The “apprenticeship of observation,” introduced by Dan Lortie (1975) provides a lens through which we can consider why preservice teachers (and the general public) may feel they know all they need to know about teaching and learning. They went to school, kindergarten through 12th grade, at least, and have had numerous teachers across their educational experience. As a result, they may enter into a teacher preparation program with the belief that they know what teachers do, why teachers do what they do, and how they, as teachers themselves, will do it better.
High quality teacher preparation programs typically prepare candidates through a mix of theory, evidence-based and best practices, and field experiences. Teacher educators and preservice teachers often struggle with the disconnect between the preparation program’s teachings and the practices and strategies preservice teachers experience in their field placements. This is when we must also tackle “unteaching” of misunderstood or misinformed educational practices and “unlearning” of the things we think we know about what it means to be a teacher.
Unteaching requires us to acknowledge some of the commonly-held beliefs and practices prevalent in schools and classrooms; as well as to challenge those practices that are problematic with evidence and applicable strategies. For example, in early childhood teacher preparation, we are charged with unteaching shaming and punitive behavior management systems such as clip charts because these systems persist in practice. Simultaneously, we teach the evidence about social emotional development, community building, and trauma-informed care, which are all in direct conflict with systems like clip charts. Both are critical to future teachers’ ability to eschew traditional systems and instead implement best practices in meeting the needs of their learners, teaching the behaviors they want to see, and honoring the individual and unique needs of each child.
Unteaching is hard work but unlearning is even more challenging. The “apprenticeship of observation” is so powerful. Unlearning is the act of letting go of ideas, beliefs, and practices we believed to be true, effective, and valuable. When presented with more compelling evidence for an alternative approach, we unlearn the previously held belief and replace it with a new belief. Years of watching disruptive kids be removed from class, conforming to threats of punitive consequences (e.g., your grade drops one letter grade for late submission), and expecting school success to be measured by compliance with rules, many future teachers struggle to adopt more equitable, intentional strategies focused more on teaching than on punishment. As I have become more intentional in implementing unteaching pedagogy in my courses and interactions with preservice as well as inservice teachers, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges we face in creating inclusive, accepting, responsive learning environments for learners and teachers.
In an attempt to “bridge the gap” (is this the most overused phrase in education?), I, along with my colleague and friend at James Madison University, Dr. Mira Williams, started a website with an intentional social media presence in an effort to make our own unteaching pedagogy and unlearning practice visible to other teacher educators, teachers, and learners.
Social Media As A Tool
We started by building a Facebook page for sharing blog posts and resources with a growing community of teachers. However, on advice from a trusted marketing expert/friend, we branched into Instagram. Do you know that there are thousands of teachers on Instagram who post about their lessons, their resources, their struggles, their wins, their processes, their thinking, and their outfits of the day? Neither did we. The hashtag teachersofinstagram has over 3.7 million posts as of today and the Instagram teacher leaders boast upwards of 40,000 followers. Where are teachers going to share resources, ask for support, get new ideas? Instagram.
Our site, @teachingisintellectual, attempts to provide bite size best practices to our small but growing community of followers. We use apps such as Word Swag and PicLab to create visuals in order to communicate an idea or to pique interest for a click over to the blog. We engage with the growing number of teachers we follow as well in order to contribute to the community and build relationships. We have learned so much about what teachers want support with, where they look for solutions, and how they challenge each other on matters of unteaching and unlearning simply by following, participating, and listening.
The culture of education dominating teaching Instagram is in many ways different than what those of us who no longer teach in PK-12 environments may believe. The #teachersofinstagram have taught us innovative classroom practices. For example, just this weekend, a third-grade teacher we follow on Instagram posted an anchor chart she made with her students about consent. The post has since gone viral and national news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC ran stories about her post. Popular education Twitter accounts have tweeted about it with many prominent voices in education boosting its’ reach. Teachers are using their social media presence to get the word out about their work. They are telling their own stories. We are simply listening. We then use our resources as partners to respond in ways that are useful and supportive of the unteaching and unlearning of flawed practices with a focus on replacing them with better strategies.
We aim to grow our reach in order to use our platform to inform our research but also to provide a hungry, deeply committed community of educators with the resources they are seeking to unlearn ineffective practices. Additionally, providing preservice teachers access to teacher leaders on social media who are making their innovative, creative work visible, shows what is possible. The #teachersofinstagram are modeling best practices in real time with real students in real classrooms. We believe partnering with these teachers and learning from them could be a critical 21st century step in bridging the much-talked-about research to practice gap.
Jen Newton is an assistant professor at OHIO University. Dr. Newton’s research interests include strengths-based approaches to families, early childhood inclusion, and inclusive teacher preparation. She regularly presents locally, regionally, and nationally on a range of inclusive educational topics.
She served as an early interventionist and an inclusive prekindergarten teacher prior to pursuing doctoral studies. Dr. Newton earned her doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas and spent four years as an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., then three years at Saint Louis University before finding her home at Ohio University. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @teachingisintellectual and her website www.teachingisintellectual.com