Practicing Responsiveness: Using Approximations of Teaching to Develop Teachers’ Responsiveness to Students’ Ideas

January 1, 2020

Source: Journal of Teacher Education. Volume: 71 issue: 1, page(s): 94-107

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the authors investigate the tension between, on one hand, a field-level need for approaches to supporting teachers to enact practice and, on the other hand, a deep belief that instruction should not be scripted in advance and must be responsive to students’ ideas as they emerge.
They studied how teacher educators in a practice-based professional development (PD) program for early career teachers at a major research university designed and facilitated approximations of teaching (Grossman et al., 2009).

In particular, their investigation was guided by the following questions:
•What were the characteristics of approximation tasks that were tightly focused on practicing how to be responsive to students’ ideas?
•Within approximations, to what extent and in what ways did the feedback offered to teachers attend to the topic of responsiveness to students’ ideas?

To answer these questions, they paid particular attention to how teacher educators specified what they wanted teachers to approximate, how teacher educators offered feedback to teachers during and after approximations, and how teacher educators supported teachers to reflect on their approximations of teaching.
Out of their study, they have identified key concepts for understanding characteristics of approximations of practice that support teachers to practice being responsive to students’ ideas.

Research Design and Method
The authors’ goal was to better understand the characteristics of approximations of teaching that support teachers to practice responsiveness rather than practice predetermined and a-contextual teaching behaviors or “best practices.”
Because of this focus, they chose to study PD offerings within a program that described itself as “practice-based” and explicitly concentrated on supporting teachers to improve their skill in facilitating discussions—a teaching practice that requires teachers to be responsive to students’ ideas.

Their investigation is a comparative case study (Yin, 2015) of four different PD courses.
They treated each one of the four PD courses as a separate case in their analysis.
One course was for math teachers, another for English language arts teachers, a third for science teachers, and the final course was for history and social studies teachers.

Context and Research Participants
The PD courses the authors studied were offerings in a fellowship program for early-career high school teachers.
The study focused explicitly on a 2-week residential summer institute on a university campus.
While each content cohort had its own separate PD programming, there were shared characteristics across the content areas:
(a) all content areas focused on supporting teachers in developing their skill at discussion facilitation—an inherently responsive teaching practice—and
(b) all content areas carried out approximations of discussion facilitation during which teachers had opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their facilitation.
Out of the 107 teacher participants in the fellowship, 76 had a bachelor’s degree in their content areas or a closely related field. Per the requirements of the fellowship, the participants in this study all had between 2 and 7 years of teaching experience at the outset of the summer institute.
The teacher educator team consisted of 13 individuals.

Data Sources and Sampling
The authors base their findings on analysis of four main data sources: videos of teacher educators facilitating PD, videos of small groups of teachers approximating discussion facilitation, PD artifacts (teacher educators’ lesson plans, presentations, handouts, etc.), and memos written by teacher educators describing their pedagogy.
The 27 approximations the authors analyzed comprised 13 hr. of small-group approximation video.
The format of approximations varied across their four cases.
Additional artifacts (e.g., handouts, lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations, and teacher educator narrative memos) served as points of triangulation with the video data.

Data Analysis
The authors’ primary analytic task was to understand if and how the design and facilitation of approximations was focused on supporting teachers to practice being responsive to students’ ideas as they emerged.
Their analysis occurred in two stages:
Understanding what was being approximated.
This stage of the authors’ analysis focused on understanding how teacher educators specified what teachers were to approximate.
For this, they drew primarily on video of the PD, teacher educators’ plans and presentations, and teacher educators’ narrative memos.
They studied these data to understand how teacher educators prescribed and/or offered guidance to teachers about what they were meant to approximate.
Understanding how teachers reflected on teaching during approximations.
Next, they analyzed the extent to which and in what ways teacher educators (and sometimes participating teachers) offered feedback or prompted reflections on responsiveness to students’ ideas both during and after approximations.
To do this, they first isolated moments in the approximation videos when teacher educators and teachers were talking about teaching instead of approximating teaching.
The bulk of these moments occurred during the debrief conversations following the approximations and during teacher educator– initiated pauses within the approximations.

The authors entered their investigation interested in understanding what characterizes opportunities to approximate responsive teaching—a kind of teaching that can only be created in the moment in response to what students bring.
To investigate this, they focused on
(a) how teacher educators defined what they wanted teachers to approximate and
(b) how teacher educators offered feedback and guided teachers’ reflections during and following approximations of teaching.
Their analysis revealed two major findings.
First, they found that approximations that were tightly focused on being responsive to students’ ideas were also highly scaffolded and constrained by teacher educators.
In short, to focus teachers’ attention on practicing responding to students’ thinking, teacher educators had done a great deal of work in advance to draw clear boundaries around what teachers could approximate.
While these stringent constraints tightened the focus on being responsive, they also severely limited teachers’ choices about what they could approximate.
Second, they found that one way teacher educators focused approximations on being responsive to students’ ideas related to the quality of the feedback they offered to teachers during approximations. Instead of focusing on the fidelity with which teachers enacted moves, feedback on responsiveness focused instead on the appropriateness of the moves teachers used.

The authors note that while this study offers the field a more nuanced perspective on planning and facilitation considerations for approximations of teaching, the study has many limitations and much more research is needed.
Their study focused on understanding that characteristics of approximations that were tightly focused on supporting teachers to be responsive to students’ ideas as they emerged.
The field still needs information about the extent to which these characteristics of teacher educators’ planning and facilitation translate into changes in novice teacher practice or thinking both within approximations and in teachers’ subsequent work in the field with K-12 students.
In addition, the authors feel that future studies could investigate how teacher educators design and facilitate practice opportunities focused on responsiveness when K-12 students are actually present.
Especially for a skill like responding to students, the presence of actual students offers opportunities to learn that may not be able to be simulated in less authentic environments where students are not present.
The authors offer this study as a way to add nuance to contemporary conceptualizations of practice-based teacher education (PBTE).
They believe that the turn toward practice in teacher education holds promise for preparing teachers who can design and facilitate student-centered instruction.
However, without nuanced illustrations of (PBTE) that are oriented toward responsiveness, the practice turn runs the risk of stumbling into the old pitfalls of treating teachers as technicians instead of adaptive experts responsible for complex and rapid decision making in complex contexts.

Grossman, P., Compton, C., Igra, D., Ronfeldt, M., Shahan, E., Williamson, P. (2009). Teaching practice: A cross-professional perspective. Teachers College Record, 111(9), 2055-2100.
Yin, R. K. (2015). Qualitative research from start to finish. New York, NY: Guilford Press. 

Updated: Jul. 02, 2020