Teachers and Researchers: Searching for the Truth of Classroom Change

I am preparing to write a section in my forthcoming book on technology integration about  the different perspectives that teachers and researchers have on changes in classroom lessons. To do that, I have looked back at the handful of posts I have written since 2009 on this point so I can figure out what to say in this forthcoming book.

Here is one from November 2009 along with a reader’s thoughtful comment (and criticism) of the position I take in the post.

Over the years, I have interviewed many teachers across the country who have described their district’s buying computers, deploying them in classrooms while providing professional development. These teachers have told me that using computers, interactive white boards, and other high-tech devices with accompanying software have altered their teaching significantly. They listed changes they have made such as their Powerpoint presentations and students doing Internet searches in class. They told me about using email with students.Teachers using interactive white boards said they can check immediately if students understand a math or science problem through their voting on the correct answer.

I then watched many of these teachers teach. Most teachers used the high-tech devices as they described in their interviews. Yet I was puzzled by their claim that using these devices had substantially altered how they taught. Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches. All of this in years when No Child Left Behind, extensive testing, and coercive accountability reigned. What I encountered in classrooms, however, departed from teachers’ certainty that they have changed how they teach.

I am not the first researcher to have met teachers who claimed substantial changes in their teaching in response to district or state policies. Consider “A Revolution in One Classroom; The Case of Mrs. Oublier.”

In the mid-1980s, California policymakers adopted a new elementary math curriculum intended to have students acquire a deep understanding of math concepts rather than memorizing rules and seeking the “right” answer. The state provided staff development to help elementary teachers implement the new curriculum. Then, researchers started observing teachers using the new math curriculum.

One researcher observed third grade teacher Mrs. Oublier (a pseudonym but hereafter Mrs. O) to see to what degree Mrs. O had embraced the innovative math teaching the state sought. Widely respected in her school as a first-rate math teacher, Mrs. O told the researcher that she had “revolutionized” her teaching. She was delighted with the new math text, used manipulatives to teach concepts, organized students desks into clusters of four and five, and had student participate in discussions. Yet the researcher saw her use paper straws, beans, and paper clips for traditional classroom tasks. She used small groups, not for students to collaborate in solving math problems, but to call on individuals to give answers to text questions. She used hand clapping and choral chants—as the text and others suggested—in traditional ways to get correct answers. To the researcher, she had grafted innovative practices onto traditional ways of math teaching and, in doing so, had missed the heart and soul of the state curriculum.

How can Mrs. O and teachers I have interviewed tell researchers that they had changed their teaching yet classroom observations of these very same teachers revealed familiar patterns of teaching? The answer depends on what each person means by “change” and who judges the worth of the change.

Change clearly meant one thing to teachers and another to researchers. Teachers had, indeed, made a cascade of incremental changes in their daily lessons. Researchers, however, keeping in mind what policymakers intended, looked for fundamental changes in teaching. In the case of Mrs. O—from memorizing math rules and getting the correct answer to focusing on conceptual understanding. Or in my case, getting teachers to shift from traditional to non-traditional instruction in seating arrangements, lesson activities, teacher-talk, use of projects, etc. In one instance, teachers saw substantial incremental “changes,” while researchers saw little fundamental “change.”

Whether those teachers’ incremental changes or the fundamental changes state policymakers sought led to test score gains, given the available evidence, no one yet knows.

So whose judgment about change matters most? “ Should researchers “consider changes in teachers’ work from the perspective of new policies….[or intentions of policymakers]? Or should they be considered from the teachers’ vantage point? (p.312).

Researchers, however, publish their studies and teachers like Mrs. O seldom tell their side of the story. Yet teachers’ perceptions of change have to be respected and voiced because they have indeed altered their practices incrementally and as any practitioners (lawyers, doctors, accountants) will tell you, that is very hard to do. How to honor teachers’ incremental changes while pointing out few shifts in fundamental patterns of teaching is the dilemma with which I have wrestled in researching high-tech use in schools.

____________________________

I now include a long comment to the above post from Brian Rude, a community college teacher. It was written on November 18, 2009

Larry, you sound frustrated. You are frustrated because teachers don’t do things quite the way you believe they should? So who’s right, you or the teachers?

I am no fan of B. F. Skinner, but he did say one thing that I think is very important. (At least I think it was Skinner. It was decades ago when I read this.) He said “The mouse is always right.” The context here is a psychologist doing an experiment with a mouse, and being frustrated because the results don’t come out as the psychologist would like and expect. It is quite understandable that the psychologist would blame the mouse, but it doesn’t take much reflection to realize how wrong that is. Of course the mouse doesn’t get it! It’s a mouse!

You say, “Policymaker decisions to buy and deploy high-tech devices was supposed to shift dominant ways of traditional teaching to student-centered, or progressive approaches.” Why on earth should it? Who’s right, the policy makers or the teachers? High tech is going to change the essential nature of teaching? Why should it?

I think my view is evident by now. If we want to learn about teaching and learning, we’d better look closely at what teachers and learners actually do, not what we think they should do. We need to ask why they do what they do, not why they don’t do what someone else thinks they should.

I teach lower level math courses in a community college. Every day I struggle with how to make students understand. I use high tech, everyday. I’m using high tech right now to write this. I’m not writing with a pencil or a fountain pen as I did in my youth. But that is pretty much irrelevant to the essential task of stringing words together in a way that will effectively communicate thoughts. Similarly the essential tasks of teaching have never changed. You need some way to present information. Students must attend to that information. They must build structures of knowledge in their minds. A lot of feedback is necessary for this to happen. My job is to provide them with the raw materials to build those structures of knowledge, and to guide them, as best I can, in how to build those structures of knowledge. Thus everyday I go to class and very carefully explain mathematical ideas and how to put them together. Everyday I do my best to put together well chosen problems for well designed homework assignments. Everyday I complain, at least to myself, about the bad textbooks we are stuck with. Every day, both in class and helping students individually in my office, I get questions that reveal misconceptions and errors of one sort or another in the thinking of students. I struggle to understand those misconceptions and errors of thinking, and to set the students on the right path again.

Almost everyday I make out handouts (usually pull them up from previous semesters and revise as needed) because that’s often the best way to make an assignment that meets my idea of what a good, effective, productive assignment should be. Well designed homework assignments are crucial, in my opinion. That’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Math is a subject of ideas, but almost all math is learned by almost all students by doing problems. And they have to be the right problems, problems that provide the framework for students to put together mathematical ideas in ways that construct real knowledge. I am quite aware that many would dismiss me as a “worksheet teacher”. Who cares? I use high tech to make these handouts. But that is irrelevant to the essential nature of what I am doing. I am essentially doing the very same thing I did as a young teacher in the 60’s when I would make handouts on a spirit duplicating machine (and the kids would sniff them when they got them). All that high tech is no more central to the essence of teaching than is having a nice car to get me to work, rather than the 55 Chevy that took me to work in the early sixties.

I’m not claiming Mrs. O and the other teachers you describe are doing the best possible job in every situation. And I’m certainly not claiming that I do a perfect job in every situation. I am just saying that to be frustrated because they don’t do things the way you think they should, is to be like the psychologist who blames the mouse. The mouse just doesn’t get it. Of course. It’s a mouse. The teachers just don’t get it? Of course, they are teachers. They have reasons for what they do, though they may be no good at all in explaining those reasons, or even recognizing them. When there is a difference in what researchers and policy makers think is desirable, and what teachers actually do in the real world, I’ll go with the teachers every time.

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Filed under how teachers teach, research

2 responses to “Teachers and Researchers: Searching for the Truth of Classroom Change

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