How do teachers teach responsively?

The idea of responsiveness is one of the biggest challenges of equity-geared teaching approaches.

Responsiveness, by definition, means that lessons cannot entirely be planned without considering the students. What is more, since the students’ input and ideas are actively sought out, it increases the uncertainty of how a lesson will unfold.

This weekend, I have been reading a book by Adam Lefstein and Julia Snell called Better than Best Practice. Like me, these scholars spend a lot of time thinking about good teaching, although their study is in literacy classrooms in the UK, while I spend my time thinking about US mathematics classrooms.

Nonetheless, the premise of their book resonates with me. As the title suggests, they argue against “best practice” language that seeks to “prove” the efficacy of exact teacher moves or curricula. Like me, they are interested in the kind of teaching that seeks out, engages, and responds to students’ ideas.

Lefstein and Snell refer to this as professional teaching, arguing that involves sensitivity, interpretation, judgment and a flexible repertoire of methods. I found this to be a useful framework.

lefstein and snell coverBy sensitivity, the authors refer to teachers’ attentiveness and openness to critical moments in the flow of a class. Did a student raise an important issue? Did another student speak up for the first time? Does a conflict seem to be brewing? Classroom dynamics involve numerous people, all with their own feelings and thoughts and challenges, and a teacher must thoughtfully navigate these while moving lessons in a productive direction.

Once teachers are alert to a critical moment, they must then figure out its significance –– what Lefstein and Snell call interpretation. Was a student’s objection to a teacher’s premise simply an attempt to derail a lesson, or is there an important question that needs to be aired?

What will the broader message to the student and the class be if the teacher pursues the question? What if she shuts it down?

In the latter set of questions, sensitivity and interpretation work together as the teacher figures out which part of her repertoire to engage. By repertoire, the authors refer to a teacher’s flexibility and depth in calling upon a range of possible actions and success in implementing them.

Together, these resources come together to constitute judgments about teaching. Teachers make hundreds of decisions a day, and the demand only increases when they seek out student input.

I like this framework because it positions the teacher not as just “doing” things in the class, but actively responding to and making decisions about students. It also broadens the object of professional learning beyond the usual activities or specific teaching moves to increased sensitivity to student and classroom dynamics and their relation to ongoing judgments.

7 thoughts on “How do teachers teach responsively?

  1. Excellent post, and very significant as we open up math classrooms to include student voices and promote student questioning. To what extent do you think teachers can learn to “teach responsively”, especially ones that have been doing things the same way for many years, in rooms where the teacher voice is the only authoritative voice? What Lefstein and Snell are talking about is very complex and nuanced. It requires a teacher to have a real feel of students and classrooms dynamics, sound judgement about student intentions, and the courage to give up some control and be able to deviate from a plan or script, go into uncharted waters, and improvise. I don’t know many that can do that, or at least do it well.


  2. I agree that this is a hard way to teach, and from the studies I have done and seen, it is not typical. There are a group of scholars working on the idea of “core practices” in teacher education, hoping to equip teachers with repertoires that sensitize them to student thinking and provide frameworks for anticipating it. Some of the most interesting work on this in science comes from Mark Windschitl and Jessica Thompson at University of Washington. In elementary mathematics, there is a project led by Megan Franke at UCLA, Elham Kazemi at UW, and Magdalene Lampert who is currently at the Boston Teacher Residency Program.

    I have two students, Elizabeth Self and Britnie Kane, whose dissertations focus on using the medical pedagogy of “simulations” with pre-service teachers to help develop sensitivity and judgment. This involves scripting an actor to be a student (or in some cases, a parent) and then having the pre-service teacher interact with them in their imagined role as teacher. Liz is focusing on designing scenarios where culture is really in play in teachers’ interactions, and Britnie is focusing on working with student thinking in writing instruction.

    Because engaging students’ thinking is an equity issue, we need to get better at this. But you are correct: on the whole, we have a lot to learn.


  3. What are your thoughts on Cognitively Guided Instruction (out of the University of Wisconsin) as a framework for responsiveness? I know Danielson is a big fan, and I was exposed to it in broad strokes in grad school, but only in principle; I never went through the actual professional development. Just curious to get your take. Also, have you seen any programs that attempt to scale the GGI framework — or something like it — up to grades beyond elementary?


    • That is a great program. I believe it sensitizes teachers to students’ thinking. As far as overall responsiveness, I remember a paper by Megan Franke that looked at teachers’ long term development using the program. Not all teachers grew into more broadly responsive practice from their work with CGI. My conjecture is that it helps the rich get richer: that is, teachers who are inclined to think holistically about their classrooms and students are able to get more traction than those who think about teaching primarily in terms of what *they* do as teachers.


  4. Pingback: Recommended: Ilana Horn's Teaching/Math/Culture blog : Dialogic Pedagogy

  5. I like this framework too! I’ve been thinking about the broad concept of “instructional judgment” in the context of both helping teachers develop it and helping coaches deepen it, and the framework you’ve shared here helps make this broad concept much more concrete.

    This framework seems particularly powerful in equity conversations not *just* because attending to student thinking is an equity issue (although I agree that it is) but also because it opens the door to conversations about how both *what* we are sensitive to and *how* we interpret the things we’ve sensed are grounded in our own social, cultural, contextual biases/perspectives (a la Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference).


  6. I work in a Title I school that has a history of low performance. I am a special education teacher but through inclusion have an opportunity to work with 8th grade math students. One of the main obstacles that I see with a number of the students is a lack of confidence in their abilities and a fear of not being successful. We all want to be right and with me writing this blog I have a slight apprehension because I don’t want to be criticized as being “wrong”. So I think this is somewhat natural but I see it being a huge obstacle in the students learning. I am a firm believer that teachers should facilitate lessons. I have had the opportunity to work on grants and in classrooms where the teacher acts as the facilitator and gets the students to be engaged and take responsibility for their learning. It is powerful. When students are given the opportunity to discuss and explain to their peers “How to do it” I believe they have it. Getting students to that point is very difficult and especially by the time they are in middle school and have been taught with the teacher leading the lesson and being the focal point of a lesson, basically following a script. Students like a comfort zone where they are able to regurgitate information even if it’s just for the week of the test. So I agree with the article, teachers have to be in tune with their students and must have flexibility with their teaching methods to reach “Their Students”


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