Journal article

The Teacher'S ((Practical Knowledge)): Report of a Case Study

Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 11, issue 1 (1981) pp. 43-71

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Study FREEMA ELBAZ St. Laurent, Quebec As a teacher and as a curriculum worker, I have been disturbed by the inadequacy of the existing conceptualization of the role of the teacher within the field of curriculum. The prevailing view of the teacher as a passive transmitter of knowledge does not accord with my own experience, in teaching and in work with teachers, of what the teaching act requires. But a view of the teacher as playing a role in the implementation of new curricula, adapting and changing the materials which come his or her way, may also be inadequate insofar as it rests on similar assumptions about the teacher's ability to initiate and shape actively the classroom situation. In an effort to conceptualize more adequately the role of the teacher, I propose a view of the teacher as holding and using "practical knowledge." This view was elaborated and explored in a case study (Elbaz 1980) consisting of a series of open-ended discussions with one teacher, an experienced high school English teacher. These discussions, tape-recorded and transcribed, provided data in terms of which the conception of practical knowledge was elaborated, as well as illustration and insight into how practical knowledge is held. In beginning the study, I sought to explain the hold which the negative, passive view of the teacher has on educational thought by looking first at the way curriculum development is conceived. When the curriculum development process is seen as a linear progression, with ends kept separate from means, one result is a radical distinction between theory and practice, with the consequent problems of how to "apply" theory to practice. It is apparent that teachers are ultimately the people whose task it is to translate theoretical notions into practice and that classroom events are the "embodiment of the curriculum" (Westbury 1977). But there is an unwillingness to view the work done by teachers as the complex activity that it is. This is reflected in persistent research efforts to reduce the manifold realities of the classroom to two or three simple factors or to positions along a single dimension. A simplistic view of the process by which curricular prescriptions come to be embodied in classroom practice, however, has one advantage of sorts for developers. If the teacher's task can ? 1981 by The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. FREEMA ELBAZ/CI be presented as a straightforward one, then difficulties in implementation can be attributed to the teacher's personal failings. Thus, paradoxically, the active role of the teacher in the creation of new instructional arrangements is denied, but the teacher is credited with a generous share of the responsibility for failure. It would appear that curriculum specialists and developers suffer from a blind spot: they refuse to perceive that which is not in their power to control-the work of teachers. One major view of the curriculum process which does allow for a serious contribution by the teacher is Schwab's (1970, 1971, 1973) conception of curriculum as practical, which does away with the artificial divorce of ends and means and focuses on decision making or deliberation. Working within this conception, Connelly's (1972) notion of the teacher as "user-developer" acknowledges the autonomous decision-making function of the teacher in adopting, adapting, and developing materials appropriate to his or her situation.' This conception of curriculum development makes possible, and legitimates, both a different style of curriculum work and a different form of curriculum research. Studies such as those by Hamilton and by Shaw, in a volume of case studies edited by Reid and Walker (1975) effectively demonstrate that the locus of the teacher within the curriculum development process is one of great intricacy, calling forth from him a complex type of action and decision making which is simply ignored by curriculum studies focused solely on intended outcomes. Indirect support for the view of the teacher as a central and autonomous figure within a deliberative, practical curriculum context is provided by much of recent writing in the curriculum field. Dissatisfaction with the linear view of curriculum is evidenced by the entire debate concerning the use of behavioral objectives, most obviously in the arguments of opponents of behaviorally formulated objectives (e.g., Atkin 1970) but also in the writing of proponents who are, in essence, responding to the widespread failure of curriculum research carried out within the linear framework to reveal significant differences between one curricular treatment and another. (For documentation of this phenomenon, see Kliebard 1973; Walker and Schaffarzick 1974). It is apparent that issues of value are at the heart of the dilemma (Stake 1970; Macdonald and Clark 1973) and that in many cases it is the behaviorist idiom, which restricts the formulation of such issues, that cripples much educational thought on curriculum and evaluation (Strike 1974; Daniels 1975). The pervasiveness of this idiom and the technological perspective on which it rests, however, makes it difficult to carry on a meaningful discussion of curicular issues without either assuming the perspective one is trying to alter or reducing discussion to talk of important but inevitably fuzzy notions such as "dialogue," "encounter," and "ethical reality," which are limited in their potential to account for the complexity of curricular processes and activities. The latter point is illustrated by much writing in the existential, humanist, and even phenomenological currents (see, for example, Huebner 1965; Mann 1968-69; Van Manen 1980). The ethical thrust of such work, however, provides an important complement to an exclusively pragmatic view of curriculum and of the teacher's task, underlining the importance of the individual teacher's effort to disclose meanings that are not merely in 44

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  • Freema Elbaz

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