SOE News

From the dean
Reflections on the 125th anniversary of UNC's School of Education

Photo of Bill McDiarmid

Bill McDiarmid


In many ways, that we are celebrating only the 125th anniversary of the School of Education is surprising. After all, public schools have been around for a couple of centuries and, in North Carolina, “charitable” public schools were established prior to the Civil War. You would think that public universities, their governing boards and state legislatures would have seen immediately the need both to prepare educators and to study children, learning, and pedagogy as a way to improve the effects of schools. 

Yet, at the time public schools were first established, universities were not in the business of preparing students for particular professions. Moreover, most thought of teaching as merely verbalizing one’s knowledge of a subject matter and of learning a mere reflex of teaching, measured by students’ ability to reproduce the information that teachers and textbooks provided. And despite the talk of “21st century skills” and “critical thinking,” some folks still hold this view of teaching and learning – just as there are those who still believe the sun revolves around the earth (almost one out of every five U.S. citizens, according to a 2008 Pew poll). 

Consequently, the assumption was that anyone whose education was greater than the students was qualified to teach. My grandmother, who received the equivalent of a high school education (as well as enhancement of her “Christian character”] at Flora MacDonald Seminary for Girls in Red Springs, got a job teaching elementary school in Lumberton right after graduation. As far as I can tell, her teacher training consisted of the “apprenticeship of observation:” she did whatever her teachers had done.

The key to the creation of a unit focused on preparing teachers at Carolina was the post-Reconstruction constitution that mandated, in 1876, two “normal” (from the French “école normale”) schools, one for whites and one for African-Americans. In the summer of 1877, the first summer normal school in the South opened in Chapel Hill. The faculty consisted entirely of practitioners who, consistent with the common understanding of teaching and learning at the time, lectured teachers on both subject matter and pedagogy based solely, to all appearances, on the wisdom of practice. 

Practitioners seem to predominate on the faculty well into the 1960s. Not until the late 1960s when policymakers began to turn to the social sciences to help guide policy decisions – and to provide funding for research – did educators primarily committed to systematic research begin to appear in numbers on education school faculties. The late ’60s and the ’70s saw the first major wave of systematic research on teaching, studies that attempted to isolate particular aspects of practice (asking questions, wait time, time on task, etc.) to test their efficacy. 

Also beginning in the 1960s and becoming increasingly accepted from the 1980s on was a rethinking of our understanding of learning. Research increasingly revealed the ways in which learners’ existing ideas and knowledge shaped their subsequent understanding of new ideas and information. The “cognitive revolution,” as it has been termed, had as profound an impact on ed schools as did the research on teaching. Equally important was a growing understanding of how learners’ social and cultural environment shape their understanding of new ideas and information as well as our evolving understanding of young people’s social, emotional, and physical development. These changes in our knowledge and understanding of teaching, learning, and learners have been accompanied by dramatic demographic changes in the students who show up in school classrooms.

Of all recent changes perhaps none is more momentous than the incredible proliferation and ready accessibility of information, due largely to the Internet. In 2006, 161 exabytes (an exabyte has been equated to about 50,000 years of DVD quality video) of data were created, equivalent to three million times the information contained in all the books ever written.  The estimate for 2010 is an additional 988 exabytes.

And most of our students come to us knowing how to find the information they need. Boogie-boarding with a 14-year-old niece recently, I wondered aloud about the factors that determine the frequency of “good” waves. Her immediate response, “Yeah – I’ll check that on YouTube” (and of course it’s there: check out the “3D Water Motion Simulator”).

As a consequence, we educators – both in P-12 schools and ed schools – face a decidedly different challenge than did those 200-plus teachers who attended the Carolina summer normal school in 1977: How do we best prepare students to shift through, evaluate, and use the burgeoning volume of information to address, collectively and individually, the acute problems – mostly global in scope – they will face as workers, leaders, partners, parents and citizens?  In addition, changes in the school population mean that we must we have a far wider range – along dimensions of ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, and exceptionality – who we have an obligation to help maximize their intellectual and social capacities to use information productively.

Yet, with all these changes, one aspect of our work remains constant: The imperative to create the relationships of trust, mutual respect and caring that lie at the heart of an education that truly supports the full development of all our children and young people. This is something we, no doubt, share with many of those teachers who were on the Carolina campus in the summer of 1877.