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What are the Knowledge Bases that Inform the Conceptual Framework?

             Positioned in a university with religious and cultural roots in an Anabaptist tradition, the education department acknowledges and confronts the changing and complex nature of schooling and schools. Aware that education has promise to build democracy and increase societal equity, we also recognize that systematic tendencies often allow schools to perpetuate unjust racial and class divisions. In our work with candidates and in our collaborative scholarship, we seek to address the tensions embedded in teaching and learning with an ethos of care, a commitment to justice, and a critical and sustaining hope. These commitments are anchored in religious and moral values embraced by Anabaptists for nearly 500 years and informed by educational theorists and theories including, but not limited to, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Paulo Freire, Nel Noddings, and Jerome Bruner. As we prepare teachers for a changing world, a world that is increasingly technological, multicultural, postmodern, and secular, we do so by incorporating the distinctive themes of Anabaptist faith into the ethos and pedagogy of education (Roth, 2011). We also work with a keen awareness that “teachers who re-imagine teaching as a set of critical practices disrupt the normative patterns of society and open up spaces for new voices to be heard” (Leland & Harste, 2000, p. 6).

            The ultimate goal of teacher education at EMU is to provide learning experiences through which each candidate develops a stance of inquiry leading to informed, theoretically grounded, pedagogical decision-making. Embedded in this stance, as defined by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009), is the expectation that practitioners in education “work in alliance with others to transform teaching, learning, leading, and schooling in accordance with democratic principles and social justice goals” (p. 118). It is in keeping with Anabaptist theology embodied at EMU that beliefs are synonymous with actions. The EMU teacher education program demonstrates the related conceptual understanding of teaching as praxis, a problem-posing cycle of learning, acting, and reflecting on that action, espoused by Freire (1970) and built upon by a range of theorists. Critical praxis as a model of teaching and learning is not only about theory informing practice, but also about practice informing theory (Yost, Sentner, & Forlenza-Bailey, 2000). According to Freire (1970), praxis is “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (p. 51). Thus, it is the aim of the EMU program to foster candidates who integrate theory and practice in dynamic ways for the purpose of transforming teaching and learning, schools and communities.

            This dynamic concept of transformative teaching and learning as the enactment of critical praxis is complex and multi-faceted. Nurturing candidates as they experience and develop a model of teaching and learning in this way involves richly layered strands of program coordination. The development of this stance is shaped and supported by the program’s philosophical foundations in an ethic of care, constructivism, reflective practice, and expanding literacies for the 21st century.

 An Ethic of Care

            The university’s general education framework is drawn from the biblical text Micah 6:8, which calls us “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” The teacher education program is committed to culturally responsive teaching, peacebuilding, and restorative approaches in which critical caring within just relationships is paramount. We expect our candidates to reflect a willingness to listen and attend differentially to student needs and to promote school environments where students are treated with respect and learn to treat one another with respect (Lantieri & Patti, 2002). Regardless of cultural, intellectual, or gender differences, an ethic of care respects the multiple talents and capacities of all individuals and preserves the dignity of all persons. We aim to prepare teachers who will successfully pursue an ethic of care as they build student-oriented classroom communities focused on student learning (Caldwell, 2008).

            Caring is a way of being in relationship with others (Noddings, 2005). Goldstein (2002) believes that “the ethic of care provides a way of thinking about caring that repositions the concept, transforming it from a personality trait to a deliberate and decisive act” (p. 16). Noddings (2003a) distinguishes between the concepts of caring for and caring about and describes caring for as a reciprocal, responsive, and relational transaction between the carer and the cared-for. In contrast, caring about is a response to an idea or large, distant group of people, such as caring about starving children in another country. In caring for, the teacher meets the needs of students with diverse interests and abilities (Noddings, 2003b). Gay (2000) describes this caring as “multi dimensional responsiveness” which “places teachers in ethical, emotional and academic partnerships and speaks especially to the expectations teachers have of their students” (p. 62). Katz (2007) characterizes this concept of caring for as “professional caring” in which the teacher cares for the student as a learner.

            Such caring is not simple or rhetorical; critical care requires action. It moves intentionally beyond what Duncan-Andrade (2009) identifies as “false caring” through which “the more powerful members of a the relationship define themselves as caring despite the fact that the recipients of their so-called caring do not perceive it as such” (p. 183). Many educators care about students; EMU’s teacher education program recognizes that meaningful caring requires that educators “stand firm against racism, injustice, centralized power, poverty and other gross inequities throughout society for it is these conditions that diminish the dignity and debilitate the hopes of too many young people” (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 13). Teachers who embody and enact critical caring demonstrate “high performance, expectations, advocacy, and empowerment of students” through “their use of pedagogical practices that facilitate school success” (Gay, 2000, p. 62). 

            Caring is also enacted through restorative approaches in education (Amstutz & Mullet, 2005). A restorative framework relates both to nurturing relational behaviors in school settings and to building inclusive school communities. Recognizing that the aim of the teacher is to engage each student as learner, EMU teacher education nurtures candidates in valuing school discipline that mediates wrongs and restores relationships among all participants in the learning community. Also aware that differences in culture, ethnicity, race, skill, ability and behavior create rich and vibrant learning experiences, EMU candidates are nurtured to demonstrate caring by attending to the needs of diverse learners and the contributions of each to the learning community.

            An ethic of care shapes many aspects of teacher education at EMU. It informs our program outcomes and the development of candidates’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions. For example,

  • Care about Scholarship requires that teachers understand and master the central concepts, tools of inquiry, and structures of the discipline(s) in order to engage students in meaningful learning.
  • Care about Inquiry requires critical thinking about theory and practice, ethics and values, personal reflection and conduct.
  • Care about Professional Knowledge requires that teachers reflect on their practice to improve student learning as well as to employ instructional strategies to further develop students’ critical and creative thinking skills.
  • Care about Communication requires attention to detail in written and spoken language as well as a desire to listen and understand others with appreciation for the cultural dimensions of communication. Technology and media are used to facilitate student learning.
  • Care about Leadership requires professional development and transforming approaches to education through advocacy for children and youth.

Restorative Justice in Education

Restorative Justice in Education (RJE) serves as an underlying philosophy of the teacher education program, guiding both our curriculum and our pedagogy. RJE is viewed as a holistic approach to promoting school climates characterized by relational pedagogies, trauma-informed and resilience-fostering practices, justice and equity, repair of harm, and conflict transformation. RJE is grounded in a set of values and principles that guide the implementation of practices that impact the overall school culture. Those values include respect, dignity, mutual concern, and the belief that all people are worthy of being honored and valued (Vaandering, 2011, 2014). Stemming from these values are three core components: nurturing healthy relationships, building processes that support the repair of harm and the transformation of conflict, and supporting learning environments characterized by justice and equity (Evans & Vaandering, 2016). 

The relational nature of RJE includes an “interconnection and interdependence” (Pranis, 2007) between and among all members of the learning community, including students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents and caregivers, and the local community. Healthy relationships are essential for effective learning; those relationships must be built, nurtured, and sustained by intentional practices, such as Circle processes (Boyes-Watson & Pranis, 2015), social-emotional learning, active listening, and conflict resolution and resilience-fostering practices.  Relational pedagogies have historically been a part of the educational philosophy of the teacher education program, drawing deeply on Nel Noddings’ (2005) ethic of care as a framework for nurturing a relational pedagogy. Likewise, social and emotional learning, listening to students (see, for example, Cook-Sather, 2009), and effective communication are included in RJE initiatives as a way to promote healthy relationships.

Even the healthiest of relationships can experience conflict and harm; when relationships go awry, RJE provides a way forward by providing practices, grounded in the core values, for making things right, meeting the needs of those impacted by harm, and restoring connection when possible (Evans & Lester, 2013). As such, we view conflict as potentially transformative, providing learning opportunities and raising awareness of underlying issues or unmet needs that can create or accelerate conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). For example, many of the students who commit violent acts in school or who are described as defiant have themselves been victims of trauma, cycles of violence committed against them, or other injustices. Sometimes, they have experienced school as an unsafe and unsupportive place (Evans & Lester, 2012). RJE resists punishment as a solution to any of these types of cycles and instead sees punishment as exacerbating the feelings of victimization, increasing the harm, and escalating the conflict (Noguera, 2008).  RJE stresses the ineffectiveness of punitive measures to address challenging behavior and recognizes that many behaviors are the result of escalating conflict, unmet needs, and unaddressed harm (Amstutz & Mullet, 2005).

               Within the RJE framework, people’s experiences of justice and equity impact their sense of belonging within a community and in turn, impact their capacity to show up well in the learning environment. This is true for students and educators, parents and caregivers, and anyone else connected to the learning environment. Within RJE, and for us, justice is viewed as “honoring the inherent worth of all as enacted through relationship” (Vaandering, 2011, p. 307) where issues of power and domination are addressed (hooks, 2000; Vaandering, 2010).  Equity, as opposed to equality where everyone is treated the same, can be defined as people getting what they need in order to experience well-being (Evans & Vaandering, 2016). Focusing on justice and equity in schools means that we actively respond to issues of oppression and marginalization, including those based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, and ability. Drawing on the writings of Paulo Freire (1970) and bell hooks (2000, 2003), RJE schools and classrooms work to ensure that the “vulnerable are cared for, the marginalized are included, the dignity and humanity of each person in the educational setting matters, and everyone’s needs are heard and met” (Evans & Vaandering, 2016, p. 68).


            The philosophical base for the teacher education program is further informed by the theory of constructivism. Constructivism is a ubiquitous term that represents both a theoretical position and a set of instructional principles. For example, Fosnot’s (1996) understanding of constructivism is primarily theoretical, driven by a post-structuralist understanding of psychological theory that “construes learning as an interpretive, recursive, building process by active learners interacting with the physical and social world” (p. 30). Henderson’s notion of constructivism, by contrast, represents a more pedagogical understanding, viewing constructivist instruction as “any deliberate, thoughtful, educational activity that is designed to facilitate students’ active understanding” (Henderson, as cited in Fosnot, 1996, p. 9). The constructivist approach taken by the EMU teacher education program seeks to integrate theory and practice, recognizing the importance of both practice grounded in theory and theory practically applied.

            While acknowledging various approaches to constructivist instruction, our conceptual framework is rooted in constructivist theory. Based on the foundational theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky, constructivists share the notion that learners are actively constructing their own understanding of concepts and are not mere recipients of knowledge that is passed along to them. While Piaget viewed this construction of knowledge as primarily occurring in the mind of the individual learner, Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the importance of social interaction in constructing knowledge. We value both perspectives and work to enhance the individual learning capacity of each student, while at the same time, acknowledging the sociocultural contexts of learning. This awareness of the “social, cultural, political embeddedness of teaching-learning is essential” (Gallagher, 2003, p. 132) and fosters the growth of transformative leaders, who not only engage in the realities of what exist but who also actively engage in social and cultural transformation.

            Consistent with Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning, we view students and teachers as actively participating in a community of learners where knowledge is synergistically constructed through social interaction between all members of the learning community. In that the act of teaching cannot be distinguished from the act of learning, teachers using a constructivist approach see themselves as co-learners with their students and value the assets of each member of the learning community. While a variety of instructional approaches might be used within a constructivist framework, the primary emphasis is on student questioning, active learning, creative problem solving, and collaboration. In such learning communities, teachers and students alike take responsibility for assessing and solving problems collaboratively, not through mechanistic “cook book” recipes, but by asking, “What decisions should we be making,” “On what basis do we make these decisions,” and “What can we do to enhance learning?”

Reflective Practice

            The philosophical base is also informed by the understanding that reflection is at the heart of practice (McEntee et al., 2003). Reflective practice is an “iterative process rather than a one-off event, involving repeated cycles of examining practice, adjusting practice and reflecting upon it, before trying it again” (Grushka, McLeod, & Reynolds, 2005, p. 239). The reflective process, both reflecting-in-action and reflecting-on-action (Schon, 1993), allows the teacher to create meaning around practice. The new understanding that comes from reflection acts as the starting point for adapting one’s practice (Kahn et al., 2006).  Reflective teachers are able to carefully examine and analyze their teaching with the goal of gaining new insight and understanding into their own teaching, which increases their own capacity for learning as knowledge, skills, and dispositions change, and use the new understanding to improve student learning (Costa & Garmston, 2002).

            Such reflective action and teaching, seen as a cycle of critical praxis intended to transform, requires support and development for candidates over the span of the program. Coming to see teaching, learning, and schooling from multiple perspectives and defined by competing agendas creates cognitive dissonance for many becoming teachers.  The literature suggests there is a strong tendency for candidates, despite the philosophies of their teacher education programs, to revert to the teaching styles they experienced as K-12 students (Yost et al., 2000). Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008) note that this return to familiar models reproduces what Freire (1970) calls the banking model. Through a combination of coursework, collaborative processes, individual reflection, and consistent practicum experiences throughout the program, our candidates are nurtured in critical reflection in order to see and respond to elements of schooling that often go unnoted. The EMU program demonstrates commitment to developing critical reflection through which candidates move beyond descriptive awareness of classroom events to critical reflective action. Such action includes acknowledgement of productive tensions and transformative action in teaching and learning.

            Critical reflection is the process of analyzing, reconsidering and questioning experiences within a broad context of issues related to social justice, curriculum development, learning theories, politics, and culture (York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere, & Montie, 2006). Critical reflection requires an acknowledgement that teaching can empower or oppress. With an intentional focus on critical reflection, teachers can begin to question their assumptions about power structures within the classroom, create conditions where all voices are heard and where educational processes are open to negotiation, and create connections between educational outcomes and students’ values and experiences (Brookfield, 1995).  It is through the application of critical reflection that caring teachers will have the courage and competences to become effective agents for just learning communities (York-Barr et al., 2006). 

 Expanding Literacies for the 21st Century

            We recognize that the teaching and learning of literacies for the 21st century is more complex and socio-culturally influenced than mastering a set of isolated and politically neutral language skills. Our program’s concern for literacies is informed by works such as Heath’s (1983) Ways With Words and the view that literacy, traditionally defined as reading and writing, is one aspect of an ethnographic understanding of communication. We also note the significant expansion of what counts as student literacy in and out of school settings as noted within New Literacy Studies (Gee, 1996; Street, 2001). Additionally, we share a growing concern for critical literacy and a commitment to literacy instruction that invites students to “read the world” (Freire, 1970).  This rich foundation informs our attention to 21st century literacies including:  technological proficiency with attention to equity, teaching within and across current educational tensions, and collaborative and ethical communications.

            One aspect of technological proficiency in 21st century teaching is the functional use of a variety of technology tools (e.g. Smartboards, iPads, digital cameras, digital storytelling, blogging, online communities). Literacy skills for teaching and learning in the 21st century, however, are not limited to technological skills. Grabill and Hicks (2005) note, for example, that “writing instruction must equip students with the tools, skills, and strategies not just to produce traditional texts using computer technology, but also to produce documents appropriate to the global and dispersed reach of the web” (p. 305).  Teaching and learning with powerful tools of technology are essential for our candidates but only in relation to the ways that evolving technological literacies are used to expand the production, analysis, and evaluation of texts.

            Teaching also requires more subtle 21st century literacy skills. Effective and dynamic teaching requires that teachers enact what Hines & Johnson (2007) call “Systems Literacies” and “Strategic Literacies.” The fluidity of the educational landscape requires that we prepare flexible, reflective, and critical educators who understand and enact hybridized approaches to teaching and learning in response to mixed messages. Such teachers recognize that school systems favor and disfavor theoretical approaches over time and position teachers and students within current dominant views. Shifts in the educational terrain are evidenced in overt political policies, in subtle sociocultural expectations, and in the rapidly evolving literacies of technology and media.  With awareness of systems literacies and strategic literacies, we support candidates toward the goal of enacting teaching that simultaneously aims for theoretical ideals and attends to current (and shifting) realities.

            In addition to technological proficiency and systems literacies, teaching and learning with 21st century literacy skills require collaborative and ethical community involvement. Our candidates will teach in educational climates that are changing. As Roth (2011) describes, "The context of our work is constantly changing, which requires communities to adapt and change in response. This means that healthy communities will always need to balance the inevitable diversity of individual difference and the constant reality of change with a deeper sense of coherence and a shared commitment to a larger whole" (p. 105). Understanding teaching as praxis involves posing and solving problems within communities and across cultural differences in a changing world. As candidates reflectively attend to deeply held and shared values, they must also be responsive to group dynamics in classrooms and in collegial groups. Such skills are not new to the demands of teaching, yet the dynamic nature of change, global community, and sustainability in the current era of education increase the value of a diverse range of teaching and learning literacies.  EMU’s candidates are teachers and learners who will employ a wide range of 21st century literacies to meet and adapt to a changing world.                                      

Approved by COTE May 8, 2012

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