Spring 1997 - Volume I, Issue 1
Lesley College is a small institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts that has an
undergraduate school for women and a larger co-educational graduate school.
Central to its mission is the preparation of students for careers in teaching.
Two years ago the College began revamping its certification programs to meet new
state regulations. This process of curriculum overhaul led the faculty to raise
questions regarding the connection between coursework and practice.
One such question was to what extent our students, who
are academically typical of education majors nationwide,1 relied upon their
Lesley coursework to help them conceptualize curriculum and plan instructional
In order to address that
question, we designed a research project that asked: "How does coursework,
fieldwork, and personal experience combine to influence student teachers' lesson
plan development?" We framed the question along these parameters because they
are the ones most frequently cited in the literature as being influential to
practice ( See for example: Bradley, 1991; La Baree, 1992; Holt-Reynolds, 1992
). We chose lesson plans as the vehicle for the inquiry because they provided an
authentic and concrete end-product to pedagogical thinking. In other words,
respondents needed to actually engage in the activity of planning to teach in
order to participate in the study.
We recognized, as Tyson (1991) did, that talking about
teaching is not the same as teaching. However, also like Tyson, we believed that
getting a window into novice teacher thinking can be a valuable resource for
determining course content for teacher education programs. Consequently, our
study builds upon the teacher knowledge/teacher thinking literature (See for
example: Dewey, 1933; Lowyck, 1986; Shulman, 1986; Shulman, 1987; Newmann, 1991;
Onosko, 1992), as well as the work on pedagogical content knowledge ( See for
example: Marks, 1990; Grossman, 1990). Additionally, our research was informed
by what we call expert-novice studies in which it is argued that teacher
thinking and professional reflection evolve over time (See for example: Tyson,
1991; Russell and Munby, 1990; Huling-Austin, 1992; Tremmel, 1993).
It is altogether reasonable to assume that
veteran practitioners would have heightened abilities to reflect upon teaching
as they increase their years of teaching practice. It is also reasonable to
assume that novices are powerfully influenced by their early memories of
conventional teachers and teaching. In fact, Kennedy observed that these
memories are so central to novice thinking that they compete with the newer
strategies taught in teacher education programs "... the conventional images of
teaching that derive from childhood experiences makes it very difficult to alter
teaching practices and explains in part why teaching has remained so constant
over so many decades of reform efforts" (1991). Although some researchers, such
as Grossman (1990), are persuasive regarding the advantages of pedagogical
coursework in the preparation of teachers, it was not entirely clear how those
advantages influenced undergraduates such as ours in their thinking about
We pursued this research
because we believe that the curriculum at our institution provides students with
the appropriate content and experiences to be effective teachers in a wide range
of communities; yet, we are not quite sure how students apply this knowledge
when they have responsibility for lesson plan development. We wondered if they
could articulate their ideas, the rationale for them, and the influences upon
them. We considered these abilities central to the enterprise of teaching,
whether one calls it "reflective practice," "mindfulness," or "paying attention"
(Tremmel, 1993). Like many before us, we were motivated by questions impacting
our professional role as teacher educators, most globally expressed as, "Are our
courses and supervised experiences preparing students to be effective
In an effort to better
understand where student teachers' ideas about teaching come from, we began a
pilot study of Lesley undergraduates completing student teaching in grades 4-8.
During January 1993, we initiated our inquiry with an exploration of how
volunteers talked about the process of creating a lesson based upon content from
a single fifth grade Social Studies text. Our selection of this textbook chapter
on immigration provided all respondents with an identically organized content
base and avoided the possible distorting anxiety that a math/science textbook
might evoke in young women (Bailey, 1992). Moreover, we selected a regionally
popular textbook and an assignment typically given to student teachers, because
it was not our intention to make the task too difficult or foreign. In fact, we
wanted to replicate a familiar process that would have a greater likelihood of
promoting confidence and professional reflection.
solicited our volunteers from the student teaching seminars toward the end of
their practicum experience. The timing allowed for student teachers' thinking to
be significantly influenced by their cooperating practitioner as well as by
professors with whom they were still studying or at least seeing around campus.
The respondents agreed to complete short surveys and write lessons plans within
three days of interview appointments. The survey posed demographic questions
addressing possible confounding data that could impact student thinking about
the content area:
certificate (s) program are you in?
2. How many credits have you completed in
3. How many credits have
you earned in history? What courses have you taken?
How many credits have you earned in Social Studies Methods?
5. Is this your first or second student teaching
During the interview
appointment, which lasted between twenty and fifty-five minutes, students were
asked questions regarding their lesson and their interpretation of the
1. What was the chapter,
"A Land of Immigrants," about?
What was the main idea?
3. What did
you know about immigration before you read the chapter?
Where did you learn this? Did you learn anything
4. Did the chapter support or
contradict your views of immigration? How do you think this affected your lesson
5. When you finished reading
the chapter and sat down to think about how you would teach the material, how
did you start designing the lesson?
6. Where did your ideas about the format of the lesson
7. Who did you imagine
you were developing this lesson for? Would you have made any changes in the
lesson if you were teaching a different population?
Is there anything else about your developing this lesson that you would like to
We worked from taped
interviews and written fieldnotes to develop codes and identify trends that grew
from the data and helped us to answer the research question. This approach
offered a method for gathering complex data from a few students for the purpose
of illuminating the connections between novice teacher thinking and lesson plan
development. Clearly, such a methodology does not permit generalization beyond
the sample group. However, as is true with other carefully designed and
implemented qualitative research, we willingly traded breadth for depth.
Moreover, we were not interested in investigating the degree of congruence
between what students reported and what was actually written on their lessons.
Rather, we focused our investigation on student thinking about their lessons and
the self-reported sources of influence upon that thinking.
We replicated our 1993 pilot with a second set of Lesley
student volunteers interviewed exactly one year later in January 1994. The time
of year and point in their student teaching placement, venue, methodology, book
chapter, interviewers, and questions were identical to those of the pilot. We
decided to repeat the process one year later to increase the sample size so that
we could have greater confidence in our findings. Interestingly, the number of
students in 1993 and 1994 who volunteered and followed-through on their
commitment to participate was the same. Each year we had eight white women
completing the survey, designing the lessons, and participating in the
individual interviews. Only one of the sixteen respondents was non-traditional
What we hoped to uncover
was how students moved from textbook chapter to lesson plan and how they talked
about their conceptualization of curriculum development. Additionally, we were
interested in finding out how students interpreted the textbook and decided
between teaching strategies, and to what extent college coursework influenced
the processes of interpretation and decision-making.
literature suggests that the influence of school culture is so significant to a
teacher's training that college coursework is virtually "erased" when students
entered the field (Bradley, 1991). Similarly, others argue that formal academic
training was not nearly as influential in student teachers' practice as was
their personal recollection of their own experience as K-12 students ( La Baree,
1992; Holt-Reynolds 1992 ). However, findings from our study indicated that
coursework does have a profound influence on how these student teachers think
about practice. It is important to note that our student sample consisted of
predominately high achieving students. This was not surprising, given that
essentially we asked student volunteers to demonstrate competency in lesson plan
development to Education faculty from their college. What was surprising was
that these high achieving students spoke often about the influence of Education
coursework upon their lesson plan development, a group that the 1986 Holmes
report found to be especially resistant to the content of pedagogical coursework
( Grossman, 1990 ). Therefore, these findings have the potential to have
important implications for our Education program.
reviewing the first set of data, we realized that our information about how
students think about lesson planning could be broken into four categories: the
intellectual process involved in creating lesson plan ideas, such as
brainstorming and marginal notes; instructional strategies for the lesson, such
as journal writing, family trees, interviews, research, discussion and
additional reading; the lesson format, the order in which strategies are
presented; and background knowledge informing the content of the lesson. Both
the ideas for the lesson and the lesson plan format came almost exclusively from
college coursework, especially Education courses. However, other courses were
also named as being influential in that the skills, such as problem-solving and
brainstorming acquired in content areas, were directly transferable to their
teaching of a social studies lesson. For example, a Mathematics major explained
how her training impacted the way she devised the lesson: "The problem solving I
learned was indirectly beneficial. It taught me not to give up when you write a
lesson. You have to think about all the students. You have to know the
materials, then translate it so that students can learn."
Another Mathematics major applied a different aspect of
the content area training to pedagogy: "A lot of my thinking comes from working
as a Math/Science teacher. I focus on the concepts, not the mechanics." Although
respondents indicated that college coursework in history and sociology played a
role in their approach to the content of the chapter, students' background
knowledge of issues pertaining to immigration came primarily from pre-college
coursework and family stories and experiences. Typically, students reported that
they "knew a lot about Ellis Island...I don't really remember learning much in
school about immigration, but I do remember asking my grandmother and other
family members how they got here."
When students talk about their lessons, their thinking
falls into roughly two categories that we call "developmental" and
"disconnected." Students who think developmentally about the process of lesson
planning indicate an awareness of the difficulties inherent in creating an
isolated lesson from a single chapter separate from a larger curricular context.
As one student explained when she discussed the limits of our assignment, "I'm
looking in my head to write a unit . . . so I started with an introduction
lesson." Another described her lesson as "a pre-activity to the chapter." Other
students that we labeled as developmental recognized that curriculum
considerations include the long view over the course of a semester or a year.
For example, one respondent explained: "I thought I could do this part of the
lesson (sharing personal stories) in May or June, but I think it would be too
scary to do in November.
contrast, the disconnected thinkers tended to report that their lesson was based
primarily on an idea that they liked personally. For instance, one student said:
"Well, I guess my lessons always relate to my personal experience because I
didn't have a good time in school." Interviews with such students provided
little indication that their lessons might be part of a larger curriculum with
specific academic goals and a long range view. It is interesting to note that
the "disconnected thinkers" were just as likely as the "developmental thinkers"
to use jargon-laden language from coursework when talking about their lesson.
However, the disconnected group did not apply these concepts in a meaningful
way. For example, one such student created a lesson composed of free writing and
a family tree. When asked to explain the relationship between these activities,
she explained that she was "mixing it up." Here we see that vocabulary acquired
through coursework appeared to be little more than a "bag of tricks," the
implication being that one instructional activity can easily substitute for
another. A different disconnected respondent described the rationale driving her
lesson as "... a bunch of techniques I put together."
The 1994 interviews confirmed the findings of the 1993
set. Again, we saw that undergraduate coursework, particularly Education
courses, played a significant role in the process of lesson plan development.
However, the developmental/ disconnected distinction seemed less applicable to
this data set as all students interviewed approached the assignment
developmentally. In fact, this group expanded our notion of developmental
understanding to include a framework of critique. The majority of students,
without having any question to prompt them, criticized the text selection for
lacking a fully developed multicultural perspective. Importantly, not a single
respondent from the earlier group made such an observation, regardless of
whether their thinking was developmental or disconnected.
It seemed to us that because the students had the
ability to analyze the text as limited in terms of its cultural understanding,
they acquired a lens through which to consider the lesson reflectively. This
reflection caused them to think developmentally about the process of lesson
planning. One respondent criticized the chapter for its lack of specific and
inclusive voices that would give students a better understanding of the
immigrant experience: "I thought there was this vagueness in the chapter that I
wanted to deal with...I wanted it to be more meaningful to the students..."
Another interviewee commented about how the textbooks were still presenting
children with unrealistic images of people and accounts of historical events:
"People love their country of origin. I wish there was more of that in the text.
It didn't give enough credit to home countries. America was too positively
portrayed." We did not have any such statements in the 1993
Our finding that the
majority of student teachers interviewed in 1994 criticized the text selection
for its limited cultural perspective stands in sharp contrast to the 1993 set in
which none of the students indicated similar concerns. In analyzing our data, we
have found that there really is only one reasonable explanation for this new
finding. We believe that the source of the student teacher thinking about
multicultural issues is Lesley College's Diversity Initiative. Sponsored by a
contribution from a generous donor concerned about multicultural education for
future teachers, this initiative began in the summer of 1993 with the
multicultural curriculum project. Over 50 faculty participated in this project,
either developing new courses with a multicultural perspective or redesigning
old courses to make them more inclusive. While few of the students interviewed
had actually taken any of these new courses, all of the students took a course
or had significant contact with a professor involved in this curriculum
initiative. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that students interviewed
in 1994 had been influenced by the work of the undergraduate faculty who are
presently engaged with the topic of multicultural education. The fact that this
particular student population is unusually influenced by college coursework also
underscores the role that the diversity initiative can play at this
Lastly, as Education
faculty, we were pleased to discover that the study itself served as an
intervention. Students practiced lesson planning without the pressure of
implementation but with the time for contemplation and revision. This was
accomplished partially because the design forced students to reflect upon
practice. Moreover, a less obvious intervention occurred when the female
students viewed the investigators not only as professors at the College, but
also as women scholars. Students made remarks indicating their interest in
research as an arena not contemplated before, but one that suddenly held
possibilities for their own futures.
of the study findings holds implications for practice. For instance, it is
central to our work to have discovered that pedagogical coursework does indeed
influence student teacher thinking at our institution. After a decade of
negative public relations regarding the relative worth of such courses to the
education of teachers, this finding should boost morale and validate the efforts
of Education faculty.
the research design we employed here rendered a useful way to think about novice
approaches to lesson planning, it seems to us that the same design could be used
as a performance assessment with student teachers to determine whether they are
developmental or disconnected in their thinking about teaching. Perhaps a goal
would be for students to demonstrate the ability to place a single lesson in a
larger curricular context. We view this context along two continua--the one that
follows practice from Monday morning to Friday afternoon, and the one that goes
from September to June.
multicultural awareness exhibited in the second set of interviews but not in the
first implies that it does make a difference to students when an academic
institution has a vision and an agenda when it supports that vision with
resources. The Diversity Initiative was targeted to faculty development with the
hope that it would affect course content and the faculty's way of viewing the
world. To that end, the college president gave financial support to outside
speakers, programming ideas, research work, and scholarships for attracting
students and faculty of color. The excitement and commitment seems to have
altered the culture and the classrooms sufficiently for students to have gained
a new lense for critiquing teaching strategies and materials.
The implication drawn from our last finding
that the study itself was an intervention in which the investigators served as
role models of teacher/researchers is that the faculty should be encouraged to
incorporate discussion of their scholarship into their teaching. This is
especially meaningful, in our thinking, to undergraduate women who are just
struggling to make the transition from student to trained professional. It is
also important to the teaching field to promote, from the very beginning, the
notion of teacher empowerment and the false dichotomy between those who teach
and those who conduct research on teaching. It is our contention that if
students can see possibilities for themselves as researchers, they will be less
likely to be isolated in their classrooms and more likely to participate in the
policy debates affecting practice.
assertion is based upon the comparison between the SAT scores of our students (the majority of whom major in education) and national SAT scores published by
the College Examination Board for intended education majors (1990).
2. An analysis of the data
revealed no correlation between the responses to the demographic questions and
the study findings. It did not seem to matter, for example, how many History
credits students had completed probably because their thinking was most heavily
influenced by the education program which offers little deviation from
3. The faculty
member unfamiliar to the respondents had significantly more "no shows" and
somewhat fewer "volunteers" than did the faculty member with whom students were
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of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Spring 1997 Issue Main Page
Cornel West - Diversity Day Keynote Speech
Maxine Greene - Teaching as Possibility
Judith Beth Cohen - What Students Think is Funny
Carroy U. Ferguson - Learning for Urban Adults
Sheryl Boris-Schacter & Susan Merrifield - Diversity Initiative
Marjorie Jones - Education for What and for Whom
Merlin Langely - Ode to Black Men
Barbara Vacarr - Stories of the Holocaust
Sebastian Lockwood - Night Sun
Luis Lopez-Nieves - The Extremely Funny Gun Salesman
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A Professor of English Education at Lesley, Dr. Susan Merrifield focuses her scholarship literacy learning and the relationship between poverty and literacy. She is the author of Readin’ and Writin’ for the Hard-Hat Crowd: Curriculum Policy at an Urban University.
Sheryl Boris-Schacter served as a Professor of Education and Program director at Lesley University from 1988 - 2006. Following her tenure at Lesley, Dr. Boris-Schacter became an elementary school principal within the Wellesley, Massachusetts public school system and now works as an independent leadership specialist.
Explore the full content catalog of Lesley's Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, featuring articles by leading faculty and practitioners in education, the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, by returning to the Journal's Main Page