More than Reflection: How Teachers Learn from Each Other

I have had a really interesting twitter conversation this morning with Luann Lee, a science teacher who is thinking hard about instructional coaching. Luann wrote a post suggesting that, instead of instructional coaching, it might make more sense to use resources to buy an assistant teacher for her and her colleagues to free them up to do more visits to each other’s classrooms.

While I agree that this may be a great idea for Luann and her colleagues, I do not think it would work in every circumstance. Recently, my graduate student Britnie Kane and I did an analysis of teachers’ collaborative conversations. They were all math teachers working in urban schools and involved in a professional development project. The key difference among the three groups of teachers was their level of accomplishment in what we call “ambitious teaching” — the kind of instruction that involves all students in high levels of content.

So we spent a year (I am not kidding) analyzing and coding 17 hours of video to make sense of the differences in how they talked about problems of teaching.

Using quantitative and qualitative analyses, here is what we found:

  1. Time spent on problems of practice increased with sophistication in ambitious teaching.
    While the average length of conversations about any one problem in the Sophisticated and Emergent Groups were relatively similar (11 min 26 s versus 9 min and 4 s, respectively), the average time spent in both of these groups was more than twice that of the Beginning Group (4 min 15 s). The differences between the Beginning Group and the other groups were significant (Sophisticated Group, p=0.0055; Emergent, p=0.0003).
  2. The Sophisticated Group consistently considered broad ideas of teaching in light of particular instances of practice.
    Their talk was neither overly vague (e.g., “we need to do more spiraling”) or overly specific (e.g., only telling stories). If they introduced a teaching idea like “spiraling”, it was always linked to examples from the past (what happened that makes them think that) and plans for the future (what will more spiraling look like in their classroom). The linking of general ideas to particulars was a hallmark of their talk, as was the constant pivoting between past and future classroom events.
  3. The Sophisticated Group typically linked discussions of students to issues of instructional decisions and content-specific learning. 

    The other groups might have a good debrief about why a lesson did not go as planned, but then the analysis would not be taken up in subsequent conversation. The Sophisticated group consistently linked any discussion of student learning to instructional decisions and content issues, while the other groups might reflect on these issues but not connect them back up.

In the end, we saw that all reflection is not created equal. The analogy we drew was to the differences between learning from a text when you are a strong versus a weak reader. Good readers can make inferences and extend their understanding, while weaker readers struggle to decode text and can’t see the larger implications. In other words, there is more to gain from reflective discussion once you have already learned quite a bit about teaching, making it an unequally valuable resource for different teachers.

When we looked at conversations with a strong facilitator, a lot of these differences disappeared. For this reason, we think that good facilitators and coaches can make for better conversations. (We know that they don’t always — but that is another post for another day.)

We also think our analysis sheds light on what it means to understand a concept in teaching. You can’t just have an abstract idea of student learning, scaffolding, cognitively demanding tasks, or status, and then know how to use it in your classroom. You need to see multiple examples, in different situations over time. By understanding the connections across these examples, you can really dig into what these things mean.

I guess this is why good teaching is so hard.