The Moral Qualities of Teaching

A few years ago, my colleague Rogers Hall and I looked at how biostatisticians and epidemiologists’ workplace conversations compared with those of instructional coaches and teachers. (We both study how people learn at work.)

As we compared our methods for analyzing workplace learning, we had a few great a-ha! moments. Rogers focuses a lot on epistemic communities in his analysis — that is, how different professions collectively agree about what qualifies as knowledge. The architects, etymologists and epidemiologists he has studied all have different standards for saying that something is “known.” Sharing analytic methods benefited me: the idea of epistemic community helped me describe how different teachers take different tacks on what counts as knowing in teaching.

My work informed his in a different way. In my studies, I examine how teachers justify instructional decisions. Oftentimes, they provide affective reasons for what they do  (“I am skipping this lesson because I don’t like it.” “I am going to do this activity because the kids love it.”)  Sometimes, they ground their choices in technical knowledge (“We need to give kids more time on subtracting integers. Those are hard ideas, and they need to see them lots of different examples.”) In addition, teachers will invoke moral reasons (“I am doing re-takes because every kid needs a chance to learn this. I don’t care who your 8th grade teacher was, you are going to learn in my class.”)

Through the comparison, Rogers saw that morality played in epidemiologists’ decisions too. For instance, in one observation, a scientist and a biostatistician debated how to sample a population to look for relationships between HIV and HPV –– whether to do fewer numbers of a better HPV screening or to get more statistical power by using a less expensive HPV test. If quality data were the only consideration, the need for statistical power would prevail. However, the epidemiologist had a had a strong moral commitment to improving the lives of poor women being recruited in the study and wanted to make sure they got the best screening available. This consideration played into his research design. Even supposedly “objective” scientists have reasons to weigh moral and ethical issues in their research.

Why do I bring up the role of morality in teaching? At the moment, I have intellectual and personal reasons.

Intellectually, I need to push back on how the cognitive revolution impacts how we think about teacher knowledge. Lee Shulman had a critical insight: good teachers have a special kind of content knowledge — what he called “pedagogical content knowledge”:

Pedagogical content knowledge (or PCK) includes: (a) knowledge of how to structure and represent academic content for direct teaching to students; (b) knowledge of the common conceptions, misconceptions, and difficulties that students encounter when learning particular content; and (c) knowledge of the specific teaching strategies that can be used to address students’ learning needs in particular classroom circumstances.

By acknowledging the specialized kinds of understanding that good teaching demands, Shulman did his part to elevate the teaching profession, opening entire programs of research that specify different facets of PCK.

Yet, somewhere in the years that followed, the moral element of teaching has too often been devalued. In our quest to professionalize teaching by defining its specialized knowledge, we have downplayed that teaching, at its best, is a deeply moral act.

For example, the PCK construct says nothing of what Rochelle Gutierréz calls “the political knowledge” teachers need to have truly equitable and inclusive classrooms. For instance, teachers need to understand the often biased structures of schooling and work deliberately against them. Recognizing bias and working against it is inherently moral: it acknowledges the inequities built into schooling, from unequal resources to cultural bias to curricular marginalization.

On the personal level, I have a child who has struggled in school. This child’s school experience has vastly improved when teachers are morally invested, sometimes beyond what would be sensible. I am fortunate because this year, my child’s teacher deeply understands the nature of these struggles.

When we first met, we discussed the history and nature of what has gone on. She shared that she had a child with similar challenges. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “So when I say I get your child” –– she tapped her hand to her heart –– “I get your child.

Since then, she has told me that she finds my kid an “interesting challenge” and a “delight.” I have heard her talk to other parents as well and can attest that this teacher has a strong commitment to find a way to connect with and reach every student in her classroom.

Calling her commitment a form of knowledge does not do justice to the deep place it comes from: from her heart, from her very purpose as a teacher. And I know that has made all the difference.

What I Notice and Wonder about Teaching Like a Champion

Last night, Chris Robinson shared an experience with an administrator who observed his math classroom. He had been doing an activity called Noticing and Wondering with his students, something that Max Ray of the Math Forum has written about extensively. Noticing and wondering is a great discussion starter. You share a mathematical object or situation with children and open up the floor to their curiosity. They can connect the mathematical thing with their own ideas, then a teacher can shape the conversation by building connections to formal math.

Here is the administrator’s feedback:

Now, I am not naive. I understand that our lack of consensus about good teaching leaves a lot of room for interpretation about what is working and what is not. The administrator was obviously perplexed by the wide berth Chris gave to his students to wonder about the math. Kids do say and think goofy things, as do all people. But sometimes our odd ideas need a good airing to connect to what we are learning.

Normally, seeing Chris’s tweet would frustrate me. What do we need to do to drive a wedge between people’s confusion about students being compliant and being engaged? What do we need to do to help educators understand that the path to deep understanding is often not a straight line, and that to connect ideas to our lives, our own thinking –– goofy or not –– needs a chance to come out?

Yesterday, however, the administrator’s problematic response did more than frustrate me. As I told Chris (and the others on the thread):

In my class Teaching as a Social Practice, we have been discussing the consequences of our lack of consensus on the nature of good teaching. We often examine what gets put out and circulated as good teaching and hold it against various research on things like  how kids learn or how teachers can teach responsively.

I showed this Doug Lemov video related to his best-selling book, Teach Like a Champion, with the intent to dissect the underlying assumptions about teaching and learning. The 100% technique is a way of managing students’ attention during instruction. Take two minutes to watch it.

What do you notice? What do you wonder?

I notice that these are all White teachers and that the students are nearly all Black.

fold hands

I wonder why the teacher (above) is signalling this boy to have his hands folded. I wonder if there is any research anywhere showing that folded hands will help with his learning.

Whisper to Jasmin

I notice that when this teacher reprimands this student for not having the answer to a question (1:11 on the video), she jumps immediately to the assumption that the girl needs to work harder. I wonder why the teacher doesn’t ask her if she has any questions about what was being asked or if everything is okay today.

Giving you a gift

I notice that this teacher says the following to his class as a motivational speech (1:44):

I can bring it to you but I can’t give it to you. You’ve got to reach for it. If they were free at Toys R Us you would reach. I’m giving you the same kind of gift, just not wrapped up. The gift of knowledge.

I wonder what is going on in this metaphor. I am wondering if I ever have seen wrapped up gifts at Toys R Us. I wonder if other overly analytical kids in this class also got lost down this rabbit hole of wondering.

I wonder if the kids would like the gift of being able to keep their hands unfolded and moving their bodies more freely more than the gift of repeating after the teacher in the name of “knowledge.”


What does all this have to do with Chris and his interaction with his administrator?

Teach Like a Champion has been a huge seller, especially in urban schools. It’s highly rated and ranked on Amazon and I have talked to numerous new teachers who report getting handed a copy by administrators. There is even a new edition Champion 2.0.

Activities like noticing and wondering open up classroom discussions and invite kids (goofy ideas and all) to think. Techniques like 100% in Teach Like a Champion limit permissible activity and thinking by students.  Contrasting the two is a productive microcosm on current debates about teaching. The issue is particularly urgent in urban classrooms, where methods like those promoted in Champion emphasize the control of Black and Brown bodies by White teachers instead of the celebration of children’s own ideas. This is especially troubling given what we know about disproportionate discipline of these children.

With this vision of teaching dominating the landscape, it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers like Chris Robinson to invite their children to think with him in the classroom without the risk of being reprimanded.

Shining a Light on Cultural Blindspots through Teacher Education

I have tweeted a bit about this interesting and important research in teacher education by my doctoral student Elizabeth Self. It always generates a lot of queries and conversations. Liz has really developed and conducted the research, with me and others as a guide, so I have not felt right about explaining her work myself. Instead, I invited her to share the clinical simulation work she has developed to help our pre-service teachers become more culturally competent educators.

Every semester that I teach a social foundations class at Peabody, I end up telling the story about an incident I had at a charter school in Chicago where I was teaching. About how I made a dumb comment without thinking about the context – a White teacher of mostly Black and Brown students – and how, when a Black colleague tried to confront me with the racism inherent in what I’d said, I did everything wrong that White people do in these situations. I was defensive. I tone policed him when he sent an email later. I told friends that I hadn’t mean it “that way.” Then I cried. At some point, I finally got to the place where I could hear what he was trying to say. I can’t say specifically when I finally started to listen or what made me do so, but I can say without a doubt that this incident in large part led me to where I am today.

Now a doctoral candidate at Peabody, I focus on preparing pre-service teachers for culturally responsive teaching, particularly the interactional work. In my first few semesters as an instructor, I tried a variety of approaches to get my pre-service teachers feel the same way I did in the days and weeks that followed that incident with my coworker. When I would share my story or similar examples from case studies, they would gasp in astonishment or groan sympathetically, but at some level, they all thought, “I would never do that!” Nothing seemed to have the effect I was looking to get them to see their own blind spots. It was then that I read about Benjamin Dotger’s work at Syracuse University, using clinical simulations to prepare teachers and administrators for common problems of practice. I thought that with some adaptation, I could develop clinical simulations that served as potential critical incidents for my pre-service teachers.

Clinical simulation is an instructional tool in which pre-service teachers encounter an actor, playing the part of a student, parent, colleague, or administrator, in a way that mimics a real-life event. Participants receive a protocol ahead of time that gives them background on the encounter and provides them with some of the information they would likely have based on when in the school year the event is said to happen. They usually have a few days to a week to prepare. The actors also receive a protocol that they use to prepare so that all actors present the part in a standardized way. The simulation lasts between 15-30 minutes, depending on how it’s designed. Afterwards, participants may do a “raw” debrief right away, but they usually watch their video back before doing a group debrief with the instructor.

While Dotger’s published simulations focus on common problems of practice in secondary education, mine focus on the kinds of incidents that, as Gadamer (1960) wrote, cause someone to be “pulled up short.” To see his assumptions about a person or event go unmet. The simulations I ran this fall were examples of this – talking with a student about an outburst in class, only to learn there is a much more serious problem to deal with; conferencing with a parent about her student, who may have a reading disability, and facing unexpected communication issues; soliciting input from a veteran teacher about new students, and getting way more than what was asked for. In the end, the pre-service teachers who participated in these simulations overwhelmingly came away feeling “pulled up short.” They did not expect the encounter to unfold the way it did, often because they did not pay attention to the relevant information in the protocol that would have prepared them for what occurred. They also struggled (by design) in the simulations because they framed the situations in unproductive ways – as opportunities for telling, rather than asking; as situations in which they wanted to defend, rather then respond. The simulations did not do this on their own; I made careful decisions each cycle (more and less successfully) about how to shape the re-watching of their own videos and what to do during the group debrief. But by the end of the course, the teachers seemed to have become more open to learning about the why and how of culturally responsive teaching and were thinking more productively about how to interact with their future students.

My goals in these simulations are multifold. First and foremost, I want teachers to understand that their knowledge is always partial. Without knowing their students, and in ways deeper than a first-of-the-year interest inventory reveals, they will have difficulty reaching their students, especially those who have been historically marginalized in US society and underserved by our schools. Next, I want them to recognize their blind spots and realize that they will always have some, but must be ready to acknowledge them when someone points them out. Finally, I want to give my pre-service teachers an opportunity to fail in a setting that is supportive of them but also safe for their students. Often in teaching, we send pre-service teachers out to tutor in low-income communities as their first interaction with students. In my mind, this raises the potential harm for students who are already underserved and may reinforce stereotypes for pre-service teachers. Clinical simulations in no way replace the need for teachers to spend time in the communities where they teacher or to interact with real students, but I do hope that they help provide teachers with a better starting place for those interactions.

It occurs to me periodically that I am an unlikely person to be doing this work. Surely, it would seem more reasonable for the person doing this to come from an insider perspective – someone who has personally suffered the effects of racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, or homophobia. For that reason, I make efforts as I develop each simulation to draw on cultural insiders to help make the simulation authentic to their lived experience. Furthermore, I see it as imperative that people of privilege work – thoughtfully and reflectively – to spare these insiders some of the burden they have carried for so long in providing this education to folks like me. It is my desire that by doing so, my own children – both White and Black – will encounter teachers a little more ready to teach them than I was.