possible, nor is it always best pedagogical practice. But what strikes me is that this generation of tested students is now in our College of Education, learning to be teachers. Given the fact that new teachers are likely to teach in the same ways that they were taught (Kennedy, 1999), this makes me exceedingly concerned in this time of CCSS and NCTQ.

Learning about theory and how to apply it is hard intellectual work, particularly if approaching it with notions of “natural, self-evident, and fun”. It’s also particularly difficult if you’ve never ever done it before (because you were busy taking multiple choice tests).  I think one of the things that makes it most challenging is that it means we must consider ourselves, the contexts we live in, and the choices that we make. Theory forces us to become self-reflective, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable. It can make us feel vulnerable and as if we don’t know anything. But that is not bad, it is how we grow. And I believe that students in classrooms today deserve teachers who think deeply, who understand theories behind their pedagogical decisions, and who question if the CCSS are really what is best for their students. I know we have many teachers like this, but they need support. More people need to question the wisdom of non-educators making decisions about education, the created testing “panic”, and ultimately to support that teachers are professional educators who can make decisions about how best to teach their students.

While learning music theory many years ago may not have been fun or seemed applicable, it made me a better musician, which at the time was my goal (I was a music major). I didn’t always understand that the two were connected, but the further progressed the more connections I could see. I still loved making music, it could still be fun (though not always), and ultimately I had to work at it. Like music, teaching may be fun sometimes, and there may be elements of it that are intuitive for some people – but it is tough, intellectual work as well that deserves respect and theoretical backing.

to be continued….

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