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Looking for Wisdom: Teacher Education for the Present and Future Generations

Introduction: Author's Personal Background

In order for the reader to evaluate the information contained in this report, it is important to be aware of where I am coming from; that is, my personal experiences and personal view of education, learning and living. Everything is colored by these experiences and beliefs, even if the writer is only quoting other supposedly factual sources. What is not quoted is as important as what is quoted because it involves a matter of the author's choices. Since my ideas are colored by my own experiences as a student and teacher, it's important for a reader to remind him/herself that learning experiences are different for each person, and that, basically, the world that each of us occupies is unique.

That said, here is a bit of information about my experience relating to teaching and learning. I've been a student, and very much involved with teachers in many different ways (often conflicting) for more than 22 years and spread over the 6 decades of my life. I have also been teaching in a variety of backgrounds for 45 years. During some of the time I was a teacher I was simultaneously a student, giving me what I felt was a more mindful perspective than when I was simply one or the other separately. Actually it is my hope that for all of the years I've been teaching, I've also been learning, and it is one of my contentions that perhaps the single most important quality in a teacher is that she or he is constantly learning and applying what is being learned to the teaching process.

I've studied in two different teacher's colleges and taught students in a Master's Program. I participated in a practice teachers program at one university and have worked with hundreds of young people who were preparing to go to Malaysia, Somalia, the Philippines, and Thailand to become teachers in the U.S. Peace Corps, a program in which adults of all ages work for two years as volunteers in cultures very different from their own. In addition, I've acted as a supervising teacher for college students in Japan in their practice teaching programs for more than ten years.

As a student I always had a great deal of trouble memorizing factual information and usually did poorly on any kind of test of such material. I was made to feel less than "smart" or "whole" because of this and as a result hated and was unhappy in most of my childhood classrooms. As a teacher I tried to give situations to students which required them to think and use what they had learned rather than to depend on memorized facts, and they were usually allowed to use books or notes or computers or even other students as recources. I believed (and still do) that this is how we're "tested" in the real world.

Although I've had many years and a lot of different experiences as a teacher, I don't think that length of time and number of experiences are the most important factors in evaluating "good " teaching and "good" teachers1). There are many people who have been teaching for a long time and still give little thought to how their students learn and what they need to do to help them learn to think, express themselves, and live.2)

As I gather information and ideas to write this paper, I remember my own advice to students. I have always told them that the most meaningful research they could do was to look at their own experiences, what I call "personal media"3) because that is what makes their perspective meaningful, and that they should document those experiences and give references to them just as they would a book or magazine or the internet. I have tried to do that here.

How Do We Choose Teachers?

A recent article in one of Australia's newspapers called, "Teacher Tests Infuriate Unis"4) described how the state government was planning to test all new teachers to make sure that they had sufficient knowledge in language, math and science. This upset students and professors at "uni" (used in this context to refer specifically to universities of education) because they felt it showed a lack of trust in their programs. The Educational Minister of Australia responded by saying that these tests would guarantee that new teachers were proficient in those 3 areas "so we can get the best outcome for students."

Scores of these tests have been posted on the internet, with the stated purpose of helping parents judge which schools are the best. To me this means that parents are being encouraged to believe that the most important way to judge a school and a teacher is how much factual knowledge children are given.

I'm infuriated by the tests as well, but for different reasons. The questions I'd like to ask prospective teachers are quite different. I'd like to ask these young teachers what kind of world they want to live in and how do we help young people make such a world? It's a pretty basic question, but I wonder how many prospective teachers are asked to talk or write about that. Perhaps such matters are considered too political or personal. But I wonder, what could be more personal and political than teaching others?5)

People who want to become teachers are given tests to see how much knowledge they have memorized about various subjects; occasionally, they might also be asked to think about their subject as well as their teaching philosophy.

But most attention is given to those 3 famous areas - "mathematics" or "language" or "science" - which in my experience most young people don't care much about as isolated subjects or disciplines. But they do want to know about the world around them, how it works, and how to live in it. And if someone would help them discover the connections between themselves and their world and the fields of math, science, language, literature, art, music, sport, I am convinced, based on my experience, that their view of these subjects and their importance to their lives would change dramatically.

Basic Questions Seldom Asked

One purpose of this paper is to present some ideas about helping new teachers think about working and playing with their students in order to help them, not only in the classroom, but outside in their present and future worlds. In order to do this it seems vital to talk with teachers about what kind of world we want to live in and how do we help young people make such a world. It's a basic question, but I wonder how many prospective teachers are asked to talk or write about that.

If prospective teachers can be encouraged to think about what kind of world they want to live in and what they can do themselves to create that world, then it seems that they will also understand the importance for such conversations to be at the heart of their own teaching. They themselves must be aware of the connections between what they do daily in their classrooms, making connections between their subject matter and that world they hope for. While doing this, they are engaged in both teaching others and learning themselves how to live in ways that can effect change both in their own lives and in the lives of others.6)

A friend and colleague of mine, Carol Sperry, wrote to me that in her own classes and workshops with people who were teachers or who were preparing to be teachers she felt the most important idea was that of relationship.7) She wrote: "Good teaching relies mostly on relationships, between teacher and students, between students and subject matter, between teacher and subject matter."8)

Another educator, Christine Renaud, writes using an interesting expression, "consensual education": "Consensual education is important because there is no other way to learn. Education is a relationship, and a relationship where consent is absent is oppressive... Education can only happen where mutual respect and trust exist between the parties involved and it's an everlasting process of negotiation." 9)

I'd like to ask every prospective and present teacher what they thought about these ideas and how they might make them part of their classrooms.

Who will Teach the Teachers and What will We Teach Them

In my view, one difficulty with educating new teachers is that many of the people who are responsible for preparing them haven't had a lot of recent experience in today's classrooms. As noted by Kathleen Fulton, director for reinventing schools in the 21st century for the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF): "One of the real problems with schools today is that they're the schools we had yesterday. The existing training and recruitment model doesn't work for kids or teachers. Collaboration is key to developing good teaching skills, yet we're not set up for that in today's [teacher education] classrooms."10)

Another problem is that teachers in educational institutions often don't express their interest in the big picture to their students. If these teacher educators don't make a connection between what they believe is important in life and what they do with learners in the classroom, then how will new teachers learn to value this? It's not an easy thing to do - to create connections between life and subject matter - and teachers must be given a lot of support in making connections to this "big picture."

What is this "big picture"? It's simply some connection to what's happening in the world outside the classroom. For me, it's a world that is destroying itself through war (territoriality) and greed (selfishness).11) Most teachers are paid by the very systems which encourage such greed and selfishness, telling people that what they need to do to be happy is buy more things. So what kind of children are they hoping to educate (from the Latin root edu - to lead)? Where are we leading young people? And who will lead them? And who will teach them to lead? How can we engage people in the process of thinking about their place in the world? This is the question that teachers' institutions must confront, at least as much as talking about subject matter.

Let me start by suggesting what kinds of things are valuable to the process of engaging young teachers-to-be in thinking about teaching and learning. These are questions that affect each of their lives. They are also questions for which there are no right and wrong answers. This will establish some rules in the beginning of the relationship between teachers of teachers-to-be and the teachers-to-be themselves; that is, all ideas have value in showing our thoughts and experiences and in providing us with means of further exploration.

This is a list with some explanation about why I think each item is important. Also, I hope the reader can keep in mind the possibility that for every moment we are not engaged in thinking about these things, we are engaged in something else which can have a very different effect and result.

1. Who has what and why?

Children need to have some awareness of the different conditions that children are born into in their own country and in the world. A sense of justice and service needs to be instilled in young people.

2. Where does information come from; that is, who creates it and why?

This is the question of media awareness and is one of the most important fields that children need to have knowledge about. This is increasingly important as more and more information and misinformation becomes available through the internet.12)

3. What do we do when we don't know what to do or don't know the answer that we are expected to know?

Knowing how to find answers is a more useful and long lasting skill than remembering a specific right answer. This is widely recognized in our new age, but the activities which take place in school as directed by teachers, as well as the activities which take place in many teacher-education classrooms, don't support this belief. If this belief were supported, there would be no closed book examinations and wrong answers would be savored and valued rather than causing shame. Students should applaud each other's unexpected answers as points of departure for exploring together!

4. How can we learn to work with other people so that everyone gets a chance to express him/herself and find a way to grow?

Thinking again about competitiveness and territoriality that influences all animals, it's important to talk openly about differences in interest, ability, and motivation in any given project. Group learning is very popular in many classes these days, but still a cause of much conflict among students. Learning to work with differences is an important element in each person's life.

What can Teacher Educators do with Prospective Teachers

I hope you agree that these are important questions for prospective and present teachers to spend time exploring. While these questions are about the "big picture", there are also some ideas particularly relating to teaching and learning that, in my opinion, need to be explored.

I believe these ideas should be at the heart of every interaction between teachers in educational programs and the prospective teachers they are working with in our teacher education programs or any other classes for new teachers.13)

1. creating self-awareness: to see the underlying paradigms of their own education and what was valued by their parents, their society and those teaching them; thinking how they felt about these values and how these values matched up with their experiences in school and life; talking about how these values have changed in the present day.

2. considering the meaning of planning curriculum for learning: each day where do you go and how do you know? Are there options to making detailed, step-by-step plans; if so, what are they? What are the differences between "covering" a certain amount of material during a lesson, and "uncovering" it?14)

3. discussing the meaning of discipline and control in teaching and learning. Who's in charge of what is taught and learned in your class?

4. thinking about "powerful ideas"15). Where do they come from and how do we recognize them and even create them for use in our lives? And, at the same time, how do we recognize the opposite way of thinking, the having of what I call "unpowerful ideas"16) which often set up ourselves and those around us for failure.

For example, most teacher education programs talk about "classroom management and control." In my experience, this is an "unpowerful idea" because children and their learning can't be managed or controlled. Teachers who attempt to operate under this paradigm are bound to feel frustrated and will generally not be successful with their students who don't want to be managed but rather wish to be heard and be a part of the rule-making process they are being asked to live by.

I read that an average teacher encounters more than 200 surprises each day in the classroom.17) How to respond to surprise is certainly something new teachers should have experience in working with. Sadly it's usually the teachers who are being surprised, when it would greatly benefit the students and their engagement if they were the ones being surprised.18)

5. having meaningful discourse in the classroom and moving beyond right and wrong answers. How to create a safe space where learners can express themselves without being labeled as "wrong" or "stupid." How to create a learning space where not knowing or having a different idea or being confused all can be seen as being a great opportunity for discussion and learning.

If teachers in educational institutions can model as well as talk about these behaviors in their own interactions with teachers-to-be perhaps there might be some changes in the learning and teaching that happen in new teachers' classrooms. Given that teacher attrition rates are very high - in the U.S., for example "approximately 30 percent of new teachers leave the classroom within three years, and 40 to 50 percent leave within five years."19) - it would seem to me that governments, educational departments and educational institutions would all want to find ways to help new teachers feel enough value from their work that they would want to continue in the field.

Some Approaches with Adults

Many people who are teaching now or studied to become teachers had very little supervised experience. In Japan, most new teachers have a 2 week practice teaching program working in schools; they may teach 5-6 lessons during that time. Of course they are extremely nervous and under a lot of pressure. Each country has a different system of helping teachers get ready for this experience.

But whatever the system, it's clear that teachers need support for a job that is very stressful. In Japan last year more teachers than ever before took sick leave giving psychological problems as the cause.20)

By the time a person decides to be a teacher, he or she has already spent at least twelve years in a classroom as a student. Teachers returning for professional development have even more time spent in the classroom. How many classes for teachers begin with talking about these experiences, around such questions as:

"What were some of your memorable experiences as a student?" Discussion of such experiences could provide valuable groundwork for thinking about what kind of teaching and teachers affect our lives. I believe this is surely at least as important to think about as how to teach mathematics.

"What kind of classrooms and teachers really made you uncomfortable or unhappy or did you just plain dislike?"

For those who believe they are going to teach for the first time: "Have you ever tried to teach anyone anything?" (With a little thought everyone should be able to remember such experiences with siblings or friends and learn from what might have been effective or not, and why this was the case.)

This idea of getting people to think about "teaching" in a new way is very important. You mean when I was helping my younger brother learn how to ride a bicycle I was actually "teaching" him? So I have had teaching experience??? That was fun!! And he seemed to enjoy it, though he was pretty scared at first.

Becoming aware of knowledge we have, when we think we have none can provide a powerful first step to learning. Building on previously acquired knowledge, especially when you're not aware that you have it, has very surprising effects on learners. When I was teaching English in Japan students would often say, "I don't know any English." When all the different expressions that have worked their way into daily Japanese usage are pointed out to them21) they have a different attitude about their place as a learner. "Well, I'm not a complete beginner. I've got this store of knowledge and experience that I can build on....."

Jack Mezirow, a professor at Columbia Teachers College in New York City, has written that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a "disorienting dilemma," or something that "helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you've acquired." Thirty years ago Dr. Mezirow studied women who had returned to school after time at work or raising family. According to his research the women were able to take this brave step after talking with others helped them "challenge their own ingrained perceptions of that time when women could not do what men could do."

Discovering something which goes against our previous beliefs, Dr. Mezirow says, is the "essential thing in adult learning."

"As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically," he says. "This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp."22)

Recently I watched The Class, an award winning French film about teaching and the relationship between a teacher and students. The acting in the film was so natural, and it made me reflect a lot about teaching and learning. All teachers new and old should be invited to watch this film and discuss the many questions it raises about classroom "management" and "authority" and the relationship between what is being taught in schools and the daily reality of students. In the "extras" that often accompany films on dvd, the director, Laurent Cantet talks with the writer of the book from which the movie was taken who is also the main actor, Francois Begaudeau, about the importance of dialog between students and teacher, and how everything moves from the questions the students ask the teacher. Yet most classrooms are organized in just the opposite way - around the questions the teacher asks the students. Other things are seen as "wasting time".23) Later they are discussing the ability of the children to rehearse for six hours a day, noting that these same children are often criticized for not being able to concentrate in school.

The question that comes to my mind is: whose failure is it that children can't concentrate on what's at hand? Is it the students, who are most often solely blamed or is it the people who create the curriculum or the people who teach it without connecting it to the lives of the children?

Other Ideas for Preparing Teachers

In an article sited above, by Susan Engles called "What It Takes to Become a Great Teacher",24) she offers her opinion about what we need to do with young people who want to become teachers:

Once we've attracted a talented pool of students [who want to become teachers], we need to prepare them differently than we have in the past. They need to learn a lot about the things they want to teach, more than they could have learned in college. They also need to learn how to observe children, and think about what they are seeing. They need to learn how to draw upon research and theory to come up with new solutions to whatever problems face them in the classroom. Teaching students should spend much more time on the bookends of traditional programs: engaging in far reaching intellectual inquiry about education, children, and the material they hope to teach on the one hand, and intensive hands on supervised practice on the other. That would leave less time for mechanics, which is fine, since those things can be learned fairly quickly by excellent students.

... Unlike the surgeon whose clients are unconscious, a teacher's young clients are all very much conscious. This is why teachers must devote time, energy, and effort to reflecting on their own practice. Young teachers need to learn how to record their daily encounters, explore their own motivations with specific children, think open mindedly about what might help a student improve, and understand what to do when they feel convinced they were talking to their students in a friendly way during math class, only to see on the video tape that they were talking at the children in a loud monotone. They need help learning how to change when things aren't working.

Teachers must also learn about children - they need more than a course in child development. Two years ago I watched an excellent 4th grade teacher in Hoboken, NJ. All of his specific lessons and rules were quirky. He did not teach by the book. The children had lots of freedom to choose their own activities. He spent a good deal of his time recording what they were doing, rather than instructing them. They spent a lot of their time making things, rather than practicing skills. He held meetings of the whole group when there was conflict between children, but rarely identified rules, or handed out consequences. As part of his graduate work he had studied developmental psychology in depth. He knew how to think and read about children. His students behaved well, loved school, and learned a lot.25)

Ms. Engle ends her article with a thought provoking quote from a surgeon who recently left the medical profession to become a public school teacher. "I've already done the second most important profession. Now I want to do the first."26) Remembering that he studied for more than six years to become a surgeon and had extensive supervised practice, think about these words and the education and support we provide our teachers as compared to doctors.

Interestingly enough, this idea has also occurred to some politicians in Japan. An article appeared in 2009 stating that "The Democratic Party of Japan will extend the four-year training program for teacher certification by two years starting in the 2012 academic year if it takes power after the election..."27)

But the question is - what will happen to them and with them during those six years!!

author's note: my great appreciate to Dr. Carol Sperry for her advice and editing assistance in my writing this paper. Dr. Sperry is Professor Emeritus, Education Foundations Department, Millersville University in the U.S. and was a consultant for Seymour Papert's group at the Media Lab, MIT. She was also Director of the innovative Project Mindstorm in San Jose, California.

1. "Good" is such a vague word and means different things to different people. For me, perhaps the most important indicator of "good" teachers is their ability and willingness to learn about their students' perceptions and needs and start their interactions from that point. These teachers continually try to find ways to engage their students about matters of concern to both the teacher and the students.

2. The question occurred to me: why am I listing all this experience? Is it to impress the reader and encourage them to believe me? That's probably part of the truth, but the main reason is my belief that readers should be informed about a writer's background, not so they can accept her words unconditionally, but so they can think and question with some understanding of what experiences and thinking the author's words are based on. There is also another point to make - that in spite of all my experience, I actually know so little about how any individual learns, and that basically I believe that nothing I can tell anyone about my experience can have as much meaning as that person's own discoveries.

3. This includes our first-hand experiences with friends, family, even our dreams.

4. Courier Mail Brisbane Australia, December 24, 2009, p.10.

5. I'm not saying that all teachers should be expected to come up with a standard set of answers; in fact, just the opposite: a range of perspectives and ideas should be available to students.

6. See an earlier article I wrote on this site "Bringing the Real World into our Classrooms" in which I mention the concept of agency: giving us a sense of ourselves in the world.

7. email communication with Carol Sperry, February 2, 2010.

8. In an article on the Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 26, 2009 ID Number: 15813 I was introduced to the expression "dialogical education", described as "involvement with communication, verbal and non-verbal, between the child and the outside world."

9. p.35, Ed, Harvard Graduate School of education, Winter, 2010

10. Edutopia, "School's Out", February, 2005

11. As noted in footnote 6, I don't believe that all teachers should hold the same views as I do, but only that they express their views and encourage discussion about them.

12. a little story here: the American owners of a local shop told me the other day that they knew that Obama was a radical Muslim who was not an American citizen and shouldn't legally be president. "How do you know this", I asked. "We read it on the internet", they said. "It's nonsense", I said. "How do you know?" they asked. "Because I've read it. He's a legal citizen and doesn't believe in terrorism". Then I realized that all my knowledge about Obama also came from the internet. We were just reading different sources.

13. A number of countries are investigating ways of "retraining" teachers already in the classroom. Everything I'm suggesting for new teachers would also be applicable for teachers who have been teaching and are going back to take education classes to rethink their profession.

14. I first came across this covering-uncovering contrast in a class with Seymour Papert at the Media Lab, MIT.

15. I've written previously on this site about "powerful ideas", a concept I immediately fell in love with when I read Seymour Papert's Mindstorms (Basic Books, NY, 1993) in the early '80s.

16. As far as I know, I've invented this term, which is in itself an oxymoronic powerful idea; at least I couldn't find any use of this expression anywhere on the internet!

17. "What It Takes to Become a Great Teacher", Susan Engles, Teachers College Record, Published: Nov.16, 2009 ID: 15834.

18. About the value of surprise in the process of involvement, see Surprise in issue 2691 of New Scientist magazine, page 9.

19. Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 9, 2007, p. 2083-2106 ID Number: 12812, Date Accessed: 8/4/2009 7:29:29 PM

20. 20 Japan Times, Dec. 27, 2009, "More teachers on sick leave from psychological problems"

21. Many examples from contemporary culture used daily by Japanese young people come from English; for example, television (terebi), sexual harassment (sekuhara), blues (burusuu), apartment (aparto), trouble (torabu). Of course pronunciation and usage are different, but that's a minor issue compared to the discovery of new knowledge.

22. "How to Train the Aging Brain" By Barbara Strauch

23. Students of course are expert at getting the teacher "off track", but in fact, the way that they try to do this does express their thinking and their interests, and it is vital for teachers to understand how to use these digressions.

24. Teachers College Record, Published: Nov.16, 2009 ID: 15834

25. Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2009 ID Number: 15834, Date Accessed: 1/25/2010 2:43:11 AM

26. ibid.

27. The Japan Times: Friday, Aug. 28, 2009, Train teachers over six years: DPJ


Hillel Weintraub

Hillel Weintraub taught at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School (DIHS) in Kyoto from 1980-2001, taking a 3 year break in the middle to live in the Boston area where he was part of the teaching and learning communities of MIT's Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hillel was one of the pioneers of using computers in education in Japan and in 1981 created an international group of teachers, parents and business people who were interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to support learning that would be meaningful, engaging and empowering for young people. While at Doshisha International he also taught courses in media and communication at Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College, and, with other members of DIHS faculty, planned and developed the Communication Center, a unique combination of library, museum, theater and computer spaces. He also helped design various aspects of a new science university in Hokkaido, Future University - Hakodate, where he was a professor from 2001-2005. He is presently living in the mountains of Australia, where he is writing and running a small gallery and press. Hillel can be contacted at
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