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.
By 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.