Approximations of practice as a framework for understanding authenticity in simulations of teaching

January, 2021

Source: Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 53:1, 8-20

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This work is grounded in a theory of practice-based teacher education, in which teachers learn from engaging in and reflecting on their practice in several ways, including engagement in approximations of practice (Grossman et al., 2009).
Approximations “include opportunities to rehearse and enact discrete components of complex practice in settings of reduced complexity” (p. 283).
The authors’ work in this space uses a simulated classroom with five digitally animated students, or “virtual humans”, to help novice teachers practice the skill of leading content-intensive discussions in mathematics and science.
Their simulated teaching experience is designed to keep cognitive demand high with respect to content teaching but low with respect to parameters such as managing student off-task behavior.
And while this work uses a Human-in-the-loop (HIL) approach, it illustrates the implications of adopting an approximations of practice lens for using virtual humans as students in teacher preparation more generally.

The Go Discuss project
The authors share here an example of a project in which simulated teaching is used as an approximation of practice to support novice teacher learning.
Their purpose is not to present empirical findings but rather to illustrate for the reader ways in which approximation and its considerations play out, with the goal of surfacing ways in which the theoretical framework may be useful in thinking about work of this type.
The project is focused on developing novice teachers’ skills in leading argumentation-focused classroom discussions at the fifth-grade level in mathematics and science.
Simulated teaching takes place within the context of a mathematics or science methods class.
Each enrolled novice teacher completes three assignments in which they prepare for, teach, and receive feedback on a simulated teaching session.
Most participants report spending about an hour preparing for each session, and each simulated teaching session runs for about 20 min.
The teaching sessions take place via the MursionVR elementary classroom with five fifth-grade digitally animated student avatars.
The project’s focus is investigating how preservice teachers learn from the series of immersive teaching experiences, the support the teacher educator provides, and the feedback the authors provide.
The teaching practice this work focuses on is leading an argumentation-focused discussion.
The simulation genre used is described as HIL simulation, meaning that the digital avatars are controlled by a human being in real time.
In this case, the group of five students are controlled by a single trained “interactor” who utilizes a set of technology aids.
Thus, these “virtual humans” are not computer programed or driven by artificial intelligence, although they appear in an animated form that conceals the interactor.
Participants often do not know about the interactor, and may assume they are interacting with a computer.
The interactor does not stick to a standardized script so much as improvises within a set of guidelines.
Thus, each teaching session, while grounded in the same underlying situation, plays out uniquely.

The use of simulation in the Go Discuss project
The authors theorized several potential advantages to using virtual humans in this project.
One tremendous affordance they expected from the approach is that it lowers stakes.
Learning to teach well is mired in a tension between the needs of the novice teacher as learner and the professional responsibilities of that teacher to students.
Learning to teach requires practice, support, and opportunities to fail forward.
Teaching is, however, consequential, and failing forward where children’s learning is at stake is ethically problematic.
The provision of safe learning spaces for novice teachers absent the potential to do harm to children is a critical affordance of simulation, allowing those novices to take needed risks that benefit their own learning.
Other advantages that the authors saw in the approach include the following, many of which are also cited by other users of simulated teaching.
• Deliberate choice of content/practice focus.
As noted by Girod and Girod (2008), practices that novices take on in the simulator can be selected by the teacher educator to pedagogical advantage.
In the authors’ project they ask novices to engage in the challenging practice of leading a group discussion, which they might not otherwise have opportunities to practice at all.

Repeated practice
Novices can re-teach sessions after reflection, or, as they do in this project, can apply skills to new but related tasks.

Subversion of the flow of time
In some uses of the simulation approach (e.g., Garrett, 2019), novices might be able to pause, ask for help, back up a few steps, or repeat an entire lesson.
In this simulation, time flows normally during the 20 min of interactive simulation but is deliberately broadened in the planning stage by providing up to a week to plan the short instructional session.

Selective control of complexity
The simulator allows the task designer to increase or decrease cognitive demand independently of other aspects of complexity.
In this project, for example, the authors ensure that each novice teacher encounters rich content challenges by building sources of disagreement into the student work they are presented with to create opportunities for them to engage the students in argumentation.
However, to support the novice’s focus, they elect to decrease the challenge of classroom management, making the student avatars generally compliant with teacher direction.

Support for standardization
Because the task designer controls the parameters, they can choose to create a more or less standardized challenge for novice teachers.
One advantage of a more standardized experience is that it provides a common point of reference for reflection.
Novice teachers might compare notes or view video records of one another’s teaching of the same lesson in a way that is not available when working in naturalistic contexts where every novice will have taught a different lesson to different children.
In this project, standardization affords the teacher educator comparative information about how the novice teachers in the course are doing as they learn how to facilitate discussions and the teacher educator can use that information in planning next instructional steps (Howell & Liebars, 2019).

Garrett, R. (2019, February 19–21). Simulated instruction in mathematics professional development (SIM PD) study [Paper presentation]. Paper presented at the Simulations in Teacher Education Conference.
Girod, M., & Girod, G. R. (2008). Simulation and the need for practice in teacher preparation. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 16(3), 307.
Grossman, P., Hammerness, K., & McDonald, M. (2009). Redefining teaching, re-imagining teacher education. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 15(2), 273–289
Howell, H., & Liebars, C. (2019, February). Unnatural teaching: Learning from enactments of the same lesson. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE).

Updated: Aug. 20, 2021