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  Instructional Coherence: The Changing Role of the Teacher
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A Focus on Student and Teacher Learning


Much of the work has been done—on standards, assessments, professional development, accountability, policy alignment, community, parent involvement, technology, and more—and much of this work has been driven by a growing consensus that school improvement must focus on student learning and quality teaching. We have a better understanding nationally of the educational issues and a more complete vision of what effective schools look like. There is a growing consensus that schools should function as professional learning communities in order to promote student learning (DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Hord, 1997; and Little, 1997). More and more, teachers are seen as professionals who need learning opportunities because it is important for them to understand proposed changes in order to transform their practice. The "growing pressure on teachers necessitates rethinking their job description and what the teaching role entails" (Lieberman & Miller, 2000, p. 51). People at all levels are beginning to look at how to support quality teaching through redesign of teacher education and induction, restructuring of professional development, promotion of professional standards for teaching, changes in recruitment and reward systems, and changes in the culture of schooling. There is a general realization that teachers can't simply be recipients of reform packages, but must be active partners in the process of changing schools.

School improvement poses challenges for the teacher since it is the teacher who must make the new ideas and policies real in the classroom. That is, the teacher has to bring the components of the system—curriculum, instruction, assessment, external mandates, and community context—together intentionally with a focus on student learning to create a coherent practice that hangs together as a meaningful learning experience for students. Elmore (1996) has argued that reforms will have little impact on how and what children learn unless there are also changes in the "core" of educational practice, that is, in how teachers understand knowledge and learning and how they operationalize their understandings. So, teacher understanding becomes the critical piece in reform.

While policy can influence the nature of the work of teaching and learning, teachers must construct their own understandings of the policy from personal, political, professional, and social standpoints. Coherence is not a matter of simply aligning everything, it is a matter of teachers making sense of the instructional relationships—interactions among teachers, students, knowledge, and materials—in ways that impact the core of educational practice (Cohen & Ball, 1999). Therefore, in much the same way that constructivism is used to understand and improve classroom instruction for students, constructivism can also be used to understand how teachers create coherent practice based on the understandings of learning, learners, materials, and so on that they have built.


This final section examines the recent approaches to school improvement that might support teachers as they rethink their roles or positions relative to six dimensions that we have identified as being important in creating coherent teaching practice: knowledge, professionalism, collaboration, instruction, agency, and authority (Finley, Marble, Copeland, & Ferguson, 2000). In our work, we talk about conditions that support teachers in developing a stance toward each of these dimensions that is clearly focused on learning and the learner. Stance can be thought of as a position one takes in relation to something or someone (Cochran-Smith, 1994) or as an attitude toward or relationship with something or someone (Marble, 1997). Other researchers and policymakers are working along similar lines as evidenced by research and policy work in each of these areas.

Teachers and Knowledge

A consistent theme of reform is that teachers must "be well educated, especially in the subject matter content they teach, and that their career-long professional education experiences must continue to be grounded in the centrality of that content" (Shulman, 1999, p. xiii). In order to be an instructional coach, it is important for teachers to have a deeper understanding of subject matter. The teacher must also "be a scholar, an intellectual, and a knowledge worker oriented toward the interpretation, communication, and construction of such knowledge in the interests of student learning" (Shulman, p. xiii).

Reform efforts call for commitment to a vision that emphasizes deep understanding and meaningful learning rather than transmission and reproduction of declarative knowledge. This new focus applies to classroom learning environments for students and to professional learning for teachers. The "heart of the reforms" is that "in order to learn the sorts of things envisioned by reformers, students must think÷students do not get knowledge from teachers, or books, or experience with hands-on materials. They make it by thinking, using information and experience" (Thompson & Zeuli, 1999, p. 347). And in order to understand how to support students' thinking, teachers must also think because the reform calls "for very deep changes—even a transformation—in teachers' ideas about and understanding of subject matter, teaching, and learning" (Thompson & Zeuli, p. 350).

So there has been a real paradigm shift on two levels. First, we see a changing view of what counts as knowledge and how that knowledge is generated. The shift from the view of knowledge as objective and revealed to the view of knowledge as personally and socially constructed has implications for how and what teachers teach and students learn, as well as for how and what teachers learn. For teachers who still think of knowledge as discrete bits of information about a particular subject, student learning is the acquisition of these pieces of information through repetition, memorization, and testing of recall (Elmore, 1996). For teachers who have shifted their view of knowledge, student learning has more to do with understanding concepts and being able to use their understanding to solve problems. Secondly, we see a shift from the view of the teacher as a technician to the vision of the teacher as a learner, as a thoughtful practitioner, as a creator of knowledge. This newer view is becoming part of the national conversation about school improvement as educators consider the nature of knowledge, of knowing, and of learning.

Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) discuss three conceptions of knowledge and teacher learning that drive reform initiatives intended to promote teacher learning. Each conception has specific assumptions and implications. Knowledge-for-practice assumes that university researchers generate content and pedagogical knowledge for teachers to use. A distinctive knowledge base is assumed to exist for teaching; teaching is applying received knowledge in a classroom situation. "Teachers are knowledge users, not generators" (p. 257). Many reforms use this conception of knowledge, centering efforts on teachers learning new content, strategies, or skills, often through direct instruction. The following initiatives are based on knowledge-for-practice: evaluation of teacher preparation programs by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE); professional development initiatives based on teachers learning "best practices" from certified trainers; and teacher certification examinations that assess subject and pedagogical knowledge that are decontextualized from the contexts of teaching.

Knowledge-in-practice assumes that practical teaching knowledge comes through experience. Thus "teaching is a wise action in the midst of uncertain and changing situations" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999, p. 266), and teaching expertise comes from the profession itself. Research in this area describes craft knowledge and personal practical knowledge. Teachers are understood to be the generators of knowledge who mediate ideas, construct meaning, and take action based on that knowledge. Reforms using this conception hinge on teacher reflection and inquiry on practice, and utilize strategies such as mentoring, coaching, study groups, and self-study. This conception underlies the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which use journals, portfolios, and other means to assess the professional knowledge and skill of experienced teachers.

Knowledge-of-practice assumes that teachers play a central role in generating knowledge of practice by "making their classrooms and schools sites for inquiry, connecting their work in schools to larger issues, and taking a critical perspective on the theory and research of others" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999, p. 273). The teachers' relationship to knowledge is different from the previous conceptions in that they become researchers, theorizers, activists, and school leaders who generate knowledge for the profession and they also become critical users of research. Reforms taking this view focus on teacher research, action research, and inquiry communities. Initiatives include preservice programs that prompt prospective teacher to examine their autobiographies, write critical reflections, or create ethnographies; self-study in higher education; professional development schools; teacher networks such as the National Writing Project; and funding and disseminating teacher research. From Cochran-Smith and Lytle's work, it is clear that a changing or emerging view of what counts as knowledge for teaching influences the way teacher learning opportunities are conceived.

  Instructional Coherence: The Changing Role of the Teacher
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