Monday, March 11, 2019

Why I Don't Use "Teacher Training" to Describe Teacher Education

Above: This is a class picture from when I taught my first social studies methods course as a doctoral student in 2009.

I never use the phrase "teacher training." Those who work with me also know that I try my best to encourage them to stop using it as well. I have been a teacher educator for over 10 years (notice how we do not usually say "teacher trainer"), and I have always had an uneasiness with describing the process where teachers learn (and continue to learn) to teach as "training." I think that it problematically frames teachers' work as overly simplistic, involving little thought and creativity, and something that can be learned in a relatively brief period of time. It does not encapsulate the intellectual flexibility or the crucial problem solving skills that teachers need to do in their work.

This post is my public service announcement on the issue...

What is Training?

Merriam-Webster defines training as:

1: to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient; to form by instruction, discipline, or drill
2: to make prepared (as by exercise) for a test of skill
3: to direct the growth of (a plant) usually by bending, pruning, and tying

These definitions of training can help us break down why it is not the right term to describe the complex process that teachers experience as they are learn (and continue to learn) to teach. Embedded in the definition of training are several problematic ideas that are implicit and are important to unpack.

First, the word training means "to make fit." One interpretation of this is similar to qualified or proficient. However, I would like to instead use "to cause to conform to or suit something." This view of teacher training is the reason why early schools of education were called normal schools, and they were designed to establish a set of norms among all teachers and to standardize their practices (also see how gender played into the whole normal school idea). The second part explains how this "fitting" occurs through "instruction, discipline, or drill." The drill and discipline components clearly imply that repeated behaviors will lead to the intended outcome of becoming a proficient teacher. Additionally, discipline means "training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character" (interestingly, it also means "punishment," which all teachers know from their school discipline policies).

The idea that teacher learning is to conform to a singular view of education is problematic. It implies that the best teachers can be molded using some sort of formula and that they "follow the rules." Instead, we know that some of the best teachers go against the grain. We know that they do not always fit in with the instructional or institutional norms around them. We know that they take pedagogical and curricular risks. Moreover, we know that the educational system is not equitable; the best teachers also work against that inequity. They center their work on social justice and ensuring that all their students are challenged and supported. They engage in culturally relevant pedagogy. Teachers need to be agents of change in their classroom around issues of pedagogy and curriculum, as well as fairness and equity more broadly.

Second, the word training means "to prepare" through "exercise" usually for some sort of test (such as an athlete trains for the Olympics). This view of teacher training portrays teaching as not involving intellectual flexibility or continual adaption to changing conditions (granted, teachers are like Olympians in many other ways). I will use the example of a driving license as an example; once a person passes a road test then the state says they have the skills necessary for operating a car. Within this logic, a teacher should be able to pass a test or some other sort of benchmark, and then they will have most of the knowledge necessary for teaching.

The idea that teacher learning can be mastered by repeated practice or that quality teaching can be easily measured is problematic. It implies that we know what certain behaviors teachers need to be effective. Instead, we know that measuring quality teaching is not only very difficult, but even the definition of quality teaching is highly contested. We also know that teacher learning continues to occur well beyond teacher preparation and that it involves continually adapting to new sets of conditions, such as changing students, teaching methods, or curricula. There is no one test or benchmark that says someone has mastered (or is even proficient) in teaching.

Third, the word training means "bending, pruning, and tying"; this is clearly a definition intended for gardening. However, it is still applicable to this argument. If we use the analogy of a tree to describe how a teacher grows, we would want to avoid "training" teachers in this sense as well.

The idea that teacher learning is something that can be forced in a certain way (like the gardening of plants) is problematic. It implies that teachers need to be shaped by others. Instead, teachers are the drivers of their own professional learning. There is evidence that the most meaningful teacher professional development involves learning collectively and collaborating with peers. At the same time, teachers are impacted by the decisions of others. They do not get to control the level of social programs available to their students or the amount of resources available to their schools. In many ways, like trees, teachers may feel as if they are constantly being figuratively bent, pruned, or tied by others in their day-to-day work. I see this with the preservice teachers who I teach, but also among the experienced teachers whom I work work with (I have documented some of this in my longitudinal research on teacher development; see here and here). Many teachers today identify an over-emphasis on standardized test scores, prescribed mandated curriculum, a lack of resources, and schools without dedicated time for social studies, science, art, or music, as stunting their professional growth (similar to how this definition of training influences, perhaps even stunts, the growth of trees).

While there may be some professions where training describes their professional learning (i.e. auto mechanic, athlete), it is not the case for teachers.

What Is Education and Why Make a Distinction?

I am certainly not the first to draw a distinction between training and education. Outside teaching, many people have made this distinction about their fields (see one here from business or one here from the military). In fact, this same argument was made by G. Patrick O'Neill's article in his McGill Journal of Education back in 1986. He argued that education, not training, best depicted the intellectual, emotional, and social development that teachers undergo (and that teacher training and teacher education should no longer be used interchangeably).

My purpose in this post is to raise awareness and hopefully lead teachers and teacher educators to stop using the term "teacher training," and instead use "teacher education" or more specifically "teacher preparation," "teacher development," or "teacher learning" as the terms to describe how teachers learn.

Merriam Webster defines education as 
1: the action or process of educating or of being educated; the knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated

Education is a much more applicable term for what teachers experience as they learn (and continue to learn) to teach. It represents a much more complex process. It makes clear that it happens over time (perhaps over a lifetime or career). It is not some that comes from rote memorization or repeated behaviors, but rather development that occurs before and during the practice of teaching.

Of course, all professions involve some level of both training and education. Teaching is no different. However, it requires much more education than training to be successful. For instance, teachers must be trained to use a grade submission web portal, how to search the Internet efficiently for resources, or about their school's procedures for dealing with problematic student behaviors. Yet, these types of trainings are not usually (and should not be) the focus of teacher preparation programs, as they would not prepare teachers for the realities of the classroom and all of the complex variables that teachers need to consider and address.

Problematically, several new teacher preparation programs have actually bought into the assumptions embedded in "teacher training" and have built their courses around the behaviors or repeated practice that they believe make an effective teacher (interestingly, these preparation programs also view the learning of PreK-12 students in a similar way). One of the best example of this is the Relay Graduate School of Education, which NYC principal Carol Burris analyzes quite well here (notice even the author falls into the "teacher training" trap in the title, when I think she means education-as she makes clear throughout the article).

Teaching requires an education that helps develop teachers' critical thinking around how should students be assessed on their learning (or should we even have grades), how to design a well-crafted lesson plans or adapt another person's curricular materials, or understand the complex psychology that underpins students' behaviors and possible ways to support all of their students (including considering if school discipline procedures may be inequitable for certain students).

We cannot not simply train teachers, as if teaching is a simple set of tasks and behaviors. Instead, teachers must understand both the art and science of learning, so they can be continually adjusting their teaching practice and engaging in their work as intellectuals. As one writer analogized it, "Don’t just teach him how to catch a fish. Educate [them] about the art and science of fishing." Teachers must not only be prepared for the basic tasks they must perform in the classroom, but for everything else that happens around those. It is about how a teacher creates and assembles lessons, not memorizing the parts of a lesson plan template. It is about how a teacher challenges their students to think about perspectives or ideas that they have not considered, not using the best method for having students call out answers.

This is certainly not a new debate. Education has long had a division between those who work from behaviorist and constructivist perspectives. Each philosophy has different concepts for how to build an educational system that best educates students. Subsequently, that same debate has also persisted within teacher education. Teacher training is much more aligned with a behaviorist view of learning to teach, while teacher education better describes how constructivist-oriented teacher educators understand their work.

Why Is This Important?

Language is important as it frame how we understand the world. This is especially true for the language that we use to explain teaching and learning. As Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2006) reminded us, the language often used in education oversimplifies the process of teacher learning and practice. It often frames learning in terms of a basic transmission from teaching to student (which it is not), or in the case of teacher education, from teacher educator to teacher. This has all sorts of negative ramifications on how the general public or politicians (who make laws about teaching and learning) think about education. I find particularly compelling Kevin Kumashiro's argument that these misconceptions about teaching and learning have become so taken-for-granted that they are seen by many as common sense, and that they have been used for political, rather than educational means. For instance, conservative educational thinkers have used these common sense framings to shape the current educational conversation (and ultimately influence the current system) within their view.

As I said at the beginning, this is a PSA. My hope is that I influence a few more more people to stop use teacher training (I know it is an uphill battle), and especially to stop using it simultaneously with teacher education, or teacher preparation, or teacher development. I hope that this can encourage a more important conversation about how we view teacher education, teachers, and, ultimately, the students they work with.
 
 Above: A recent group of graduates from the BU Social Studies Education Program. I'd like to think we helped educate, not trained, them to be great teachers.