2020 Research from the Teacher Learning Lab at Vanderbilt

It’s that time of year — I get to brag on my amazing students and mentees for their important research.

(I am going to focus on journal articles here, but if you want to see more about what we are finding on the National Science Foundation-sponsored project, my lab’s major current research project, Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics study (Project SIGMa), you can look here.)

For those of you not familiar with my lab, we study teachers’ sensemaking from an anthropological perspective. We blend a mix of methods to really dig into how teachers (mostly math teachers, mostly teaching in urban secondary schools) understand what they are up to, with an eye towards how different social arrangements and activities shape those meanings. This approach supports the development of ecologically valid models of teachers’ learning and, relatedly, context-sensitive designs for instructional improvement.

Looking at how teachers monitor student-led work

Nadav Ehrenfeld & Ilana Horn (2020). Initiation-entry-focus-exit and participation: a framework for understanding teacher groupwork monitoring routines. Educational Studies in Mathematics. 103, 251–272 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10649-020-09939-2

In this paper, we offer a framework for teacher monitoring routines—a consequential yet understudied aspect of instruction when teachers oversee students’ working together. Using a comparative case study design, we examine eight lessons of experienced secondary mathematics teachers, identifying common interactional routines that they take up with variation. We present a framework that illuminates the common moves teachers make while monitoring, including how they initiate conversations with students, their forms of conversational entry, the focus of their interactions, when and how they exit the interaction as well as the conversation’s overall participation pattern. We illustrate the framework through our focal cases, highlighting the instructional issues the different enactments engage. By breaking down the complex work of groupwork monitoring, this study informs both researchers and teachers in understanding the teachers’ role in supporting students’ collaborative mathematical sensemaking.

(Here is a blog post written by folks at Vosaic, the video-coding software that we used in this analysis.)

Considering Ethical Dimensions of Mathematics Teaching

Grace A. Chen, Samantha Marshall, & Ilana Seidel Horn (2020). “How do I choose?” Mathematics Teachers’ Sensemaking about Pedagogical Responsibility. Pedagogy, Culture & Society. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681366.2020.1735497

Teachers’ decisions are often undergirded by their sense of pedagogical responsibility: whom and what they feel beholden to. However, research on teacher sensemaking has rarely examined how teachers reason about their pedagogical responsibilities. The study analyzed an emotional conversation among urban mathematics teachers about what they teach mathematics for, given the many non-mathematical challenges they and their students face. The familiarity and simplicity of love and life skills narratives deployed to describe what it means to be a good teacher and to do good teaching may be comforting, but limit teachers’ engagement with other authentic forms of pedagogical reasoning about their pedagogical responsibility in complex sociopolitical contexts. The findings reveal the importance of opportunities to explore alternate possibilities ‘for what,’ especially within structured and supportive teacher collaborative group

(Here is a research outreach document that summarizes this work nicely.)

Taking Seriously the Meaningful Preparation of Black Women Teachers

Mariah D. Harmon and Ilana Seidel Horn (in press). Seeking Healing through Black Sisterhood: Examining the Affordances of a Counterspace for Black Women Pre-Service Teachers. AILACTE Journal.

Calls to increase diversity in the United States teacher workforce emphasize benefits to students without strategic consideration of minoritized teachers’ needs. In this ethnographic study, we investigate the affordances of a counterspace for Black women pre-service teachers in a predominantly white institution to support their development as educators. Using a grounded theory approach, we analyze fieldnotes from one meeting to understand how the counterspace offered participants a space to reconcile with contradictions experienced working in schools. The counterspace contributed to participants’ healing in three ways: (1) it made space for participants to interrogate their own experiences in U.S. schools; (2) it offered insider connections, a fundamental sense of belonging and legitimacy; and (3) it busted the myth of the monolith, by inviting the breadth of Black women’s stories and histories. These findings suggest that building community through shared identity markers can foster a rich environment for teacher development. 

The Impact of Strong Teacher Collaboration on Teachers’ Advice-Seeking Networks

Ilana Horn, Brette Garner, I-Chien Chen, and Kenneth A. Frank. (2020, April). “Seeing Colleagues as Learning Resources: The Influence of Mathematics Teacher Meetings on Advice-Seeking Social Networks.” AERA Open 6(2): 2332858420914898.

Teacher collaboration is often assumed to support school’s ongoing improvement, but it is unclear how formal learning opportunities in teacher workgroups shape informal ones. In this mixed methods study, we examined 77 teacher collaborative meetings from 24 schools representing 116 teacher pairs. We coupled qualitative analysis of the learning opportunities in formal meetings with quantitative analysis of teachers’ advice-seeking ties in informal social networks. We found that teachers’ coparticipation in learning-rich, high-depth meetings strongly predicted the formation of new advice-seeking ties. What is more, these new informal ties were linked to growth in teachers’ expertise, pointing to added value of teachers’ participation in high-depth teacher collaboration.

Methods for Studying Teachers’ Collaborative Learning

Ilana Horn & Nicole A. Bannister (2020, February). Interactionist Perspectives on Mathematics Teachers’ Collaborative Learning. International Commission of Mathematics Instruction Study Conference. Lisbon, Portugal. (Link to paper)

Interactionist analyses of teachers’ professional conversations respond to open questions about collaborative mathematics teacher learning in ways that are proximal and relevant to their lived experiences and everyday work. Drawing on situative theories of learning, we analyze partitioned conversational records for evidence of learning. Key findings from our prior studies point to four design considerations for interventions that seek to leverage the potential of mathematics teacher collaboration: (1) deeper collaboration is relatively novel and rare for teachers; (2) development of a shared vision for teaching is essential and deliberate work; (3) adequate representations of teaching are necessary for supporting intersubjectivity about core instructional ideas; and (4) frames are an important site for reconceptualization of key ideas about teaching. Examples from our current projects show the application and broader utility of these findings for interventions that use collaboration to support mathematics teacher learning.


For the first time, I have also been experimenting with pre-prints. Grace Chen and I received support from the Gates Mindset Scholars network, where we were introduced to this practice. Then, last spring, Katherine Schneeberger McGugan and I embarked on an interview study of experienced secondary mathematics teachers’ transitions to virtual instruction during the pandemic. Because of the timeliness of our findings, we felt compelled to share on a quicker timeline than the usual publication process permits. Finally, Grace and I collaborated with sociologist Jessica Calarco on an analysis of inequalities produced through elementary and middle school math homework, which also seemed urgent, since currently all school is homework.

A Literature Review Synthesizing on How Students Get Marginalized in Mathematics Classrooms

Grace A. Chen & Ilana Seidel Horn (2020, August). Mechanisms of Marginalization in Mathematics Classrooms: A Call to Critical Bifocality. DOI: 10.31219/osf.io/nv6kd

In light of decades of research seeking to document and transform extensive injustices in mathematics education in the United States, we examine how different conceptualizations of which students are marginalized and by what processes they are marginalized in order to contribute to a more thorough, nuanced understanding of marginalization in mathematics education. To do so, we review literature theorizing marginalization across social identity categories and synthesize the disciplinary traditions they draw on and the mechanisms of marginalization they articulate. Findings from this review highlight the normality of marginalization in mathematics education, the material and ideological means of marginalization, and the interlacing of individual and structural sources of marginalization. As a result, we argue for critical bifocality in attending simultaneously to the processes of marginalization that occur in individual mathematics classrooms alongside the systemic structures that organize marginalization in society more broadly.

How Experienced Secondary Urban Mathematics Teachers Transitioned to Virtual Teaching

Ilana Seidel Horn & Katherine Schneeberger McGugan (2020, June). Adaptive expertise in mathematics teaching during a crisis: How highly-committed secondary U.S. mathematics teachers adjusted their instruction in the COVID-19 pandemic. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.13720.83200

The global COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education across the world, requiring a quick re-organization of instruction on a large scale. In this study, we examine how highly-committed secondary mathematics teachers in the U.S. responded as they shifted their instruction online. Building off a four-year research practice partnership, we interviewed 11 secondary mathematics teachers whom we conceptualize as adaptive experts –– experienced teachers who responded flexibly and with an openness to learning –– about their pivot to online instruction. Conducting semi-structured interviews during school closures, we found that, while the teachers maintained commitments to ambitious and equitable teaching, new dilemmas arose around time management, centering student thinking, and building and maintaining relationships. By documenting how highly-reflective educators responded to this crisis, we highlight issues for others to anticipate in times of educational disruption, as well as contribute to the field’s understanding of adaptive expertise in mathematics teaching.

Jessica Calarco, Ilana Horn, and Grace A. Chen (2020, August). “You Need to Be More Responsible”: How Math Homework Operates as a Status-Reinforcing Process in School. DOI: 10.31235/osf.io/xf96q

Practices like ability grouping, tracking, and standardized testing operate as status-reinforcing processes—amplifying then naturalizing unequal student outcomes. Using a longitudinal, ethnographic study following students from elementary to middle school, we examine whether math homework can operate similarly. Because of inequalities in families’ resources for supporting homework, higher-SES students’ homework was more consistently complete and correct than lower-SES students’ homework. Teachers acknowledged these unequal homework production contexts. Yet, official policies treated homework as an individual endeavor, leading teachers to interpret and respond to homework in status-reinforcing ways. Students with consistently correct and complete homework were seen as responsible, capable, and motivated and rewarded with praise and opportunities. Other students were seen as irresponsible, incapable, and unmotivated; they were punished and docked points. These practices were status-enhancing for higher-SES students and status-degrading for lower-SES students. We discuss implications for homework policies, parent involvement, and interpretations of inequalities in school.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not shout out a new book by my former advisee, Elizabeth Self, and my colleague, Barb Stengel: Toward Anti-Oppressive Teaching: Designing and Using Simulated Encounters. They wrote about the incredible work they have led on the SHIFT Project, which has transformed Peabody’s teacher preparation program.

We will have more to share in the new year… Patricia Buenrostro and Nadav Ehrenfeld have a paper about a teacher’s reasoning about productive struggle, a key construct in a lot of mathematics reform … Samantha Marshall’s recently defended dissertation, Responsive, Locally-Relevant Coaching: Supporting STEM Teachers’ Learning of Justice-Oriented Pedagogies, should be yielding some publications … and our team, led by myself and Brette Garner, is developing a book describing our theory of teacher learning.


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