Peer Review

The Role of Liberal Education in Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers

Effective problem solving, analytic reasoning, collaborative decision making, intercultural competency, perspective taking, civic responsibility, and creative leadership—these are just a few of the skills that reports have identified as being essential for the twenty-first-century workplace.

How does teacher preparation fit into this revolution in undergraduate education? What are the skills twenty-first-century teachers need to effectively impact student learning and to creatively address the great challenges facing children, families, and schools today?

At Duke University we have reframed the ways we go about preparing undergraduates to be P–12 teachers. Recognizing that preprofessional teacher preparation programs must go beyond mastery of a professional knowledge base and narrow training in technical skills, we have endeavored to find ways to build on and integrate the liberal education experience (both curricular and cocurricular) that our undergraduates bring with them to the teacher preparation program.

The pillars of the undergraduate liberal arts experience at Duke are interdisciplinarity, mentored research, global experience, civic engagement, and depth of learning in one’s chosen major. Our challenge as teacher educators is to develop a set of courses and cocurricular experiences that add value to this foundation of liberal education.

The Conceptual Framework

The Duke Program in Education, housed within Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the original academic units within Duke University and offers Duke undergraduates an opportunity to combine their liberal arts studies with a rigorous intellectual examination of critical issues related to teaching, learning, and the schooling process. Nationally accredited and aligned with university curriculum standards and national and state professional teaching standards, the program, unlike many traditional teacher education programs, calls for students to major in an arts and sciences discipline as opposed to earning a degree in education. In addition, students complete an intensive teacher preparation program as well as meet the university’s general curriculum requirements, which introduce them to a full range of content disciplines. As such, the program’s conceptual framework is grounded in the belief that locating teacher preparation within the context of a liberal education is central to effective teaching and learning.

The first two courses in the pathway to teacher licensure (Foundations of Education and Educational Psychology) are taught as Arts and Sciences gateway courses. Students who are preparing to become teachers sit alongside other liberal arts students who may be preparing to be pediatricians, lawyers, clinical psychologists, museum curators, and investment bankers. We believe that situating our foundational courses within a liberal education framework allows students to learn from the diversity of perspectives that undergraduates who plan to enter non-teaching careers bring to issues of education. In these two gateway courses, this mixture of undergraduates with all types of majors examines the most up-to-date educational research and explores ethical, legal, and policy issues relevant to today’s public schools. Field experiences, clinical practice, and course assignments are intentionally designed to highlight the inherent interdisciplinarity of the field and to cultivate and nurture the professional dispositions related to leadership, ethical behavior, fairness, diversity, and critical reflection. The program regularly hosts speakers and practitioners from the across the country who share their research, insights, and knowledge with students. An annual documentary film series is also offered pertaining to issues related to public education, including globalization, social justice, social values and change, creative leadership, and educational reform.

Upon completion of these two foundational gateway courses, students preparing to be teachers begin to focus on professional and pedagogical knowledge and skills. They receive a firm grounding in the major schools of thought; explore school, family, and community contexts pertinent to education; examine the prior experiences of the children they encounter during field experiences and clinical practice; analyze professional literature and take part in undergraduate mentored research; and consistently engage in critical reflection of their practice. The program strives to help candidates solidify their understanding of the connection between pedagogy and the theories of learning and development. The program also provides extended and diverse service-learning experiences in which students immerse themselves in the rich history and culture of the Durham community and learn how to work in a variety of school and community settings and with a number of different constituencies, including parents, administrators, and community members.

The teacher preparation program culminates in the capstone fourteen-week, full-day student teaching internship where critical guided reflection drives all work and interactions. Students are provided with weekly comprehensive feedback following classroom observations by fulltime senior faculty members and receive one-on-one support with lesson and unit development. From instruction and practice in developing fair and equitable assessments to discussions of and reflection on the rights and needs of a diverse population of students, Duke students learn how to make critical decisions about strategies and techniques that support the learning needs of P–12 students. Thus, we are striving to create a teacher preparation experience which engages students in big ideas and cross-disciplinary knowledge so they will emerge not simply as effective classroom teachers, but as teacher-leaders equipped with the advanced skills necessary to make significant contributions to education reform and social change.

At Duke, we are committed to understanding the teacher as LEARNER (Liberal Education, Advocacy, Reflection, Nurture, Engagement, and Respect). These core concepts, developed collaboratively by education faculty members within the framework of the university mission statement and national and state professional teaching standards, shape our program and our ways of relating with our candidates, school and community partners, one another, and the larger university.

Translating Theory Into Practice—A Student's Perspective

Perhaps the best way to illustrate our conceptual framework is to describe how a student goes about making decisions within the core concepts that shape our program. Below we provide a series of scenarios in which Matt, a double major in statistics and mathematics with a minor in education, demonstrates the notion of teacher as decision maker. Matt is currently completing his capstone student teaching internship experience in a fifth-grade classroom at a local public school.

Matt, like all teachers, is required to play many roles—from knowledge provider, to classroom manager, to school social worker—but, as shown in the vignettes below, the common essential skill that each of these roles shares is that of effective decision making. Teachers are first and foremost decision makers; studies have indicated that teachers make important decisions about every two minutes (Borko 2004; Clark and Peterson 1986; Ormrod 2011). Thus, Matt must ask himself: What instructional strategy is most likely in this particular situation to result in learning? What behavior management techniques will not only address the immediate need for more focused attention, but will, in the long run, foster self-regulation among the students? But on what basis or foundation does Matt make these decisions? What sources inform his decision-making process? To make effective decisions as a novice teacher, we believe that Matt must rely on his capacity to engage in analytical thinking and critical reflection— a capacity that he has developed through his participation in a teacher preparation program embedded within a liberal education experience. Below, Matt’s reflections provide insights about how he uses the core concepts of the LEARNER model to navigate the many complex and critical decisions that he must make during the school day.

Liberal Education
Our program’s positioning within the university’s larger commitment to a “superior liberal education” makes us somewhat unique in our design. The program does not offer an education major, but rather builds on the excellence and depth of content knowledge our candidates acquire through their studies across campus and beyond. It is our conviction that our graduates benefit from this commitment to supporting rigorous study in multiple disciplines, met with the excellence of our intensive teacher preparation programs.

9:23 AM: We are midway through math, and it is clear to me that the number sense for fractions is just not there. How can I help Connie understand that 2/5 is a real number, just like 7 or -4? I think about my own mathematical experiences; from complex analysis to regression analysis to Bayesian modeling, understanding the fluidity and tangibility of numbers was essential. I pause my lesson: “Alright, let’s try something a little bit different.” I write the fraction 2/5 on the chalkboard and set the timer for two minutes, asking the students to write down everything they can about 2/5 – vocabulary, addition, narrative statements, and anything else that may come to mind. By the time we’re sharing, it’s clear I’ve broken through to Connie. Jacob sharing that “2/5 – 2/5 = 0” reinforces that fractions are part of equations just as much as Martin sharing that “2 is a numerator” reinforces the vocabulary. Through this practice, I think I can help my students understand the same fluid aspect of numbers that I came to learn through my liberal education in college.

At Duke, we recognize that good teachers are good leaders. We prepare our students to be advocates for children and schools both within the institutions where they will be employed and in the greater community. We model our commitment to cultivating leadership by our own participation in advocating for the place of teacher preparation within a Tier 5 research institution as well as our commitment to advocacy for P–12 students and families.

10:08 AM: I have just introduced the persuasive letter writing assignment, and I feel empowered by my students’ commitment to making change. I had shared with them my experiences participating in a service-learning project at Duke. We had recognized that there was a need for a Spanish storytime for kindergarteners at a local elementary school. A partner and I, recognizing the need for students to build literacy skills even in advance of their formal instruction in the English language, planned for and taught this Spanish storytime for a semester to help these students better their reading skills. My students, hearing this story, are inspired to make their own changes in the world to make their personal communities better places. As I listen to their brainstorming, I hear talk about humane treatment of chickens, laws about cleaning up after animals, and safety and accessibility improvements for the school. It’s times like these that I am amazed by my implicit power to be a role model for my students.

Central to our praxis is an ongoing commitment to reflection. Our conceptual framework places “reflective” as the most significant modifier in describing the teachers we educate. Our curricular and cocurricular programs are intentionally designed to cultivate and nurture a level of reflection that goes beyond instructional skill and considers the many factors influencing teaching and learning, including state and national policies and specific cultural contexts of communities and schools.

11:42 AM: Recess. Sure, the students aren’t in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they’re not running circles in my mind. Could Sydney’s difficulty with the pre-writing have been aided by a modification to her individualized educational plan? I think back—was it two years ago?—to my literacy methods class and recall some visual frameworks that I could give her to help build her plan. Was Miranda’s problem with connecting her main ideas something I could help with? I remember my African History professor explaining to me that expository writing of any sort is really just a way to convey a narrative of facts; this sounds like something I could reframe to help Miranda. Before I forget, I need to remember to write about my persuasive introduction lesson in my teacher journal; looking forward to the years ahead in my teaching career, I think this will continue to be an effective, adaptable lesson for many classes to come.

Held in constant tension with the challenge of high standards for academic excellence that we expect of our undergraduate students and in turn encourage them to expect of their students, we seek to maintain a culture of fairness and compassion. Recognizing that in our preparation of teachers we are invested in the whole student, we encourage our students to recognize the role of nurturing in their own professional identities.

12:13 PM: Teddy has been looking sad all day, and now he’s sitting alone on the carpet eating his lunch. I know he’s upset about his vocabulary quiz score—he clearly failed to prepare—but I can’t sit and watch as he suffers from the inked anxiety of the parent signature stamp pressing down upon him. I call him over and as I begin to ask, “Is someth-“ he breaks down in wet sobs. “Okay we’re going to have a breath-holding contest! Breathe in for 1….2…3…now hold!” I make myself red then explode gasping for air as he giggles at my overacted expressions. “Teddy, I know the vocabulary quiz score was not what you were hoping for,” I calmly say. I think back to those key professors—no, mentors—from my time at Duke who saw me struggle under the weight of the standards but were committed to seeing me succeed. “Let’s come up with a plan for how we’re going to prepare for the next one so that your score only gets better!”

Duke has made a commitment to civic engagement a priority, and our programs have been leaders in that effort. We are international leaders in the development of service-learning pedagogies in teacher preparation. Beyond the scope of traditional fieldwork, our emphasis on engagement reconceptualizes the partnership between pre-service teachers, schools, and the university by drawing attention to broader social and ethical considerations of the schooling experience. Our graduates are unequivocally clear that their commitment to teaching is a commitment to a life of civic engagement.

1:35 PM: When project work time rolled around, I knew the kids were already fired up by their causes as I could hear the discussion carrying through lunchtime. Now, almost an hour into the planning phase of their service-learning projects, I am sensing a parallel between my social life at Duke and my practice here in the elementary school. Every week of the semester, I have been taking a different Pledge Brother of my fraternity to a restaurant or shop or exhibit in Durham; I wanted to share the love I found for this city with these soon-to-be Brothers of mine who may never choose to venture outside of the Duke bubble on their own. Now, floating around the classroom, I am sharing Durham’s resources and stores and restaurants with my students so they might find community members in Durham who could be targets or supporters of their causes. The sparkle of respect for Durham that glimmers in my eyes has been sparked in the eyes of my Pledge Brothers and my students.

We emphasize a culture of respect as we mentor and engage emerging professionals in work with diverse populations. By actively and critically examining questions of power and privilege, we prepare our candidates to meet their students where their students are, and to recognize all that those students bring with them to the learning community.

2:24 PM: Today’s Afternoon Meeting started about a quarter of an hour ago, where Dennis taught the Amharic salutation “tah-dee-yas”; he had looked up this greeting earlier in the day and shared that it was from a language of Ethiopia. Ruby then shared her current events article about Saudi Arabian women earning the right to vote. “Wait a second,” Dorothy interjected. “Does this mean they couldn’t vote before?” After students share background on civil rights internationally and historically in America, I challenge the students. “Raise your hands: who would get to vote if I said only those with blue eyes can vote?” The students look around wide-eyed. “Who would get to vote if I said only those who are Protestant Christians can vote?” A Jewish student’s hand suddenly drops as quickly as her face, a frown drooping across it. “Don’t worry, Kendra,” Martin reassures her, “even if it were that way, I would make sure your voice gets heard.” Dorothy interjected again: “I just think every person should get to vote.” I’m so glad that my students not only care about each other, but understand the positive externalities of tolerance.

Final Thoughts

There is not an algorithm or formula that teachers can rely on to provide answers for every problem that arises in the classroom. We could not possibly provide enough training and practice to prepare undergraduates for every situation. Instead, our goal is to shape future teacher-leaders through rigorous liberal studies in multiple disciplines within a teacher preparation framework that promotes and sustains engaged citizenship and service, critical reflection and decision making, advocacy for students and families, and commitment to a culture of fairness and compassion. In so doing, we believe that Matt and his peers will enter twenty-first-century classrooms with a toolbox full of strategies for making the best decisions for helping children and themselves become lifelong learners.

3:05 PM: Sometimes, when we have had a particularly trying few hours, the kids and I will end the day with a Whitman-esque “barbaric yawp”; standing on our chairs we yell personal declarations for the world to hear. As I come to the end of the teacher preparation program, there are many barbaric yawps I could shout.

I‘ve been training across liberal arts and possess understanding of several mathematical disciplines; I will use my coursework to inform the way I engage my students.

I am a decision maker who will make choices in my classroom based on reflective, critical thinking and researched best practices in education.
I am a leader who will unite diverse students with all learning levels.
Perhaps most of all, though, I am always a learner, never stopping in my quest to become a better teacher. And with that, the school day has ended.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Borko, H. 2004. “Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain.” Educational Researcher 33(8): 3–15.

Clark, C. M., and P. L. Peterson. 1986. “Teachers’ Thought Processes.” In M. C.Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching. (3rd ed., pp. 255-296). New York: Macmillan.

Duke University Institutional Report Prepared for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. 2011.

Ormrod, J. E. 2011. Educational Psychology (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson Education.

Jan Riggsbee is the director and chair of the Duke University Program in Education; David Malone is the director of Undergraduate Studies in Education and faculty director of the Duke University Service-Learning Program; Matthew Straus is a member of the Class of 2012 at Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.

Previous Issues