New paper: Exploring teacher agency as they use mathematics curriculum materials

Well, it’s been quite a long time since I wrote a blog post — not surprising, I suppose, given the state of the world — but I’m happy to be back to share a new paper that just came out. This paper, published in Teaching and Teacher Education, reports the main finding of my practicum study.

As most of my blog readers will know, I spent many years writing mathematics curriculum materials before I began my PhD. As such, I’m very interested in the ways these materials are used by teachers. As a developer, my focus was on making the materials as educative and useful as possible. I saw my role as providing the information and support for teachers to create lessons that gave students opportunities to engage in rich mathematical experiences. As I spent more time talking to teachers, however, I started thinking about all the influences on teachers’ thinking and decisions that had little to do with their curriculum materials and more to do with all the other aspects of their professional obligations and pressures. It occurred to me that even with the perfect curriculum materials and abundant professional development, teachers will still face challenges in organizing their mathematics instruction around student thinking if pressure to produce good test scores or stick to a master schedule feels in conflict with the lessons they would otherwise plan and teach.

The existing research on these issues leaves little question as to whether things like standardized testing and limited class time play into teachers’ planning and teaching. However, I didn’t find much work that really dug into the nuances of teachers’ reasoning. In particular, there didn’t seem to be many studies that looked at teacher agency, or teachers’ sense of control over their decisions. When teachers plan lessons around test prep rather than rich mathematical tasks, for example, it is because they choose to do so? Or do they feel they have little choice?

I decided to focus my practicum on exploring this issue. For this study I used linguistic cues to explore teachers’ agency as they used mathematics curriculum materials. I examined when teachers felt agency to plan their instruction around considerations of students and how that sense of agency was influenced by other influences within teachers professional contexts. Unsurprisingly, I found that standards and assessments were a significant constraint on teachers’ agency. But I also found that students played into their thinking in complex ways despite these constraints. The two teachers in my study found space to consider their students even within strong constraints. And occasionally, student needs even overpowered other contextual constraints.

I’m not sure I discovered anything brand new in this study, but I do think it provides a new perspective on a chronic issue in mathematics teaching and learning. I also walked away from the study with a stronger appreciation of all the considerations, goals, and pressures teachers coordinate as they do their important and difficult work.

One more thing I want to mention: This paper was desk rejected from two journals before I submitted it to TATE, and the first round of reviews from TATE asked for revisions that were significant. The framing and background had to be completely redone, and I also had to redo a part of the analysis. But in the end, it was accepted. So, the moral of the story is: Don’t give up on a manuscript! This acceptance was all that much sweeter for the work it took.

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