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Knowledge Bases

In "The Child and the Curriculum," John Dewey argued that the apparent antinomy between students and the curriculum--that is, between the natural interests and motivations of the student and the conceptual structures of the academic disciplines-- could be resolved by translating them back into the lived experience from which these bodies of systematic knowledge had been abstracted in the course of human civilization. The aim of education was to enable students to recapitulate, and thereby to make their own, the cultural and intellectual labors that constituted the true history of the human species. The role of the teacher in this process was to design learning situations in which these structured learning outcomes would appear as--and where they would, in fact, become--the natural, unforced development of the innate capacities of the student, rather than lifeless intellectual constructs forced upon students who could not translate them back into their own lived experience.

The challenge, though, is putting this idea into practice. Although students may well have what Eleanor Duckworth has dubbed "wonderful ideas" and be the "natural learners" described by Howard Gardner, to pull off the delicate pedagogical balancing act described by Dewey without stifling this natural interest and curiosity, teachers must have, Dewey argued, deep knowledge not only of child and adolescent development and learning theory, but also of the fundamental concepts of the academic disciplines. Only such knowledge would, he insisted, put teachers in a position where they could anticipatorily intuit how the abstract ideas that give these bodies of thought their intellectual autonomy are latently contained, if only in a naive, unschooled manner, in children's expressions and thus put them in a position to create learning situations that would guide them through the infinitely complex chain of intermediate experiences and reflections through which they could then "construct"   this knowledge as their own.

The history of educational theory in the 20th century has to a large degree been dominated by the search for a generic science of learning. However, for the past two decades Lee Shulman has convincingly argued that learning takes place in essentially discipline-specific ways and that successful teaching depends on what he calls "pedagogical content knowledge," that is, the knowledge--itself grounded in a deep understanding of the conceptual field of a discipline--of the ways in which disciplinary knowledge is constructed and the practical ability to apply this knowledge to create motivations and situations that will result in the construction of discipline-specific theories, principles and concepts. This pedagogical content knowledge "lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy, in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by students." It embodies, Shulman continues, the "aspects of content most germane to its teachability. Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning."

Shulman's ideas concerning the problems involved in achieving such a synthesis of content and pedagogical knowledge, and the benefits to be derived therefrom, have inspired a great deal of research that informs the pedagogical instruction in all of our programs.

Building on these insights, our programs are committed in a broad, undogmatic sense to a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. This philosophy has been influenced by the work of a number of seminal thinkers, including Dewey, and Jerome Bruner. However, the theories of cognitive and moral development that underlie the work of the latter three authors need to be qualified or expanded in two important ways.

In addition to our ongoing efforts to make our students aware of the theoretical foundations of classroom practice, this broad commitment to a constructivist pedagogy also impacts our instruction in a variety of specific ways. Our students learn to be attentive to the naive reasoning of P-12 students and to be on the lookout for common misconceptions whose identification can serve as the springboard for exploring the basic principles of the discipline. Facilitating this construction of disciplinary knowledge (and the reflection that enables learners to make what Dewey called the move from the psychological to the logical perspective) requires that our students learn to "teach for understanding" and to organize their instruction using "essential questions" which address the same existential issues as the disciplines themselves and whose answers presuppose the ability to apply the fundamental concepts of the discipline.

The challenge, though, is connecting these intellectually sophisticated learning goals to the interests and abilities of the student. In "The School and Society" Dewey argued that this problem emerged with the separation of schooling from the practical life of the home, occupation and community that followed in the wake of the industrial revolution.

In an earlier age children had an intrinsic interest in learning because learning involved doing things and solving real problems that were immediately relevant to their lives. 

However, the development of formal schooling and the attendant abstraction of schooling from life had, Dewey argued, cut children off from this vital source of interest and motivation and forced the schools towards ever more artificial pedagogical and curricular tactics that were intrinsically incapable of connecting schooling with life. "No number of object-lessons, got up as object-lessons for the sake of giving information," he argued, "can afford even the shadow of a substitute for acquaintance with the   plants and animals of the farm and garden acquired through actual living among them and caring for them.[Such exercises are] somewhat remote and shadowy compared with the training of attention and judgment that is acquired in having to do things with a real motive behind and a real outcome ahead."

Dewey's argument here that intellectually sophisticated, intrinsically relevant learning presupposes forms of instruction and assessment that are quite different from those traditionally encountered in the schools has recently been rediscovered and popularized under the rubric of "authentic" instruction and assessment, and these ideas have become another of the theoretical pillars of our program.

But the fact that the construction of knowledge is an essentially creative, dialogical act has a number of implications for our curriculum and teaching. We model, and thereby communicate the importance of, cooperative learning as an instructional strategy that creates the environment for learning in which students are required to engage in spirited, value-laden, socially-relevant discussion that requires them to define and defend the terms of their arguments, rather than to simply recall or apply ready-made information, while developing the social skills and dispositions on which such discussions--and citizenship and sociability more generally--depend. While this kind of dialogical activity also reinforces the importance of reflection (and of the importance of reflection for the continuing professional growth of our students), the need to develop the degree of mutual respect and tolerance on which such activity depends also has important implications for the philosophy of class management and discipline that we seek to model for our students.

In addition, teachers must also have a comprehensive knowledge base regarding students with exceptionalities and special needs. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 both require that schools provide a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. People with disabilities comprise approximately 18% of the U.S. general population, and it is critical that young people with physical or other disabilities have access to a quality education in the least restrictive environment. Despite this legislation, however, some schools, while abiding perhaps by the letter of the law but not its spirit, continue to stigmatize students with disabilities. Some teachers still hold low expectations for these students, and/or do not treat them as "normal," thus truncating their learning. As some disability studies scholars argue "disability" is to some extent a social phenomenon, with barriers to buildings (and to learning) a constructed feature of society rather than the "fault" of an individual. We work to make our students understand that classrooms and lessons must be designed in ways that do not exclude. While we emphasize the importance of differentiated instruction in facilitating access to higher-order learning for all students, we also make our own students aware that they must continue to expand their knowledge base regarding disability law and be sensitive to the role teacher assumptions in student learning. 

A closely related issue is the problem of language acquisition and teaching English language learners. Designing powerful instruction also requires an understanding of the myriad factors that influence the acquisition of literacy. While traditionally literacy has been viewed as an autonomous, decontextualized process in which individual learners acquire skills that enable them to read and write proficiently, current scholarship places greater emphasis on the ways that the context and use impact language acquisition.

Literacy cannot be separated from the ways of thinking, believing, feeling, and acting expected by particular communities, and an important aspect of our students' knowledge base is understanding that school-based literacy is only one form among many. In particular, teachers must have a clear comprehension of academic language and literacy expectations, how these expectations differ from discipline to discipline, and how academic literacy can be taught in an additive manner so that secondary students do not experience education in a context in which their home literacies are devalued.

Issues of literacy acquisition are particularly critical when English Language Learners (ELLs) are considered. ELLs constitute a rapidly-growing population in U.S. public schools and understanding the nature of second language acquisition is a critical knowledge base for our students. Research suggests that the acquisition of academic literacy for ELLs can take from four to seven years. During this extended period, ELLs face challenges in the form of poverty, racism, limited access to English even in public school settings, under prepared teachers, and tracking, which current research suggests is a stronger predictor of academic attainment than language proficiency. An important aspect of the knowledge base our students develop, then, is awareness of how ELLs fare in U.S. public schools and how instruction can be adapted to better serve them. 

Over the past decade, technology has become increasingly ubiquitous in our society, with a majority of people comfortably using cell phones, email, the World Wide Web, digital media players, and gaming platforms. Today's P-12 students, who are growing up surrounded by technology, no longer see such devices as novelties. In fact, they are surprised when they are not used in the classroom, and one of our main goals in this domain is to provide students with the opportunity to learn how to use the relevant technologies to enhance student learning. Educational technologies today have become increasingly diverse, going way beyond PowerPoint presentations and SmartBoards to support a wide variety of teaching strategies corresponding to differing learning styles and abilities. For example, computer games can help students to understand the language, culture, and underlying concepts of a particular subject by immersing them in their roles. More important, though, handheld technologies provide students with the opportunity to work on real world problems in the real world.

However, while knowledge of learning theory, learning styles, literacy and technology is important, understanding student individuality has another, equally important dimension. Schools are social institutions that are much more than the sum of their individual students, and success at the individual level in the classroom depends on teaching our students to understand how broader social forces shape individual   student learning. These are the issues that normally fall under the heading of the history and sociology of education.

The basic issue here is to teach our students to understand both the changing conceptions of equality of educational opportunity as it has evolved in relation to race/ethnicity, language, gender, and handicap and the sometimes unintended, though always highly politicized, consequences of measures designed to ensure greater equality of educational opportunity--and, in recent years, of educational outcomes. To be able to reason intelligently about these matters, students have to have a firm knowledge of how contemporary schools--with all of their promise and problems--have evolved historically through the interaction of social thought and social change. But they also have to understand how contemporary debates over school reform are framed by both particular readings of this history and by philosophical differences over the aims of education and the nature of authority in the pedagogical domain.

Over the past decade increased attention has been focused upon the "achievement gap" between white and minority students and the potential role of the No Child Left Behind Act in reducing these differences. We expect our students to be aware of the debate over the role of education in promoting social equality and ensuring the reproduction of existing social inequalities (Bourdieu, 2000). The impact of class on schooling and social reproduction, i.e. the question of "how working-class kids get working-class jobs," has long been the subject of scholarly analysis. However, the problem of educational inequality cannot be reduced to a question of class, and there is also a growing body of literature that focuses on patterns of over- and underachievement among minority youth. This work focuses primarily on the diverse factors--including home environment, generational experience, English language competence, attitudes towards heritage language and culture, assimilation and the historical memory of the group--that are believed to be the cause of the alienation of these students from the schools, their academic underachievement, and their resulting "at-risk" behaviors, though it also includes works that as why certain "model"   minorities identify so strongly with schooling and assimilation and why they experience what is regarded as disproportionate academic success.

Our faculty draw on this literature to help our students develop a more "culturally responsive" approach to teaching that will improve student learning by transforming "subtractive schooling" into something more "additive" or synergistic. But our teaching has also been inspired by the work of Paulo Freire. The most important insight of the critical pedagogy that has developed out of Freire's work is its claim that student alienation and academic underachievement are the more or less predictable results of the class, race, ethnic, and gender discrimination that they see as endemic in American society, and they draw on Freire's theory of praxis to argue that, by transforming schools from mechanisms of social reproduction into engines for social reconstruction, critical pedagogy can overcome this alienation and thus enhance both the educational opportunity, the educational achievement, and the social advancement and equality of these disadvantaged groups. But we also teach our students to consider the more specifically school-based sources of unequal educational outcomes, especially tracking.

Lastly, if we expect our students to become informed advocates who can work effectively with all of the relevant stakeholders to improve the schools, then they have to understand both the assumptions underlying contemporary educational reform proposals and their potential impact on both students and their own professional practice. These include not only the debates over school choice, charter schools and privatization, the impact of the NCLB and Race to the Top Legislation, but also the work of reform efforts, such as the Coalition for Essential Schools and the Central Park East Secondary School, whose approach to teaching, learning and educational reform is based on very different principles than the current rhetoric of standards and accountability.

There is a strong correlation between student achievement and effective school leadership, and the central goal of our educational leadership programs is to help our students acquire the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to translate into practice the vision of effective teaching described above. In order for educational leaders to function as "chief learning officers," not only do they need to master the four key roles of effective administrators: resource provider, instructional resource, communicator, and visible presence (Smith & Andrews, 1989). Effective leadership also involves learning how to align curriculum and instruction to facilitate student learning, structure professional development and facilitate collaboration among teachers, and use research to make decisions.

As research has shown, the greatest challenge in achieving these goals is learning to inspire and manage change, and one of the main goals of our educational leadership programs is to train educational leaders who are able to engage all stakeholders while transforming their organizations in ways that will better meet the changing needs of students. We emphasize, on the one hand, the centrality of human resources and the need to develop moral purpose, strong relationships, a commitment to knowledge sharing, and the ability to connect new knowledge with existing knowledge while at the same time providing a supportive environment for risk taking. On the other hand, we also try to make our students aware that these goals can not be achieved unless they take a broad, systemic view of the school and its environment. But successful educational leadership also depends on other factors, such as establishing culture for learning, effective communication, developing internal and external partnerships, mobilizing resources, and demonstrating ethical behavior, as well as developing a participatory or distributed leadership strategy to mobilize the energies and capacities of all members of the organization. The question, though, is how best to achieve these educational goals, and, like our teacher education programs, our educational leadership programs are committed to a problem-based approach that uses real data in real-life settings to help students develop the knowledge and skills needed to become effective school leaders.

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