Over the past decade, thoughtful observers seeking improvement in public school teaching and student learning have advanced concepts of “ambitious teaching” and “deeper learning” (see here, here and here). Both raise the low bar that earlier reformers had set to initiate and adopt reforms aimed at classrooms such as adopting new reading programs, using innovative textbooks, or loading on student computers dazzling pieces of software. It was a low bar to these advocates because they sought a more thoughtful form of teaching that gets students of all ages to inquire, question, and poke at contradictions across all academic subjects. These champions of ambitious teaching and deeper learning believed that lessons, be they teacher- or student-directed, can go beyond the superficial and stimulate students’ curiosity and achieve learning goals heretofore thought impossible.
What is ambitious teaching?
A phrase that cropped up often over the past decade, ambitious teaching comes out of earlier reform traditions when teachers aspired to elicit and develop student ideas out of the content and skills regularly taught in lessons. Getting students to think aloud, take on difficult academic tasks, and investigate the world outside of school walls were aims. In such lessons, teachers not only elaborated student ideas but also applied them to practical situations in which they were familiar. All of this is packed into the phrase, “ambitious teaching.”
A more formal (and obtuse) definition comes from three scholars:
Ambitious teaching requires that teachers teach in response to what students do as they engage in problem solving performances, all while holding students accountable to learning goals that include procedural fluency, strategic competence, adaptive reasoning, and productive dispositions.”
What problems does ambitious teaching solve?
Reform-minded teacher educators and scholars of critical thinking believe that expecting teachers to teach ambitiously would result in fewer textbook-driven lessons which leave many students bored and compliant, leading, many observers believe, to underlying schoolwide problems. What adherents of ambitious teaching seek are more lessons that question textbook statements and explore and explain contradictions between what students know, what they experience and what they are expected to learn. Too many lessons, reformers claim, are dull, mechanical, and result in fake student responses that teachers label as “learning.”
What does ambitious teaching look like?
Researchers offered this example of ambitious teaching:
Imagine walking into a middle school classroom where students are working on a statistics unit in which they are investigating patterns of association between two quantities. While students enter the classroom, the teacher gives each student a sheet of paper that contains [a detailed photo of a] shoeprint….
The teacher explains that when investigators find shoeprints at the scene of a crime, forensic scientists can use the prints to identify suspects. She asks students to consider how a footprint could help someone solve a crime. After a brief discussion, students conclude that a shoeprint can indicate the type of shoe that a suspect wore, as well as the size of the suspect. The teacher explains that the students are going to investigate the relationship between shoe size and height so that they can determine the height of the suspect. While students work in pairs, measuring each other’s height and shoe length, the teacher monitors the activity and asks and answers questions as needed to support students’ efforts. When pairs finish measuring, they add their data (red dots for girls and green dots for boys) to a large graph—with the x-axis labeled as shoe length and the y-axis labeled as height—posted in the front of the room. When all the students have added their data points to the graph, the teacher asks students to talk with their partners about the patterns that they notice. After a few minutes, the students share their observations, which the teacher records: for example, no two people have the same shoe size and height, most girls have smaller feet and are shorter than the boys, tall people have bigger feet than short people, the data go up from left to right, and the data are kind of linear. The teacher tells students that their next step is to find a line that models these data—a line of best fit. She directs students to a Web-based applet, where they plot the class data in two-pair teams, guess at a line of best fit, and check their guesses. (An applet that supports this investigation is at http://illuminations.nctm.org/Activity.aspx?id54186.) The class concludes with a lively whole-group discussion, during which teams share their findings regarding the line of best fit, discuss the meaning of the slope and y-intercept in context, and consider how confident they are that the equation will be a good predictor of a person’s height based on a shoeprint. In the final five minutes of class, students complete an exit ticket in which they indicate how tall they think the suspect is and present their reasons.
Does ambitious teaching work?
While some evidence appears to support the correlation between ambitious teaching and higher achievement test scores, there is very little evidentiary support for such labeled practices primarily because the phrase has varied definitions and researchers often pick and choose among the diverse definitions for this form of teaching. At best, the answer to the question is: “perhaps.” See here and here.
What happened to ambitious teaching?
While less cited in the general literature on teaching, it remains strong within the math and science academic community and occasional groups of practitioners. In surveying the landscape of ambitious teaching, it appears to me that it is far more apparent among university and college teacher educators than rank-and-file district administrators and teachers. So the dream of ambitious teaching lives on but has yet to be widely shared or practiced within U.S. public schools.