This past week, I had the great pleasure of spending a few days thinking with some very smart people about issues in teacher education. They included Judith Warren Little, Magdalene Lampert, Elham Kazemi, Nicole Louie, Jessica Charles, Lynsey Gibbons, and Britnie Kane. We had a few other folks interested in teacher education drop in and chat with us too.
Right now, debates rage about the value of teacher education. The folks around this particular table take teacher education very seriously. We all aim for what is currently called ambitious teaching — ambitious in the sense that it aims to engage all students in rich and complex forms of content.
To pull a couple of examples from their work, Magdalene currently works with the Boston Teacher Residency. Borrowing the idea of residency from medical education, she and her colleagues work to figure out effective ways to use long-term partnerships with practicing teachers and schools as the grounds for teacher education. Elham has been working with in-service elementary teachers in the Seattle areas, focusing her work with one particular school on mathematics instruction.
Both of these projects have had some impressive successes. BTR has done extremely well in recruiting and retaining teachers, and Elham’s project has dramatically improved math instruction on multiple measures.
Magdalene and Elham are a part of the Core Practices Consortium, a group of scholars from University of Washington, University of Michigan, UCLA, Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin, University of Colorado and the Boston Teacher residency.
If you want to read more details, here is a description of a conference session they did describing their work. Here is a journal article and here is a website cataloging some core practices by content area.
The basic goal of the Consortium is to identify practices that capture specific, routine aspects of teaching that require professional judgment and stand to raise the quality of content-specific instruction in K-12 schools. Because teaching requires thinking and doing, these activities create focal points for the work of teacher education.
Some examples of instructional activities include things like interactive close reading in elementary literacy or pressing students to construct evidence-based explanations in secondary science.
I purposefully used the examples above because I think they are smart choices for this work, but my reservations remain nonetheless.
As we discussed and shared and learned together, I still wonder if it’s possible to adequately capture teaching practice –– in the broad meaning of the word that I know my colleagues intend — through the specification of routine activities.
Let me explain.
I’ll start with a definition of teaching. I’ll extend David Cohen’s formulation slightly and claim that teaching is the deliberate cultivation of learning in others in distinctive teaching situations. The “in others” highlights its relational dependence. The “teaching situation” part points to is context-dependence.
This elaborated definition cuts to the very heart of my concern. While aspects of teaching are undoubtedly routine, their meaning comes out through the particulars of relationships and situations, with all the complexity of that setting and those histories.
My favorite example to illustrate this idea comes from a conversation I had with Peg Cagle. We were talking about whether to put names on publicly displayed student work.
In my working class high school where many of my students’ had histories of struggle in mathematics, I visibly put my students’ names on the work I hung on classroom walls. They needed to have ownership of their mathematical ideas, even in their formative stages.
Peg, on the other hand, taught in a magnet program for gifted students. Many of her students worried about being discovered as an impostor in the gifted track, making them fearful of others’ judgments. She kept her students’ names off of work-in-progress in her room.
Did we have different practices? At a certain level of description, yes. I put names on and she kept them off.
However, on a deeper level, we were attending to the same issue: the social vulnerability of asking students to share what they think. We both wanted to encourage our students to do so in ways that were attentive to their prior histories with mathematics.
So while what we did was different, at a deeper, conceptual level, however, we were alert to the particulars of our teaching situations and modified our practice to meet the goal of students sharing their ideas.
I don’t offer this example to negate the idea of instructional activities. I am convinced that there is value in this approach. I share the example to point out that teaching, because of its contextuality, may not operate like other professions where the meaning does not so depend on the relationships among the people involved.