Voices in Education

Improving Preschool Instruction Rests on Improving Teacher Education
Support for using preschool education to close the achievement gap has grown in recent years, along with an increase in recognizing that maximizing learning to accomplish this goal requires high-quality instruction (Putnam, 2015; Yoshikawa, Weiland, & Brooks-Gunn, 2016). At the same time, teaching preschoolers today is far more complex than it was several decades ago, given the increasing diversity of families and higher expectations for academic achievement. To obtain the knowledge and skill required for delivering high-quality instruction, preK teachers need both better initial training and more ongoing support in the classroom (Allyn & Kelly, 2015).  

A major problem in teacher education and development today is the tendency to oversimplify complex situations by providing information in piecemeal, disconnected fashion, without attention to its integration. For example, preservice courses are often domain specific (i.e., math, language/literacy, science). Integrating these domains in classroom-based experiences is often left until fieldwork that is scheduled near the end of a program of study. Ongoing professional development often focuses on one domain at a time and is thin on current research. Therefore, preK teachers often lack the conceptual underpinnings required for judging when and how to adapt instruction to specific circumstances. In other words, both novice and experienced teachers are left with the major responsibility for integrating the necessary information and applying it to children in classrooms. 

We recognize that some simplification of complexity is necessary for any learner, but how we simplify matters. The noted educator Lee S. Shulman (1986), suggested that teachers can develop pedagogical knowledge through case studies designed to illuminate the underlying principles inherent in practice: “An event can be described; a case must be explicated, interpreted, argued, dissected and reassembled” (p. 12). In our recent book, Inside PreK Classrooms: A School Leader’s Guide to Effective Instruction, we started with actual events from classrooms and, through analysis, turned these into cases. Our goal in centering each chapter on a classroom event/story was to make the reader aware of the many challenges facing preschool teachers and possible solutions.

Deep understanding of teaching involves skill in pulling together the separate strands of content domains and instructional strategies to fit specific teaching situations. Cases help teachers learn to do this. Even a short vignette from a classroom can stimulate inquiry into curriculum, instruction, child development, and teacher-child interactions. We based our analyses in Inside PreK Classrooms on both firsthand experiences and information that other experts provided in reports, primary research, and literature reviews. Teachers can learn to do the same if given the opportunity in both preservice and professional development contexts.

To transform the quality of initial teacher education, preservice programs could embed case study work within their current programs. They could also use published cases to help students integrate and apply domain-specific coursework. Cases could be pulled from journals for teachers, and preservice faculty could help students analyze these more fully, situating them in somewhat different classroom settings or posing questions about integrating content from other domains. 

Practicing teachers and school leaders could make case study an ongoing aspect of their work. They could learn first to describe in detail some instructional events from their own classrooms. Then, by asking questions of each other and comparing their thinking, they could begin analyzing the events. Between meetings, teachers could study a case further, individually, by reading or rereading relevant research, and then discuss a case again, in light of the readings. Although time constraints will not allow teachers and school leaders to analyze as thoroughly as we did in our book, setting aside time for this activity can help develop the habit of analyzing classroom situations more deeply, which is required for the thinking and judgment upon which high-quality instruction rests (Allington & Pearson, 2011). A large proportion of ongoing professional development for practicing teachers could be based on cases that grow out of teachers’ own classroom experiences. Outside resources could help teachers and leaders extend their knowledge base to understand better specific cases they select. 

Achieving high-quality early education depends in part on the skill of both teachers and their instructional leaders to analyze the complex classroom situations that teachers face every day. The instructional skill of preK teachers is what determines quality in preschool programming, and maximizing learning for young learners depends on it. 

Allen, L., & Kelly, B. B. (Eds.). (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

Allington, R., & Pearson, P. D. (2011). The Causalities of Policy on Early Literacy Development. Language Arts, 89(1), 70–74.

Putnam, R. D. (2015). Our kids: The American Dream in crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2). 4–14.

Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2016). When does preschool matter? Future of Children, 26(2), 21–36.

About the Author: Catherine Marchant has been a classroom teacher, a teacher educator, an instructional coach, and an administrator, and currently consults with individual schools and districts. Judith A. Schickedanz, a professor emerita at Boston University, is a leading expert in early childhood education and early literacy. They are the authors of Inside PreK Classrooms: A School Leader’s Guide to Effective Instruction (Harvard Education Press, 2018).