01 SES 03 B, Professional Continuity and Teacher Learning
Research questions, objectives, and theoretical framework (568 words)
In autumn 2004 we began a longitudinal study of 22 elementary (K-8) teachers who had just completed their preparation program and were beginning full-time teaching. In this paper we report especially on their 12th to 14th years of teaching, i.e., to summer 2018 (by which time 2 had left the study, reducing the sample to 20), and focus in particular on their growth in these three years. Our research questions were:
- To what extent did the teachers continue to learn as they entered mid-career?
- What were some of the key areas of learning?
- What gave rise to this learning?
- How could their learning have been further enhanced?
Many outsiders assume that learning to teach occurs mainly during pre-service preparation and the first few years of practice, after which teachers enter a “plateau,” either because they are lazy and uncaring or because there is not much left to learn (because teaching is primarily transmission of subject content). Our position, by contrast, is that most teachers care a great deal about students and their learning, and they continue to learn in varying degrees throughout their career; furthermore, we believe this ongoing learning is essential because of the great breadth and complexity of teaching: it is not just transmission of subject content (Chapman & West-Burnham, 2010; Dewey, 1916; Feiman-Nemser, 2001, 2012; Lieberman, 2018). To the extent that the rate of teacher learning does decrease, this is due partly to insufficient awareness of the complexity of teaching; partly to the increasing challenges of teaching leading to exhaustion and demoralization; and partly to lack of system support in meeting these challenges and continuing to learn (Day & Gu, 2014; Huberman, 1989, 1993; Sahlberg, 2015).
The theoretical framework of our research study is broadly constructivist (Ahsan & Smith, 2016; Brooks, 2011; Piaget, 1932, 1968; Richardson, 1997). According to Piaget, all knowledge needs constant modification by individuals to adjust to their distinctive personality, insights, and situation; and in our view this applies as much to teacher professional knowledge as student knowledge. Admittedly, social constructivist Vygotsky (1978), along with Piaget, stresses the need for external input: a degree of “scaffolding” by “expert others” is important. But such input must be dialogical rather than top-down: individuals still have a crucial part to play in building their co-constructed knowledge.
In addition to emphasizing the individual’s role in knowledge creation, constructivism supports the understanding of teacher knowledge as broad and complex. Knowledge reflects a whole way of life, including the personal, emotional, and social as well as the intellectual. According to Piaget (1968), individual construction is required not only for sound academic knowledge but for our whole being; it is essential if any organism – human or otherwise – is to survive and thrive. Where the “structures” (cognitive or otherwise) we encounter in the world are useful as they stand, we largely accept or “accommodate to” them (pp. 63 & 71), but where they are not useful we have to change or “assimilate” them to a form more suited to our needs (p. 71). Constructivism, then, is not just an academic and pedagogical approach but a fundamental strategy of everyday life. This again points to the necessity of ongoing teacher learning, since teachers cannot possibly build knowledge of such breadth and complexity in just a few years: it takes a whole career (Day et al., 2007; Huberman, 1989, 1993).
Methods/methodology (337 words) As noted, our longitudinal study began in 2004 and followed 20 elementary teachers (originally 22) across their initial years of teaching. The study is ongoing, but in this paper we report especially on the three school years 2015-16 to 2017-18, that is, their 12th, 13th, and 14th years of teaching. We interviewed them each year and as far as possible observed in their classrooms. The participants taught in several school districts within a large metropolitan area; most were in relatively low SES public schools with a very diverse student population. While we have explored many aspects of the teachers’ experience and development over the years, in the past three years we asked the teachers about (among other things) the extent of their change, areas of change, and how these changes came about. Each interview was approximately 60-75 minutes in length and was recorded and transcribed. The same questions were asked of all participants in a given year, although probe questions were also asked and additional comment by the teachers was welcomed. Many questions remained the same from year to year, but different questions were also asked to reflect the teachers’ career stage, emerging issues in the field, and specific topics we wanted to explore more fully. Our research approach was qualitative, as defined by Merriam (2009), Punch (2014), and Savin-Baden and Major, (2013). For example, we had a modest sample (the 20) and studied them in some depth; our interview questions were largely open-ended; and the themes emerged as the study progressed. In analyzing the transcripts, we began by reading them several times to identify themes or "codes" related to the central issues of the study. We then developed a table of themes matched to participants and, going through the materials again, recorded where reference was made to each topic. The longitudinal nature of the study meant we were able to gain the trust of the teachers and get a fuller knowledge of their views, practices, and changes over time (Menard, 2002; Saldaña, 2003).
Expected outcomes/results In this conference proposal, we outline some of the changes that occurred in the teachers’ views, practices, situation, and morale in Years 12 to 14. In the final presentation we will give more detailed information and examples. 1. The teachers’ pedagogical views and practices developed in many ways during their 12th to 14th years in the profession. All reported having changed to a substantial degree. For example, they integrated subjects and topics more; made subject content more relevant; assessed students in more flexible ways; increased their use of digital technology; and gave students greater choice and autonomy. 2. The changes occurred as a result of several influences, especially informal ones. Influences included their own reading and reflections, trial and error in the classroom, informal discussion with colleagues, and visiting internet sites. Formal professional development activities also played a role, but the most influential were those where the teachers had an opportunity to interact with facilitators and each other rather than simply being told what to do. 3. Nearly all the teachers reported working under increasingly difficult circumstances, but on the whole this did not prevent them from continuing to improve their practice. Although they felt themselves in an era of challenge and risk, they experienced quite high levels of motivation and satisfaction and intended to continue in the profession, while in many cases they were seeking to adjust their role (e.g., greater specialization, a change in grade level). None expressed interest in school administration, partly because of the current challenges. 4. It seemed to us that, with more support, the teachers could have developed their practice even more. Generally, their improvements were achieved with little support from the larger system and the local school administration. In cases where their principal was supportive this made a large difference.
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