The most common conceptualization of what happens when we learn is some version of inputting: We imagine that learning involves taking something located outside of our brain and bringing it inside. Though intuitive, this conceptualization of the learning process is problematic. This is the way that many teachers think about student learning, and it is also the way that teacher preparation programs approach the learning of prospective teacher’s. Indeed, this philosophy of teacher preparation may actually be at the root of our failure to adequately prepare teachers for the demands of the profession. I intend to explain why I think this is so, and offer an alternative model of learning that seems to me less problematic and more promising.
When prospective teachers enroll in a teacher preparation program, usually at a university’s school of education, they take courses where they learn about educational psychology, curriculum design, and teaching methods. All of this is generally interesting and potentially valuable. However, this inputting, though arguably necessary, is not sufficient. Once teachers enter a classroom, they must also output what they have learned, diagnosing students’ struggles to grasp concepts, designing lessons that align not only with state standards but with students’ interests, and altering instructional approaches to meet the needs of a diverse classroom of students. Simply put, I believe that schools of education emphasize the input more than the output.
Obviously, teacher preparation programs understand that their students eventually need to apply what they learn, which is why there is usually a student-teaching experience at the end of the program. However, this student-teaching suffers from the same problem: we seem to assume that simply by providing the proper preliminary input during the initial phase of the program, prospective teachers will hit the ground running, and will, with minimal feedback about their student-teaching, be prepared to produce satisfactory output in full-time teaching positions. Unfortunately, this too breaks down, and many prospective teachers have negative experiences during student-teaching. The fact is input does not always transfer into output. Simply knowing about teaching does not prepare one to perform as a teacher (or a student teacher). The inputting model of teacher preparation is entirely inadequate. If we want to truly prepare prospective teachers to perform in the classroom, we must not simply teach them about teaching, but train them as teachers.
This syntactical shift suggests a pedagogical shift as well: Rather than imagining learning as a cognitive process of inputting, we could think of it as a social process of becoming. This view is in line with situated learning theory, which conceptualizes learning as “legitimate peripheral participation” within a “community of practice.” At the risk of oversimplifying the theory, this means that learning is not so much a cognitive process as it is a social one. When we learn, we do not so much input information as we change the way we relate to people and practices within a particular context. Situated learning theorists often describe this view by referring to apprenticeships. In an apprenticeship, a master craftsman inducts the apprentice into the practice. As the apprentice participates in the craft, he becomes increasingly competent and independent within that practice and among the community of craftsmen. This kind of apprenticeship is an ongoing, iterative, social process of becoming a craftsman; it is not merely a process of learning about the craft.
If theories like situated learning theory were at the foundation of our teacher preparation programs and consequently, if teacher preparation were more like an apprenticeship, I believe teachers would be much more likely to begin their careers prepared to perform well in the classroom. By moving away from the input model of education, the output would improve. As it is now, teachers’ true “apprenticeships” begin only after they graduate from their programs. It is not as they attend classes at a university and submit assignments to professors that they will become capable teachers; it is as they participate in “teacherly” practices with “teacherly” people in increasingly “teacherly” ways. This process of inducting prospective teachers into the practice of teaching can and must begin before they have a classroom of their own.