Learning to Teach: Sharing the Wisdom of Practice

October 2006

Désirée Pointer Mace and Ann Lieberman

The authors describe—and propose a solution to—the struggles that teachers and teacher educators face when they seek new models of practice.


Each fall, teachers and students across the country settle into their classrooms, and student teachers head out to their field placement schools where they will begin to put into practice what they have learned in theory. These student teachers create personal connections between their colleges and universities and the elementary and secondary schools in their local communities. But beyond these personal relationships, the bridge between K-12 classrooms and teacher education classrooms is unstructured and inconsistent. Communication of ideas between the two realms often consists of merely anecdotal reports from student teachers about their observations and experiences, providing few opportunities for professors of teacher education to see how their students apply the innovative theories and methods they've been taught. However, through the structured use of new tools and technologies, this communication gap can disappear, and a wealth of information about what actually happens behind closed classroom doors can be shared.

Using technology to share this information as a "text" for learning to teach is important because it makes the invisible work of the teacher visible. Novice teachers have a difficult time understanding the layered nature of teaching—a central challenge of the professional work that awaits them—even as they prepare to commit to their first class. By creating multimedia records of teaching practice, teacher educators and their students have the opportunity to visit and revisit the classrooms, events and materials of teaching, digging into the layers and uncovering the standards that state and federally legislated mandates call for, as well as the other nuances that make classrooms come alive. There is an opportunity to integrate the commitments and values that experienced teachers hold about students and learning with their strategies and practices for enacting those commitments. By learning from such teachers' practice, novices can begin to internalize not only the important theories and conceptions of good teaching, but what it actually looks like in a real classroom. Instead of the university–school teacher education "partnership" being one way—the ideas of teacher education moving out into student teachers' field placements—this makes the "wisdom of practice" a two-way street.

Just last month Arthur Levine, past president of Teachers College, Columbia University, published a scathing analysis of teacher education programs. But he missed the most critical problem that novice teachers have—they do not have access to rich, varied models of excellent teaching across diverse settings. His voice was one of several that have added to the public debate calling into question the value of teacher education programs in the United States. But none of the critiques get at the central problem: that no one has a clear idea about what really good teacher educators' practice looks like in various contexts. What questions are they asking? How are they preparing novices for the challenges of day-to-day teaching as well as the arc of a professional career?

A few trailblazing educators have been committed to developing and valuing teacher knowledge as a central pillar of professional preparation. Deborah Ball and her colleagues in the University of Michigan Math Methods Planning Group have spent years refining their process of helping new teachers see the subtleties of math teaching and math thinking. Magdalene Lampert has developed a sophisticated practice to unpack a year-long documentation of her own elementary mathematics teaching, albeit both are documenting a single teacher in a single classroom. Ken Zeichner and his University of Wisconsin-Madison colleagues have developed a multimedia portfolio that all of their teacher education graduates must complete; it serves not only to assess their knowledge, but also as an innovative "resume" in their job search.

And now the Goldman-Carnegie Quest Project builds on the innovations of Ball, Lampert and Zeichner. Through the work of a group of innovative K-12 teachers and professors of teacher education, records of teacher practice are being moved into teacher education classrooms. By using the democratic potential of publicly available Web sites, the moment-to-moment decisions, reflections and artifacts of everyday classroom practice are made visible. Quest recently launched a "living archive" for teaching practice that provides an online destination for audiences interested in the connections between teaching and learning. Inside Teaching offers access to individual teachers' multimedia records of practice, as well as scholarly perspectives on their use in teacher education and other environments of teacher learning, and invites audiences to develop and contribute their own growing understandings of classroom practice.

Unlocking the doors of the classrooms of both teacher educators and teachers addresses a critical need in teacher learning, both for novices and seasoned professionals, and contributes another way to think about the debates currently raging on quality teaching and the value of teacher education programs. Moving teachers and their "wisdom of practice" from the margins to the center of investigations about teaching adds a critical piece that has long been absent from the public debate about standards, from novice teacher preparation and from continuing teacher professional development.