Balancing tensions in supporting teacher professional learning
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Understanding teacher professional learning involves a careful consideration of the tension between the larger organizational structures within which teachers are embedded and their local context. On the one hand, teachers are embedded within schools, which are in turn embedded within larger organizational and governing structures that reside at the regional, territorial, or governmental levels, depending on the country. There are a variety of organizational features of schools that support and constrain opportunities for teacher learning in such nested organizations. For example, school-level infrastructures that are not optimally designed to support teachers’ instructional practice can constrain efforts to improve the effectiveness of the existing teaching force within a school organization (Spillane and Hopkins 2013). Moreover, school-level leadership provided by both administrators and teachers, as well as organizational structures, conditions, and resources, is critical for supporting school-wide improvements in teaching and learning (Bryk et al. 2010).
Similarly, the organizational contexts in which schools are embedded can critically influence instructional improvement efforts in schools. In the USA, for example, schools are embedded within district organizations, which have been shown to influence the ways in which schools engage in a wide range of professional development efforts, thus helping or hindering efforts to ultimately support teacher professional learning (Honig and Rainey 2014; Leithwood et al. 2004). Moreover, elements of these broader organizational or governing systems can hinder or promote instructional improvement efforts and teacher learning in particular. Cohen and Hill (2001) found that alignment between assessments, curricula, professional development, and other policy tools was central to teacher learning around state-level efforts to improve mathematics instruction.
Despite the potential benefits of such alignment across the elements of a system aimed at supporting teacher learning, it is also critical for teacher learning efforts to be highly sensitive to the local context. As Bryk et al. (2015, p. 11) argued, “thinking about educational improvement should move away from simplistic thinking about what works generally toward a more realistic appraisal of ‘What works, for whom, and under what conditions?’” Similarly, Cohen and Mehta (2017) found that instructional reform policies that “worked” have generally been responsive to problems faced by practitioners at the ground level, offered solutions, and offered tools, guidance, and resources. Indeed, in Castro Superfine (2019), I argued that new models of supporting teacher professional learning that situate teacher learning in problems of practice that teachers see as relevant to their own contexts have the potential to promote teacher learning that is longstanding and takes root.
Taken together, the articles in this issue of Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education highlight the tension between attending to larger organizational structures and teachers’ local context. Mouhayar, for example, considered how the national curriculum and teacher education programs, two features of the larger educational system in Lebanon, may have contributed to the study findings. Briefly, Mouhayar examined the different ways in which practicing teachers attended to students’ written responses to pattern generalization tasks using a questionnaire instrument, and factors associated with differences in teachers’ attending. Mouhayar found that teachers’ attention narrowly focused on certain disjointed aspects of students’ responses, positing that the content was cognitive demanding for teachers. Furthermore, teachers differentially attended to students’ responses depending on the type of strategy employed (recursive or counting strategies vs. more functional approaches). Mouhayar attributed both findings to the Lebanese curriculum and teacher education programs. In particular, the national curriculum implicitly focuses on pattern generalization tasks, thereby limiting teachers’ exposure to, and possibly understanding of, others types of student reasoning. Moreover, teacher preparation programs require less mathematics content knowledge for upper elementary teachers as compared to other teachers, which, Mouhayar suggested, is why the content may have been challenging for participating teachers.
Similarly, DeVetten, Schoonenboom, Keijzer, and Van Oers consider the curriculum for statistics education in the Netherlands, and examine prospective teachers’ knowledge of informal statistical inference (ISI). While the authors argue more broadly for the need to understand teachers’ knowledge of ISI and the importance of opportunities for students to learn such content, the current curriculum in the Netherlands does not include a focus on ISI. Using a survey administered to over 700 prospective teachers across different teacher colleges, their findings showed that the prospective teachers surveyed understood global descriptive statistics, but diverged in their preference for quota versus random sampling. DeVetten et al. also found differences in prospective teachers who had university preparatory education as compared to those who had different educational backgrounds. The authors conclude by arguing that the challenge for teacher education is to develop instructional heuristics that promote ISI, but also that the uniqueness of the Dutch educational system should be considered when interpreting the findings.
In contrast, Hilton and Hilton attend explicitly to teachers’ local classroom context in the design of their multi-year professional development project. Specifically, Hilton and Hilton studied the way in which practicing teachers implemented structured interventions focused on proportional reasoning in their classrooms, and the relationship to teachers’ development of mathematical knowledge for teaching. The structured interventions were designed by the researchers together with teachers, and included a reflection and research component, whereby teachers could reflect on and collect data about their students’ learning as a result of the intervention implementations. Hilton and Hilton suggest that teacher learning is more likely to be enhanced if teachers are involved in forms of practitioner research in their classrooms wherein they see both the need for change and how they might achieve it.
Finally, Shaughnessy, Boerst, and Farmer argue that assessments in teacher education should not only account for how prospective teachers think about or prepare for teaching, but also the ways in which prospective teachers enact teaching practice in classroom contexts. In their study, they discuss the design of two assessments, in the field and a simulation, and argue that both take into the classroom context, albeit in different ways. While field-based assessments occur in actual classrooms with real students, simulation assessments offer design control for teacher educators to develop certain profiles of students’ thinking to prepare prospective teachers for what would otherwise be challenging for all prospective teachers to encounter in actual classrooms. Shaughnessy et al. conclude by discussing the affordances and challenges of these different assessment contexts.
How might elements of the larger organizational structures within which teachers are embedded be aligned to support teacher professional learning while also being responsive to the local context? Taken together, the articles in this issue highlight the challenges of this tension.
- Bryk, A., Gomez, L., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Boston, MA: Harvard Education Publishing.Google Scholar
- Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Honig, M., & Rainey, L. (2014). Central office leadership in principal professional learning communities: The practice beneath the policy. Teachers College Record,116, 1–48.Google Scholar
- Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How leadership influences student learning. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.Google Scholar