What Does it Mean to “Know” in Teaching?

Last month, at the invitation of colleagues Manka Varghese and Ken Zeichner,  I gave a lecture at the University of Washington College of Education.

Use the comment section to ask any questions.



Professional Development is Broken, but Be Careful How We Fix It

This morning, Jal Mehta tagged me on a tweet to linking to his recent Education Week blog post, entitled “Let’s End Professional Development as We Know It.”

The following exchange ensued:

He then asked if I could share some of my research to back my perspective. I sent him an email with journal articles and such, but I thought I would share my ideas with y’all too.

Here is my argument about why putting professional development (PD) back in schools may be necessary but not sufficient to improving its impact on teachers’ instruction.

Unlike medicine and other scientific fields, where problems are taken-as-shared and protocols for addressing problems are roughly agreed upon, teaching problems are locally defined. What needs attention in one school may not need attention in another. For instance, some schools’ “best practices” may center on adapting instruction to English learners, while other schools’ might center on the mental health ailments that have become prevalent among affluent teens. Likewise, other professions share language, representations, and goals for critical aspects of their work — these all important resources for learning together. In teaching, we see repeatedly that terms acquire the meaning of their setting more often than they bring new meanings to these places. Take, for instance, Carol Dweck’s ideas about mindset. The various ways that her construct has taken hold in education led her to explain why what she means by mindset is not how the idea is being used. If we leave professional development entirely up to individual school sites, this means that “doing PD” on Topic X probably looks fairly different from place to place, so radically localized professional development will exacerbate this problem.

Leaving professional development to local sites also limits teachers’ access to expertise. When my colleagues and I have studied teachers’ collaborative learning, we found that the learning opportunities are not equally distributed across all teacher groups. Some of this has to do with how teachers spend their time (e.g., focused on logistics or deeper analysis of teaching). But some of it has to do with who is sitting around the table and what they have been tasked to do.

Teachers’ collaborative learning can be described as an accumulated advantage phenomenon, where the rich get richer. That is, teachers who have sophisticated notions of practice are able to identify teaching problems in complex ways and deploy more sophisticated strategies for addressing them. This follows from my previous points, since problem definition is an important part of teachers’ on-the-job learning. For instance, if we have a lot of students failing a course, how do we get to the bottom of this issue? In many places, high failure rates are interpreted as a student quality problem. In others, they are taken as a teaching quality problem. Interpretations depend on how practitioners think this whole teaching and learning business goes down. In other words, problem definition is rooted in teachers’ existing conceptions of their work, which in other professions, are codified and disseminated through standardized use of language and representations.

Unequal access to expertise is only one of many reasons the optimistic premise of teacher community often does not pan out. There is a tendency to valorize practicing teachers’ knowledge, and, no doubt, there is something to be learned in the wisdom of practice. That being said, professions and professionals have blind spots, and with the large-scale patterns of unequal achievement we have in the United States, we can infer that students from historically marginalized groups frequently live in these professional blind spots. For reasons of equity alone, it is imperative to develop even our best practitioners beyond their current level by giving them access to more expert others.

Even in highly collaborative, well-intentioned teacher communities, other institutional pressures (e.g., covering curriculum, planning lessons) pull teachers’ attention to the nuts-and-bolts of their work, rather than broader learning or improvement agendas. Add to this the norms of privacy and non-interference that characterize teachers’ work, you can see why deeper conversations around issues of teaching and learning are difficult to come by.

What about, you might say, bringing in expert coaches? Research shows that expert facilitators or coaches can make a difference. In fact, there is evidence that having expert coaches may matter more than expert colleagues when it comes to teacher development. At the same time, we suspect that expert facilitators are necessary but not sufficient, as coaches often get pulled into other tasks that do not fully utilize their expertise. In our current study, we see accomplished coaches filling in for missing substitute teachers, collating exams, or working on classroom management with struggling teachers. None of these tasks taps into their sophisticated instructional knowledge. Additionally, being an accomplished teacher does not guarantee you have the skill to communicate your teaching to others. In our data, we have numerous examples of really great teachers underexplaining their teaching to others.

Lee Shulman famously called out the missing paradigm of teacher knowledge, giving rise to a lot of research on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). While PCK gave a very useful way to think about teachers’ specialized knowledge, little progress has been made on understanding how teachers develop this and other forms of knowledge, particularly in the institutional context of schools, which often presses teachers’ practice away from what might be deemed “good teaching.” As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.

Building Teaching as a Responsive Profession

Those of you who spend real or virtual time with me have heard me talk about how hard it is to talk about teaching.

One frequently mentioned issue is that, unlike other professions, teaching does not have its own technical language. Professions like aviation and medicine have common professional terms that highlight important features of critical situations and guide practice. In aviation, for instance, pilots identify wind patterns to aid in landing planes. Likewise, surgeons have cataloged human anatomy and surgical procedures so the protocol for appendectomies can be named and routinized, with appropriate modifications for anatomical variations such as hemophilia or obesity. But a strong headwind in China is similar to a strong headwind in Denmark; a hemophiliac in Brazil will require more or less the same modifications as a hemophiliac in Egypt.

In contrast, an urban school may not be the same as an urban school a few blocks away, nor an ADHD kid the same as an ADHD kid in the same classroom. Although such terms attempt to invite descriptions about particular teaching situations, the language often relies on stereotyped understandings. Everyday categories like an urban school, an honors class, or an ADHD kid seldom work to describe teaching situations adequately to help teachers address the challenges they face. Words characterizing social spaces and human traits are inherently ambiguous and situated in particular social, cultural and historical arrangements.

The variation teachers encounter cannot always be codified, as they often are in aviation and surgery. In fact, in the United States, when educational situations are codified, they often presume the “neutral” of White, English-speaking, and middle class culture. However, the widespread practice of glossing cultural particulars, or only seeing them as deviants from a norm, reduces teachers’ ability to teach well. From Shirley Brice Heath’s  seminal work comparing home literacy practices in White and African American communities to Annette Lareau’s identification of social class-specific parenting patterns, we see time and again that children from non-dominant groups frequently encounter schooling expectations that are incongruous with their home cultures, often to the detriment of their learning. Conversely, when instructional practices align with children’s home cultures, teachers more are more effective at cultivating students’ learning. (See, for a few well documented examples, this work by Kathryn Au and Alice Kawakami, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Teresa McCarty.)

Culturally responsive pedagogies are, by definition, highly particular and have been documented to yield better student learning. To communicate sufficiently, professional language for teaching would need to encompass this complexity, avoiding simplistic –– perhaps common sense –– stereotypes about children, classrooms, schools, or communities.

How, then, can we develop shared professional language for teaching and build professionals responsive to the children they serve? I have some ideas I will share in another post.

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.

Responding to Federal Oversight of Teacher Preparation Programs

Today is the last day to register reactions to the proposed federal policy on teacher preparation programs. The regulations would evaluate teacher preparation programs based on graduates’ value-added scores. If you want to register your opinions, please do so here. This is what I wrote.

I am writing to state my reasons against this proposed policy. It oversimplifies the work of teaching and punishes teachers who want to work in underresourced communities.

One definition of teaching is that it is “the deliberate cultivation of learning in others in distinctive teaching situations.” In other words, teaching involves recruiting other people in a teacher’s goals for *their* development — and with a unbelievably inequitable set of resources for doing so. Variations in class sizes, material resources, and bureaucratic burdens are all beyond the control of individual teachers yet are highly consequential to what is possible in the classroom.

To place the effectiveness of teaching solely within teachers themselves — without truly equitable funding for schools, without universal healthcare, without adequate supports like childcare for families living in poverty — places teachers in the center of blame for learning or not learning when there are many aspects of the teaching situation that are beyond their control.

We have already seen the unintended consequences of mass annual testing of students in the devaluation of untested subjects, the educational triage of re-teaching students on the cusp of proficiency, and other types of number gaming. I predict an unintended consequence of this proposed policy would be to discourage teachers from working in schools and communities who are already disenfranchised and underresourced. It is much easier to move students to “proficiency” cut points when Mom and Dad can afford supplemental tutoring. We already have a teacher maldistribution problem in this country, where the most qualified teachers work disproportionately with the best-resourced students. This policy only stands to exacerbate this problem.

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.

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.