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Catherine Snow


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Video: Rx for struggling readers
HGSE Professor Catherine Snow

Teacher professional development

What would a professional program look like that supported growth in reading, knowledge about reading? What would happen in the pre-service program? What would happen in the post-service, the in-service years? And how could this get embedded into organizational, structural changes?

So if the pre-service program did this, addressed these teacher beliefs-- So, in other words, don't necessarily undermine every single one of those myths, but at least get people aware of the fact that the things their grandmothers believed are not necessarily true.

Create expectations for continuous learning, really deliver the message. When you get out of here, you are barely started on learning how to do your job. Ensure the development of, a sort of a comprehensive and usable knowledge base, but recognize that that knowledge base is always much, much smaller than the problem that will be addressed with it.

We argue that a very practical approach is to help new teachers apply new knowledge to particular contexts. So where are you going to be next year? Let's figure out what to do in that setting, rather than trying to figure out what to do about instruction in reading or instruction in history in a very, very general way.

But sort of lay out the landscape of the key components that are going to have to be put into place. Apply the "learn – enact – assess –  reflect" cycle to the program so that it can get better and be sensitive to the local context, particularly of course for the very large teacher development programs that mostly serve the local context with their graduates.

School structures to improve reading performance

The larger system needs to recognize that new teacher graduates are novices, are people who can at best be expected to do no harm, and are very unlikely to be able to be expected to do a lot of good. Of course what does that mean? That means they should be put, as some school districts do, in smaller classes, not larger classes, in better schools, not worser schools, with the least problematic kids, not the most problematic kids. Because those are the places where they are the most likely to actually to be able to teach the majority of the kids in the class, help them move forward while themselves learning how to do a better job.

We argue that there's a need for very clearly articulated stages of teacher careers associated with documented shifts in knowledge, in experience that go along with shifts in responsibilities and rewards, that novice teachers-- You know, some people might be novices for a couple of years. Some people might be novices only for six months, but that there's a clear shift from being the novice who can do this with the easy class, the easy kids, the small class, the well-protected setting, the people who can do it under more challenging circumstances.

The recognition that ongoing learning is as important for teachers as it is for MDs or car mechanics-- And you might say, "Well, that's recognized, isn't it? Don't teachers get step increases for taking courses?" But actually I have to tell you, yeah, they do. But nobody worries about what courses they're taking. I mean, the fact of the matter is, you just have to show that you've taken the course.

And there is not a notion that there is a coordinated and organized post-graduate body of knowledge that's in any sense staged and organized in a way that's associated with these different teacher career tracks.

There's a lot of evidence that school site support for teacher functioning is more important or at least as important in determining teacher effectiveness as what teachers know. Teachers from great teacher education programs go to schools where nobody is around to help or the curriculum isn't very well thought out, where there's not a collegial atmosphere and fail. And Teach For America kinds of teachers, who've had rather little preparation can thrive in settings where there's a lot of collegial support.

So the notion of teaching as an individual activity, rather than a distributed one that uses distributed cognition, one in which groups of people operate together to take responsibility for the progress of students, we argue is one that really needs to be rethought.

Also that universities that have pre-service teacher education programs really need to expand their vision of their responsibility. There was sort of a famous case when The University of Arkansas or Missouri or something adopted a lemon law for its teacher ed graduates. And they sort of said, "Alright, you hire our teachers. If you don't like 'em, send 'em back and we'll train 'em up again."

Well, I'm not exactly focusing on a lemon law approach here, but a notion that if we in university teacher ed programs recognize that we can't teach people everything they need to know in a year or a year and a half, or two and a half years of coursework, but we have some responsibility to our graduates to participate in their ongoing learning after they graduate, then that would be become much more a part of a general culture of thinking about teachers as professionals.

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College