I have always been a little bit of an anomaly in my career field. Although I’ve worked on various education projects and materials for over ten years now, but I’ve never been a classroom teacher. I was a math major as an undergraduate student, with little interest in education at the time. It was only through a random search for “mathematics” in a job search engine upon graduation that I ended up with a temporary contract position in educational publishing. After that, I went to graduate school to get a masters in learning sciences, then to the university for ten years of work in curriculum development, and finally, this year, I started a PhD in educational psychology and educational technology. I taught a couple of recitation sections of a math course as an undergraduate senior, and I’ve taught brief lessons in various classrooms on occasion, but other than that, I have no teaching experience.
People ask me sometimes why I didn’t choose to go through a teacher ed program and teach for a few years once my interest in education started to develop. There are a couple of related answers to that question. One is that it felt somehow insincere to enter teaching with the explicit intention of leaving it after a couple of years. Another is that I didn’t (and still don’t) think I’d be particularly good at it. I find it difficult to develop good rapport with kids, and I am not a quick thinker. When I’m in a conversation that doesn’t go the way I expect, I am almost never able to respond intelligently in the moment. It takes me a while to work through things. That’s not possible when 30 students are sitting in front of you, waiting for reasonable answers to their questions.
The constant need for in-the-moment decision-making, in my opinion, is among the most difficult aspects of teaching. The very thought of it is one of the major reasons I never pursued teaching. The willingness and ability to handle the constantly changing course of conversation in classrooms is the thing I admire and respect most about teachers. I have always been too scared of the idea to even try.
As a researcher interested in processes of learning, I’ve always been curious about the ways in which teachers learn to be agile and responsive in their teaching. I know that it’s something that develops over time with practice and experience, but are there ways of helping that development along? How does that play out in teacher education?
This week I read a couple of pieces that answer that question, at least in part. Crespo, Oslund, and Parks (2011) asked pre-service teachers to imagine and write out narrative scripts of how they thought their lesson plans would play out in their classrooms. What would students give as answers to particular problems? What would the teacher say in response? How would the conversation progress toward the mathematical goals of the lesson?
The researchers explored the idea of having preservice teachers write out enactments, rather than focus exclusively on lesson plans, because they felt that the former would allow a different window into teacher thinking. “Consider the difference between writing out a teacher action plan and acting out that plan (even if on paper). Although both of these serve to map the intellectual journey and destination of a math lesson, they do so from different perspectives. The first takes a bird’s eye view perspective, while the second takes a ground level viewpoint” (Crespo, Oslund, & Parks, 2011, p. 121).
I found this contrast fascinating, because it clearly articulated the difference between planning lessons and teaching lessons in a way that starts to get at the challenges of in-the-moment thinking that happens while teaching. Writing out scripts of possible enactments is an interesting way to prompt teachers to think about the possibilities of that in-the-moment work, in a context that doesn’t have the same time pressure for thinking through responses.
The Crespo et al. (2011) article discusses script-writing as a method for gaining a window into teacher thinking. That is, they discuss it as more of a research tool than a teacher education tool. When I brought up the prospect of using scripting as a technique for helping teachers develop skills in responding to students in the moment, my classmates and instructors rightfully brought up a concern that writing out a script might make teachers less apt to deviate from that script if something plays out differently than they expect in the classroom. I understand this, and so don’t really believe that hypothetical scripting of lesson should be part of daily lesson planning. I do, however, still wonder if making the creation of multiple possible scripts for the same discussion, done in the right context at the right time, could be beneficial to developing flexible thinking, that in turn helps teachers to be flexible in moment-to-moment thinking.
The second article I read this week that spoke to this particular issue was Lampert et al.’s (2013) study of rehearsal as a teacher education technique. Lampert et al. explain that rehearsal “can involve novices in publicly and deliberately practicing how to teach rigorous content to particular students using particular instructional activities” (p. 227). During rehearsals, preservice teachers teach a lesson to their peers and teacher-educators, with the teacher-educators calling out feedback and sometimes interrupting and pausing the lesson to discuss what just happened and ways a situation might have been handled differently. Rehearsal, like scripting, was appealing to me because it represents a way to examine and develop in-the-moment thinking with a built-in capacity to give teachers a bit of extra time to think things through and consider possibilities.
What do you think? Is one of the keys to developing skills in responsive, in-the-moment decision-making providing ways to slow down time a bit, as in scripting and rehearsal? What other ways of developing skills have you heard about or experienced?
And if you’re a teacher: Does it get easier over time? What has helped you feel prepared for the unknown trajectories of conversation in a classroom?
Crespo, S., Oslund, J. A., & Parks, A. N. (2011). Imagining mathematics teaching practice: Prospective teachers generate representations of a class discussion. ZDM – International Journal on Mathematics Education, 43(1), 119–131. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11858-010-0296-z
Lampert, M., Franke, M. L., Kazemi, E., Ghousseini, H., Turrou, A. C., Beasley, H., … Crowe, K. (2013). Keeping It Complex: Using Rehearsals to Support Novice Teacher Learning of Ambitious Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(3), 226–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487112473837