A frequent allegation against efforts to inculcate “dispositions” in student-teachers is that they are fuzzy and un-quantifiable. Especially in a high-accountability climate, the rise of “disposition” outcomes is particularly hard to sustain.
Here’s a study in The New Educator that answers the objection. Authored by educators at Boston College, it appears under the title “Learning to Teach for Social Justice: Measuring Change in the Beliefs of Teacher Candidates.” The breakthrough in the article is a questionnaire designed to be administered to students upon entering a teacher-training program, leaving the program, and one year past the program (after the respondents have spent a year in a classroom of their own). The results, say the authors, allow people drafting ed school curricula to determine how effective they are in planting social justice attitudes in their students.
Here are some of the questions, to which respondents answer on a range of “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.”
“An important part of learning to be a teacher is examining one’s own attitudes and beliefs about race, class, gender, disabilities, and sexual orientation.”
“For the most part, covering multicultural topics is only relevant to certain subject areas, such as social studies and literature.”
“Part of the responsibilities of the teacher is to challenge school arrangements that maintain societal inequities.”
“Although teachers have to appreciate diversity, it’s not their job to change society.”
Does anybody doubt where the researchers stand on where they prefer respondents to lie upon the scale of responses for each question?
In their conclusion, the authors accurately mention another objection to social justice dispositions, that is, the ideological one:
“When it is suggested that learning to teach for social justice is not an appropriate outcome or goal of teacher preparation at public institutions, the underlying assumption is that this is inappropriate because it has to do with values, beliefs, and ideals, which are assumed not to be the proper purview of teacher education.”
Fair enough, but look at the following sentence:
“The concomitant assumption is that teacher education ought to be neutral and apolitical when it comes to values and beliefs.”
There you have in miniature the whole problem with “dispositions” pedagogy. That is: it justifies its assertion of social justice “values and beliefs” by creating a straw man opponent who assumes that teacher training out to be altogether void of values and beliefs. But who believes that? What critic of ed school training believes that any teacher, or any human being for that matter, can be entirely neutral?
Rather, what critics of disposition thinking say is that while it is fitting and proper to introduce teacher-aspirants to ideas about social justice, social and economic inequities, racial and other demographic variables, and related themes, teacher training should allow fledgling teachers some room to make up their own minds about where they come down. Surely there should be no demand for a particular answer to the last question listed above (the job of teachers to change society). Excellent teachers might answer it across the full range of values and beliefs.
Not for these authors, however, for in the very next sentence, we read that “as we have suggested elsewhere (Cochran-Smith et al., 2008), the idea behind social justice as a teacher education outcome is that teaching is a profession with certain inalienable purposes, among them challenging the inequities in access and opportunity that curtail the opportunities of some individuals and groups to obtain a high-quality education.”
If teaching is a “profession,” then people have to be accredited in order to profess it. And if it has “inalienable purposes,” then one must embrace those purposes in order to be accredited. In other words, if you don’t challenge “inequities,” then you don’t belong. In sum, the authors say, “learning to teach for social justice is integral to the very idea of learning to teach.”