Britzman’s (1991) “Practice Makes Practice”: Consonance and Dissonance from an Account of Student Teachers’ Negative Experience

Britzman’s (1991) “Practice Makes Practice” made me question seriously how researchers could represent their subjects’ experience without fabricating a relationship of inequality among human beings.  You may be interested in reading Chapter 3 of the book to see how the researcher portrayed one of her protagonists as a person lacking in intellectual capacity.

I have always thought that I would avoid speaking for others and only represent my own experience. I thought that this way might be pretty “safe” to go, but my discomfort with Britzman’s tone reminded me that even if I only present my experience, I would still have to position myself in relation to others. Verifying the axiom of equality through writing is no easy task.

The below essay was submitted as an assignment in The Love Song of Water. My proposal to review Jacques Ranciere: Education, Truth, Emancipation was rejected. The book was not in the list of suggested books, and the professor said that it did not fit as a book on learning to  teach. I then chose Britzman (1991) due to its first place in the list and its inviting name. I could not find the 2003 edition, so I worked with the 1991 version. As I was in a hurry to meet the deadline, the language of my review was not as tactful as it should be. I failed to convey how much I appreciated the book.

Britzman’s (1991) “Practice Makes Practice”: Consonance and Dissonance from an Account of Student Teachers’ Negative Experience

Dwelling in my being a teacher in the Vietnamese context during the first decades of the 21st century, reading a book on learning to teach published twenty years ago and narrating the struggles of American student teachers in 1983-1984 has been an opportunity for me to discern similarity and difference as well as continuity and discontinuity that has possibly been enacted by gaps of time and space. The enduring commonality of teachers’ experience I have discovered through the “thorny” account of “Practice makes practice: a critical study of learning to teach” by Britzman (1991) is simultaneously hurtful and insightful. While I can identify myself with Britzman’s poignant stories of becoming teachers among “contradictory realities”, I also detect dissonance between the author’s critical theory and methodology and my beliefs in intellectual virtues. This review describes the territory of the book, locates it in the field of teacher learning, and raises questions about the conceptual and methodological frame of the study, which is hoped to add to the critique offered in a review of the book in 1992 by Alberto J. Rodriguez.

The audience of “Practice makes practice” is firstly impressed by its title, which signifies a stance moving beyond the traditional wisdom of “practice makes perfect”. They then proceed through the six chapters of the book to explore the promised new insights. Chapter 1 delineates the research questions, the methodology and the basic concepts guiding the book. It identifies the book as a report of a critical ethnographic study of “the contradictory realities of learning to teach in secondary education and how these realities fashion the subjectivities of student teachers” (Britzman, 1991, p. 9).  The concepts of “voice”, “discourse”, “ideological practice”, “borrowed language”- “authoritative discourse” and “internally persuasive discourse”, and “constientization”, drawn from the work of key critical theorists such as Foucault, Marx, Bakhtin, and Friere, are also discussed as the author employs them to interpret the subjects’ process of becoming a teacher. To continue, chapter 2 analyzes “the structure of experience and the experience of structure in education”, revealing the fragmentedness of experience in teacher education. That situation is characterized by the compartmentalization of knowledge and the separations between pedagogy and content, knowledge and interests, and theory and practice. Chapter 3 and chapter 4 follow two different student teachers, Jamie Owl, a student teacher in English studies, and Jack August, a student teacher in social studies education, as they started their student teaching in high school settings. The two chapters are permeated by the students’ anxieties and frustrations in their battles to shape themselves and their practice. Chapter 5 takes the views of professional educators into consideration, presenting stories of no less failure. In chapter 6, Britzman (1991) described the three cultural myths that all teachers have to confront: everything depends upon the teacher; the teacher as expert; and teachers are self-made. The belief threading different parts of the book is that human beings are not to be perfected to social norms, and through critical theorizing they can become the author of their experience. The struggles of the two particular student teachers and their “significant others”, however, primarily recount bitter failures. The book sheds light on how hard it is to develop the internally persuasive discourse that allows discovery of new meanings of being a teacher within the authoritative discourse of cultural myths. It also offers a powerful criticism of the oppressive structure of the schooling systems the subjects have undergone.

Britzman’s insights have arrived from a critical approach to teacher learning and corresponded to a number of scholars at that time, according to Rodriguez’s (1992) evaluation. Since its publication, the book has now attained the position of a classic in the field. According to Google Scholar, up to now, the book has been cited 1417 times.

While the book is certainly valuable to our understanding of teachers’ becoming, it also raises dissatisfaction and doubt. As Rodriguez (1992) has criticized, although Britzman’s suggestions to effect change are meaningful, it is difficult to engage in critical dialogue and actually teachers have always done it. Britzman’s writing even created another myth, the myth of the student teacher as passive as “a ball of clay” (Rodriguez, 1992, p. 224). It is hard to believe that the student teachers did not acquire any piece of success during their practicum, and Britzman made a representational bias by not including a critical review of the schemes these student teachers utilized to compete for power (Rodriguez, 1992). I would further the critique by Rodriguez by asserting that while Britzman has embraced a kind of “methodological humility” and acknowledged her dilemma in representing the subjects’ perspectives, what is visible in the text is unfair to the subjects and hence the position of the researcher is unethical.

The problem may start with Britzman (1991)’s adoption of a critical voice that is “concerned not just with representing the voices of oneself and others, but with narrating, considering, and evaluating them” (p. 13). She was straightforward in evaluating the subjects’ theorizing of their experience and constantly blamed their failure to become the teacher they wanted on their lack of competence for critical reflection. According to the author’s interpretation, Jamie Owl was stuck in a predicament since her theory of educational development “did not take into account the power relations of any classroom or the ways in which power is produced” (Britzman, 1991, p. 81). Jack August was overwhelmed with issues of classroom control also due to a limited insight. Roy Hobbs, Jack’s male cooperating teacher, was a loser, partly because he could only imagine that teachers were born, not made. Edith Daring, Jack’s female cooperating teacher, was isolated as she failed to escape the myth that teachers are self-made. Erma Tough, the chair of the social studies at Smithville High, distrusted student teachers’ maturity. Thomas Maxwellhouse, the principal of Smithville High, was occupied by his concern about school efficiency. Alberta Peach, the university supervisor, could not extend her good intentions. Joe Probe, the professor of social studies education, “did not take up, in explicit terms, the dilemma of how one transforms practice when the contexts of practice resist transformation” (Britzman, 1991, p. 209).

How did Britzman come to these judgments? A part of the answer is: through observation and interview or, in other words, through the subjects’ language that was accessible to her. That seems incompatible with Britzman’s view of language claimed in her study: “our capacity to make language work for us is problematic. There is never a simple correspondence between the language we use and the things to which we refer” (Britzman, 1991, p. 120). Upholding such a view of language, Britzman should have avoided judging human beings in such a definite voice, especially when the subjects were not discussing scholarly issues with her in a scholarly way. Without a common frame of language, Britzman’s assumption of her intellectual superiority is irrelevant. It should be also noted that by explaining how failures have occurred, Britzman has forced her subjects into an oppressive order set by her conceptual framework. Britzman’s manner of interpretation evokes a sense of “forcedness” and implies an abuse of authority. As a reader, while appreciating the Bakhtinian “polyphony” the book enacts, I feel a need to pull Britzman’s voice from the teachers’ voices so that they can be heard more clearly. Perhaps, it would be less disturbing if the interpretations were done with more tentativeness and sensitivity.

To conclude, Britzman (1991) presented a humane account of student teachers as complex beings and complex becomings, which has, without doubt, brought about more mutual understanding in this world. However, the ethical dilemma inherent in her study is disturbing and calls for new theories of doing critical ethnography.

References

Britzman, D.P. (1991). Practice makes practice: a critical study of learning to teach. Albany, NY: SUNY

Rodriguez, A. J. (1992). Practice makes practice: a critical review of practice makes perfect. Curriculum Inquiry, 22 (2), 219-227.

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