An Affinity for Learning: Teacher Identity and Powerful Professional Development

November 1, 2019

Source: Journal of Teacher Education. Volume: 70 issue: 5, page(s): 526-537

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Drawing on interviews with 25 teachers in which they reflected on their most powerful learning experiences (PLEs), the author considers the extent to which teacher identity may emerge from or contribute to these learning experiences.
To better understand the relationship between teachers’ identities and their experiences of PD, the author sought to answer the following research questions:
1: How do teachers’ accounts of professional learning reflect or contradict the “anchoring beliefs” underlying their professional identities?
2: What implications for PD design and policy can be drawn from such alignments or misalignments?

The present study was a phenomenological inquiry, defined by Creswell (2013) as one that “describes the common meaning for several individuals of their lived experiences of a concept or phenomenon” (p. 76; emphasis in original).
To analyze perceptions of PD, the author conducted semistructured interviews with 25 teachers in which they provided narrative accounts of their most PLE.
Given that the impact of any learning experience is often only evident with the benefit of time and the application of new ideas to practice, post hoc interviews enabled participants to consider connections between professional learning and its impact on practice.
Surveying findings from the full sample, the author was struck by the apparent heterogeneity across several dimensions of PD best practices.
However, while such heterogeneity poses a challenge to consensus best practices, it is well in line with an identity frame that acknowledges and seeks to account for individual differences. From the full sample, the author selected three cases that offered instructive contrasts to each other to explore alignment with one’s professional identity as a way to explore powerful professional learning (Yin, 2014).

Employing a purposeful stratified sampling strategy (Patton, 2002), the author recruited teachers from five adjoining school districts in the northeastern United States.
In the final sample, there were more women than men (20 and 5), fewer elementary teachers than middle and high school teachers (11 and 14), and more experienced teachers than novices (19 and 6).
With the exception of grade level—which is evenly split between K-8 and high school—trends in the sample reflected national trends (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).

Data Collection
The author conducted semistructured interviews as a way for participants to “reconstruct and reflect” on one PLE (Seidman, 2006).
He also asked participants to provide background and brief comparison cases by outlining their beliefs related to teacher improvement and describing a professional learning experience that they “would like never to have again.”

Data Analytic Strategy
In subsequent analysis the author first drafted “identity memos” for each participant to document their stated beliefs about teaching and learning and to summarize his interpretation of their professional identity.
In drafting identity memos, he synthesized participants’ responses to questions about their “baseline beliefs about teaching and learning” and then used the beliefs emerging from these memos as an interpretive lens on their accounts of the learning experiences they identified as powerful (and/or negative).
In so doing, he considered the extent to which these accounts reflected or challenged these “anchoring beliefs.”
As Yin (2014) recommended for explanation building across multiple cases, the author approached this study with an initial “explanatory proposition” regarding teachers’ perceptions of powerful learning, positing that teachers’ anchoring beliefs about teaching and improvement would be reflected in the format or content of their PLEs.
That is, teachers would be more apt to assess a learning experience positively if it aligned with what they understood teaching to be and if they believed it could help them improve their practice.

Results and Discussion
In this study, teachers were not only discussing the present; they were also reflecting on the past.
Given this, one might expect to find alignment between their stories and their current beliefs.
And indeed, in 18 of 23 cases in the analytic sample there was alignment between participants’ beliefs and their PLEs.
The five nonaligned cases seemed to be reflections of identity’s continuously evolving nature: what teachers said they believed were not reflected in their recollections of past experiences, suggesting their present beliefs had evolved beyond their fond memories.
In representing alignment between teachers’ identity and their professional learning experiences for analysis, the author selected three cases that served as illuminating contrasts, thus highlighting the varying shapes that alignment could take.

Learning Affinities: The What, the Who, and the With Whom
The cases included in this article help to illustrate how the domain of teacher identity can be useful in interpreting discrete professional learning experiences.
Specifically, each case represents a unique learning affinity, defined as a disposition toward learning experiences that either contributes to or emerges from one’s professional identity.
In this article, the author presents three learning affinities: the what, the who, and the with whom.
Briefly, teachers who identified closely with their subject matter content may have an affinity for content-focused learning experiences (the what).
Similarly, teachers who identified closely with pedagogical expertise may have an affinity for models of what they consider exemplary teaching (the who).
And finally, teachers who identified closely as members of a professional community of practice may have an affinity for interdependent exchanges of expertise (the with whom).
While representative of the research sample, these affinities are not intended to be comprehensive of the teaching profession as a whole nor, for that matter, are they necessarily mutually exclusive of each other.
Rather, the author presents them here as distinct and unitary concepts to emphasize their potential utility as lenses for interpreting teachers’ experiences of powerful learning.
Within each case, the author offers relevant personal and professional background, identify the anchoring beliefs and PLEs, and present teachers’ sense-making about their learning experiences in light of these beliefs.

Taken together, the learning affinity framework challenges conventional wisdom about PD in important ways.
Most fundamentally, it challenges an assumption implicit in many macro-level PD policies that there is one best way to design effective PD.
Hochberg and Desimone (2010) advised designers and policymakers to “be considerate of teachers’ backgrounds and existing knowledge and beliefs” (p. 100), and the accounts shared by teachers in this study help validate this recommendation, reminding us that different people value different things—for example, a deep understanding of calculus—and that these preferences are not incidental.
Rather, for teachers like the ones profiled above, they emerge from deeply held and motivating convictions.
In this way, the learning affinity framework also helps explain the null findings of PD designed in line with consensus best practice elements.
Put plainly, PD thick with “active learning” strategies or coherent with district strategy may still miss the mark if it does not also appeal to teachers’ sense of themselves. In this sense, PD designers would do well to attend to individual teachers’ learning needs by surveying them on what they most want to learn, offering differentiated choices, and giving them some degree of agency over their PD.
In addition, just as it is important for PD designers to know and respect teachers, it is equally important for teachers to know themselves.
Such awareness could further help teachers seek out PD better aligned with their identities or respond substantively if and when they are asked about their professional learning needs.

The author concludes that each teacher—like each student in their classrooms—brings to their learning experiences a unique set of values and interests, past behaviors, and aspirations for the future.
This sometimes bewildering brew of individual characteristics, which together comprise one’s personal and professional identity, must be treated for what it is: a singularly influential filter through which learning happens or fails to happen.
Recent developments in PD policy and design suggest a promising turn toward greater personalization, with some teachers given greater latitude by their districts to design unique programs of professional learning (Sawchuk, 2015), others individually paired with colleagues for ongoing peer-to-peer learning (Papay, Taylor, Tyler, & Laski, 2016), and still others leveraging social media to meet their varied learning needs (Carpenter & Krutka, 2015).
Because teachers’ identities evolve over the span of their careers, more nimble and responsive approaches to professional learning like these—and in contrast to standardized, one-size-fits-all programs—will be critical toward ensuring teachers’ continued growth and improvement.

Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2015). Engagement through microblogging: Educator professional development via Twitter. Professional Development in Education, 41(4), 707- 728. 
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE
Hochberg, E. D., & Desimone, L. M. (2010). Professional development in the accountability context: Building capacity to achieve standards. Educational Psychologist, 45(2), 89-106. 
National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Digest of education statistics, 2014. Retrieved from digest/d14/tables/dt14_209.10.asp
Papay, J. P., Taylor, E. S., Tyler, J. H., & Laski, M. (2016). Learning job skills from colleagues at work: Evidence from a field experiment using teacher performance data (Working Paper No. 21986). National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
Sawchuk, S. (2015, September 30). Long beach sets course to personalize PD options. Education Week, 35(6), s2-s3.
Seidman, I. (2006). Interviewing as qualitative research: A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press
Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE

Updated: Jun. 16, 2020