From The New England Journal of Higher Education, a service of The New England Journal of Higher Education (nebhe.org)
What does it mean to re-envision teacher education? This is the question that the faculty at the newly named Lunder School of Education at Thomas College, in Waterville, Maine, have been asking and exploring. More than a quixotic pursuit, the purpose of this inquiry has been to re-design what we think of as classroom space, to re-construct an educator preparation curriculum, and to model both the distinct art and distinct science of creative teaching.
Setting aside the hubris of a formulaic approach to improvement in the wider field of teacher education, we recognize that a major challenge to re-envisioning teacher education is overcoming the systemic notions of “what school is supposed to look like” including “what teaching is supposed to look like.” We are also aware that many people have experiential memory from their own schooling. They may even have recollections of elementary or high school teachers during their time as students. A collective public memory can be an asset in shaping a support for an enlightened and educated society; however, it can also sustain a status quo or worse, an attitude of what was “good enough for me back in the day” is “good enough for them today.”
By way of example, if you imagine for a moment what the standard American school classroom looked like in 1900, desks in rows, blackboard and teacher in front of a room of seated students, go ahead and conduct a Google search today for classroom and what will inevitably appear will be a room with desks, often in rows with the teacher at the head of room.
As former PreK-12 classroom teachers, we chose to push the boundaries of our imagination. Having experienced for ourselves what was, we have pursued a different imagery of what a classroom can be and it inspired our thinking in the design our own institutional learning space.
We also recognize that there is a national shortage of qualified educators, not only in the New England region, but also nationally. The Learning Policy Institute reports “an estimated teacher shortage of 300,000 new teachers by 2020, and by 2025, that number will increase to 316,000 annually.”
A Thomas response
Thomas College is leading the field of teacher preparation through the design of its three-year programs in Education, which are now being offered across our suite of early childhood, elementary and secondary programs. Students can earn a teaching degree and be recommended for certification in three years.
There is a need for practical answers to systemic challenges in the ways we approach contemporary teacher education, while we also need to incubate and support a new generation of teachers to serve a highly diverse population in a chronically under-compensated profession. Adjusted for inflation, the average salary for teachers was 2% lower in 2016–17 than in 1990–91, according to the National Council on Education Statistics.
If the author and essayist Jonathan Swift was correct in his definition that vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others, then a re-envisioning of teacher education requires a courageous imagination, a willingness to tinker with current ways of doing, and resources to support a shared vision.
In 2015, the Education faculty and senior administration at Thomas articulated a grant proposal that led to the Lunder Foundation committing $1.75 million to establish the Center for Innovation in Education (CIE) at the college. The Lunder Foundation, created by Peter and Paula Lunder in 1988, has a long history of investing in Maine, particularly in higher education, the arts and healthcare.
The Education faculty planned the physical design of the CIE to reflect an aesthetic, naturally lighted, uncluttered, adaptable, multiple-use learning space. All tables and chairs are on wheels. There is an area with comfortable overstuffed chairs, a coffee station, an aquarium with tropical fish, a deep sink and workspace and art materials shelving. There is no clock, however; while we recognize an institutional schedule, we want to model to our pre-service teachers that learning time should not be regulated by artificial means but by deep interest, authentic engagement and personal reflection.
The construction of the open concept learning space actualizes a philosophical idea that encourages teaching as a public activity. Classes are often held at the same time in two separate areas of the large learning space. Students are encouraged to use the space as a learning lab, meeting or study space. Faculty offices are intentionally situated at the perimeter of the center. An adjacent design center acts as a maker space, which houses, laptops, 3-D printers, microscopes, a telescope, and virtual-reality headsets that are integrated with standards-based curricular resources, educational gaming software, 360 cameras, robotics, science and art materials. A diverse collection of children’s and young adult literature is accessible to pre-service teachers. Faculty encourage student exploration of emerging educational technologies. Most recently, we are engaging them in immersive experiences with curricular applications of virtual reality, with the intent of providing access of worlds beyond the four walls of the traditional classroom.
In 2016, the success of the CIE advanced the college’s strategic initiative to establish a School of Education. The faculty committed to a set of courses that encouraged student voice and choice in meeting learning objectives, along with programmatic integration of coursework in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering the Arts and Mathematics). We want our graduates to be able model student-centered learning, and we do this by guiding personal, authentic learning experiences. By requiring our Education majors to take coursework in Educational Game Design, we are putting into practice recent research that confirms that over “55 functions of the human learning experience” are being activated while students are involved in playing a game.
This year, Peter and Paula Lunder honored our efforts again with a $2.5 million gift toward Thomas College endowed scholarships and giving their name to our School of Education.
We do not have all the answers yet in the work of re-envisioning of teacher education; however, we want our graduates to be able to deliver curriculum and teach content in a way that reflects the reality of their students’ cultural, economic and technological futures. In recent years, we have seen a steady rise to nearly 95% of our graduating Education majors who obtain a teaching position within six months of commencement. A large percentage of those graduates choose to remain in Maine to begin their professional careers in teaching.
Our work is supported by the work of the CIE, which continues to serve as a key resource center, housed within the school of education and acts as the physical space where the faculty delivers innovative coursework in undergraduate and graduate programs. The CIE also collaborates with education and business-focused partners to extend professional development opportunities to PreK-12 classroom teachers and finally, the center provides a platform for faculty and students to showcase their work and action research in the areas of STEAM and emerging technologies.
As faculty, we are still seeking, striving and pursuing a model of teacher education that reflects the dynamic atmosphere of the classrooms that pre-service teachers will be entering, the schools they will be influencing, and the next generation of students they will be leading towards what may be possible to see.
Pamela Thompson is chair of the Lunder School of Education at Thomas College.