Childhood learning is full of easy-to-remember directions. Recall
such advice as "Stop, look, and listen" before you cross the
street and "Stop, drop, and roll" if your clot\hes catch on
fire. These sayings are clear and concise with specific instruction
about what to do in a critical situation. As a teacher educator who has
been in the field for over 40 years, I find myself wishing for something
equally simple to remember (without minimizing the complex nature of
teaching and learning) that could guide my students toward becoming more
To assist my students through their experiences, I emphasize such
helpful tips as "children learn by doing." However, some
concepts are easier to say than to put into practice. What should
children be doing? How should they be doing it? Who should be doing it?
And, why are we allowing them to do it?
In addition, while the enthusiasm of my students is contagious and
refreshing, they also naturally experience high anxiety as they plan for
curriculum and instruction. Part of their challenge is to confidently
develop a knowledge base of best practices and learn why these practices
are critical in effective teaching and learning. My challenge, as the
instructor, is to assist them in cultivating the latter. To that end,
the point here is to provide emerging and seasoned educators with three
easy-to-remember keys to thoughtful teaching: epistemology,
phenomenology, and reflection.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy dealing with the origins of
knowledge. It is a key concept, because it gives us an understanding of
what knowledge is, where it comes from, and how it is organized. Jean
Piaget is the name that usually comes to mind when we try to make sense
out of how children think and learn (Ormrod, 2012). To be sure,
Piaget's theory of learning, dating from the 1920s, continues to be
a part of our training for teacher candidates. Ormrod lists seven
principles and concepts that are key to Piaget's theory:
* Children are active and motivated learners.
* Children organize what they learn from their experiences.
* Interaction with the physical environment is critical for
learning and cognitive development.
* Interaction with other people is equally critical for learning
* Children adapt to their environment through the processes of
assimilation and accommodation.
* The process of equilibration promotes progression toward
increasingly complex forms of thought.
* Children think in qualitatively different ways at different age
Phenomenology is a philosophical construct that examines structures
and experience (e.g., first-person point of view and relevant
conditions; the intention of an experience; and conscious experiences)
(Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, n.d.). Classical phenomenologists
describe an experience, interpret it, and analyze it (Landreman,
Rasmussen, King, & Jiang, 2007). The underpinning factor is an
awareness of the experience as it is occurring. This ability to
acknowledge and value the experiences of self and others represents a
second key to successful teaching.
When we teach, we naturally incorporate our experiences and
emotions. In other words, we each bring to the teaching experience
different filters that influence how we interpret and process classroom
happenings. Thus, it is obviously important to continuously recognize
and even deconstruct each of these happenings. However, recognizing and
valuing our phenomenological experience as teachers is only half of the
equation; the other part, equally important, is that of the
phenomenological world and experiences of each of our students.
To illustrate the point, I recall a well-received piece I wrote
over a decade ago titled Purple Suede Shoes (Fite, 1999). I believe the
article was popular because it described my grassroots experience as a
new teacher. In it, I tell of an "ah-ha" moment when I learned
that the children I was teaching were "seeing" and
"experiencing" lessons differently than I had believed. The
gist of the story discusses a young teacher who is more concerned about
her appearance and storytelling than about focusing on her lesson and
understanding how her kindergartners viewed the experience. What she
thought they were seeing and learning was different from what they were
actually seeing and hearing. Recognizing and respecting the phenomenal
world and experience of self and others is a huge part of successful
Over the years, I have come to deeply respect the power of
reflective practice. It "requires a deliberate slowing down to
consider multiple perspectives" and requires "an open
perspective" (Merriam & Caffarella, pp. 172-173). As mentioned
earlier, we often tell our teacher candidates that children learn by
doing. "Doing" should probably be spelled "Dewing"
because of the importance placed on meaning-making by John Dewey.
Dewey's thoughts have filtered into my reading, as have
Piaget's (e.g., "children act as 'little
scientists,' trying to make sense of their world") (cited in
Meece & Daniels, 2008, p. 129). In the end, this "Dewing"
should necessarily be conducted in such a way that incorporates what
Kirylo (2006) describes as the dialectical interweaving of reflection
and engagement in a developmentally appropriate practice. In other
words, our practice informs our reflection and our reflection informs
our practice, which, in a sense, reflects Kolb's
reflection-on-action and Schon's writing on reflection-in-action
practice, necessarily impacting the continuous reshaping of our practice
(Merriam & Caffarella, 2007).
An Example: Putting It Together
In a particular language development class I teach, we cover
class-related content as well as plan and execute lessons in the field
that foster language development. Through the text, lecture, and
dialogue, we intensely work to understand the language development of
young children and later compare what we learned relative to what we see
happening as we work with children in an actual classroom setting.
Moreover, I take a variety of photographs of my teacher candidates as
they interact with the children. Later, when we meet at the university
classroom setting, we carefully examine the various photographs and
discuss what it means to be reflective practitioners. We metaphorically
step back, taking both a macro and micro view of their experience,
exploring how the teacher candidates acted and reacted within the
classroom environment. The realization of what is prompting or
inhibiting behavior, both theirs and the children's, is usually
immediate, or, as the teacher candidates have shared, "in your
face" because of its clarity. Looking "in" and
"back" on their teaching experience allows them a unique
opportunity to critically reflect and discuss the multiple classroom
happenings. Seeing themselves in a teaching environment, as others see
them, clearly helps my students connect their readings, lecture,
planning, and instruction.
In the end, epistemology, phenomenology, and reflection are key
conceptual filters that guided the above process, which, in essence, can
be characterized as the "stop, look, listen" keys in our
pursuit to become effective educators.
Fite, K. (December 1999). Purple suede shoes: "Seeing" a
story as children do. Early Childhood News, p. 54.
Kirylo, J. (2006). Working with a diverse student population: The
mission is not to save, but to reflectively teach. NCPEA Connexions.
Retrieved October 23, 2006, from http://cnx.org/content/m 14073/latest/
Landreman, L., Rasmussen, C., King, P., & Jiang, C. (2007). A
phenomenological study of the development of university educators'
critical consciousness. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3),
Meece, J., & Daniels, D. (2008). Child & adolescent
development for educators (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Merriam, S., & Caffarella, R. (2007). Learning in adulthood
(3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ormrod, J. (2012). Human learning (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Stanford dictionary of philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7,
2011, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ phenomenology/#1
Kathleen Fite is Professor of Education, Texas State University
San, Marcos, Texas.