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The imprint of progress

One of the more controversial things we say at Deans for Impact is that transforming teacher preparation is a generational project, and that working here requires taking the long view. While some hope to find quick-fix solutions to the problems that vex our education system, we know that progress will come in fits and starts, and that it will take decades to reshape how teachers are prepared to teach.

And yet, progress will come. We are seeing it more and more every day.

Take Dara Kinkopf. She’s an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who is one semester away from graduating and becoming (she hopes) a middle-school science teacher. As part of her teacher preparation, she’s completing fieldwork in the classroom of a mentor teacher.

About a month ago, Kinkopf was planning to teach a lesson to eighth graders on fossils. While she wanted to develop a lesson that would introduce her students to the various ways in which fossils are formed, using different stations, her mentor teacher had a different idea: Make some Plaster of Paris and have students press objects into them.

“I thought to myself, hmm, does that really meet the standards?” she said later. “Because there are five different fossil types and this would only be them doing one type or maybe two of them, mold and cast fossils, where they were just imprinting shells into the plaster. I asked her, ‘How long does this take? Will I have time to do other things?’ She said, ‘Well, not really.’”

Kinkopf questioned this task because she’d seen a version of it before. At Deans for Impact, we lovingly refer to them as “Grecian Urns,” tasks that students may find fun but that do not prompt effortful thinking – such as making a paper mache urn as part of a unit on Greek history (as Jennifer Gonzalez first described on the Cult of Pedagogy blog). Through our work with UNC-Charlotte, we help teacher-educators work with future teachers to identify “Grecian urns” and try to reduce (or even eliminate) them from their teaching.

And that is exactly what Kinkopf did. Rather than having eighth graders kneading plaster for an entire period, she developed a lesson that introduced them to the five different types of fossils identified in the standards. What’s more, despite being a novice who’s not yet even licensed, she had a strong enough mental model for her teaching that she was unafraid to push back on her mentor teacher, a 12-year classroom veteran.

“I think that definitely going into teaching, I was like, I’m going to do so many fun, cute activities in school, but I didn’t really think about how they would align to what the students needed to learn,” she said. “Then as I learned about standards and learning science…it definitely changed the way that I thought about everything. Literally, this whole fossil scenario probably happens to me every week now during my observations.

“There was a specific learning science model we looked at [as part of my teacher preparation] and it talked about how students encode things into their memory, and how you have to first elicit previous things that they’ve learned. I’ve noticed in my teacher’s class students don’t really make those deep connections, and they don’t really dive deeper into the material because of that.”

A mentor of mine once wrote, education is an arbitrary assertion of optimism. Indeed it is. But maybe it need not be entirely arbitrary. Dara Kinkopf is the reason we do the work that we do here. She is the evidence of its impact. We know that if we can help prepare thousands of teachers like her, who will teach tens or even hundreds of thousands of students, we will help transform teaching and learning in this country.

So thank you Dara, and thank you to everyone who stands shoulder to shoulder with us in this effort–the teacher-candidates, faculty members, coaches, mentor teachers, school partners and deans. We are making progress. May it continue in the new year.


Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director


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