Are Teacher Preparation Programs Dangerously Irrelevant? [guest post]

Seann Dikkers [Guest Blogger]

In my first year of teaching a veteran leaned over during a particularly dry workshop and said blandly, “If you spend a whole day in these things and walk away with even one idea, it was worth the day… Today is not our day.” Cynical? Yes, but true. After 15 years as a teacher and principal this veteran’s words came back to me twice a year during professional development (PD) workshops. For good PD the wisdom was decidedly more uplifting.

Yet, there has to be a better way. Doesn’t there?

Now I’m knee deep in research on new media technologies for learning at the University of Wisconsin – Madison under Kurt Squire and Richard Halverson; both of whom argue that there are better ways. As much evidence as we muster, (in support of new models for leading and educating for learning), those in the system must embrace new practices for any changes to occur. In other words leadership matters and teaching matters as much as (or more) than GamingMatters (shameless self promotion) or any relevant new ideas for education.

Many studies seek to inform practice by examining experts in a field. In this post, I want to share some of the preliminary findings in the 21st Century Teaching Project (21CTP) – a study of teacher professional development trajectories toward the integration of new media technology.

I’ll edit the study details a bit: This is a ‘best practice’ style qualitative study after Dan McAdams’ methodology. Phase one: find out relevant practices. Phase two: quantify them in a larger sample to see if they hold water. 39 of the nation’s award winning teachers (TotY, PAEMST, ING, AMF) and authors make up the data set. If these are the teachers we choose to recognize as excellent, then we should listen to what they have to say about their PD – especially when there are consistent messages emerging.

So what do they say?

The next five blog entries will cover five findings that popped out of the data from the 21st Century Teaching Project (21CTP).

21CTP Theme 1: Teacher Training

In the initial interviews the participants kept telling me, with a conspiratorial tone, that their training wasn’t like most teachers, “It’s a rather unorthodox journey”, said one. Then, one after another, they shared stories that all converged one one point. Traditional teacher education was at best – irrelevant; and at worst detrimental to being an outstanding teacher today.

“I don’t care what school you go to, it really doesn’t prepare you for what you are going to do in a classroom”.

One author/teacher has yet to get an official license to teach, another accidentally dropped out of high school, another manipulated the system to use certain technology regardless of the class content, and it went on. Each felt their story was unique – yet there was this common thread that was worth pursuing in the larger study with new questions:

Were you trained to teach in a teacher education program? What training most equipped you to teach like you do?

The results were striking. Stop for a moment and consider the following numbers from 39 of our award winning teachers.

  • 10% credit their primary training to a traditional four year certification program.
  • 21% credit their primary training to a hobby, game, or interest.
  • 33% credit their primary training to another job/profession.
  • 36% credit their primary training to another field of study.
  • Only 31% completed a traditional four year certification program.
  • 46% were employed in other fields or left the teaching profession for a time.
  • 67% were trained in other fields of practice before getting a certificate in a 1-2 year program.
  • Only 10%, or 4 of 39, affirmed that their official ‘teacher training’ was relevant to their current practice. The rest were inspired elsewhere.

There were no patterns on what these other field/professions were other than that they covered the gambit: Medicine, Aviation, Acting, Mortuary Work, Rock-n-Roll, Journalism, etc. etc. Commonly, these teachers felt their training in that field was what actually influenced their teaching.

Ironically, those that are being recognized as excellent teachers, were largely not trained as such. Moreover, they largely went out of their way to make sure the world would know it.

So what does this say to educational leadership?

Do we want more 21st century teachers? The most innovative teachers are drawing on experiences and skill sets they developed outside of education.

Later I’ll show results that 21st Century skills are a key part of what they are bringing into the classroom, while traditional education programs still reduce “technology training” to the use of an over-head or interactive whiteboard. The following posts will uplift the sources that positively affect teacher training.

Immediately, a few things… this data would suggest if you want to employ innovative creative teachers, you may want to consider:

1) Interview non-traditional candidates; those with other training, lifelong learners with avid hobby interests, avid readers, and yes, computer gamers. These seem to be better predictors of potential among the sample set.

2) Refine your interview protocol to uncover these interests outside of the profession. What do you do for fun? What other interests do you have? Have you ever worked outside of education? Where?

3) Encourage workshops and training outside of education and validate those experiences with modified accreditation. NASA led summer workshops for teachers that were brought up by three of the candidates – none of them were high school science teachers and two of them went on to get flying licenses.

4) When a teacher leaves to work in another profession, this may not be the end of their teaching career. It may be the beginning of an adventure that will return to teach in coming years and win awards for excellence. Stay in touch with teachers that have left to work elsewhere. Encourage them and keep the door open.

5) We can’t assume that teacher training is actually doing so. When the local prep program is redesigning, participate and vocalize what skills today’s teachers need. Ask for the things that worked for our nation’s ‘best’. Demand that professors are modeling new media pedagogical practices, out-of-field training, student teaching for every course, design work, and community building.

6) Finally, when planning your school’s professional development time, consider experiences over content area. I’ll speak more in future posts on the specifics that were useful to my participants. For now, weight 2-3 day workshops, conferences, curriculum connected technology, and buffet style PD considerably more than guest speakers, mandatory training, and mass technology purchases for the staff (drop-in tech).

More on those in the next post.



9 Responses to “Are Teacher Preparation Programs Dangerously Irrelevant? [guest post]”

  1. Great post Seann…loved picture you used to help make your point. Currently I’m trying to wrap my head around how we do PD better in our district. It’s tough because so many people think PD is about getting folks together and evangelizing your [insert reform here]. We have to decentralize, individualize and empower ALL staff to take charge of their own learning. I hope to see this change be wholesale by the time my oldest son reaches high school (12 years).

    Always good to read another fellow Wisconsinite’s take on things. You’re lucky to be able to study under Halverson and Squire. If we lived closer to Madison, those are people I’d want to learn with.

    • Great point, I should have had a note in the original speaking to PD directly. I’m adding:

      6) Finally, when planning your school’s professional development time, consider experiences over content area. I’ll speak more in future posts on the specifics that were useful to my participants. For now, weight 2-3 day workshops, conferences, curriculum connected technology, and buffet style PD considerably more than guest speakers, mandatory training, and mass technology purchases for the staff (drop-in tech).

      … for now, and I’m excited to get the data put together for the rest of the project – where I ask what training was the most relevant for these teachers.

      • The romantic in me that looks back fondly at college memories, doesn’t want to see traditional training to go, but perhaps I need to wake up.

        As someone who was traditionally trained, I’d have to say my fellow classmates and I felt pretty unprepared for student teaching. Experiences vary so much…some cooperating teachers throw you in after a week, others only give you your two full weeks of teaching. I’m not sure what’s the sweet spot for that experience, but I’m fairly certain it shouldn’t happen in the last semester of your 5th year. Practicums your 4th year aren’t much better. I thought the Special Ed department at my alma mater did a better job than regular ed because they were in the classroom starting sophomore year. How else do you prepare? Methods classes in a vacuum I think are pretty useless.

        To paraphrase what Jobs said about text books, sounds like an industry ripe for disruption/destruction…

        I still believe that we need Schools of Ed, they just might need to look different.

  2. G’day,

    While I agree with many of the points here. I’m not entirely convinced that your data supports all of your suggestions.

    Some more thinking about this here –


  3. 1st- I loathe 98% of professional development. The best PD I’ve had was when I submitted a proposal for database management training or some more obscure trainings on in-depth topics.

    2nd- on the data, yes, the upper echelon may be teachers who didn’t come from a traditional 4 year degree background or have left Ed to pursue other fields, but traditional 4 year programs don’t try to prepare these types of outliers (because how many of them are flops when becoming educators), but rather they prepare the middle 50%. They are hoping for a small standard deviation on talent. Recruiting outside of Ed is considered risky, even if the exceptions are acctually the best of the best.

    3rd- I thnk it is a bad idea for 4 year programs to be set up in a way that doesn’t promote excellence.

    • Perhaps a good comparison would be to survey teachers at award winning schools. If the goal is school wide success, not just pockets of excellence, maybe we need to look at the sum of all the parts.

      I know Ravitch wrote about the need for state school teacher development…every teacher can’t be from an Ivy League.

  4. PD should be an ongoing event, not a one time, one day marathon session. Try and start every meeting with a “what did you learn today?” comment, or have lots of mini-PD sessions. Inspire each other rather than teach. Demo, workshop, show and tell, ANYTHING but lecture. Or more accurately, lecture as a last resort, not a first attempt.

    Great post, looking forward to reading the next posts on the topic.

  5. I’m a learn by doing sort of guy. I was a designer and then went back to college to become a teacher in a non-traditional program. I felt and still feel passionate about education.

    When I first started teaching I used to wonder what all the p.d. meetings were for. At the design firm we met when there was a reason– to talk about some design problem/solution. But in education we have meetings required (called P.D.). The administration puts some effort into providing “development” but it often seems like more of a fulfillment of state mandates/union contracts.

    Once in a while an inspiring speaker or a necessary training. Mostly sitting in a room with someone up front saying “teach _______ better, with this new program” You can insert math, writing, reading, science, and so forth.

    The administration is off the hook because they provided “p.d.” We are off the hook because we attended.

    Can it be different? Oh yeah. But it cannot be one size fits all. It has to be personal and chosen by the individual. Just like when we get inspired and learn something new, or try something new. The educator has to want to learn or develop something, or need to solve a problem. I believe that most of us like to learn and solve problems.

  6. Very interesting article. As someone who came into teaching after 6 years in IT (not the important part, more on that later), I had a much better understanding of project management, planning, professionalism (yes, teaching is a profession, but it’s not as professional as a lot of other industries).

    The IT part relates to what you described – I could have been anything: journalist, medicine, aviation, etc. but what I had over everyone else on my course was a higher level of skill when it came to all of the development and planning work. I didn’t realize it until I left teaching two years after joining it due to frustrations over all of this, that I realized that my expectations of quality of work was higher than all those that had just started out as teachers, or with no other professional experience.

    Best thing to consider? Send teachers OUT to other jobs to see what they’re doing and learn from them – don’t just give one-day PD workshops (I only had one in two years that was any good and this was because the person running the course was from outside the profession). Just like kids are sent out on work experience and many came back a little wiser, the same will happen to teachers. Teaching is too much of a bubble – you don’t get outside perspectives often enough. Even when I was in IT working on technical items, I still got opened to different skillsets such as marketing, business, strategy, etc.

    Note: in case anyone decides that I was obviously in a poor school if I was frustrated, most definitely wrong – I was in a school ranked in the top 20 of my country…… I got a standing ovation from the school when I left, still hearing from many of the school kids (through public channels).

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