If I don’t know theory, I’m just a cog in the education machine.

When I was in graduate school for teaching, a common gripe from some students in my program was that our coursework was too theoretical, that it didn’t give us enough practical info or concrete methods for working in the classroom.

I thought of those folks as I read Doug Lemov’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal. His description of a new teaching school stood out:

My colleague Norman Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, likes to invoke the example of Michael Jordan, whose demanding methods of practice “reset” the habits of the Chicago Bulls and improved the team. Mr. Atkins adds, “Once you have good teachers who as a matter of course like to practice and rehearse and think, it’s the most professional thing you can do. It will raise the expectations of teams in their field as well.”

So his graduate school, in contrast to more theory-heavy programs, preps teachers for what they will do all day on the job. And he finds that they love it.

Back in my year of graduate school, when I was in my field placement all day and going to classes at night, there are moments I would have loved practicing my methods all day. But when people complained that our program was “too theoretical,” it made my skin crawl. These were the same folks who thought reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was a waste of time. Even scarier was how they weren’t interested in encouraging any critical thinking on the part of their students. The kids were too behind on basic skills, they would argue. No time for literary analysis or theory.

And if we had studied at Relay? Here’s what we would have gotten, according to the Washington Post:

Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.

Just think, if I had been educated at Relay, I would be such a great team player. I would be an expert and enacting every new method and initiative handed down by my district or my administration, and I would never ask “why” or have the tools to explore what was behind it.  My students would never get riled up, because I would never incite them to question their world. I wouldn’t even know the phrase “critical pedagogy.” I would never have gotten hired at a place like SLA, joined Teacher Action Group, or started this blog.

If we don’t teach our students to look at the bigger picture, then we condemn them to live with all of the systemic problems that they can’t see. Same goes for teachers.


2 thoughts on “If I don’t know theory, I’m just a cog in the education machine.

  1. Harold

    You make a great point. What I love about school is how we weigh everything on the scale of “what works.” It’s a very get-your-hands-dirty approach. (Hmm, now I’m thinking about how teaching, for good or ill, is a queer blend of blue collary and white collary work.) This tendency isn’t foolproof, though, because “what works” slips easily into what’s most efficient or what engenders compliance, neither of which jives well with authentic learning, with argument, with democratic initiative and asserting oneself.

    Nice blog.

    1. lpahomov Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think what attracted me and many people to classroom teaching is the hands-on work — we’re the types who like to do more than just “sit around and think.” It’s important for people to understand, however, that theoretical thinking is something teachers both can and should do.


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