As my father and I were waiting for the start of my brother's graduation ceremony last week, the conversation somehow turned to the program of study for the Master's in Education. My father commented that as he understood it, Education students are primarily trained in the theory of education, especially from a developmental and psychological standpoint. There is certainly some value in learning such. But what is not emphasized is the practice of actually teaching: how to convey information to students, how to keep their attention, how to enforce discipline. Teachers are more or less expected to learn that on their own. Moreover, teachers do not necessarily gain expertise in the subjects they teach. (Many of us know of the archetypical PE coach who is drafted as a math teacher; what the two fields have to do with each other, Heaven only knows.) My father concluded that teachers really needed to be taught two things which are neglected today: "stuff," i.e. deep, substantive knowledge of the subjects they teach, and "vocational training" in the nuts-and-bolts of standing in front of a young audience and instructing them.
Looking at the Ed.M. program at Harvard (which could be expected to represent what passes for state-of-the-art these days), one notices that there is little emphasis on practical training. Of the thirteen courses of study offered, at least five seem geared towards educational policy and administration, two seem primarily psychological/biological, several are research-oriented, and one focuses on building a proper "community atmosphere" for learning, whatever that means.
One program looks eminently practical, the Teacher Education Program, which is billed as "Preparing individuals to become middle or secondary school classroom teachers in urban settings." Surely such teachers are rigorously prepared in the practical arts of teaching! And indeed, when one looks at the curriculum, one sees more emphasis on the practical than in the other programs. Yet even here, there are required courses such as "Race, Class, and Power in Urban Schools," in which "students will explore theoretical frameworks for understanding cultural difference as it impacts teaching and learning in the urban classroom."
Theory is important. But this is true up to a point, for two reasons. First, often scholars of education can become so wedded to their theories that they disregard evidence that the theories are counterproductive in practice. The "whole language" debacle is a good example. Second, people's perception of the world is often determined by the mental framework they apply to their perceptions. One too steeped in theory might disregard data that he cannot categorize in the theory. To be truly effective, an observer must be able to see things as they are first, and then try to organize his observations.
Aside from that, many theories are simply overelaborate ways for teachers to justify not holding their kids to a high standard. This is why a practical approach is so necessary. A friend of mine teaches at a local public school, which is disproportionally low-income and had been known for poor grades. Then the principal decided to have all the students taught with the GATE curriculum for gifted students, a decision which would send the average theoretician into apoplexy. Wonder of wonders, test scores for the whole school shot through the roof!
So why not do this across the public school system? Because it doesn't fit the theory…
The teaching profession in general has frequently been willing to discard practices that work in real life, in favor of innovations that sound good on paper. (New Math, anyone?) This does a tremendous disservice to students. Better for teachers to be trained to focus on results first, last, and foremost, and not whether the methods involved are trendy in the theoretical world.