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In the eye of the storm: Reclaiming the ‘pedagogical’ in teacher education

Eline Vanassche

You are like a hurricane. There’s calm in your eye. – Neil Young

In Flanders, the government recently commissioned a review of Flemish teacher education. The final report, with the interesting title ‘When the Chalk Dust Settles’,[1] reads as a follow-up to the major reform of Flemish teacher education in 2006 aiming to improve the quality of teacher education through the implementation of 10 basic teacher competencies. While this report does not have any legal power in itself, the commotion it caused ‘on the ground’ is remarkable. The report is interesting for at least one other reason: the language of competencies and scientific evidence it uses. Such language urges teacher education to make visible ‘the value it adds’ in terms of student achievement and school development. Looking at the literature (e.g., Cochran-Smith, 2003) the teacher education profession in other countries finds itself answering to the same charges.

In the face of such persistent critiques, the field of teacher education is left instable and vulnerable to disturbances. Yet, I would argue that it is precisely at a time of radical critique—when some even want to abandon formal teacher preparation all together—that that what teacher education is and does (and thus ‘adds’) becomes clear, namely the fact that teacher education (just like education) always involves ‘pedagogical’ questions of purposes and relationships which cannot be answered by scientific evidence alone. The metaphor of the eye of the storm captures this: in the eye of the storm it is calm, you have clear open sight, outside the eye a storm is raging.

The pedagogical refers to a particular content or form of the relationship between the teacher and his or her students

Now, what is it that ‘characterizes’ teacher education? Obviously, equipping student teachers with the technical-instrumental knowhow to teach is a very important dimension, but it is not the only dimension that matters. Such a focus on means (what works?) runs the risk of forgetting what Zeichner (1983) labelled “the prior and more fundamental questions related to purposes and ends” (p. 3). Following Van Manen (1991) I refer to this as the ‘pedagogical’ in teacher education. The pedagogical refers to a particular content or form of the relationship between the teacher and his or her students; a relationship of care and responsibility for the student as a person. Such a pedagogical relationship is more than a means to an end; it is a relationship in which the teacher tries to act in “a right, good, or appropriate manner” (p. 9) for what is best for the “being and becoming” (p.17) of the student. Precisely because student teachers will need to act as ‘pedagogues’, this pedagogical aspect needs to be central to their professional preparation.

Taking this stance implies that teacher professionalism is only expressed—or can be expressed in—the relation between the teacher and his or her students. Thinking about teacher professionalism as the competencies possessed by an individual teacher thus falls short in important ways. Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge that teachers cannot but be in some form of relation with their students and actually depend on this relation since they, on their very own, cannot make learning happen. This is not an argument for freeing ourselves from any sense of ‘accountability’ for what we do; or excluding questions about effect and effectiveness from teacher education. Quite the contrary: you need the urgency of the storm to experience and appreciate the calmness of the eye.

Reclaiming the pedagogical in teacher education involves many—admittedly less than evident—consequences for (the organization of) teacher education which require careful critical analysis. An interesting question, for instance, is how to assess from a pedagogical approach? Assessment thought from a pedagogical approach cannot simply depend on ‘measurement’, that is, clear standards of performance (i.e., competencies) that are fully specified in advance and allow for objective measurements. It also presupposes a process of judgment or deliberation on the exact meaning of these numbers, an integration of different ‘kinds’ of numbers, and an integration of numbers with other not-measurable information (Masschelein, 2000). The triadic conversation between the student teacher, teacher educator, and mentor-teacher at the end of school placement offers great possibilities here. In such conversations the emphasis lies partly on measuring against objective criteria (after all, we want our teachers to adequately master teaching skills, content knowledge, etc.) and partly on judgment—a collegial discussion concerning the quality of the pedagogical experience (including such aspects as commitment, sense of responsibility, sensitivity towards students, self-critical attitude). Such judgment does not solely depend on objective criteria which, when put into practice by different people, always lead to the same result, but also on the experience and practical wisdom of the assessors (‘judges’) and their collegial discussion. That is why these triadic conversations are so meaningful: they imply the possibility to adjust, correct, or refine a judgment.


Cochran-Smith, M. (2003). Learning and unlearning: The education of teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19, 5-28.

Masschelein, M. (2000). Het gewicht van het meten [The weight of measuring]. Brussels: Caleidoscoop.

Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: Suny Press.

Zeichner, M. (1983). Alternative paradigms of teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 34(3), 3-9.