In the late '60s, Postman and Weingartner produced a wonderful little book entitled (appropriately for the times) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Their major thesis was that schools needed to take on a new mission - educating students to become expert inquirers. And one of the major obstacles to that mission was the pursuit of "teacher-proof' programs and methodologies. More recently, both Diekelmann and Bevis in their writing8 have noted that nursing has had its own version of teacher-proofing practices, from curricula that are detailed to the level of daily objectives to the delineation of content that must be covered. Like Bevis and Diekelmann, I think there continues to be a deeply-embedded assumption that there is a basic good in specifying educational practices to the degree that any teacher can follow the specification; this assumption shows up in our everyday lives as teachers and researchers.
Recently, one of my colleagues whom I consider to be an expert teacher was asked, a week before the quarter began, to assume responsibility for teaching one of the undergraduate theory courses. The chair assured her that the syllabus was done, the books were in the bookstore, and that there should be no problem. She agreed, picked up the lengthy syllabus, and went home to begin to prepare herself for the class. She told me, "As soon as I opened the syllabus, I knew I couldn't do it. Everything was perfectly laid out - all the objectives, reading assignments, study guide questions - but it's not what I thought was important about this course, and it certainly wasn't the way I'd approach it. Of course it worked for [the other teacher], the students thought she was great, but I knew it wouldn't work for me." Here we see the assumption that what is important about the course is what can be formalized in the syllabus, and consequently any teacher can pick it up and teach it.
Wien I first started teaching, nearly 20 years ago now, I saw myself as a kind of conveyor belt, obligated to pass on to my students what I had learned from my teachers and nurse mentors. I was well-versed in the strategies for teaching nursing, having learned how to reinforce, induce sets, vary the stimuli, question, and organize my lecture so that I could, in Freire's words, "deposit" all this wealth of information into what I hoped were receptive banks of the students. I required and read care plans ad infini tum; points were deducted for failure to state patient-centered objectives, or to include timing and frequency in the nursing orders. As a beginner, I needed to be the master of content, and have a collection of well-defined strategies or rules to use in my practice as teacher. For years, I continued the pursuit of the ideal teaching methods, believing that the combination of content mastery and a collection of teaching strategies suitable for the content would result in excellent teaching.
Then, I got myself into a seminar with a group of assertive doctoral students who found some of the reading I required very provocative, and wanted to do more of it, even though it wasn't the direction I intended to go in the seminar. They were insistent and I gave in. Together, we decided on readings, read and interpreted them together, and I found myself certainly no longer master of the content, but rather learning with the students. There was something about that open-endedness with the students, my own excitement about new insights - gained right there in class, not in the privacy of my office while I was preparing for class - that created a way of communicating unlike any I experienced before. Such teaching cannot be spelled out as a context-free strategy, since it must be attuned to what the students need and want to know.
Now, I wouldn't advocate teachers teaching subjects that they know little about, so that they can learn with their students. That's not the point. What's interesting to me was how hard-wrought this transformation was for me and how hard it was for my colleague taking over the course at the last minute to argue effectively for dumping a syllabus that wouldn't work for her. The assumption of the good of teacher-proofing is everywhere. Course approval in many programs rests on clearly delineated objectives and carefully specified teaching methods, rather than on the skill of the teacher to teach the course.
Teacher evaluations ask students to rate teachers on such practices as clearly specified objectives, good use of audiovisuals, good management of day-to-day details on an equal par with developing independent thinking, asking thought-provoking questions, and the like. The physical set-up of many classrooms continues to favor lecture as a predominant method. I think it is very hard for a teacher to break out of this mold and try new things; and without the possibility of experimenting with different teaching styles and ways of interacting with students, there is little hope for improvement in teaching. If we assume that there is a "right" strategy, and we assume that the best practice is a planned practice, rather than one that comes up spontaneously as the situation demands, then it's very difficult to try something new, or if we do, to ever talk about it with our colleagues.
The effects of the teacher-proofing assumptions also show up in the ways in which we approach our research. Now, I think that research on teaching strategies is important - not because I think we'll ever find the ubiquitous perfect strategy, but because it opens up possibilities for what teachers might do in their classrooms and clinical areas. But, many times this research fails to account for who the teachers are, and possible teacher effects if considered at all, are taken out by random assignment of teaching approach to the teacher.
At the very least, we need to be alert for assumptions of teacher-proofing and its effects on our practices. Beginning teachers do need guidelines, both in terms of what is to go on in a course, and in terms of possible ways to teach it. But, what is helpful to the beginner can become enslaving for the more experienced teacher. Examination of these culturally embedded assumptions and how they show up in our practices can be liberating.