Instructional Activities and Core Practices for Teaching

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.

From left to right: Nicole Louie, Jessica Charles, Lynsey Gibbons, Elham Kazemi, Magdalene Lampert, Judith Warren Little, me, and Britnie Kane

From left to right: Nicole Louie, Jessica Charles, Lynsey Gibbons, Elham Kazemi, Magdalene Lampert, Judith Warren Little, me, and Britnie Kane

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.


18 thoughts on “Instructional Activities and Core Practices for Teaching

    • My point seems to echo Fred Erickson’s 1986 handbook chapter on qualitative methods in teaching. I always think of the part where he describes Joan of Arc burning at the stake: “Meaning interpretations~rather than physical or chemical processes~ were what were causal in this sequence of social actions and reactions. These interpretations were the result of human choices, made at successive links in the chain of social interaction.”

      I know that your work and mine seeks to resensitize people to the complexity of social reality.


  1. Teaching is about judgement, creativity, and insight. It’s about listening first and foremost to our students and bringing passion about learning to the classroom. I will have to work a lot harder on communicating why I intentionally use instructional activities to work on the interactive, relational, distinctively contingent aspects of teaching. They are just shells for the discussion of principled judgement. In the same way that or or has given us ways of talking math with students, we use instructional activities as entry points into work on teaching but they are given meaning by the particular teachers’ use of them with particular kids. they also allow us to push on the way schools and math class tend to structure participation so we can change students’ experiences. But that depends deeply on the principles about teaching, learning and students that we hold dear as we work with one another. Making our practice public together, as we do in preservice courses or in inservice PD, and putting students hearts and minds at the center of our considerations is vital to the work that I do.


    • I am starting to think it isn’t an either/or but a both/and. I am convinced from your work and the work of our colleagues that the instructional activities can be a powerful way to develop the kind of teaching we care about.

      My call is just to ensure our approaches to teacher education preserve complexity and nuance — as you said eloquently in our meeting, to support the humanity of the children and teachers in schools.


  2. Pingback: Effortful Teaching | MathSugarOff

  3. I think it is a both/and. I used to have a real aversion to “trajectories” of teacher learning, I think because I was thinking just in terms of outcomes and moving from a 2 to a 3 on some rubric. But one of the things that’s exciting to me about this work is the focus on shifts in the kinds of support that give teachers access to deep learning over time. It seems to me that even an instructional activity in a university setting (like a methods class) provides some access to “discussion of principled judgment,” which can become richer as it gets carried to other settings and used in conjunction with other structures (like the teacher time out).

    Elham, do you ever use teacher time outs to discuss social issues in the classroom? Maybe a more private version??


    • The other thing I would add, Nicole, is that teaching requires such a multidimensional skill set: building relationships, designing activities, facilitating discussion, making a positive classroom climate, navigating content, extending and connecting ideas… I have found that new teachers often start out stronger in some areas than others, and it is different for different people. When I work with teachers, I encourage them to use their strengths to grow in other areas. So if you are good at building relationships and establishing a positive climate, you can let kids know you are trying new activities and you will need their feedback to help work out the kinks. So I think that there are numerous possibilities for teacher trajectories and that the best professional learning would individualize for particular teachers’ strengths.


    • I appreciate the conversation here. Nicole, we don’t do public teacher time outs in a way that would ever put a particular student or students on the spot. But we do sometimes work on social issues like students needing more time to talk with one another or getting more students involved in the sensemaking. If we saw a troubling social issue, I imagine we’d talk about that after the lesson more privately.


  4. I’m offering two cents here less with the intention of contributing value to a conversation among people much more well-versed in the subject than I am, and more with the intention of checking whether my own thinking makes sense: as I understand the core practice and instructional activity work (given our partnership with UW this past year) it sounds to me like what you’re describing as different between what you do and what Peg does are different at the level of moves, not at the level of practices or activities; you might both be posting student work in the context of an instructional activity around generalizing patterns (as a random example), which is the container/shell that allows you to enact/work on the practice of “attending to students’ social vulnerability” or, to use the language of one of the practices we focused on this summer (and one that you’ve written plenty about), the practice of “positioning students as competent.” An instructional activity, when it is shared across teachers, allows teachers to participate in the same conversation about practices because how you “position students as competent” might be different in an activity centered around number strings vs. an activity centered around generalizing patterns, and the moves (putting names on work, not putting names on work) you choose to implement the practice within the instructional activity depend on precisely what you’ve identified– the relational and contextual features of the situation.

    Does that make sense? Again, not to try and explain anything to anyone else, but rather to make sure my own thinking is clear. It feels I am nitpicking with words here to try and communicate distinctions in ideas that seem subtle yet important.


    • This is very insightful, Grace. Thank you! I still struggle with the container metaphor, and I think, in part, I am reacting to how the IA work gets taken up once it leaves the well-cultivated world of people like Elham and Magdalene, who certainly share your perspective. The container metaphor makes the practice sound like something that can retain essential sameness across contexts, and so much of the meaning gets constituted in the moves. My push is to highlight the situativity of even these well articulated practices. There is too much emphasis on teacher behavior in teacher education already, so I worry all the teacher thinking and pedagogical judgment get lost as this work gets scaled out.


      • Would it be fair to say it’s less the practices themselves that are situative, and it’s more how the practices are implemented that are situative? I can’t really think of a time when you wouldn’t/shouldn’t think about positioning students as competent, although how you go about doing so certainly depends on a thousand contextual factors.

        If so, then I think the implication is (to make a connection to your previous post) that in addition to spending time building teachers’ repertoires of moves (which I think we sometimes pretend is the entirety of the work of teaching– *cough* Lemov *cough*– and which I think is what you’re referring to when you say “too much emphasis on teacher behavior”), we ALSO need to spend time building teachers’ judgment about when to use those moves (which depends on their sensitivity to situations and their interpretations of them). Which then requires much more complex teacher education pedagogies than we typically see, which is what the McDonald/Kazemi/Kavanaugh learning cycle attempts to address?


  5. I think that I concur with Grace here.

    When you wrote, Lani about your and Peg’s different practices with names on student work-in-progress, I began to wonder whether there might be more similarity than difference there. Yes, the two of you conducted different actions, but with the same concern.

    So I want to think about how these concerns can be an important part of teacher development, and about how the actions, and their grounding in classroom contexts can become part of that as well.

    I took a class once with Deborah Ball and Suzanne Wilson. Those two spoke aloud nearly all of their teaching decisions as they were making them. In studying their teaching, I wasn’t collecting their teacher moves; I was collecting the kinds of concerns they expressed. And I was learning how to use those concerns, together with a teaching context, to make instructional decisions.


    • Yes, I think those of us who think that teacher judgment is critical absolutely recognize the “sameness” of Peg and my actions at a deeper level. My concern comes from the dominant move, the Lemovization of teaching, which engages prevailing common sense notions of teachers-as-doers rather than teachers-as-thinkers. Part of the meta-message of Deborah and Suzanne’s class was revealing the sheer number and complexity of decisions thoughtful teachers make in the course of a class session.


  6. Lemov shares techniques that he thinks good teachers use, but that’s not at the same level of practices that we are thinking about. I think we are working on bringing together the doing and thinking that is guided by a set of principles that we articulate and work to enact. I like how Grace and Christopher talked about learning ways of positioning students competently that make sense given the particularities of a class and the histories of students with one another and with the teacher. I don’t think it would be correct to put the core practices work that we are engaging in the same category as Lemov.


    • To be clear, I do not intend to compare Lemov to you, Elham… or Magdalene or anybody who is theoretically close to the Instructional Activities work. My only concern is, like any richly conceptual practice, it can easily get mistranslated as a fancier Lemov-like effort. The fundamental issue to me is that there is a wide-spread misconception that the work of teaching primarily consists of doing — not doing *and* thinking.

      This is a deep-rooted bias. I once had a conversation with Sharon Feiman-Nemser about this, where she told me how hard it was to try to convince people that teacher learning was a worthy topic of study. It was the process-product hay day, so the idea that teachers were cognitive beings was apparently quite radical. If the instructional activities work does not make the potential for contextual adaptation overly clear, I have already seen evidence that it will fall prey to this hegemonic view of teachers-as-doers, and the important work of developing judgment will get washed away in translation.


      • Yeah. About that deep-rooted bias…

        I see it all the time in the conversations about Common Core on Twitter. The idea that teachers might have knowledge they draw upon which is different from the knowledge of the typical citizen is seen by many as absurd on its face. And then the idea that teachers use this knowledge in order to make judgments and instructional decisions? Oh boy.

        A typical example of this is here. When asked, “How did your teacher know when you knew something?” the reply is, “How did she know? SHE WAS THE TEACHER!”

        The subtext here is this, I think: To the extent that teachers know something about their students, this just happens in the routine course of doing their work. There are no decisions a teacher makes in order to obtain or use this information. All teachers are equally skilled at obtaining it.

        Anyway, thanks for hosting such a thoughtful conversation here.

        Liked by 1 person

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