Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics (Project SIGMa)

Good news to share: another research grant has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Yay!

For this project, my research team and I will be working with Math for America in Los Angeles to design a video-based coaching method for their Master Teacher Fellow program.

sigma logo

This is what we pitched to the NSF:

This study addresses the need to develop processes for adequate and timely feedback to inform mathematics teachers’ instructional improvement goals. In this study, we propose using design-based implementation research to develop and investigate a process for documenting mathematics teachers’ instruction in a way that is close to classroom practice and contributes to teachers’ ongoing pedagogical sense making. The practical contribution will be a framework for formative feedback for mathematics teachers’ learning in and from practice. The intellectual contribution will be a theory of mathematics teachers’ learning, as they move from typical to more ambitious forms of teaching in the context of urban secondary schools. Both the practical and theoretical products can inform the design of professional development and boost other instructional improvement efforts.

In a recent Spencer study, my team and I investigated how teachers used standardized test data to inform their instruction. (That team was Mollie Appelgate, Jason Brasel, Brette Garner, Britnie Kane, and Jonee Wilson.)

Part of the theory of accountability policies like No Child Left Behind is that students fail to learn because teachers do not always know what they know. By providing teachers with better information, teachers can adjust instruction and reach more students. There are a few ways we saw that theory break down. First, the standardized test data did not always come back to teachers in a timely fashion. It doesn’t really help teachers adjust  instruction when the information arrives in September about students they taught last May. Second, the standardized test data took a lot of translation to apply to what teachers did in their classroom. Most of the time, teachers used data to identify frequently challenging topics and simply re-taught them. So students got basically the same instruction again, instead of instruction that had been modified to address central misunderstandings. We called this “more of the same,” which is not synonymous with better instruction. Finally, there were a lot of issues of alignment. Part of how schools and districts addressed the first problem on this list was by giving interim assessments –– basically mini versions of year end tests. Often, the instruments were designed in-house and thus not psychometrically validated, so they may have not always measured what they purported to measure. Other times, districts bought off-the-shelf interim assessments whose items had been developed in the traditional (and more expensive) manner. However, these tests seldom aligned to the curriculum. You can read the synopsis here.

Accountability theory’s central idea  ––  giving teachers feedback –– seemed important. We saw where that version broke down, so we wanted to figure out a way to give feedback that was closer to what happens in the classroom and doesn’t require so much translation to improve instruction. Data-informed action is a good idea, we just wanted to think about better kinds of data. We plan to use a dual video coaching system — yet to be developed — to help teachers make sharper interpretations of what is happening in their classrooms.

Why did we partner MfA LA? When I reviewed the literature on teachers’ professional learning, they seemed to be hitting all the marks of what we know to be effective professional development. They focus on content knowledge; organize their work around materials that can be used in the classroom; focus on specific instructional practices; they have a coherent and multifaceted professional development program; and they garner the support of teacher communities. Despite hitting all of these marks, the program knows it can do more to support teachers.

This is where I, as a researcher, get to make conjectures. I looked at the professional development literature and compared it to what we know about teacher learning. MfA may hit all the marks in the PD literature, but when we look at what we know about learning, we can start to see some gaps.

*Conjecture 1 Professional learning activities need to address teachers’ existing concepts about and practices for teaching.

 

Conjecture 2 Professional learning activities need to align with teachers’ personal goals for their learning.

 

Conjecture 3 Professional learning activities need to draw on knowledge of accomplished teaching.

 

*Conjecture 4 Professional learning activities need to respond to issues that come up in teachers’ ongoing instruction

 

*Conjecture 5 Professional learning activities need to provide adequate and timely feedback on teachers’ attempts to improve their instructional practice to support their ongoing efforts.

 

Conjecture 6 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with a community of like-minded colleagues to learn with and garner support from as they work through the challenges inevitable in transformative learning.

 

*Conjecture 7 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with rich images of their own classroom teaching.

 

The conjectures with * are the ones we will use to design our two camera coaching method.

We need to work out the details (that’s the research!) but  teacher’s instruction will be recorded with two cameras, one to capture their perspective on significant teaching moments and a second to capture an entire class session. The first self-archiving, point-of-view camera will be mounted on the teacher’s head. When the teacher decides that a moment of classroom discourse illustrates work toward her learning goal, she will press a button on a remote worn around her wrist that will archive video of that interaction, starting 30 seconds prior to her noticing the event. (As weird as it sounds, it has been used successfully by Elizabeth Dyer and Miriam Sherin!)  The act of archiving encodes the moment as significant and worthy of reflection. For example, if a teacher’s learning goal is to incorporate the CCSSM practice of justification into her classroom discourse, she will archive moments that she thinks illustrate her efforts to get students to justify their reasoning. Simultaneously, a second tablet-based camera would record the entire class session using Swivl®. Swivl® is a capture app installed in the tablet. It works with a robot tripod and tracks the teacher as she moves around the room, allowing for a teacher-centered recording of the whole class session. Extending the prior example, the tablet-based recording will allow project team members to review the class session to identify moments where the teacher might support students’ justifying their reasoning but did not do so. The second recording also captures the overall lesson, capturing some of the lesson tone and classroom dynamics that are a critical context for the archived interactions. Through a discussion and comparison of what the teachers capture and what the project team notices, teachers will receive feedback on their work toward their learning goals. We will design this coaching system to address the starred conjectures in the table

Anyway, I am super excited about this project. I am working with amazing graduate students: Grace Chen, Brette Garner, and Samantha Marshall. Plus, my partners at MfA LA: Darryl Yong and Pam Mason.

I will keep you posted!

 

 

 

What Does It Mean to Study Teachers’ Learning from a Sociocultural Perspective?

I try to be a plain-talking academic when I engage in the public realm of social media. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I find myself wanting to use academic jargon. My goal in writing this blog is to have conversations with both educators and researchers, so I think it is okay to have “turns” of conversation that lean a little more on my research voice than my educator voice.

Sociocultural is jargon word that I have wanted to invoke from time to time when talking to my practitioner friends. In particular, the research I do uses sociocultural learning theories as a way of describing both how students and teachers learn.

But what does that mean? In order to understand, you need a little history on how we have come to think about learning the way we do.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, U.S. research on learning was dominated by behaviorism. Seeking a rigorous empirical basis for a study of behavior, researchers like E.L. Thorndike and B.F. Skinner sought to explain how learning happened by documenting what they could see empirically.

Out of this theory, we have ideas like operant conditioning, where actions are shaped by stimulus and responses in the environment to ultimately change behavior. Skinner famously made little operant conditioning chambers called “Skinner boxes” that successfully “taught” pigeons to dance. Through the boxes, food was dispensed in response to the pigeon’s movements. If he turned his head to the left –– the stimulus –– he would get a food pellet –– the response. The next time, he had to turn his head a little further to get his food. Eventually, through operant conditioning, the pigeon learned to turn in a full circle –– to “dance” –– to get food.

dancing pigeons

Behaviorism explained some forms of learning, but it couldn’t explain everything. In the 1950s, the cognitive revolution began. Researchers like Jerome Bruner began to critique behaviorism, noting that a sole focus on behavior precluded a study of how people created meaning, a central question in understanding why people do what they do. Researchers realized they could do empirical studies that included a theory of the mind. Using methods like case studies and talk aloud protocols, investigators could examine how people made sense of their activities in the world.

Cognitive science, as it came to be called, led to important insights like schema theory and conceptions. A schema is a general system for understanding how knowledge is represented and how it is used.

Researchers can look for evidence of different schemata (the plural of schema). Like the behaviorists, they observed what people did to understanding learning. However, they augmented this by asking people to explain their thinking through interviews and surveys.

To give an example of a schema, let’s take the word “dog.” When I say “dog” what do you imagine?

You probably think of four-legged animals that bark, are furry, have tails. But how do you know that these are all dogs?


How do you know that these are not?


This is the question that underlies the idea of schemata.

The examination of schemata started to point to the importance of culture. Schemata are closely related to prototypes. So, for example, when I say the word “furniture” what do you think of?

Linguists have found that when you say the word “furniture” to Americans, they think the best examples are chair and sofa.

When you say the word “möbel” to Germans, however, they think the best examples are bed and table. Our schemata and our prototypes –– the building blocks of concepts in the world –– are culturally specific.

By the early 1990s, this increasing recognition of the importance of language, culture, and context shifted our ideas about learning yet again. Language and culture were not just the setting for development and thinking –– some kind of external variable to be controlled for –– they were, in fact, fundamental components of these mental processes. This insight meant that, to explain some learning phenomena, researchers needed to do more than describe mental structures.

This required another broadening of research methods. Using linguistics, anthropology, and sociology, learning researchers wanted to account for how concepts stretched beyond individual minds and into the world. Deeply influenced by Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, researchers working in this sociocultural tradition examined learning as it happened in interactions in the world, requiring new units of analysis. That is, instead of studying individuals as they learned, researchers sought ways to study individuals in context.

My own research takes up these sociocultural insights to re-think how we study teacher learning. Let me paint a bit of a picture for you about the intellectual traditions that shape my work.

First, when I entered my doctoral program at UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s, debates between cognitive and sociocultural perspectives on learning were quite active in my courses and in research groups. Although most arguments centered on questions of student learning, there was a growing interest in what was often called “out-of-school learning.” Influenced by anthropological researchers like Jean Lave, a small group of scholars studied workplace learning, a particularly pressing topic in our modern information economy, where workers must constantly adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Meanwhile, in educational policy studies, there was a growing recognition that research on school organization, curriculum, and teacher professional development had overlooked a central question: How do teachers’ learn? Since almost all school improvement efforts want to improve instructional quality –– through curricular reform, changes in scheduling or assessment techniques –– they all depend on what happens inside of classrooms. And that, of course, depends on what happens with teachers.

For this reason, educational policy scholars like Judith Warren Little and Mike Knapp were recognizing that teachers’ learning is an underanalyzed component of any efforts at school change or instructional improvement. Yet it was not central to policy designs –– let alone to analyses of their effectiveness.

The moment was ripe for somebody to connect these ideas. My work starts with the policy-based observation that designs for instructional change must consider teacher learning. I then use methods and insights from sociocultural theories of learning to examine how teachers’ learning happens in the school as a workplace. As the sociocultural theorists suggest, what teachers know and learn is not solely a product of what is in their individual heads.

Concepts for teaching draw on culturally specific practices and language in the world. For instance, in the U.S., we often start grouping children by ability levels at a very young age. The concept of a “high ability 6 year old” makes sense for American teachers in a way that it would not to teachers in countries that do not track in the elementary years. There are consequences to that concept having social meaning, as educators make decisions about their schools and classrooms and parents advocate for certain experiences.

By using sociocultural perspectives to explain teachers’ learning, my research is culturally specific and theoretically specific. Although the details of what I find about U.S. teachers may not generalize to other countries, it is my hope that my descriptions of teachers’ learning can be more generalizable.

Structure Can Change Agency

One great privilege of the work I do are the many opportunities I get to share the things I care about with different groups of people. If you do it enough, you get a chance to clarify your own ideas, learn from others, and notice connections.

This past weekend, I had the honor to give a keynote talk at the Carnegie Math Pathways Forum. If you don’t know about their work, it is worth checking out. Briefly, their work addresses the enormous blockage in the math pipeline as students transition from secondary to post-secondary. A staggering number of students get placed in developmental math classes, and often, these courses become a holding bin students cannot get out of. The Carnegie folks have worked primarily with community college instructors to re-think developmental math curricularly and pedagogically. It’s fascinating and important work.

My talk was about the relationship between structure and agency, how both contribute to inequalities in mathematics education. When we are teaching in a classroom, it is easy to see problems of inequality as they look locally: high enrollments in developmental math, over-representation of students coming from poverty and students of color, a sense of student apathy. To make progress, however, instructors can learn by linking the local to broader social processes: the maldistribution of qualified math teachers, STEM classrooms that are hostile environments to minoritized students, a K-12 curriculum that often reflects the institution of schooling more than what it means to do meaningful mathematics. I argued that if we frame these problems through what we see locally, we give ourselves, as teachers, less leverage to make progress on them. I shared two key concepts for linking these social processes to what we see in our classrooms: social risk and status. I have written about both of these (click the links if you are curious), but briefly, social risk refers to the threats people feel are posed to their status in a community while status describes the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability. Both of these ideas link the social process explanations for inequality to what teachers see in their classrooms locally.

Teachers can then work to design classrooms that reduce social risk by, in part, attending to status dynamics. In other words, to connect structure and agency, we need ways to think across scale and look at the social origins of problems too often narrated as individual issues. Instead of, for example, blaming students for being apathetic about mathematics learning, we need to recognize what their history has likely been in our current system and accept their apparent apathy as a reasonable response. Our task shifts from finger pointing (“My students just aren’t motivated!“) to having the productive challenge of honoring their experience while trying to change their ideas about math and learning.

In the end, then, structure can help us change agency in two ways. First, by recognizing that it is there, along with the social processes it holds in place, we can arrive at more productive framings of the problems we face locally. Second, we can leverage the structural designs in our classroom to invite students’ agency.

I have written about designing structures to promote agency before. If you don’t feel like reading that (I realize it’s summer!), maybe watch this video instead. It is quite a joy.

And don’t we all need more of that right now?

 

Who Belongs in our Math Classrooms?

Many students enter mathematics classrooms with a sense of trepidation.  For some, their discomfort reflects a larger sense of detachment from school. They may have not felt welcomed because of the gaps they experience navigating between their home language or culture and the expectations at school. The social milieu of school may make them feel like an outcast, as they see peers who seamlessly “fit in” while they remain on the outside. Unlike the sports field, their community center, or the stage, academics may make them feel untalented and incompetent. For other students, school itself is fine, but there is a distinct dread upon entering math class. Math has never made sense –– or perhaps it used to make sense when it was whole numbers and counting, but as soon as the variables showed up, all hope was lost. They may have been demoralized by a standardized test score that deemed them below grade level. They may get messages at home that “we’re not good at math.” For still other students, they love the subject, but must contend with people who do not see them as fitting their ideas of a person who is good at math. They have to combat stereotypes to be seen as legitimate participant in the classroom, as they defy expectations by holding forth with their smartness even as others look on in dismay.

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

Why Belongingness Matters
When I go and observe in mathematics classrooms, I can usually ascertain students’ general sense of belongingness. What is their affect as they walk through the door? How warmly and personally do they greet the teacher and each other? Are they represented –– through math work or other means –– on what is posted on the walls?
All too often, I see students enter their math classrooms with a sense of gloom. Smiles disappear as they cross the threshold of the doorway. Their posture slumps. They sit at the back of the room or put their heads on their desks.They may even groan or launch into a litany of complaints. When I observe these student behaviors as a teacher, it signals that I have work to do to make children feel more welcomed and excited about spending their time with me learning mathematics.

Teachers’ relationships with students are an important source of of belongingness, but peers are equally (if not more) important. Even if a teacher welcomes each student with a smile and takes an interest in who they are, frequent insults or intimidation from other students can create a negative classroom climate. To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

During adolescence, children face the enormous task of developing a strong and stable sense of themselves. Although this identity development happens over the course of a lifetime, adolescence is distinct because it is when children are first able to think abstractly enough to grapple with both their own emerging self-understandings as well as how society views them. This leads to both a delightful self-awareness as well as a sometimes painful sense of self-consciousness for many students, as they are more sensitive to others’ perspectives and feedback. Necessarily, then, inclusive and inviting classrooms provide a place for this crucial developmental work, particularly in relationship to school in general and mathematics in particular.

What Gets in the Way of Belongingness
Although I generally avoid absolutes when it comes to describing good teaching, I will highlight a few common instructional practices that feed a negative classroom climate, thus working against belongingness. First, many math classrooms emphasize competition. Whether this comes from formal races, timed tests, or just students’ constant comparison of grades, competition sends a strong message that some people are more mathematically able than others. This is problematic because there is typically one kind of smartness that leads students to “win” these competitions: quick and accurate calculation. To paraphrase mathematician John Allen Paulos, nobody tells you that you cannot be a writer because you are not a fast typist; yet we regularly communicate to students that they cannot be mathematicians because they do not compute quickly. While a competitive dynamic may be at play in other school subjects, it is especially toxic in math classrooms because students do not have other venues to explore and affirm their diverse mathematical talents.

Another contributor to negative classroom climate comes from devaluing who students are. This may come in many forms, some of which teachers may not realize. For instance, some teachers avoid using what is for them an unfamiliar (thus difficult-to-pronounce) name. Not only does this lead to fewer invitations to participate, it communicates to students that we are not comfortable with something that might make them different than us. Names are deeply personal, one of the first words students identify with: They often reflect home cultures and personal history. When teachers avoid them or change them without consent, they devalue something of who students are.

Likewise, when teachers problematically differentiate their treatment of students based on cultural styles, they can devalue who students are. For instance, educational researcher Ebony McGee studies successful students of color in STEM fields. She interviewed a Black chemistry major at a primarily White institution who reported that a White instructor avoided her when she dressed in a way often perceived by middle class teachers as “ghetto.” When she changed her clothing and hair style, he told her, “Now you actually look presentable. I bet you are making better grades too.” Similarly, in a research project I conducted, a female high school student concluded that her math teacher “didn’t like” her after the teacher emailed her mother that her skirts were “too short.” Adolescents use clothing to express themselves and their culture as a part of the identity work they engage in. Avoiding or rejecting them because of these forms of self-expression can further estrange them from the classroom or school. If concerns need to be raised, they should be done in a way that respects students’ self-expression.

Finally, teachers may alienate students by correcting the inconsequential. Although our job is to help students become educated people, when we correct the inconsequential, we may work against other goals of engagement and inclusion. Deciding what is inconsequential is, of course, a judgment call: context is everything. For instance, our standards for speech and language differ when students try to explain an idea they are in the midst of grappling with versus when they are preparing for a job interview. In the former situation, correct grammar is not the point, while in the second, it may matter a lot. If our students are learning English as a second language, speaking a pidgin or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), our focus on correct grammar in situations where it is inconsequential may disinvite their participation.

The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2015

It’s never been easier to miss a great math blog post. The MathTwitterBlogoSphere –– known as #MTBoS around social media –– was once a small group of math teachers willing to make themselves vulnerable, putting their practice online. As the community has expanded, even the most dedicated readers struggle to keep up with the deluge of thoughtful commentary, engaging and interesting tasks, and stories that we can all learn from.

To help keep you from missing out, we have compiled some favorite posts from this past year, as nominated by #MTBoS folks on Twitter, into a book. These posts are as rich and varied as the educators who wrote them. Some delve into specific content. Some tell stories of change and growth. Others explore teaching practices, new or well established. We hope that you find some that provoke and push you, and others that make you smile. Most of all, we hope you make some new connections in the MTBoS community.

This book has another purpose as well. Since 2012, folks from the MTBoS have participated in an annual “tweet up,” a two-day math extravaganza called Twitter Math Camp (TMC). Unlike regular conferences, teachers come knowing who they want to meet. They come to continue conversations that have been taking place online, through blogs and twitter. TMC is a rich and personal learning environment. The grassroots nature of TMC means it is lively, personal, tailor-made, and unpredictable. However, most teachers have to pay their own way. We will use the money raised through sales of this book to start a fund to bring along some of the teachers who would not otherwise be able to participate. We think that TMC is a unique professional learning experience, and we hope to share it while we grow our community.

The book is nearly ready for publication, but we need assistance with a few tasks (we’d like to add an index and list embedded links at the bottom of each post so they’re accessible to anyone reading a paper copy). If you’re interested in assisting please email Tina (tina.cardone1 on gmail) and she’ll get you set up with a task.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your support.

— Lani Horn & Tina Cardone
P.S. Sorry that we were super secret on this project! We didn’t decide to do this until after the #MTBoS2015 conversation started. We were so impressed by the quality of the nominated posts, it seemed like a great opportunity to do something for this amazing community. As long as we are confessing, we also didn’t announce it until now because we weren’t sure we’d be able to finish it! If people like the idea then we’ll have a more public and organized process for 2016.

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.

A Fallacy about Teacher Learning

In schools across the United States, professional development (PD) season is coming to its grand finale. Summer workshops end and district-mandated in-services begin.

My #MTBoS Twitter pals know this is a season of schadenfreude for me. They tweet me the ironic misfires, like when a teacher who develops sophisticated lessons around technology was obliged to attend an all day workshop on Google docs. Or when another teacher who travels the country leading sessions on classroom math talk is made to sit through a full day on classroom norm setting.

These examples of bad PD stem from a total lack of differentiation. Those teachers had expertise that did not matter in the one-size-fits-all mandates of their schools or districts. The workshops were not responsive to their needs or respectful of what they had already accomplished.

Even when PD is matched to teachers’ needs, it still often falls short. Anyone who has eagerly signed up for a workshop based on a title and description and left unsatisfied is familiar with this. These workshops are often full of activities, handouts, and tips and tricks, but they do not help teachers make sense of how to get these ideas going in their own schools.

In my view, centering descriptions of what to do in PD stems from a fallacy about teacher learning: to get teachers to do better, we need to change their behavior. 

To be clear, of course it matters what teachers do in the classroom. But actions are not the same as behavior.

Behavior involves a description of a sequence of events, such as:

 A woman was tied to a stake and set aflame. She died.

Action considers the meaning involved, which is derived from who people are and where they socially and historically situated, like:

Joan of Arc, who resisted the English because she heard the voice of God,
was tied to a stake and burned. She died as a martyr.

Teaching involves creating meaning. To develop teachers, we need to make them more effective actors in the complex social world of the classroom. If we only focus on providing activities or developing sequences of behaviors, we miss out the opportunity to grow their ability to interpret situations, make judgments and take the purposeful action that shapes meanings for and with their students.

In order to make teacher professional development more effective, then, we need to take seriously what it means for teachers to learn –– and not just learn what to do, but also how and why as they respond and adapt to the myriad and complex situations they face in their classrooms everyday.

Teaching as a Social Practice: A Syllabus

This spring, I am teaching one of our required doctoral seminars, Teaching as a Social Practice. I have been publicly agonizing about getting the reading list right on Twitter. This is a tough (and thrilling) syllabus to write. There is probably enough research on teaching to fill several warehouses. I have dealt with the quantity issue by making some readings shared and some “distributed,” meaning subsets of students will read and lead discussions on the individual papers. However, I want to go beyond accounts of teachers as individual actors. I strive to account for social, cultural, and historical forces that shape what is happening (and what is possible) in schools. Despite its abundance, the ample research on teaching suffers from two problems: quality and completeness. The quality issue is actually helpful, since I gravitate toward the stronger work out there. The completeness issue refers to the fact that some of the most urgent issues in teaching as a social (and therefore cultural) practice have not yet been addressed in substantive ways by research. So I need to go beyond research into popular writing and blogs. One door shuts and another one opens up… Humbly, I offer my current reading list for your edification. I welcome respectful and curious conversations about my choices.

Section 1: What is the work of teaching?

An Introductory Framework for Teaching

Cohen, D.K. (2011) Teaching and Its Predicaments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Chapters 1 – 3.

The Image of the Individual, or Why is It Hard to View Teaching as a Social Practice?

Goldstein, D. (2014). Introduction. The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday. (pp. 1-12).

Little, J.W. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations. Teachers College Record,91(4), 509-536

Bulman, R.C. (2002). Teachers in the ‘hood: Hollywood’s middle-class fantasy. The Urban Review, 34 (3), 251-276.

Section 2: What is “social” about teaching?

Introduction to Teaching as a Social Practice

Cohen, Chapter 4 “The social resources of teaching”

Stein, Sandra J. (2002). The Culture of Education Policy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Chapter 1, “Policy as Cultural Construct” (pp. 1-25)

Chapter 4, “The School” (pp. 85-107)  

History, Place, and Professional Identity in Teaching

Goldstein Chapter 1 “Missionary Teachers”: The Common Schools Movement and the Feminization of American Teaching. (pp. 13-33).

Lortie, D. (1975). The limits of socialization (Chapter 3). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. (pp. 55-81). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foster, M. (1997). Introduction. Black teachers on teaching.  (pp. xv-li). New York: New Press.

Horn, I.S. (in press). The Status of Teaching as a Profession in the United States. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition. Oxford: Elsevier Publishing.

How Do Students and Their Lives Shape Teaching Practice?

Shared readings:

Metz, M.H. (1993). Teachers’ ultimate dependence on their students. In J. W. Little & M. W. McLaughlin (Eds.), Teachers work: Individuals, colleagues, and contexts (pp. 104-137). New York: Teachers College Press.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Chapters 1 & 2

Vilson, J. (2014). Where the Hustle Comes From. This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education. (pp. 93-99). Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Distributed readings:

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. Chapters 8, 9, 10 (case studies).

How Do Colleagues Matter in Teaching?

Shared readings:

Lee, V. E., & Smith, J. (1996). Collective responsibility for learning and its effects on gains in achievement and engagement for early secondary school students. American Journal of Education, 104(2), 103-147.

Siskin, L. S. (1994). Social Worlds. In Realms of knowledge: Academic departments in secondary schools. London: Falmer Press.

Distributed readings:

Coburn, C. (2001). Collective sensemaking about reading: How teachers mediate reading policy in their professional communities. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), 145-170.

Horn, I. S. (2007). Fast kids, slow kids, lazy kids: Framing the mismatch problem in mathematics teachers’ conversations. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 16(1), 37-79.

How Do The Organizational Resources of Schools Shape Teaching Practice?

Cobb, P., McClain, K., Lamberg, T., & Dean, C. et al (2003). Situating teachers’ instructional practices in the institutional setting of the school and district. Educational Researcher, 32 (6), 13-24.

Lampert, M., Boerst, T.A., & Graziani, F. (2011). Organizational Resources in the Service of School-Wide Ambitious Teaching Practice. Teachers College Record, 113 (7).

Moore-Johnson, S., Kraft, M.A., Papay, J.P. (2012). How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers’ working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record, 114 (10).

Bartlett, L. (2014). Introduction and Overview. Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (pp. 1-11).

Section 3: What does it mean to “know” in teaching?

How (and What) Do Teachers Enable Students to Know?

Cohen, Chapter 5, “Knowledge and Teaching”

Jackson, P.W. (1990). The Daily Grind. Life in Classrooms (pp. 1-37). New York: Teachers College Press.

Anderson, M. (2014, November). Can White Teachers Be Taught How to Teach Our Children? http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/11/racial_competency_in_the_classroom_can_white_teachers_be_taught_how_to_teach.html

How Have Researchers Conceptualized Teaching and Teacher Knowledge?

Shared Readings: Green, E. (2014). Founding Fathers. Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone). New York: W.W. Norton and Company. (pp. 23-44).

Shulman, L. (1986). Paradigms and research programs in the study of teaching: A contemporary perspective. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed., pp.3-36). New York: MacMillan.

Ball, D., Thames, M.H., & Phelps (2008). Content Knowledge for Teaching: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 59(5), 389-407.

Distributed Readings: Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (1993). Research on teaching and teacher research: The issues that divide. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge (pp.5-22). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gutiérrez, R. (2013). Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 6(2), 7-19.

How Does the Organization of Teaching Shape the Epistemologies of (and in) Practice?

Cohen, Chapters 6 & 7, “Instructional Discourse” & “Teachers’ Acquaintance with Student Knowledge”

Kennedy, M.M. (2010). Attribution error and the quest for teacher quality. Educational Researcher, 39(8), 591-598.

How Should We Assess Teaching Competence?

Shared readings:

Goldstein Chapter 8: “Very Disillusioned” How Teacher Accountability Displaced Desegregation and Local Control. (pp. 164-188)

Goldstein Chapter 9: “Big, Measurable Goals”: A Data-Driven Vision for Millennial Teaching (pp. 189-230).

Distributed readings:

Kane, T.J. & Steiger, D.O. (2012). Gathering feedback for teaching: Combining high-quality Observations with student surveys and achievement gains. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Research report of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project).

Haertel, E. (2013). Reliability and Validity of Inferences about Teachers Based on Student Test Scores. The 14th William H. Angoff Lecture presented at the National Press Club. Washington, D.C. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Services. Fenstermacher,

G.D. & Richardson, V. (2005). On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching. Teachers College Record Volume 107, Number 1, January 2005, pp. 186–213
How Do Teachers Develop Knowledge in Practice?

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2012). Learning to Teach. Teachers as Learners. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (pp. 27-55).

Ball, D.L. & Cohen, D. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes & L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as a Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Horn, I.S. & Little, J. (2010). Attending to problems of practice: Routines and resources for professional learning in teachers’ workplace interactions. American Educational Research Journal, 47 (1), 181-217.

Lampert, M. (2012). Improving teaching and teachers: A generative dance? Journal of Teacher Education, 63 (5), 361-367.

How are Teacher Educators and Researchers Re-thinking Teacher Preparation?

Shared readings:

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2012). Teacher Preparation: Structural and Conceptual Alternatives. Teachers as Learners. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (pp. 55-104).

Grossman, P. & McDonald, M. (2008). Back to the future: Directions for research in teaching and teacher education. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (1), 184-205.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2011). Yes, but how do we do it? Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. In J. Landsman & C. Lewis (Eds.) White Teachers/Diverse Classrooms: Creating Inclusive Schools, Building on Students’ Diversity, and Providing True Educational Equity. (2nd ed.) Stylus: Sterling, VA.

Distributed readings:

Horn, I.S. & Campbell, S.S. (In press). Developing Pedagogical Judgment in Novice Teachers: Mediated Field Experience as a Pedagogy for Teacher Education. Pedagogies: An International Journal.

Sleeter, C. E. (2001). Preparing teachers for culturally diverse schools: research and the overwhelming presence of whiteness. Journal of Teacher Education, 52(2), 94-106.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., Braaten, M. (2011). Ambitious pedagogy by novice teachers: Who benefits from tool-supported collaborative inquiry into practice and why? Teachers College Record 113 (7).