How do people think about “teacher learning” and why does it matter?
We know a lot about different ways teachers are supposed to learn: we have credentialing programs, where teachers typically take coursework and earn their certification. As a part of that, we have student teaching, where pre-service teachers interact with students in classrooms and do the challenging and exciting work of trying to help other people (some of whom are reluctant to engage) to learn. Once teachers are certified, they participate in professional development, that highly variable “system” of workshops and inservices that offer them new ideas, tools, techniques, or opportunities to reflect on instruction. Some teachers learn from colleagues, with whom they can share ideas and resources, or maybe even consult with about challenging situations.
But all of these primarily describe situations that purport to help teachers learn. None of them actually describe how teachers go from one understanding to another, one form of practice to another, changing what they do from day to day in their classrooms.
In research, a lot of accounts of teacher learning focus on changes in instructional practice. For instance, maybe a teacher starts out, say, giving a lecture and using their whiteboard ineffectively, with notes scattered around without a clear sequence. We then give them feedback about how to organize that information so students can follow the lecture’s logic. Then, if the next time we watch them lecture and we see improved whiteboard use, we can say that they have learned.
But eventually, the notion of change in practice as a way to describe teacher learning falls short. How we draw a boundary around where an instructional practice begins and ends, especially when its success is not entirely up to the teacher? In the whiteboard example, the teacher has a lot of control around their board use, organization, diagraming, color coding, and the relationship between their spoken words and scribblings. If we think of more interactive practices, however, that depend more on student inputs, the situation becomes more complex. Even in the whiteboard example, we can extend our consideration to how the teacher annotates the whiteboard to account for students’ ideas and questions. In this case, the expanded view of whiteboard practice no longer only comes down to the teacher’s actions; it also involves the students around them, how they engage with students’ ideas, making the practice variable from class to class.
Most of the instructional practices that we promote in mathematics education are more interactive than whiteboard use, and thus more contingent on teaching situations. As a consequence, the boundary of instructional practice becomes even more complicated. For instance, say that a teacher went to a professional development workshop on using a Notice and Wonder conversation structure in the classroom. They work through some examples with their colleagues, identify what kinds of tasks might lend themselves to a rich Notice and Wonder discussion, and even get some examples from teachers who have used them a lot. They have learned some useful things.
Maybe then our hypothetical teacher tries Notice and Wonder in their first period class and has a dynamic discussion. Students make good observations. They raise interesting (and even amusing) questions. So we ask: has the teacher learned the practice?
What if we extend the story to the teacher’s next class? They try the same activity second period. Students stare the teacher down. After an uncomfortable amount of silence, one student, out of pity, volunteers something that kind of misses the point. In short, the Notice and Wonder activity bombs. Do we change our assessment? Has the teacher learned the practice?
In my research project Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics (Project SIGMa), we are pursuing questions about teacher learning by looking not only at teachers’ changes in practice, but also their sensemaking about their work. All teachers know that not every practice works equally well all the time. So the ways teachers make sense of the problems of practice that arise as they take on these complex, interactive practices may matter almost as much as whether they can recite the steps of the routine or do it unproblematically some of the time. For their understanding to be robust, they have to understand the elements of their teaching situation that may impede the practice’s successful execution and, relatedly, how to troubleshoot the practice.. When things work well, how do they think about it? When things don’t work as well, what conclusions do they draw? What evidence do they marshal to warrant their interpretations? What does that tell them about how to adjust the practice in the future?
Since so much of what happens with interactive instructional practices depends on the particularities of classrooms, students, and content, in our view, it is not sensible to say that teachers learn an interactive practice through one (or even five or ten) successful executions. Instead, we view teachers as learning these interactive practices when they know the routines, can bring them to life with different groups of students, adjust sensibly in response to a range of student inputs –– and have productive ways to interpret what happens when things do not go as expected. This means that instead of concluding simply, “That practice doesn’t work” or, even, “That practice doesn’t work with my students,” they consider the variables that make one lesson, one class, or one day different from another. Their adaptations consider the goal of the practice, and they adjust it to make sense of the teaching situation while keeping those goals in mind. They think ecologically about how these differences might affect students’ participation and sensemaking. This kind of robust understanding takes time to develop, and it requires high quality feedback to support the teacher’s interpretation of what is happening in the classroom.
Written by Ilana Horn (@ilana_horn)