Evolving Problems of Practice: How a Teacher’s Reflective Courses of Action Contributed to Her Learning and Change

Winter 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:4, 392-410

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The current case study helps to fill some of the gaps in research by providing an in-depth, longitudinal analysis of one experienced teacher’s courses of reflective action in relation to her trajectory of change over two-and-a-half school years.
The teacher who participated in this case study, Heidi (pseudonym), taught middle school social studies.
She and the researcher/author (Jackie) were involved in a larger research project focused on helping teachers support students’ The current case study helps to fill some of the gaps in research by providing an in-depth, longitudinal analysis of one experienced teacher’s courses of reflective action in relation to her trajectory of change over two-and-a-half school years.
The research question driving the investigation included: How did the teacher’s reflective courses of action contribute to her evolving perspectives about problems and to related changes in her knowledge, practice, and dispositions?


Teacher Participant and Researcher
The case study teacher, Heidi, taught 6th-8th grade Social Studies at a K-8 school in a large Midwestern urban district.
When Heidi began the project, she was in her 13th year of teaching.
She had taught language arts for 10 years and was in her third year of teaching social studies.
Heidi was recommended as a highly regarded teacher by district administrators to participate on the larger research project. She was also committed to changing her practice, as evidenced by self-reports and her years of participation on the project.
Like many social studies educators, teaching from a historical inquiry stance was an unfamiliar approach for her.
Therefore, Heidi was purposefully selected for the current study because she represents an intensity sampling strategy (Patton, 1990), an informative, high-probability case of what the reflection process entails for an experienced teacher committed to making fundamental changes to her practice.
As a participant on the larger research project, Heidi collaborated with a team of researchers, teachers, teacher educators, and historians on the design and implementation of curriculum to support students’ historical inquiry.
As part of the larger project, Heidi also participated in a professional development teacher network comprised middle and high school science, English, and social studies teachers from local urban and suburban school districts.
The teacher network met several times per year for professional development around supporting students’ disciplinary inquiry and argumentation with multiple texts.
The author/researcher, Jackie, also participated on the design team and in the teacher network.
As a researcher, she helped to plan and facilitate meetings as well as construct data sources (i.e. videotape, field notes).
Jackie also worked with the project’s participating history teachers, collaborating with them in planning lessons and debriefing on lessons she observed them teach to support their professional growth in the area of historical inquiry.
Heidi began her first iteration of curriculum design and implementation in the spring of her first year on the project (Iteration I).
The following two school years represent the second and third iterations of Heidi’s design and implementation (Iteration II, Iteration III).
Jackie, along with other researchers at times, conducted 71 classroom observations in Heidi’s classroom.
Teacher-Researcher Planning/Debriefing Meetings
Heidi and Jackie met after classroom observations to discuss their impressions of the observed lesson and to plan for upcoming lessons.
These planning/debriefing meetings were open-ended with no formal structure or set of questions.
The meetings served as a context for the teacher to collaboratively reflect on her practice with the researcher(s).
In the meetings, Heidi’s reflections focused on the design, implementation, and evaluation of instruction aimed at supporting students’ historical inquiry.
Sixty five planning/debriefing meetings took place over two-and-a half years.

Data Sources and Data Collection
This study explored how Heidi’s reflective courses of action contributed to her evolving perspectives about problems of practice and related changes to her knowledge, practice, and dispositions vis-à-vis her ongoing efforts to support students’ historical inquiry.
Thus, the primary sources of data collected for this study were audio recordings and transcripts Jackie constructed from her planning-debriefing meetings with Heidi.
Data sources from these meetings provided a rich context for Jackie to examine Heidi’s framing of problems that emerged in her attempts to make fundamental changes to her practice and to analyze the specific, recursive courses of action the teacher took to address particular problems across two-and-a-half years.
In addition to formal written consent at the beginning of the project, Jackie was also transparent with Heidi about the goals of her study, explaining from the start that she was exploring Heidi’s learning and reflections about historical inquiry.
Additional data sources from three other contexts - classroom observations, project design team meetings, and teacher network meetings - were collected by Jackie as part of the larger research project.
These data sources were consulted as necessary to contextualize reflective conversations in the planning-debriefing meetings.
Similarly, the findings section of this paper provides some information from classroom observation fieldnotes to provide context for the reader about specific incidents on which Heidi reflected about her instruction.

Data Analysis
Data analysis occurred in two stages.
The first stage involved determining how Heidi talked about problems and how her language changed over time in the planning/debriefing meetings.
The second stage of analysis entailed examining Heidi’s reflective courses of action in relation to the types of problems she addressed.

Findings and discussion
This study provides insights about how a teacher’s reflective process contributed to her contextual and incremental learning and change.
The case revealed how Heidi’s specific courses of action influenced the evolution of her problems of practice and her professional growth.
For example, for problems about facilitating inquiry-based discussions, Heidi’s ongoing testing of pivotal new approaches as well as repeated, fine-grained solutions led to enduring changes to her knowledge, practice, and dispositions.
Furthermore, Heidi’s process of solving problems about facilitating inquiry-based discussions led to these types of problems becoming progressively more complex and layered, reflecting her developing expertise in this area of instruction.

Model of Local Causality
Such a detailed trajectory of how Heidi’s reflective courses of action impacted her professional growth provides a rare but invaluable example of exploring local causality (Maxwell, 2004; Miles & Huberman, 1994), or the specific, contextualized variables that influenced the teacher’s learning and change.
This study represents a distinctive, theoretically-grounded approach to examining causal links and can thus can serve as a resource for other researchers to realize the value of “identifying actual connections between events and processes in a specific context” (Maxwell, 2004, p. 255).
More education research that investigates local causality can help the field build stronger inferences about sources of student and teacher learning and change as well as impediments to learning and change.

Clearer Conceptualization of Teacher Reflection
The current study provides a rich, elaborated representation of a teacher’s specific, iterative reflective courses of action vis-à-vis a model of the reflection cycle derived from the literature.
For example, through the analysis of Heidi’s reflective courses of action about her eighth graders’ motivation-engagement, it became evident that she was focused on defining the problem and tended not to elaborate solutions.
This level of detail about her limited courses of action helps elucidate why she may have experienced less professional growth in this area of her instruction.
Since reflection is emphasized as integral to teacher learning (Baumgartner, 2001; Mezirow, 1997; Rodgers, 2002a), there is a substantial need for more studies like this one that examine patterns of teacher substantive and limited change related to their engagement in specific phases of the reflection cycle, within and across grade levels and disciplines.
A more focused body of research would contribute to a more robust conceptualization of teacher reflection, especially outside of mathematics education.

More Substantive Understandings of Teacher’s Situated Learning and Change
This study also adds depth and meaning to situated learning theory (Brown et al., 1989; Putnam & Borko, 2000) in that it illustrates Heidi’s incremental, contextualized learning.
Heidi’s overall goal/ problem was to embody a historical inquiry instructional stance.
Her macro change represents a shifting focus on components of productive disciplinary engagement (PDE) (Engle & Conant, 2002), as she progressed from an initial focus on student engagement, then to engagement that was more disciplinary, and then to engagement that was more disciplinary and productive.
At a micro level that change process involved recursively addressing three types of problems over two-and-a-half years: facilitating inquiry-based discussions, supporting students’ historical literacies, and motivating and engaging her eighth-grade students.
Heidi’s dynamic process of change involved continually addressing each of these “smaller” parts of the overarching problem that she tackled piece by piece, leading her to eventually more seamlessly integrate the components over time.
Tackling each piece of the puzzle incrementally also led to increasing nuance in the nature of the problems Heidi addressed and her problem-solving approaches.
For instance, the teacher shifted from framing problems in terms of ‘fixed attributes’ of students (Bannister, 2015) during Iteration I, such that students didn’t want to engage in discussion, to more complex framing of the problem during Iteration III, such as how her own discourse moves and tools promoted or hindered students’ agency in discussion.
Analysis of Heidi’s incremental, situated learning revealed that her reflective courses of action differed when she addressed the three different problems types.
Thus, this study provides some evidence to suggest that aspects of the reflection process may be more relevant to teachers’ professional growth depending on the nature or types of problem they are addressing and the teachers’ knowledge, practices, and dispositions.
Finally, the findings underscoring Heidi’s protracted, gradual learning trajectory have critical implications for studying and supporting teacher learning.
Heidi represents a best-case scenario of conditions for teacher change, as she expressed explicit goals to do so, worked diligently at it for years, and was part of research project that provided ongoing support.
Nevertheless, her change process was slow and steady (Patterson & Crumpler, 2009).
This point cannot be emphasized enough, as teachers may encounter implicit or explicit messages from researchers, teacher educators, and school/district administrators that they are expected to demonstrate significant, rapid change.
However, as Heidi’s case illustrates, even experienced, dedicated, insightful, supported teachers need the time and space to experience the ups and downs of authentic, incremental growth through reflection on authentic problems of practice to link theory and practice.

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Baumgartner, L. M. (2001). An update on transformational learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001(89), 15–24
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42
Engle, R. A., & Conant, F. R. (2002). Guiding principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 399–483
Maxwell, J. A. (2004). Using qualitative methods for causal explanation. Field Methods, 16(3), 243–264
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74), 5–12
Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.
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Patton, M. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Sage.
Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning?
Rodgers, C. R. (2002a). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842–866 

Updated: May. 14, 2022


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