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It’s Not About That Anymore: An ecological examination of the theory-practice divide in contemporary teacher education


This dissertation investigates a perennial problem in teacher education: the theory-practice divide. There has always been a rift between theory and practice; however, this gap and the responses to it take on different shapes and meanings based on the reforms, politics, and structures of the time. For example, in the 1980s and 90s Professional Development Schools sought to close this gap (Darling-Hammond, 1994). In the 2000s, this gap became a flashpoint for targeted attacks on university teacher education on the one side, and on eased-entry teacher preparation alternatives on the other (Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2005a). Currently, many reform circles are trying to address the theory-practice divide (and the various concerns it engenders) by advocating what is called a Residency Model (Berry. Montgomery, & Snyder 2008). This study investigates how two teacher education programs, both with social justice agendas, navigated this divide. I identified two teacher education programs in California, one residency and one traditional, and using stratified random sampling selected several pre-service teachers, practicing teacher educators, and cooperating teachers from each site, and then collected longitudinal data over the course of one year. I employed an ethnographic, ecological analysis of program structure, teacher educator practice, and pre-service teacher development as sets of intertwined learning processes.

My findings illustrate how the historical structure of apprenticeship made it difficult for both of the teacher education programs to meet their goals of developing social justice, change agents. The combination of the apprenticeship structure and a climate of accountability privileged the performance aspects of teaching, encouraging pre-service teachers to attend to the technical and visible aspects of teaching, rather than the more complex and nuanced aspects of teaching. Pre-service teachers experienced their training as fragmented, and pieced together a their teacher identity through a process of bricolage, which made it difficult to develop cohesive teaching philosophy aligned with the program’s constructivists and social justice goals.

These findings complicate the hyper-practice-oriented emphasis of recent teacher education scholarship by demonstrating how a practice-based program, in fact, marginalizes coursework and professional thought and may inadvertently make it difficult for the field to develop critical-minded, social justice educators. Instead, this research suggests that teacher education should centralize the institutional divide between university and school and use it as a pedagogical object. This could support pre-service teachers in developing a cohesive set of teaching principles, which they can use to evaluate the efficacy of their own developing practice as well as the many mandates, reforms, and strategies they will encounter as PK-12 educators.

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