K-12 educators and administrators have debated with each other for many years about whether teaching constitutes a craft or a profession. There is certainly an element of experiential “craft” training within all professions, and crafts can definitely constitute a profession. But the debate over craft vs. profession is important for education because a more precise definition that explains how teachers should be trained for their work could provide clearer expectations for students looking to become teachers. Many students become disenchanted with teaching before even stepping in the classroom or at an early part of their career, and a recent study by sociologist Richard Ingersoll confirms that between forty and fifty percent of all new teachers leave the field within the first five years of receiving their teacher’s certificate. Perhaps a part of this high turnover can be attributed to shortcomings in teacher education programs that do not adequately prepare their students for the classroom.
Advocates for craft-based teacher education argue that the process of teaching should be the primary focus of students’ training. Advocates for craft-based training argue that much like a carpenter, mechanic, or plumber, prospective teachers should be placed in a realistic work environment as soon as possible so that they have an opportunity to learn through trial-and-error and experience rather than stuffing their way through theoretical concepts in an education classroom. When these students do read and study theory, they should focus their curricular studies on theories of education and teaching methods rather than a specific discipline or form of content such as history, science, or mathematics. Many of these students end up getting straight education degrees without any certification or degree in a particular field of study.
Advocates for profession-based teacher education argue that disciplinary content should be the primary focus of learning for prospective teachers. Advocates for this type of training argue that much like a lawyer, dentist, or military officer, prospective teachers need to be first and foremost experts in their field of study, whether that be history, science, mathematics, or any other number of disciplines. By grasping a clear understanding of their respective fields, prospective teachers are better prepared to educate their students about a specific discipline. Gaining experience teaching in a classroom is important, but not at the sacrifice of learning content. We can see this type of thinking most clearly in higher education, where many college and university professors are experts in their field of study but often do not hold any educational credentials. Many of these profession-based students have degrees in a certain discipline but not necessarily education. Yours truly, for example, has a BA in history with a certification in education – not an education degree that the craft-based training programs typically offer.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if the field of public history could benefit from its own “craft vs. profession” discussion.
When I studied public history at IUPUI, there was a heavy emphasis on our training as historians. We received “practical” experiences and training in the field through yearly internships with various university partners in the Indianapolis area, but the bulk of our classroom experiences revolved around the writing of a master’s thesis, acquiring knowledge of historical methods, and developing skills that would help us become good historical researchers. I took several classes through the university’s museum studies program that provided me with valuable training in interpretation, education theory, and ideas for communicating the stuff of history to public audiences, but those classes were electives that I voluntarily chose to take and not required for my degree. While my training included elements of both craft- and profession-based training, it was evident to me (at least) that the majority of my training was geared towards having a strong understanding of the content within my historical research interests.
Other public history programs do not require a thesis and instead require a portfolio or some sort of major project that oftentimes places a stronger interest on process and “practical” skills like grant-writing, budgeting, and the experience of working on a collaborative team. Again, these programs are similar to mine in that they include both craft- and profession-type elements of training, but it seems to me that this sort of training can at times be starkly different than what I received when I was in graduate school due to its emphasis on the craft of public history.
These are preliminary thoughts on my part and perhaps it is unnecessary to even discuss whether or not public history is a craft or a profession. I personally think these questions are useful, however, for considering the role of theory and practice in public history. I will keep thinking about these questions and perhaps they can be discussed further at the National Council on Public History’s April 2015 conference in Nashville if I am able to get out there.