Building Blocks Alignment
Programs carefully design the trajectory of preparation to create a coherent experience for every teacher-candidate they prepare.
One of the bedrock principles of cognitive science is that we learn new ideas by referencing ideas we already know. For more on this learning principle, see Question #1 in The Science of Learning. Expert classroom teachers know this — either implicitly or explicitly — and therefore strive to design learning activities in a structured, sequential way that builds student knowledge, skill, and understanding over time.
Expert teachers, in other words, spend a great deal of time thinking about how to align instructional activities with learning goals.
This learning principle applies to teacher preparation as much as it does to K-12 classroom instruction. In order for a teacher-candidate to learn how to teach effectively, the experiences of that candidate — both in their coursework and in the field — should be aligned toward agreed-upon goals. Programs that prepare teachers should thoughtfully design the trajectory of the preparation process to build teacher-candidate knowledge, skill, and understanding over time, aligning theory to practice and creating a coherent experience for every candidate they prepare.
Here is a hard truth. In visiting 18 institutions that prepare teachers, we rarely saw programs do alignment particularly well. Over and over again, we observed teacher-candidates having experiences of uneven quality — even within the same program and credential subject. All too often, we heard teacher-candidates describe receiving contradictory guidance from their professors or their mentor teachers, and failing to see how their coursework was relevant to their practice.
In short, we saw misalignment all over the place.
But not everywhere. In a few programs, we observed strong “vertical” alignment: coursework was thoughtfully and sequentially structured, and woven together with practice-based experiences. We also saw programs with strong “horizontal” alignment: across the program, all those involved in preparing new teachers shared a common vision, set of expectations, and attention to instructional quality.
And one program in particular exemplified both types of alignment: Relay Graduate School of Education.
Relay is a unique program. Although it is now a fully accredited graduate school, it is relatively new, having launched in 2007 as Teacher U.
Importantly, because Relay was essentially designed from scratch — a rarity in the field of teacher education — the leaders of the program made intentional decisions about how to align faculty, coursework, curriculum, and experiences for practice. One specific way alignment at Relay is manifested is through a structure called Preview.
Preview is a form of rehearsal where Relay faculty members collaborate together and simulate the teaching of a graduate class session together. One faculty member models the class for the other faculty, and then they collectively discuss what aspects must be maintained to ensure all teacher-candidates receive a coherent experience — and what aspects faculty should tailor individually. Learn more about how Preview is structured in this template deck.
Preview thus creates an opportunity for Relay faculty to collectively discuss the design of candidate learning experiences, in a manner akin to lesson study. Faculty relish this.
“What’s beneficial is that we can see what the key ideas in a particular class are, we can anticipate what the misconceptions are, we can align on what our responses are going to be when those pop up,” Madhu Narayanan, an assistant professor of practice, told us. “We can still put our unique spin on the class, but with the same core premise.”
Patrick Comstock, who joined Relay’s faculty in 2013 after teaching at two other higher-education institutions, said the level of feedback he and other professors receive at Relay is “unparalleled.” During every third or fourth class that he teaches, another professor is sitting in the back of the room, taking notes and giving him feedback afterwards. Click here to see Relay's Faculty Feedback rubric. And for more on the role of feedback in developing expertise, see pages 10-11 in Practice with Purpose.
“The fact that Relay faculty members are so collaborative, and that so much of the work we do is in a team, helps strengthen the mission and the impact that we have on [our] students,” Comstock said. He then contrasted this with his previous positions in institutions of higher education. “Often you’re pretty much on your own. It can be kind of a lonely experience.”
This alignment also helps candidates who attend Relay know where they are headed. Raven Suttles, a Relay graduate now working as an academic dean of an elementary school in New York City, described how the program’s alignment helped her connect the dots in her practice.
“At the start of any coursework that we took with Relay, professors were always very transparent about what we’ve learned so far and how it connects to what we’re currently learning,” she said. “It made it a lot easier for me to make the connections between all the different isolated practices that we had learned throughout the year, why they were all so connected, and why connecting them in that way made it so effective in teaching.”
Christie Clark, another assistant professor at Relay, underscored the value of coherency that activities such as Preview provide. “I want to know that the experience students are going to get with my colleagues is similar or the same — same skills, same messages, same content. I trust my colleagues to do that because of structures like Preview,” Clark said.
We also observed that these structured rehearsals helped Relay faculty identify unexpected issues, and align around possible solutions. For example, during one Preview, Clark and her fellow faculty analyzed hypothetical K-12 student reading-growth data and found some (hypothetically) unusual results. This generated a rich conversation about needing to not accept data blindly and to help graduate students investigate anomalous results should they find them in their real classrooms.
The tight alignment embedded in Relay’s design is manifested in other ways as well.
For example, a mounting body of research confirms that a well-sequenced curriculum is important to ensure learners have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas. Relay takes this seriously. The Relay curriculum was developed by a team of faculty and curriculum designers, and is now used by faculty at all 15 of its campuses. Relay’s candidates take the same courses, with the same syllabi and teaching materials, in the same sequence. While faculty adapt these materials to leverage their individual expertise and support the context-based needs of their candidates, a Relay diploma represents a graduate’s mastery of a common set of knowledge and skills, regardless of which professors they had and which campus they attended.
The shared, unified curriculum allows Relay’s faculty and curriculum designers to be strategic about how and when concepts are introduced and reinforced. But the fact that Relay has shared curriculum does not mean professors are working from identical scripts. Instead, the alignment across Relay creates a shared “mental model” between faculty and candidates about what effective teaching entails. See pages 12-13 in Practice with Purpose for more on mental models. This allows both faculty and candidates to monitor progress using well-understood expectations.
To our eyes, Relay’s approach threads the needle between consistency and creativity — indeed, the consistency in many ways provides the foundation that allows creativity to flourish, both for faculty and candidates.
Many of the programs we visited are still working to achieve this balance.
For example, we visited one program that, like Relay, has centralized the creation of course syllabi and materials in order to ensure consistency across multiple sections. But this laudable effort around curricular alignment was not coupled with shared investment across the faculty. Perhaps as a result, teacher-candidates at this other program told us that their professors did not seem to truly own the material they were teaching.
“I have a feeling that the program is designed by several professors,” one teacher-candidate said. “You can tell the ones that are invested in the program and those that are there to just follow the curriculum.”
Academic silos are another problem. On numerous visits to other programs, we observed faculty who were unaware of what happened outside of their own classrooms and didn’t know how their course material connected to other aspects of teacher-candidates’ experiences. To pick just one example, we saw a professor who had to ask the candidates in her class whether they already had taken a course on differentiation. (They hadn’t.)
Another professor at that same program said he suspected the same principles of learning were being taught to candidates in different ways, using different terms, across the program. “We need to explain to students, ‘You learned this thing in this other class, but it was called X.’ But to do that, I need to know what they learned and what it was called,” this professor told us.
This disconnect manifests itself in very real ways for teacher-candidates. At that same program, we observed a teacher-candidate suddenly learn the meaning of the term “5Es” — engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate — when, two years into her program, a professor used both the term and its definition in the same sentence.
“I’ve been writing lesson plans for two years, and I just learned that’s what the five E’s are,” said the teacher-candidate. She then turned to her classmate to ask, “Did you know what the 5Es were?”
“I just learned in my science class,” the second teacher-candidate responded.
We know some critics may be inclined to dismiss lessons gleaned from Relay, either because of its unique origin or for other philosophical reasons. Relay’s approach is indeed different than most. And starting something new is different from redesigning and changing something that exists already. (The latter is harder!)
But we believe leaders within the field of teacher preparation can learn from the intentionality of Relay’s design, and think about how to develop similar alignment within their own programs, while also respecting the unique contexts in which this work takes place.
We know it can be done. We know because we’ve seen it being done, including within so-called “traditional” teacher-preparation programs. Consider:
- The University of Southern California’s “on ground” MAT program recently undertook a substantial redesign to emphasize tighter alignment between courses and clinical work.
- Lesley University has adopted a “Unified Assessment System” that serves to create greater alignment by capturing data from key assignments in Lesley’s courses and other data points, such as teacher-candidates’ grades or licensure exam scores. The aggregated data allows faculty to monitor the effectiveness of programs and the learning outcomes of candidates.
- The University of Nevada-Reno embeds K-12 curricular resources used by Washoe County Public Schools, the largest local district, in its courses, creating coherence for candidates and aligning expectations with the school district that hires the majority of its graduates.
- A small but gratifying moment took place at the University of Virginia when we saw Jennifer Pease, a masterful teacher-educator, write out all the different terms used within the program (and in local schools) to describe “UKD” goals (Understand, Know, Do). A simple thing, but important in helping teacher-candidates understand what is being asked of them.
Leaders within teacher preparation who want to improve alignment in their programs might begin the change process by asking the following questions:
- Are the program’s courses and experiences strategically sequenced to build candidate mastery of specific high-priority practices?
- Do all teacher-educators — including program faculty, fieldwork supervisors, and mentor teachers — understand the trajectory of a candidate’s learning and their role in that trajectory?
- What structures are in place to ensure consistency (in pedagogical quality, language, expectations) across teacher-educators?
- Do all teacher-educators — including program faculty, fieldwork supervisors, and mentor teachers — have information on each candidate’s development throughout the program?
- Learn more about opportunities for program teams to apply the Building Blocks framework to improve teacher-candidate learning.