Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 2)

University training as incubator of student-centered teaching tradition

The story-line of teacher education in the U.S. is two-fold. First, there is the historic and fundamental question facing all teacher preparation programs: do we prepare students to become teachers in schools as they are or do we prepare students to teach in schools as they should be?  Most university programs have straddled the answer to the question by stressing how teaching should be and spending little time on how actual classroom teaching is.

The other half of the story-line is that within research-driven universities producing new teachers rather than scholars has given a poor reputation to professors of teacher education. Laced by decades of pungent criticism of poorly performing teacher preparation programs and producing deeply flawed research studies, many university education departments have been (and are) viewed as second-rate within the institution. [i]

Part of the reason for many universities taking on teacher preparation is historical. Throughout most of the 19th century, institutions called “normal” schools provided to mostly women with a high school diploma training to become a state-licensed teacher. These “normal” schools , were absorbed by the next century’s growing colleges and universities that aspired to national recognition.[ii]

Poor reputation or not, university teacher education programs have disseminated new knowledge of the science and art of teaching to those preparing to become classroom teachers.. Within these programs, neophytes were (and now are) exposed to the “learning sciences”—a collection of disciplines including cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, the neurosciences, and instructional design. All of these programs have a clinical portion—required to gain a state license–that places the novice into classrooms where under the guidance of a cooperating or mentor teacher both plan and teach actual lessons to students.[iii]

In short, there was unceasing demand from districts for certified teachers and universities became the place for educating and training novices to know about the humanities and sciences while taking state required courses to be not only eligible to teach in school districts but mirror effective teaching—as conceived by university educators–in their own classrooms. University schools of education became the state-certified toll road that led directly to classrooms. Crudely put by university critics of schools of education, producing teachers was a “cash cow” and, therefore, essential to the financial health of the institution.[iv]

Many of these university schools of education became strongholds of a certain tradition of teaching that I have described in earlier posts: student-centered instruction.  Most teacher education programs became places where this way of teaching became the prescriptive norm for beginning teachers. Enamored with the ideas of 20th century Progressives such as John Dewey who was initially at the University of Chicago and later joined like-minded professors William Kilpatrick and Harold Rugg at Columbia University. Teacher educators then and into the early 21st century pressed neophytes to embrace child-centered instruction where teacher-student interaction and student engagement were considered markers of “effective” teaching. [v]

Once licensed and hired to teach, however, these novices, well versed as they may have been in theory and practice while in university teacher education programs even spending a few months or an academic semester in actual classrooms under the tutelage of “cooperating” teachers, now these rookies faced the realities of spending six or more hours daily with one group of 25-30 students in an elementary school or in a secondary school, facing five separate classes and preparing lessons for two or more subjects. 

Those realities banged up newbies. In order to survive their first year, they had to learn quickly and deeply the tradition of teacher-centered instruction that dominated nearly all public schools. Each generation of novices, then, learned different ways of teaching while unlearning many (but not all) what they brought from their university courses in order to survive their initial years in classrooms. If the rookies lasted, over time, they melded both traditions of teaching into hybrids that worked for them.

Universities today remain bastions of student-centered instruction thus keeping alive a mode of teaching that sometimes disables brand-new teachers entering age-graded public schools where the grammar of schooling dominates classroom practice.


[i]Geraldine Clifford and James Guthrie, Ed School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Marilyn Cochran-Smith, et. al., Critiquing Teacher Preparation Research: An Overview of the Field, Part II, Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 2015, pp. 109-121.


[ii] Jurgen Herbst, “Nineteenth Century Normal Schools in the United States: A Fresh Look,” History of Education, 1980, 9(3),  pp. 219-237.


[iii] Etta Hollins and Connor Warner, “Evaluating the Clinical Component of Teacher Preparation Programs (National Academy of Education Committee on Evaluating and Improving Teacher Preparation Programs, 2021). Ken Zeichner, a teacher educator at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) for over three decades and later at the University of Washington before retiring details his journey from elementary school teaching to tenured professor. He lays out nicely the problems and dilemmas facing teacher educators in the courses they teach, connections to regular school teachers who work with student-teachers from the university, and the clinical experience university students have in schools. See “Becoming a Teacher Educator: A Personal Perspective” Teaching and Teacher Education, 2005, 21, pp. 117-124.


[iv] For example of common criticisms, see Jennifer Medina, “Teacher Training Termed Mediocre,” New York Times, October 22, 2009; Alternative routes into classrooms apart from university courses and practice teaching have grown since the 1980s (e.g., Teach for America). Nearly all states provide options for adults to become certified teachers apart from enrolling full time in university courses.. Nonetheless, nearly all new teachers (95 percent) are licensed to teach through university-approved programs.  See Gene Glass, “Alternative Certification of Teachers,” (Education Policy Research Unit, 2008) at:

[v] See David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2004), chapters 3 and 7.


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2 responses to “Student-centered Teaching Tradition (Part 2)

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, thanks for this. I’d add two things–first, the student-centered approach so dominates the curriculum of teacher prep programs that the research behind things like Cognitive Load Theory and explicit instruction are completely shoved out. Second, from a history standpoint, those getting their degrees in education with a social studies emphasis have few classes actually in history. Thus, they walk into the classroom true novices not just as educators, but also in their content area. And then they get shoved into a World History survey class (required in my state) and are expected to know the scope of the whole world!

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