Experience Over All: Preservice Teachers and the Prizing of the 'Practical'

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Anyone who has worked with preservice teachers has occasionally felt the vehemence of their desire for more “practical” material and less (or, sometimes, no) material they deem “theory.” By “theory” they seem to mean not only theory in the classic sense but also any evidence from research, discussion of ethics or socioeconomic issues or policy, or other aspects of the context for teaching. By “practical” they seem to mean concrete activities that they can use in the classroom the next day with little or no modification or reflection. Tensions between theory and practice permeate the work of English teacher education, reaching into every area of our work all the way down to course organization and the methods texts we choose (Barrell, 1996; Smagorinsky & Whiting, 1995). “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it,” we have heard a preservice teacher remark to her classmate. These attitudes are ones we notice most as students enter our programs, most likely inherited from a wider prejudice against “over-theoretical” education programs spread via mass media reporting on education issues and at times by teachers themselves, and as students begin to engage their coursework in earnest these attitudes do soften. Yet as they approach their first field experiences, preservice teachers do seem hungry to know exactly how to teach—and if we know how, they seem to plead, why won’t we just tell them?

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