Problems Without Ceilings: How Mentors and Novices Frame and Work on Problems-of-Practice

Sep. 01, 2015

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 66(4), 363-381, September/October 2015.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors investigated co-learning between cooperating teachers (CTs) and their preservice teachers (PSTs).

Using frame analysis, the authors contrast three problems-of-practice addressed by 23 dyads: problems of developing novice teachers, problems of improving teaching, and problems of improving student learning.
The last frame, improving student learning, required actors to share and co-create knowledge with members outside of their dyads.
To do this, groups of dyads formed new or repurposed existing social networks to share tools and work on problems “without ceilings,” meaning those that fueled ongoing lines of inquiry.


This study suggests that some conversations between CTs and PSTs are more productive than others.
The authors assert that framing and working on problems of improving the novice teacher are not productive in supporting teacher learning or systems learning.
These were problems with ceilings because they had little room for negotiation of teaching practices.
Foregrounded in these conversations were underspecified instructional moves and measurements of the degree to which the novice teacher matched the more veteran teacher’s practice.

Problems without ceilings did not have easily defined endpoints, and drove innovations in planning, teaching, and debriefing.
These negotiations occurred when dyads inquired into problems of improving teaching and improving student learning.
Most teachers would characterize their conversations under these general categories, but there were specific ways in which teachers framed and worked on these problems that made them sites for co-inquiry.
This study suggests that focusing on student learning also has a cascading effect on the nature of teacher learning.
CTs and PSTs created lines of inquiry around strategies for helping students improve the depth of their scientific explanations and for tracking how students were changing their ideas over time.
And they allocated portions of their time together to debriefing student ideas.

Furthermore, the data suggest that CT’s knowledge of the practices and attentiveness to students’ ideas makes a difference for which frames get negotiated with PSTs.
Without any knowledge of the practices the default frame for CTs was improving novices.
With minimum introduction to the research-based teaching practices CTs tended to frame and work on problems of improving teaching with their PSTs.
CTs were brokers for the ambitious teaching practices, which minimized potential tensions between university and school contexts.
Rather than experiencing frame conflict, dyads quickly settled into planning routines that questioned the worth of the content students would learn and how best to have students represent their ideas during lessons.

Implications for Teacher Education

This study suggests that simply being in the company of accomplished mentors is not enough to support the improvement of teachers and teaching.
Teacher education programs can specifically design for work on problems of improving teaching and student learning.
Coaches, mentors and teacher educators can focus first and foremost on teaching practices known to support intellectual engagement and equity and limit conversations about competencies of novices.

Based on this study, the authors propose three process measures: the quality of student discourse CTs and PSTs support, the quality of discussion among dyads about students’ ideas, as well as the quality of newly created or evolving social routines and tools.
These measures index systems improvement.
Moving forward this study suggests that university-school partnerships engage multiple role actors in articulating a common vision of quality disciplinary-specific student learning and a complementary set of teaching and mentoring practices.
Importantly, partnerships need to create systems that co-investigate productive variations of the practices and their associated tools.
Once a potential tool or practice that supports K-12 student or PST learning is identified, it can be tested across the network to understand whom it best serves and under what conditions.
Addressing tensions and identifying trade-offs in decision-making need to be a network, not an individual or dyad problem. When knowledge building is a part of a network, productive adaptations as well as productive failures can travel quickly and inform improvements throughout a unified community.

Updated: Feb. 14, 2016