Good news to share: another research grant has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Yay!
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
I will keep you posted!
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.
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.
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.
Kim Marshall draws on his 44 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator and writer to compile the Marshall Memo, a weekly summary of 64 publications that have articles of interest to busy educators. He shared one of my recent articles, co-authored with doctoral students Britnie Kane and Jonee Wilson, in his latest memo and gave me permission to post her succinct and useful summary.
In this American Educational Research Journal article, Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson (Vanderbilt University) report on their study of how seventh-grade math teams in two urban schools worked with their students’ interim assessment data. The teachers’ district, under pressure to improve test scores, paid teams of teachers and instructional coaches to write interim assessments. These tests, given every six weeks, were designed to measure student achievement and hold teachers accountable. The district also provided time for teacher teams to use the data to inform their instruction. Horn, Kane, and Wilson observed and videotaped seventh-grade data meetings in the two schools, visited classrooms, looked at a range of artifacts, and interviewed and surveyed teachers and district officials. They were struck by how different the team dynamics were in the two schools, which they called Creekside Middle School and Park Falls Middle School. Here’s some of what they found:
- Creekside’s seventh-grade team operated under what the authors call an instructional management logic, focused primarily on improving the test scores of “bubble” students. The principal, who had been in the building for a number of years, was intensely involved at every level, attending team meetings and pushing hard for improvement on AYP proficiency targets. The school had a full-time data manager who produced displays of interim assessment and state test results. These were displayed (with students’ names) in classrooms and elsewhere around the school. The principal also organized Saturday Math Camps for students who needed improvement. He visited classrooms frequently and had the school’s full-time math coach work with teachers whose students needed improvement. Interestingly, the math coach had a more sophisticated knowledge of math instruction than the principal, but the principal dominated team meetings.
In one data meeting, the principal asked teachers to look at interim assessment data to predict how their African-American students (the school’s biggest subgroup in need of AYP improvement) would do on the upcoming state test. The main focus was on these “bubble” students. “I have 18% passing, 27% bubble, 55% growth,” reported one teacher. The team was urged to motivate the targeted students, especially quiet, borderline kids, to personalize instruction, get marginal students to tutorials, and send them to Math Camp. The meeting spent almost no time looking at item results to diagnose ways in which teaching was effective or ineffective. The outcome: providing attention and resources to identified students. A critique: the team didn’t have at its fingertips the kind of item-by-item analysis of student responses necessary to have a discussion about improving math instruction, and the principal’s priority of improving the scores of the “bubble” students prevented a broader discussion of improving teaching for all seventh graders. “The prospective work of engaging students,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “predominantly addressed the problem of improving test scores without substantially re-thinking the work of teaching, thus providing teachers with learning opportunities about redirecting their attention – and very little about the instructional nature of that attention… The summative data scores simply represented whether students had passed: they did not point to troublesome topics… By excluding critical issues of mathematics learning, the majority of the conversation avoided some of the potentially richest sources of supporting African-American bubble kids – and all students… Finally, there was little attention to the underlying reasons that African-American students might be lagging in achievement scores or what it might mean for the mostly white teachers to build motivating rapport, marking this as a colorblind conversation.”
- The Park Falls seventh-grade team, working in the same district with the same interim assessments and the same pressure to raise test scores, used what the authors call an instructional improvement logic. The school had a brand-new principal, who was rarely in classrooms and team meetings, and an unhelpful math coach who had conflicts with the principal. This meant that teachers were largely on their own when it came to interpreting the interim assessments. In one data meeting, teachers took a diagnostic approach to the test data, using a number of steps that were strikingly different from those at Creekside:
- Teachers reviewed a spreadsheet of results from the latest interim assessment and identified items that many students missed.
- One teacher took the test himself to understand what the test was asking of students mathematically.
- In the meeting, teachers had three things in front of them: the actual test, a data display of students’ correct and incorrect responses, and the marked-up test the teacher had taken.
- Teachers looked at the low-scoring items one at a time, examined students’ wrong answers, and tried to figure out what students might have been thinking and why they went for certain distractors.
- The team moved briskly through 18 test items, discussing possible reasons students
missed each one – confusing notation, skipping lengthy questions, mixing up similar-sounding words, etc.
- Teachers were quite critical of the quality of several test items – rightly so, say Horn, Kane, and Wilson – but this may have distracted them from the practical task of figuring out how to improve their students’ test-taking skills.
The outcome of the meeting: re-teaching topics with attention to sources of confusion. A critique: the team didn’t slow down and spend quality time on a few test items, followed by a more thoughtful discussion about successful and unsuccessful teaching approaches. “The tacit assumption,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “seemed to be that understanding student thinking would support more-effective instruction… The Park Falls teachers’ conversation centered squarely on student thinking, with their analysis of frequently missed items and interpretations of student errors. This activity mobilized teachers to modify their instruction in response to identified confusion… Unlike the conversation at Creekside, then, this discussion uncovered many details of students’ mathematical thinking, from their limited grasp of certain topics to miscues resulting from the test’s format to misalignments with instruction.” However, the Park Falls teachers ran out of time and didn’t focus on next instruction steps. After a discussion about students’ confusion about the word “dimension,” for example, one teacher said, “Maybe we should hit that word.” [Creekside and Park Falls meetings each had their strong points, and an ideal team data-analysis process would combine elements from both: the principal providing overall leadership and direction but deferring to expert guidance from a math coach; facilitation to focus the team on a more-thorough analysis of a few items; and follow-up classroom observations and ongoing discussions of effective and less-effective instructional practices. In addition, it would be helpful to have higher-quality interim assessments and longer meetings to allow for fuller discussion. K.M.] “Making Sense of Student Performance Data: Data Use Logics and Mathematics Teachers’ Learning Opportunities” by Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson in American Educational Research Journal, April 2015 (Vol. 52, #2, p. 208-242
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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).
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
The idea of responsiveness is one of the biggest challenges of equity-geared teaching approaches.
Responsiveness, by definition, means that lessons cannot entirely be planned without considering the students. What is more, since the students’ input and ideas are actively sought out, it increases the uncertainty of how a lesson will unfold.
This weekend, I have been reading a book by Adam Lefstein and Julia Snell called Better than Best Practice. Like me, these scholars spend a lot of time thinking about good teaching, although their study is in literacy classrooms in the UK, while I spend my time thinking about US mathematics classrooms.
Nonetheless, the premise of their book resonates with me. As the title suggests, they argue against “best practice” language that seeks to “prove” the efficacy of exact teacher moves or curricula. Like me, they are interested in the kind of teaching that seeks out, engages, and responds to students’ ideas.
Lefstein and Snell refer to this as professional teaching, arguing that involves sensitivity, interpretation, judgment and a flexible repertoire of methods. I found this to be a useful framework.
By sensitivity, the authors refer to teachers’ attentiveness and openness to critical moments in the flow of a class. Did a student raise an important issue? Did another student speak up for the first time? Does a conflict seem to be brewing? Classroom dynamics involve numerous people, all with their own feelings and thoughts and challenges, and a teacher must thoughtfully navigate these while moving lessons in a productive direction.
Once teachers are alert to a critical moment, they must then figure out its significance –– what Lefstein and Snell call interpretation. Was a student’s objection to a teacher’s premise simply an attempt to derail a lesson, or is there an important question that needs to be aired?
What will the broader message to the student and the class be if the teacher pursues the question? What if she shuts it down?
In the latter set of questions, sensitivity and interpretation work together as the teacher figures out which part of her repertoire to engage. By repertoire, the authors refer to a teacher’s flexibility and depth in calling upon a range of possible actions and success in implementing them.
Together, these resources come together to constitute judgments about teaching. Teachers make hundreds of decisions a day, and the demand only increases when they seek out student input.
I like this framework because it positions the teacher not as just “doing” things in the class, but actively responding to and making decisions about students. It also broadens the object of professional learning beyond the usual activities or specific teaching moves to increased sensitivity to student and classroom dynamics and their relation to ongoing judgments.
One of the things I study is how teachers learn with colleagues. I focus primarily on urban secondary math teachers. I basically film people working together and analyze it to death. I am interested in this because teacher collaboration is repeatedly shown to support both teacher learning and student achievement, so I am curious about why.
First things first. Strong collaboration is very rare. Very few high school teachers report even simply sharing ideas with colleagues. Productive collaboration goes beyond just sharing ideas or resources into what I have called collaborative pedagogical problem solving. This is really unusual but super cool when I get to see it.
I want to make two points about what I have observed, and then pose some questions to the #MTBoS .
Observation 1: Effective collaboration is hard.
There are a number of challenges to effective collaboration. First of all, it takes an investment of time, energy, and emotional commitment. These are scarce resources, particularly in high turnover schools. Teachers face a lot of structural obstacles to collaborative learning. The typical 50 minutes of daily planning time, for instance, is already overfull with the demands of grading, planning, and home communication.
Second, it’s hard to talk about instruction with colleagues. When teachers talk about instruction, this is almost always asynchronous from the active work of instruction. Unlike scientists, who have standardized ways of representing what happened in the laboratory, teachers do not have standardized ways of representing what happened in a lesson. We can use things like student work, but then we do not have standard ways of interpreting these. Some teachers will look at student work with a right/wrong lens, while others will want to understand a students’ thinking.
At the same time, one of the advantages of working in a school-based teacher community is that your colleagues are close by: they know your administrators, they know your community, they know your students. You don’t have to explain those things to them, which makes the description part of sharing a little easier.
Observation 2: Typical teacher collaborative talk does not support deep professional learning. When I have analyzed the learning opportunities in teachers’ conversations, I have looked at two things:
(1) what conceptual resources are being developed as teachers talk about instructional problems, and
(2) how are these connected to their future work.
Most teacher collaborative talk does not offer much in the way of professional learning.
For example, most teachers plan together by organizing a pacing calendar. They will say things like, “The book says 7.1 will take 1 day, but with our kids we’ll need 2.”
In this case, the opportunities to learn are thin. We don’t know what the math content is, we don’t know why we need two days, and we don’t know how that extra time will be used.
In contrast, if teachers plan by building on students’ thinking, their talk may sound different. They will say things like, “Our kids freeze when we do fractions. Let’s just focus on these problems as rates of change. We can show them on the graph how this is change over time, like, “for every 5 seconds, the car moves 10 feet.'”
In this case, concepts are developed about who the students are, what their experiences of math are, and what instruction might look like to keep them engaged and develop their mathematical understanding. These concepts are directly linked to what the teachers will do next in their classrooms.
Regarding Observation 1: In some ways, the bloggy/tweety teachers have overcome some of the limitations of school-based teacher community by finding like-minded folks online. They have found their kindred spirits to share with. This is awesome and overcomes some of the limitations of traditional collaboration. Also, the MTBoS are typically tech savvy. I have been impressed with the ways they manage to represent their classrooms through samples of student work, lesson plans, photos of their classrooms with kids doing things. But, other details of our teaching situations –– the tetchy administrator, the new curriculum policy –– are not as readily available.
Is this an issue? How much does this limit what teachers can learn together online?
Regarding Observation 2: I have seen so many impressive exchanges among teachers in the MTBoS. Most of these have focused on dissecting mathematical content, sharing rich activities, and refining instructional language. It seems harder to share about the particulars of students and their thinking because those are so much more specific to people’s schools.
Is it possible to hit the sweet spot of professional learning –– to develop concepts about the interrelationships among students, teaching, and mathematics –– through online interactions?