The Mars Hill University Model:Teacher as Progressive Leader

The Evolution of the New Model

The new conceptual framework for Mars Hill University’s Teacher Education Program has evolved from earlier models that have guided our successful and growing program in Western North Carolina for more than two decades. Our previous framework, The Teacher Professional, focused on three central components of good teacher preparation: content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and professional ethics. The new framework emerged from the foundations of that original, but incorporates the education faculty’s changing understandings of, and perspectives on, teaching and learning. The new model manifests concerns about changes in our world, changes in the teaching profession, and changes within the socio-political contexts in which schooling occurs. The faculty’s continuing scholarship and professional activity have resulted in our awareness of a rapidly changing national landscape with regard to technology, communications, demographics, economics, and culture, as well as trends in American educational practice and policy. The new framework is built on our recognition that while continuous reworking of the program is necessary to continue preparing successful teachers in a changing world, certain sound principles about teaching—and about human curiosity, growth and motivation—endure. These constants include certain instructional principles as well as an understanding of teachers’ responsibility to teach to the heart and not just the mind—to work toward social justice and equity.

The New Conceptual Framework: A Response to Challenges

We believe that the next generation of teachers, and perhaps American education as a whole, will face important challenges brought about by the effects of large-scale reform that appears to have as its goal the realization of uniform schools in the U.S. or perhaps the replacement of free public education with privatized, profit-driven schooling. We have watched as these reforms have been implemented and as the efficiency model of schooling has become further embedded in the culture of American education. Among the school reforms we consider problematic are those based on an industrial model of schooling, the major components of which are: reductionist concepts of teaching and learning; the growth of the audit or accountability culture in education; the deskilling of teaching; over-reliance on questionable, short-term research in designing reforms; the imposition of marketplace principles and values on schools; the influence of anti-intellectual political and religious forces; and the efforts of various “philanthrocapitalists” and other corporate entities to influence education initiatives by offering financial incentives.

The collective impact of these reforms is to challenge us to resist the resulting shift in educational priorities from student discovery and independent thought to mean gain scores on standardized tests. We find common ground with Diane Ravitch, who in her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a recantation of her long-standing belief in such reforms, concluded with the following caution:

At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn our attention to improving the schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible (p. 242).

Our new framework is designed to prepare teachers to meet the challenges that will face them with optimism and energy and enable them to revive the positive conditions that make genuine learning possible. Like the original, our new model is based on three components. First is creative pedagogy, that is, the capacity of teachers to shape and carry out their own instructional ideas for specific students and conditions. Second is knowledge of academic disciplines, an understanding of the central questions and methods of the major disciplines that enables effective teaching of those represented in the K-12 curriculum. The final component is critical agency, the awareness of bias and inequity and the concomitant will and efficacy to address them to effect social justice.

Framework Component 1: Creative Pedagogy

The teacher who is prepared to practice creative pedagogy can accept the challenge to create a curiosity–driven classroom, to be willing and able to experiment and take the risks associated with real learning. Graduates trained in creative pedagogy resist conformity and uncritical compliance with measures that serve the interests of individuals or agencies other than the students for whom schools truly exist. Resistance to these dominant forces requires the ability to reflect critically and plan and act autonomously, the ability to constantly reinvent ways of engendering student engagement and understanding, and the capacity for self-searching and willingness to speak clearly to power.

The new conceptual framework will inform a program that helps candidates develop strong, creative, and problem-solving faculties. We intend that graduates of the Mars Hill program will enter the classroom prepared to design, and not just implement, curricula and instruction. Consequently, they will be able to address effectively the differing needs of their students and will be able to adapt rapidly to the changing demands and circumstances characteristic of life in schools. This creative dimension of our framework is a response to the accelerating de-skilling of teaching. With the mandate for statewide curricula and testing, and indeed with a clear movement toward a national curriculum and national uniform testing, the classroom teacher’s prerogative to shape curriculum is disappearing. Peter Taubman, in his recent book on the effects of school reforms (2009), writes

We have arrived at a moment when teachers and students are subjected to a curriculum driven by disconnected multiple-choice questions or essay prompts that must be answered in a set amount of time and that have little if any relationship to problems, interests, or speculations that we might associate with thinking, erudition, creativity, or a curriculum animated by and responding to the flux of a classroom.…we have already entered the ‘soundbite’ approach of the test-driven curriculum  (pp. 17-18).

Our program is designed to help teachers work with the standard curriculum as a set of broad outlines--not as a list of directives to be literally and mechanically executed. We believe that while standard goals and objectives must be taught, the weaving of curricular elements into the everyday fabric of what and how students learn should remain the domain of the classroom teacher. Teachers have become increasingly reliant on instructional systems produced by profit-driven entities. These include instructional plans and materials with specific directions for their use, sequencing calendars, assessments, progress records, and remedial packages. This kind of other-directed teaching experience, unshaped by the teacher’s own educational values, personal creativity, and unique understandings of teaching and content devolves into a lifeless exercise devoid of meaning and professional satisfaction. Elliot Eisner describes this as “…pedagogical intelligence freezing into mechanical routine” (p. 177).

Framework Component 2: Knowledge of the Academic Disciplines

With increasing emphasis on standard testing and accountability, factual recall and the empty display of academic procedures are the central preoccupations of K–12 learning. Among the richer and more complex aspects of scholarship that have been sacrificed for higher test scores is the knowledge of how disciplines are organized and how they generate knowledge. Beyond study of the most commonly anthologized content of disciplines, we believe it is necessary for education majors, and ultimately, their students, to know about disciplinary structures and processes, including direct experiences with the real-world objects of study, hands-on application of methods of inquiry, and exposure to working members of disciplinary communities. We believe that candidates should have understandings about the disciplines listed in the following set of expectations:

  • Candidates should understand that knowledge is divided into fields of study according to patterns which determine what can and cannot be included in each field.
  • Candidates should understand that each field of study has its own forms of representation, data structures, perspective frames or interpretations, methods of inquiry, technologies, and pedagogies.
  • Candidates should understand that though fields of study are separate, they overlap in areas and can inform one another.
  • Candidates should understand that each discipline has rules, procedures, and standards which are negotiated and upheld by the members of its community.
  • Candidates should understand that disciplinary rules and standards are strong, but not inflexible, and evolve as the understandings of the discipline evolve.
  • Candidates should understand each discipline’s assumptions about the nature of truth.
  • Candidates should be able to apply research and interpretations skills within different fields of study.

Instead of focusing on disassociated facts to be memorized, our graduates should teach their students to apply the questions and skills of knowledge production in each discipline. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to have direct experiences with the observation, experimentation, and interpretation leading to knowledge production. This aspect of our model will inform our daily practices as teacher educators who serve diverse candidates preparing to pass along disciplinary knowledge and its methods of production to a new generation of K-12 students.

Framework Component 3: Social Justice through Critical Agency

Critical agency is action taken to resist social injustice and economic inequity. Critical action is informed by an awareness of often-covert sources of oppression and limitations on opportunities for meaningful lives. This idea emanates from the critical pedagogy movement, liberation pedagogy, and similar modes of thought and philosophies of education. Adherents to these modes of thought include Lisa Delpit, Gloria Anzaldua, Elliot Eisner, Michell Fine, Paulo Friere, Henry Giroux, Ivan Illich, Bill Pinar, Joel Spring, Joan Wink, and many other contemporary thinkers. Graduates who are prepared to apply the principles of critical agency to the challenges of social justice will be prepared to transform the lives of their students.

A commitment to social justice lies at the heart of the Mars Hill University Teacher Education Program. Its aim is to prepare graduates, who in their own teaching practices, are committed to making students aware of the historical, social, political and economic forces that shape their lives and the lives of others, and who are empowered to take active roles in the life-shaping processes at work in schools, communities and the wider world. The means of achieving this aim are twofold. First, candidates themselves must become aware of the multiple interests, both implicit and explicit, that influence schools and communities, and learn to distinguish between those that are liberating and those that are oppressive. With this understanding, candidates can then develop the capacity to take individual and collective action to affirm the former and confront the latter. It is especially important that teachers enact these principles in their own classrooms, schools and communities. Schools, like other institutions, harbor bias, privilege, and social and economic inequities--and their consequences, personal diminishment and the failure of human potential. The teacher who has been made aware of such consequences and is prepared to address them effectively is, in our view, prepared for the most fundamental tasks of good teaching.

Second, candidates must be prepared to empower their students with those same understandings and equip them with the knowledge and skills to effect equity and social justice in their own lives and the lives of others. Students come to teachers from particular lifeworlds constructed of culture, language, geography, economic conditions, and understandings of, and adaptations to, their worlds. It is the well-prepared teacher’s part to understand these diverse worlds of origin and help students expand them through a rigorous study of multiple disciplines. These expanded understandings of the world must also include awareness of the world outside oneself, and to an acknowledgement of the legitimacy, intensity, and immediacy of others’ internal experiences. This leads to a realization of the need for fairness, social equity, and compassion and to a recognition and acceptance of one’s responsibilities to others.

The Mars Hill Teacher Education Program is rooted in understandings of the relationship between rigorous inquiry, critical reflection, responsible action, and personal efficacy. We believe that education traces its power and importance from Latin origins, e ducere, to “lead from,” that is, from a limited state of awareness of our responsibilities to others. A heightened awareness of these responsibilities, gained from critical reflection leads to the recognition that equity and social justice is a central objective for teachers. This is consonant with the Mars Hill University Mission Statement which articulates a commitment to rigorous study; engagement in the world of meaningful work; and responsible citizenship, service to others, and ethical thought and action.

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