Better than Best Practice (Lefstein & Snell, 2014), written by education researchers in the UK who are also obsessed with what “good teaching” is, proposes that there are two often opposing perspectives about good teaching and therefore how to train and support teachers:
- A focus on “best practices” – this is the idea that good teaching can be distilled into a set of best practices, or techniques or methods or moves, that are replicable and effective from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher. This is perhaps epitomized by Lemov’s moves, and from my perspective seems like the de facto philosophy of our organization (historically) and the big charter networks. If this is what we believe good teaching is, then the work of a teacher educator is “identifying, disseminating, and mandating the most effective methods” (Lefstein & Snell). If that’s the work of a teacher educator, then a designer may be responsible for the research and development leading to the identification portion, but a train the trainer model can be very effective in disseminating, because all the trainees need to know before they’re “ready” to train additional teachers is what the best practices are, how they work, and what pedagogies they should use to deliver the practices to teachers. Teachers learn primarily through mimicry, which is only the first stage of executive transfer (Joyce & Showers, 2002), and it’s up to them to try to apply the best practice outside the specific context of the professional development session.
- A focus on professional expertise and autonomy – this is the idea that good teaching is “irreducibly situative” (Horn & Kane, 2014) and always dependent: on the teacher’s personality, on who the students are as individuals and who they are together, on the culture of the school, on the mandates of the administration, on the objective being taught, on the context of the moment, etc. If we take this perspective to the extreme (which, to be clear, I don't know anyone who advocates; I'm exaggerating a bit for the point of making a contrast), there’s very little a teacher educator can do aside from be a good teacher him/herself and hope that novices absorb all the situational complexity and, over the course of a hopefully-long career, become good teachers themselves; there’s no point in training the trainer, because there’s not much a trainer can do anyway. Teachers learn haphazardly and primarily through experience, because there’s never quite enough contextual information to have a useful professional development conversation.
The “answer,” of course, is not either/or, but somewhere in between these two extremes, which Lefstein & Snell explicitly acknowledge, and I think the work we did with UW last year actually brings us to a place in the middle I feel very excited about: we developed instructional judgment by (1) naming core practices that are “best practices” in that one should, for example, always be thinking about positioning students as competent, (2) designing instructional activities that gave teachers (and coaches) enough of a shared set of actions that they could then talk about the same thing through common language, and (3) making visible concrete moves that teachers can use to, for example, position students as competent—even though the specific moves they should choose would depend on who they are, who their students are, previous interactions between them and their students, the specific lesson they’re teaching, the time of the class period, and tons of other factors. We did this because we were committed to the idea that good teaching is complex intellectual work and to the idea that good teachers are responsive to the children in front of them (or how else would they orient them to each other, elicit their ideas, or position them as competent?), among other commitments.
The middle sentence in the previous paragraph is intentionally constructed to highlight that the thing we did—the thing we were trying to do, the thing we contributed to teacher development, the thing that mattered the most—developing instructional judgment. How we did it was through naming core practices, designing instructional activities to enact and discuss, and making visible the concrete moves involved, but what we did was develop instructional judgment so that over time, novices can consider more and more inputs and therefore make better and better decisions about their teaching.
I propose that this be the approach we take to teacher education moving forward: our priority and unique value-add as a team is to (1) develop instructional judgment in novice teachers and (2) support teacher educators in developing instructional judgment. Here’s what I think this could look like:
Developing instructional judgment in novice teachers
Before we can think about how to develop instructional judgment, we have to know what instructional judgment is, because it’s a super broad and vague concept along the lines of “you know it when you see it,” and we all know how helpful that is ☺ Lefstein & Snell come in handy here again, because they propose that judgment consists of three things:
- Sensitivity: first, teachers have to notice things that are happening. If there’s a child in the back of a classroom with his/her head down, does the overwhelmed novice even notice? If there’s a student who only participates by revoicing others and never volunteers an original thought, does the teacher notice? Research shows that novice teachers tend to not notice the same things that more experienced teachers might; they often attend to superficial features, or interactions and elements that have some meaning but not significant meaning, such as “the teacher asked a good question” (rather than, say, “the teacher sought to elicit student ideas by drawing attention to the most important features of the graph, because the room was silent”) or “the teacher is using different colored markers,” and they often simply miss many of the noteworthy things that are happening in a classroom (van Es and Sherin, 2002).
- Interpretation: then, teachers assign meaning to what they notice. When a student has his/her head down, is it boredom—because the content is too easy? Is it sleepiness—because something is happening outside of school? Is it willful defiance—because we assume, perhaps, that Black boys are more likely to be defiant? Is it shame—because the student is embarrassed that s/he doesn’t know enough English to follow the lesson? This is where Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference comes in, because how we interpret what we notice is heavily influenced by our own experiences, biases, cultural norms, expectations, etc., many of which are grounded in our identity and what we know about or how we understand the identity of our students.
- Repertoire: once a teacher has noticed something and interpreted it, s/he has to respond. Experienced teachers have a broad repertoire of moves they can deploy in any given situation, and they choose the move based on what they’ve noticed and interpreted—as stated above, the move you use to position students as competent at the beginning of class is likely different from the one you use to do so in the middle of a discussion. Lani's blog post provides an example where one teacher makes the move of anonymizing student work before posting it, and another teacher chooses the opposite move, because of how they’ve interpreted the context of their classrooms—their students bring in different experiences with math and therefore feel differently about their work being publicly displayed. Both moves—even though they’re exact opposites—serve to position students as competent.
So, why is this where we should focus our energy? Building teachers’ repertoire of moves through mimicry is still important, of course, but—and here’s where I feel like I’m proposing a shift from how we have traditionally thought about teacher education—it is only meaningful when we are also building teacher judgment. Developing judgment is much harder than giving teachers a large set of moves and teaching them rules about when to use which move, but it’s also more critical because no set of moves we provide could ever be complete—and no rules we offer could ever be absolute (see the above example about diametrically opposed moves being the “right” way to accomplish the same purpose because of differences in situation). Additionally, we can leverage the fact that our teachers are incredibly intelligent and incredibly motivated; as their judgment sharpens, they’re likely to be able to independently find and experiment with a broader set of moves which is much easier than developing judgment on their own.
There was more here about implications, but it started to get kind of technical. Basically, I don't think this can be done through "train the trainer" models, which is how we've typically thought about professional development (and not just us; I think most districts and professional organizations and private consultants operate similarly), but I could write a whole series of other posts about that, and this is already long, so I'll stop here.
These aren't really my ideas; I've just tried to organize the ideas of others into a mental schema that's useful for thinking about the work of teacher education and professional development. It's been useful for me, and maybe it'll be useful for you!
- Green, Elizabeth. July 23, 2014. “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?” New York Times. Accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html.
- Horn, Ilana and Kane, Britnie. (2014). What we mean when we talk about teaching: Situativity, concepts, and meaning in professional language. In preparation, Vanderbilt University.
- Joyce, Bruce and Showers, Beverly. (2002). Student Achievement Through Staff Development. ASCD.
- Lefstein, Adam and Snell, Julia. (2014). Better than Best Practice: Developing teaching and learning through dialogue. Routledge.
- Sherin, Miriam and van Es, Elizabeth. (2005). Using Video to Support Teachers’ Ability to Notice Classroom Interactions. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 13(3), 475.
- van Es, Elizabeth and Sherin, Miriam. (2002). Learning to Notice: Scaffolding New Teachers' Interpretations of Classroom Interactions. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 10(4), 571-596.