Teacher education as preparation for what is or what could be?: some thoughts after reading Grossman, Hammerness & McDonald 2009

Professor Pam Grossman

… learning about a method or learning to justify a method is not the same thing as learning to do the method with a class of students, just as learning about piano playing and musical theory is not learning to play the piano. The later [sic] requires getting one’s hands on the instrument and feeling it ‘act back’ on one’s performance. Because teaching is situated in instructional interaction, learning how to teach requires getting into relationships with learners to enable their study of content. It is here that one learns how to teach as students ‘act back’ and responses must be tailored to their actions. (Lampert, 2005, p. 36, quoted Grossman et al p 275))

This distinction between ‘learning about’ and ‘learning to’ is at the centre of this article by Grossman et al. In an attempt to tackle the tendency in preservice teachers to see theory as one thing and practice as another, they suggest a refocusing of teacher education onto what they call ‘pedagogies of enactment’, and more ‘practice-centred curriculum’. They write:

This vision has a different emphasis from programs such as a realistic approach, in which teachers’ concerns and needs are at the center. In this formulation, a set of practices are at the core. (277)

The authors list, amongst possible core practices, such related things as developing a classroom culture, routines for collaborative learning, helping students to give constructive feedback to each other, eliciting student thinking during interactive teaching, leading classroom discussions. The authors paint a picture of a teacher education course organised around such core practices, where preservice teachers are introduced to the skills, given opportunities to practise them with peers and teacher educators, are then scaffolded into reading the literature around the practices, and finally given time in schools to further refine their practice.

It sounds logical and sensible. Much of our current Literacy Across Disciplines unit might be viewed as an example of such a course organised around pedagogies of enactment, using (as it does) Cris Tovani’s various strategies and approaches and giving our students opportunities to work on the nested literacy practices of making texts accessible, modelling successful strategies, holding one’s thinking, using questions to guide reading, finding authentic purpose, and so on. I can imagine re-jigging my other unit, on creating healthy learning environments, so that it was similarly structured around the core practices listed in this article under the broad heading of developing a classroom culture.

But there’s something about the ‘pedagogies of enactment’ approach that is unsettling me.

This ‘parsing teaching’ (278) seems a step backwards from the more adventurous ‘case study’ approach of Hammerness and her co-authors (2002), an approach which here Grossman (and Hammerness!) label ‘a realistic approach in which teachers’ concerns and needs are at the center’ (277). Our course in Canberra puts our preservice teachers’ concerns at the centre and is structured around the case study approach. Our students take observed and experienced school-based events as the place where theory is used to help settle doubts and anxieties. Why did this go wrong? What might I have done to rescue this situation? Or even, if an event was unexpectedly successful, how can I understand better what has just happened so that the chances are I’ll be able to do it again?

The Grossman article seems to be pointing towards a less-rich, less-situated, less-personal approach. But they claim that it would be a more useful one, where preservice teachers have a better chance to develop skills in generic and ubiquitous classroom practices.

Maybe that’s the problem (for me): this is training for what is, rather than explorations of what might be. Our approach in Canberra (and that of Hammerness et al in 2002) allows students to reflect on their values, on why they want to teach, and opens up the territory of how they might work towards important ideals, how they might set off along the road less travelled. The Grossman et al approach seems more a preparation for the familiar path.

Am I making a false dichotomy, I wonder?

It would be interesting to hear from some of our ex-students on this.


Hammerness, K., L. Darling-Hammond, et al. (2002). “Toward Expert Thinking: How curriculum case writing prompts the development of theory-based professional knowledge in student teachers, .” Teaching Education 13(2): 219-243.

Pam Grossman, Karen Hammerness and Morva McDonald. ( 2009). “Redefining teaching, re‐imagining teacher education,.” Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 15(2): 273-289.

2 thoughts on “Teacher education as preparation for what is or what could be?: some thoughts after reading Grossman, Hammerness & McDonald 2009

  1. It’s a bit of a meander, but here goes…

    The case study approach was an opportunity to develop an invaluable skill. As a student, assignments 2 and 3 are some of the most rewarding I have done – I just was so immensely satisfied at getting to the bottom of something that had been bothering me, and working out where I was beginning to sit in the world of teaching. That said, reading over my assignment now – as it did then – it seems to land me firmly in the territory of understanding what had happened, not what I might do differently on another occasion, as you speak of in your previous post. I could see, looking behind me, where things had begun to fall apart, but I could not necessarily tell what I should have done at those moments to stop the great unraveling of the lesson in question. That was also the thrust of the feedback I received – “well analysed, but you don’t have any alternatives.”

    It was a fair and true comment, but I didn’t know any alternatives.

    I don’t know that ‘pedagogies of enactment’ has to be instead of the idea of reflective practice, so maybe it is a false dichotomy? I haven’t read Grossman et al. so I rely on you and others for clarification, but do they have to be distinct, discrete options? The things you describe in terms of introduction to skills, increasing opportunities to practice them, ever widening the zone and audience for the skill, can’t that be part of the course program but still with a strong reflective component after a practicum when a pre-service teacher has an episode of their own teaching to reflect on?

    The analogy to learning the piano is apt. You can know any number of pedagogical approaches and theories; you can KNOW just about anything if you bother to find out about it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you know what to do with this knowledge, or feel confident using it. The rest surely must be practice? I think this confidence point is half the issue for new teachers. It mightn’t even be about knowing what to do with your knowledge, but feeling that whatever beliefs you hold about how you want to teach (even in the baby, early stages of a career) are in someway justified by your own experience and experimentation. It would be pretty tough to be the person in a room with a piano and 30 spectators for their first attempt. You at least want to touch a piano, bash out a few chords where none but your most trusted friends and teacher can hear you. (By no means am I suggesting this is what happens, just an exaggeration to make a point.

    Whatever plea I made (in private, or out loud) to be taught ‘something practical’ during my Dip Ed was for something like what I imagine ‘pedagogies of enactment’ to be, based on how it is described here: the chance to do teaching more and more often, with the prac as the final output in a series of a experimental learning experiences, not the first time you get a chance to do a test drive – suddenly away from your peers and trusted teachers. Not everyone gets a mentor that welcomes the kind of prac that a pre-service teacher needs to have…

    Preparation for the familiar path is risky, if it’s bad path, and goodness knows there’s much that we would all like to change. Equally though, not all that is known is to be abandoned (yes, I accept that that is a crude simplification) of the situation. I don’t think that you would ever find yourself in any danger of offering a one size fits all approach – you value the opinions and inputs of others, their perspectives, contexts and explorations of ideas too highly to ever do that. And the fact that that is inspired in many of those you work with means much the same for their own teaching future. Balance is not the right word for what I’m trying to espouse, and all I am left with is the only constant and absolute thought that I hold: there is no room for an absolute approach to anything, teacher education included 🙂

    Just a few thoughts from the part of my brain that wont go on holidays (or, perhaps the part of my brain that has time to think these things because it is on holidays).

    I would love to hear how current students see it.

  2. Pingback: Are reading strategies cross-disciplinary? « ilovenewbies

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